Olivia Manning: The Balkan Trilogy



Addictive compulsively readable often savagely funny Olivia Manning s trilogy turns Rumania and Greece and the advent of World War Two into a stage for a vast array of characters from displaced European royalty to members of the British ex pat community to Rumanian antifascists They are described with such meticulous photographic detail and I sat through so many meals listening to them pontificating joking gossiping arguing that I was convinced I really had met them before perhaps at the English Bar in Bucharest s Ath n e Palace hotel And I was fully persuaded that I might see them again tonight or run into them in town All of these people are flawed empty in some way yet I found myself growing fond of them and as the darkness gathered and the Nazis massed on the borders my exasperated affection turned to dismay and a reluctant futile sense of responsibility for these often seless idiots The book opens on the Orient Express as Guy Pringle and his bride Harriet head for Bucharest They have been married barely a week and have known each other for hardly than a fortnight this wartime marriage of strangers is the central mystery of the novels She could only wonder at the complexity of the apparently simple creature she had married Guy a leftist is interested in ideas intensely sociable generous to a fault he collects new people with an avid yet somehow impersonal hunger His Marxism is the substitute for a deep religious rge and perhaps impelled by his beliefs Guy becomes a one man safety net for his many hangers on in Bucharest Harriet is the watcher who sees everything with clarity and a deep vein of cynical distrust Intensely interested in private lives she longs for an exclusive love a singular devotion that Guy can never give her She is her husband s opposite and even by the trilogy s end we don t know whether their marriage will become a partnership or fracture along fault lines that are clearly marked Watching him rging the performers with the force of his personality Harriet wondered How did I come to marry someone so different from myself But she had married him and perhaps Swept Away (Harlequin Blaze unawares it was his differences she had married Harriet is our guide for much of the trilogy and we rarely enter Guy s mind but there is one character who serves as part time narrator Mannings most inspired creation Prince Yakimov When we first spot Yakimov he is draped in a moth eaten sable lined coat a gift to his father from the Czar Yaki is also possessed of a crocodile case a British passport and a receipt for an Hispano Suiza his beloved automobile impounded at the border in lieu of cash for hisnpaid bills For Poor old Yaki is as Texan for the Holidays (Brodys Crossing, usual a bit short of the ready Yaki is often down but never out and through his eyes we see Bucharest s seamier side as well as the faded grandeur of Europe s displaced nobility who crowd the posh restaurants and cling desperately to their dwindling conseuence Yakimov drifts between the two worlds longing not just for sustenance but for the luxurious the perfect asparagus of a particular kind caviare blinis rich with sour cream piled layerpon layerBecause at first food is everywhere in Bucharest and food and hunger physical and emotional are central motifs that run through the trilogy The heart of the display was a rosy bouuet of roasts chops steaks and fillets frilled round with a froth of cauliflowers Heaped extravagantly about the centre were aubergines as big as melons baskets of artichokes small coral carrots mushrooms mountain raspberries apricots peaches apples and grapes The characters in Manning s first novel go from one gigantic meal to the next from one party to another drifting between cafestalking talking endlessly The food the plenty all around them is taken for granted They had been served with a goose liver pate dark with truffles and dressed with clarified butter Inchcape swallowed this down in chunks talking through it as if it were a flavourless impediment to self expression But hunger is there A nightclub singer Florica who had the Too Wild to Hold (Legendary Lovers usual gypsy thinness and was as dark as an Indianwas singing there among the plump women of the audience she was like a starved wild kitten spitting at cream fed cats Beggars are everywhere A man on the ground attempting to bar their way stretched out a naked leg bone thin on which the skin was mottled purple and rosetted with yellow scabs As Harriet stepped over it the leg slapped the ground in rage that she should escape it As winter and eventually war descend on Bucharest and then on Athens food vanishes even for those with some money left Tame ducks in the parks pet cats disappear we clearlynderstand they wind The Man from Her Past (Welcome to Honesty, up in pots An obese British woman whose tented form once overflowed chairs is reduced to a skeleton draped with empty pouches of skin By the time they reach Athens most of the ever smaller band of British ex pats are getting two thirds of their meager calories from alcohol and they draw together to find comfort Yakimov once an irritant has become somehow very dear to them and tos Even the loathsome Ben Phipps gets his comic coda breaking down the door to an infamous Major s cabin a storehouse packed with tinned food and rolls of toilet paper that Ben redistributes in grand Socialist style to one and all Here you are ladies he said as he gave three suares of paper to each One The Naturalists Daughter up one down and a polisher What about tomorrow Miss Jay asked Tomorrow may never come he cheerfully repliedI have reviewed The Balkan Trilogy as a single novel because that s the way I read it Despite its thousand pages I was hard pressed to put it down If you read it be sure to get the three volume edition because if it hooks you you will not want to stop reading In fact even though my TBR plate is as full as a pre war Bucharest banuet I m starting Olivia Mannings The Levant Trilogy RIGHT NOW because as with any good soap opera I can t wait for the next installmentContent rating PG for wartime themes scenes of poverty and destitution There is no sex not even a chaste kiss and only occasional slang and jokes on scatological and sexual subjects all fairly obscure There is an intimation of possible infidelity but view spoilernothing happens hide spoiler There is but one word which can describe this work and it is as British as it gets superb I don t know where to start but I guess a little background information on Manning is necessary Olivia Manning was a British writer who married an English teacher posted with the British Council at the University of Bucharest in 1939 a few weeks after Germany invaded Poland Due to the movement of Germany s army and the escalation of conflict in Romania they escaped to Athens and from there on to Egypt and Palestine She has written two different trilogies in the Fortunes of War series this one The Balkan Trilogy and The Levant Trilogy mirroring the experiences she had By all accounts and purposes what she wrote is historical fiction the characters and happenings at a personal level are fictional but the overarching context is the factual one in which Europe was in 1939 1940 Manning s writing is some of the best I ve ever seen Her character building skills are insane Often times between two lines of dialogue you discover who annimportant character is with the same depth you would an important one and she seems to do this just to add colour to the story At other times the simple description of someone s physical features focusing on one particular element gives you insight into that character than their dialogue ever would I mentioned dialogue Manning has an The Weather Girl uncanny ability to imitate the rhythm and cadence of actual natural dialogue I personally am very sensitive to that because one of my biggest complaints when it comes to any work is that the dialogue sounds either forced or bland When I write I also have a very hard time writing dialogue so I consider it one. The Balkan Trilogy is the story of a marriage and of a war a vast teeming and complex masterpiece in which Olivia Manning brings thencertainty and adventure of civilian existence nder political and military siege to vibrant life Manning’s focus is not the battlefield but the café and kitchen the bedroom and street the fabric of the everyday world that has been irrevocably changed by.

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Of the hallmarks of great writing Manning hits the nail on the head spot on Not only does the entire book creak nder the weight of pages After Hours upon pages of dialogue but she manages to make it sound like prose The entire reading experience is very pleasant but these two things character building and dialogue deserve to be mentioned on their own And now let s talk about what actually impressed me about this book I myself am Romanian I was raised in Bucharest Manning managed to teach me a lesson about my own city and that I am ever grateful for Sheses actual Romanian words to paint the picture authentically she describes the beggars and poverty I am so accustomed to but in a way only a foreigner could she talks about the Romanian women and men and character in a way which I can instantly recognize most importantly she grounds the entire story in a place that she describes in its reality not in a fictional way in which a foreign author who s never been there would I was than impressed I could look at my own city through someone else s eyes and it was a beautiful experience This is a long read and you do need some patience to go through it but it is absolutely worth it if you enjoy historical fiction Olivia Manning opens The Innocents Dark Seduction up a world that is completely outside my experience the settings are Rumania and Greece during World War II and yet is excruciatingly in the cringe worthy sense familiar because many of its characters are British ex pat post colonial slackers and pretenders of the worst sort All the men who scrounge around these not yet at war countries have some lame excuse for not actually joining in the fight against Hitler s armies They re doing important work supporting the war effort like teaching English to Jewish students so they can better negotiate life in England or America should they miraculously happen to get to one of those places Or they re doing something hush hush they couldn t possibly discuss between cadging drinks meals and lodging from fellow ex pats while their clothes steadily degrade into rags Then there are the left behind women elderly widows and spinsters who ve lived their entire lives abroad dutifully tending now dead husbands and fathers who have left them tiny pensions on which to eke out their bravely genteel livesntil they expire in poverty alone From Father to Son (A Brothers Word unlovednrememberedManning sees her characters through a devastatingly clear eye their foibles pretensions viciousness sadness humor fear hopes and no one is let off the hook At the centre of this trilogy is the portrait of a marriage Guy and Harriet Pringle meet and marry in the space of Guy s summer break from his work teaching English as an employee of a British Council type organization in Rumania They are of course Haunted (After Moonrise (After Moonrise (Connected to Possessed by PC Cast) - Book 2) unprepared for each other and for the marriage which sways and flounders as they struggle to survive as civil society such as it is in the Balkans crumbles In all a fascinating account of civilian life in middle Europe on the brink of war informed by the author s own experiences as the wife of a British Council employee in Bucharest during the war Olivia Manning s Balkan Trilogy consists of the novels The Great Fortune The Spoilt City and Friends and Heroes The trilogy is a semi autobiographical work based loosely around her own experiences as a newlywed in war torn Europe The first book The Great Fortune begins in 1939 with Harriet Pringle going to Bucharest with her new husband Guy Guy Pringle has been working the English department of the University for a year and met and married Harriet duri The first book in this trilogy set in Bucharest is nearly perfect Manning paints the odd ramshackle world of British citizens who have washedp in this as they think of it last vestige of Europe as World War II tightens it grip on what has to that point between a backwater of delicious food outdoor cafes colorful gypsies pre modern peasants degraded nobility and Jews both wealthyassimilated and desperately poorreligious We see this fascinating world through the eyes of Harriet Pringle a young Englishwoman in her first year of marriage to Guy a left wing teacher who collects society s strays and there are many to be collected in Bucharest in 1940 There are dozens of sharply delineated characters in the Balkan trilogy and Manning has a real gift for tragicomic flair as in her depiction of Yakimov and his visit to his Nazi friend There s also so much going on just beyond the margins of these books Manning writes in the 1960s and we know what becomes of the gypsies selling flowers and Bucharest s many Jews both rich and poor even if Guy and Harriet don t though anti Jewish persecutions are very much a part of these books We know too what lies in store for Romania after the war we know where good old Joe Stalin idolized by the leftist Guy will take all of Eastern Europe We know too that this moment is maybe the last moment in time when merely to be British is to have a certain ascendancy almost anywhere in the world no matter how poor or shambolic you may beSo this is the rich setting into which the jewel of Manning s epic story of marriage class war masculinity manners so many things is placed The first book as I ve said is almost nputdownable And the end of the 3rd book when the noose almost closes but not ite they are British after all on the Pringles in Athens the very last tip of Europe and we sense how close Hitler came to having it all indeed is stark dramatic and wrenchingThere s just a middle section where it all bogs down a bit and takes the trilogy from a five to a four in my book Manning is an excellent portraitist but her characters don t grow or change much As we move through books two and three Guy is still obliviously gregarious and blind to Harriet s needs Lush and Dubedat stay craven Yaki still wants a drink etc etc Perhaps the claustrophobia of that world is part of what Manning means to convey but the third book of the Balkan Trilogy except as noted the dramatic very end is a bit too faithful to reality for my tastes in depicting the neverending round of bars bad wartime meals and boring conversations You feel you ve seen Mannning s set pieces before and I at least grew weary of her almost real time depiction of the events leading A Full House up to the fall of Greece Nonetheless fascinating rich and well worth the read One of those wonderful surprises that you feel you should have read sooner but are grateful that you didn t so that it is still there to delight Full of Sound and Fury Signifying NothingWhat I took away from this 1000 page book isThe Germans are coming The Germans are comingLet s go to a restaurant Let s go get a drinkThe Germans are coming The Germans are comingWe can t leave because we are such good people and can t leave the little Jew boy behind even though he sngrateful and super rich like all JewsThe Germans are coming The Germans are comingWe can t leave the RussianIrish prince behind from the goodness of our hearts even though he betrayed O Homem Que Ela Ama Odiar Diamante Bruto us to the GestapoThe Germans are coming The Germans are comingI can t leave the cat behind even though she s not mine and I have no idea where she isThe Germans are coming The Germans are comingHas the war started yet No one knows because there are no datesThe book did show me how good I am at speed reading and also how much there is to know about British adulteryAs for theirky British characters I d rather read Dickens Yes but first a few words about how I m an idiotSince you re here reading this you probably A Stormy Greek Marriage understand that it s no problem to wait Yes we can do your car service on Friday Do you want to leave your car or would you like to waitOh I can waitI can wait because I have a book And I not only have a book I have a 924 page book which I have been fairly enjoying and have a mere 100 pages left So yes I can wait I can grab a coffee decline biscotti and find a leather seat as far away. War yet remainsnchangedAt the heart of the trilogy are newlyweds Guy and Harriet Pringle who arrive in Bucharest the so called Paris of the East in the fall of 1939 just weeks after the German invasion of Poland Guy an Englishman teaching at the niversity is as wantonly gregarious as his wife is introverted and Harriet is shocked to discover that she must share her adored husband with.

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From the television as I can I can open my book and without adult supervision advance another 40 to 50 pages to the end You you will nderstand that in the pinball journey that is the human day a 45 minute time out with just a book for company is no problem at all Indeed it is blissAnd so on Friday morning I opened the garage door my copy of Olivia Manning s Fortunes of War The Balkan Trilogy in hand I had as I always do with books treated it lovingly despite its size there was no crease to the spine no dog ears no A Natural Father underlinings After two weeks it was still pristine The only evidence of human involvement were the pages of notes stuck in the back notes that soon might be turned into a proper thoughtful review You laugh but it could happenAs the garage door opened however through the pouring rain I could see that the yard waste bin had already been emptied by the local government sub contracted serviceSo I placed Olivia Manning on the trunk of my car andshered the bin back to its accustomed spot I have to say that at the precise moment I placed the book on my trunk I had an A Doctors Vow uneasy deja vu ey feeling But I did not remember the box of Titlelist Pro V1s that the etx found down the road one day remarkably still housing 11 of the original 12 Because in the two minutes it took me to retrieve the garbage can 40 thousand headmen played segue through my brain and I did not think again of Fortunes of War for the 25 minutes it took to get to the car dealershipWhich is when I looked on the passenger seat and saw no bookDid I mention that it was pouring Cats and dogs Biblical Build an ark ye heathen kind of all week rainThe et Jonathan Swift ux found The Balkan Trilogy in roughly the same spot where she found my golf balls but a golf ball it seems handles weather better than the written wordProperly lubed I drove to the bookstore where I had purchased my now ruinednreadable copy of The Balkan Trilogy and entered knowing exactly where the other copy was shelved The nice lady at the counter asked if I was looking for a specific book HAH HAH I thought but did not say Instead I told her my story my lament And no I did not get a cuddle with a That s okay That s okay And I did not get a discountI had what we call it a book emergency I would like to think I have learned from this But I m not hopefulAnd now back to your previously scheduled programmingIt was a pre war marriage the Pringle s which makes it sound like portent than a save the date calendar event A hurried thing too Don t want to miss that war A young English couple He Guy an idealist communist too myopic for soldiering and maybe just too myopic generally a teacher of English literature determined to do his part by well teaching English Literature She Harriet an observer really defined even by herself as a wife Yes these are the very words she Shotgun Bride uses to describe her life They meet they marry We don t know why Then he almost immediately oblivious and she almost immediatelynhappy are off to RumaniaThe War that other war is off stage We track it through a rumor in a bar a shouted headline As such it s a kind of real time look at the War without the historical hindsight or its established truth It s news overheard in a The Long Road Home ueue for food or whispered in annheated flatThe story told is semi autobiographical and not very semi The Pringle s life tracks pretty closely that of Olivia Manning and her husband The reader stops then when Harriet Pringle has this moment of introspection I haven t any parents At least none to speak of They divorced when I was very small They both remarried and neither found it convenient to have me My Aunt Penny brought me The Sweetest Burn (Broken Destiny, up I was a nuisance to her too and when I was naughty shesed to say No wonder your mummy and daddy don t love you I m sure some of the story here was meant to be satirical but I m not sure even Manning knew how much Because I was left with this Why were they there What need for an English teacher his wife and cohorts soap opera ish friends and enemies in Rumania first and then when that country was overrun in Greece and then boarding the last boat to EgyptSeriously the Nazis are coming the Nazis are coming So let s put on a stage production of Troilus and Cressida Again the Nazis are coming the Nazis are coming Should we do Othello Or maybe Macbeth Or can we do our part with a lecture something to cheer the locals like Byron the Poet champion of GreeceAnyhow I hope Manning was being satirical Armies shattered peasants starving leaders deposed yet the members of the British Legation feed their higher purpose by innocently reading Miss AustenAnd oh there s no time for sex Not the Pringles certainly A tender hand The Greek Tycoons Revenge upon the other s hand is all And even when moved to adultery handpon the hotel room doorknob well instead let s have some teaIt was like this I did not like a single character yet found myself riveted enough so that I m looking forward to The Levant Trilogy to see what happens in Egypt to the Pringles It was on that last boat there they sat sleepless by the thumping engine the bugs and the jog trots of cockroaches and blackbeetles Guy sat on the boat deck his back against a rail and read for a lecture on Coleridge The women in a stupor sat round him Manning s Balkan Trilogy is a very interesting look at a side of World War Two that I don t often encounter that fought in eastern Europe It mirrors some of her life experiences and is followed by The Levant Trilogy which I definitely plan to read also Partly based on Olivia Manning s own experiences during World War II The Balkan Trilogy is the first part of a set of trilogies the second being The Levant Trilogy Harriet Pringle and her husband Guy recently and hurriedly married due to the war live in Bucharest as King Carol II tries to keep Romania free of the war The first two volumes of the trilogy follow their lives as British expatriates trying to belong in an foreign land The third volume follows the Pringles to Greece after they are forced to evacuate Bucharest Despite the danger and violence surrounding them their marriage does not exactly grow stronger Harriet discovers just how little she knew about Guy before they married and struggles with the reality of living in a dangerous time while her husband fills his time with projects that do not include Harriet Their relationship is tried time and again by the rumors that surround their marriage as well as Harriet s friendships with other men and Guy s friendships with other womenI thought at first that Manning s realistic characters was what made the story so darn addictive but then realized that they would have to be as detailed as the environment in which they lived It is clear that the author had similar experiences from which to draw and she manages to do it beautifully While giving each character and there are several a well rounded life and story Manning managed to also be able to illustrate a growing fascist environment while discussing the politics of the late 30searly 40sAt times Harriet s co dependency wore me down as did Guy s flippant attitudes and my personal problem of only picturing John Cassavetes the actor playing Guy Woodhouse in the movie Rosemary s Baby what is with the name Guy being so popular in the 60s No character is without some serious faults which actually made their story all the believable Harriet s need for companionship is sadly all too familiar and is exacerbated by the background of war and ncertainty she latches on to safe characters generally men and even a couple of animals Guy s need for work and projects keep his mind occupied and is most likely a way for him to remain emotionally detached from his wifeThe second narrative The Levant Trilogy apparently details their life as the war forces them to move on to Egypt I look forward to reading it as well hoping it lives p this first trilogy four and a half stars to be precise. A wide circle of friends and acuaintances Other surprises follow Romania joins the Axis and before long German soldiers overrun the capital The Pringles flee south to Greece part of a group of refugees made p of White Russians journalists con artists and dignitaries In Athens however the couple will face a new challenge of their own as great in its way as the still expanding theater of wa.

Olivia Manning CBE was a British novelist poet writer and reviewer Her fiction and non fiction freuently detailing journeys and personal odysseys were principally set in England Ireland Europe and the Middle East She often wrote from her personal experience though her books also demonstrate strengths in imaginative writing Her books are widely admired for her artistic eye and vivid desc