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Olivia Manning: The Balkan Trilogy

Olivia Manning does not appear among the greats of English literature of the twentieth century. She never won the Booker Prize. Her books were not best-sellers. She very much resented this and the greater success of some of her female contemporaries. Yet, despite this, this trilogy has been considered essential reading for the well-read English intellectual, at least those of a certain age. It is not difficult to see why. Firstly, it is very-well written. Anthony Burgess said of it her gallery of personages is huge, her scene painting superb, her pathos controlled, her humour quiet and civilized. Secondly, it tells a story of World War II, ever a favourite, and more particularly an aspect of that war not generally found in English novels. Thirdly, it deals with a certain incipient feminism, even if it is well behind the feminism we will find in later novels. Finally, it tells of a marriage which, if not deeply troubled, certainly has its problems.

Guy Pringle is an English teacher in Bucharest. On his summer holidays, he has met and married Harriet. He was brought up by his mother. Harriet’s parents had divorced and both had remarried. They had essentially abandoned her to a not very loving aunt. The novel starts with their return to Bucharest by train. It is the summer of 1939 and war is in the air. In fact, Germany invades Poland soon after their arrival in Bucharest. This story is very autobiographical and Guy is clearly based on Manning’s husband, Reggie Smith. Though not a philanderer, he has strong left-wing views, conforms to the standard view of the absent-minded professor and is very hard-working. Indeed, he feels it is his personal role in life to help anyone and everyone who needs help, often to the annoyance and, at times, the neglect of his wife. This will soon become a major theme of the novel. Guy’s view is that, as his wife, she is an adjunct of him and therefore he does not have to concern himself about her if there is someone in greater need of help and, in Bucharest in 1939, there is always someone in greater need. One of those in greater need is the third most important character in the book, Prince Yakimov. Yaki as he is called and as he calls himself (he invariably refers to himself in the third person) is the son of a Russian father and Irish mother but a British citizen. He himself claims to be the son of an equerry of the czar and that the coat he now wears was given to his father by the czar. This may or may not be true. However, he does seem to have lived in London with a rich woman at least twenty years his senior, called Dollie. The pair gave fabulous parties which are still talked of. Sadly, when she died, Yaki did not inherit the fortune he was expecting but rather a large debt. As a result he spends his time drifting around Europe. He is naive almost to the point of stupidity but does manages to consistently sponge money off the various people he knows including, of course, Guy. His problem is that he is used to the rich life, particularly as regards food and lodging so when he receives his meagre remittance (from his mother), he spends it at once on a good meal and is then broke for the rest of the month. His inventiveness at getting others to provide for him will occur throughout the trilogy.

Much of the background to the first two books in the trilogy is war and the threats to Rumania (as it was then spelled) from both Germany and the Soviet Union. King Carol is weak and totally corrupt and so is the country he rules. Rumania finds itself threatened by Germany, the Soviet Union and Hungary and has to cede territory. All this, of course, has a profound effect on the Rumanians but also on the British community, as Britain seems unable to help Rumania, despite promises, and the influence of Germany becomes greater and greater. Guy is more or less immune to what is happening, ensuring Harriet that it will be all right. Harriet and others are less sure. The British community is, of course, the focus, including Guy and Harriet, the embassy staff, various itinerant Britons, some of whom are (generally ineffectual) special agents, Guy’s colleagues, a couple of whom are seconded to a British propaganda bureau, and Bella, a British citizen married to a Rumanian. However, we also see the effect of the crisis on the ordinary Rumanians as well as on the Jewish and peasant community. Indeed, the British community is certainly mocked by Manning. Guy himself puts on a production of Troilus and Cressida and he, and some of the other participants, see this as a key to winning over Rumania. Similarly, when Inchcape, Guy’s former boss and now head of the Propaganda Bureau, invites Lord Pinkrose to give a lecture on English poetry, this is also seen as key to winning the hearts and minds of the Rumanians. Guy himself is so lost in Shakespeare, that he fails to see the impending collapse and takeover of Rumania.

The third book takes place in Athens when the Pringles and a few others just manage to escape in time, Guy being one of the last British civilians out of Bucharest. Things carry on before, except that Guy is caught in internal politics in the school in Athens as there is a lot of jostling for power. But, as in Bucharest, the Germans are coming. First, there is the Italian attack, which the Greeks effectively (and surprisingly) repulse However, it is clear that Hitler is not going to leave Mussolini dangling. Once again Guy is too busy with work to worry about such problems and the Pringles are faced with no exit out of Greece. Before that, they meet up with some old friends, Harriet feels again that Guy is more concerned with others – this time it is a revue he is putting on for the British Air Force and Army troops stationed in and around Athens – and not all of the British community, as in Bucharest, want to leave Athens.

Manning really does an excellent job in showing the British coping with the war nearby, two Balkan countries facing impending doom and a marriage that survives but with some difficulty. It certainly feels a bit dated in the twentieth-first century but that should not deter you from reading it, as it is a fine work and a most enjoyable and entertaining read.

Publishing history

The Great Fortune
First published 1960 by Heinemann

The Spoilt City
First published 1962 by Heinemann

Friends and Heroes
First published 1965 by Heinemann