Thursday, May 24, 2007

Olivia Manning’s Balkan Trilogy

After the mesmerising experience of reading John Crowley’s Aegypt quartet, following that with his collection of short stories “Novelties & Souvenirs”, I was in the mood for something completely different, so I plucked from my shelves The Balkan Trilogy by Olivia Manning, guaranteed to keep me going for some time, as I also intend to read her related Levant Trilogy in due course. Together, the two trilogies are known as The Fortunes of War

It is about 17 years since I first read these books, so they have surprised and delighted me all over again, as I had forgotten that Olivia Manning writes extremely well. She’s certainly a neglected writer and deserves to be better known. Anthony Burgess described the novels as ‘the finest fictional record of the war produced by a British writer.’

The Balkan Trilogy is set during the Second World War in Rumania and follows the fortunes of Guy and Harriet Pringle. It is based largely on Olivia Manning’s own experiences of the time, when she and her husband, newly married, travelled to Rumania and spent part of the war there, and after being forced to flee the Balkans, the Middle East.

I am only into the first volume, “The Great Fortune”, so far, but I have been very impressed with Manning’s dry ironic observations on the people, places and politics during a time of war. The character of Guy Pringle is a masterly drawn portrait of an incorrigible and passionate socialist and socialiser. We all know someone like him, irritating but well meaning, more concerned about other people than those close to him. A lot of the observations on Guy are from Harriet’s point of view and she is a great character as well, reserved and quiet, mostly, but by no means a fool. Among the cast of extraordinary characters there are the various members of the press corps, the old, down on his luck, bon viveur Prince Yakimov, Inchcape leader of the English Teachers fraternity, Sophie the Rumanian student besotted with Guy and many others.

Here is a sharp character sketch typical of Manning’s style.

“When the dressing case slipped, one of the porters snatched at it. Yakimov dodged him with a skilled sidestep, then wandered on, his shoulders drooping, his coat sweeping the dirty platform, his check suit and yellow cardigan sagging and fluttering as though carried on a coat hanger. His shirt, changed on the train, was clean. His other clothes were not. His tie, bought for him years before by Dollie, who admired its ‘angelic blue,’ was now so blotched and be-yellowed by spilt food, it was no colour at all. His head, with its thin pale hair, its nose that, long and delicate, widened suddenly at the nostrils, its thin clown’s mouth, was remote and mild as the head of a giraffe. On top of it he wore a shabby cloth cap. His whole sad aspect was made sadder by the fact that he had not eaten for forty-eight hours”
There was a very good cinematic version of The Fortunes of War on a BBC series televised in the late 1980s. I notice that it is available on DVD and you can get it from Amazon. It stars, the then married actors, Kenneth Branagh as Guy Pringle and Emma Thompson as Harriet and is pretty faithful to the books, though naturally compressed. I saw this series a couple of times before I read the novels. In fact it was the tele drama drew me to them.

If you like a BIG read, you really can’t go past these novels. They are absorbing, entertaining and quite unique. They portray the time during which they are set, vividly, with great style, and simply wonderful pictorial prose.


Jan said...

This is all new to me so I was particularly intrigued to read your post.
Thankyou Anne. I plan some lazy deckchair reading ONCE our Great British summer kicks in...

Anne S said...

Jan: Glad to have pointed out a relatively unknown and under appreciated author. I am now up to the third volume of the Balkan Trilogy and have certainly not been disappointed with this reappraisal of Olivia Manning's novels.

A perfect BIG read for summer or winter.