Monday, August 27, 2012

The Balkan Trilogy

My first exposure to Olivia Manning was through her lovely coming of age novel School for Love, which was one of the first books I ever blogged about way back when. Although that novel garnered attention when NYRB re-released it several years ago, the centerpieces of Manning's work are The Balkan Trilogy and The Levant Trilogy, which collectively follow young British bureaucrat Guy Pringle and his wife Harriet as they experience the storm of World War II in various countries throughout Eastern Europe and the Mideast. (Together these trilogies were combined into a 1980's British miniseries called Fortunes of War starring Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branaugh.)

I'm not sure why the word "trilogy" didn't tip me off to the fact that this would be a work comprised of three full length books, The Great Fortune, The Spoilt City, and Friends and Heroes. In any case, I was a bit shocked when I went to the library to pick up the copy I requested and found a 900+ page doorstop of a book waiting for me. I decided to soldier on through it, albeit grumbling to myself for the first hundred pages or so. As I read, I found myself thinking about the book in terms of the Goodreads rating system. Anyone else ever do that? After The Great Fortune, I thought I'd give the novel three stars. Once I got through The Spoilt City, I had mentally bumped it up to four stars. And by the time I reached Friends and Heroes, I was completely swept away and couldn't imagine anything less than a full five star rating. Kind of a superficial way of thinking, I know, but it turns out to mirror what I've since read about the critical reception of the three books and is a perfect analogy for the way Manning's story slowly builds, drawing the reader in bit by bit.

The trilogy opens as Guy and Harriet  travel by train to neutral Romania while German forces ravage much of the rest of Europe. Newly married after a very brief courtship, Guy and Harriet are heading to Bucharest where Guy will resume his former post as an English professor at a Romanian university. Once they arrive, their story progresses through a series of small story arcs that are punctuated by major historical events. Lacking students to teach, Guy mounts an amateur production of Troilus and Cressida that engrosses the expat community and provides a distraction from news of the war on the night that Paris falls to Germany. Harriet bickers with Guy over an unwelcome house guest, but later welcomes the interloper as a friendly face in Athens, where she has evacuated ahead of Guy as Romania's fall to Hitler looms. Without going into too much detail about the specifics of the story, I'll say that this is a very different kind of war novel from most others that I've read. Compared with novels that depict the heat of battle or offer first hand portrayals of the atrocities of war, many parts of Manning's story seem almost uneventful as she illustrates what is essentially a waiting game for the Pringles. Trapped away from their homeland, they are forced to watch the German army advance through Europe and, along with the British diplomatic community they belong to, must allow Hitler's next move determine their own. It's an interesting look at a side of war, and at a geographic area, that isn't often seen.

Equally interesting is the way in which the state of political and geographic uncertainty the Pringles  live in mirrors the ebb and flow of their marriage. Focusing on Harriet's perspective, Manning shows how she is constantly recalibrating and reassessing her relationship with Guy. The longer they are married, the less she feels she knows him. Their vastly different personalities seem to drive a wedge between them. Harriet's unhappiness manifests itself not through any melodramatic scenes, but through increasing feelings of ennui and decreasing expectations of Guy. In many ways their marriage feels like a mundane one, but seems all the more profound for being so. The gulf between them is capable of being instantly overcome, however, during dramatic moments that occur during some of the key historic occurrences depicted in the novel. 

I'm eager to follow their story in The Levant Trilogy and can't wait to get my hands on a copy. In the meantime, I can't recommend Manning's work highly enough. She's a classic writer who is ripe for being rediscovered more widely. Start with School for Love if you need a little convincing before committing to the epic of The Balkan Trilogy.


  1. Holy macaroni, it sounds wonderful. I love the intrique, the war, the background. And on top of that, written by a woman. Sold.

    Also, thank you for letting me know about "The Language of Flowers." Tomorrow I'm going to the library to return some books and will look for it. Have a great day :)



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