The Balkan Trilogy by Olivia Manning

The 1000 page first half of the Fortunes of War sequence.  Harriet and Guy Pringle are a young newly-married couple being batted around by WWII.  For the first two books they’re in Romania, for the third they’re in Greece.  The real appeal of the trilogy is the sense of being offered a vantage point on the historical events unfolding.  I found it easy to get swept up in the sense of panic and doom and inevitable disintegration.  The Pringles stay put in both Romania and Greece until pretty much the last possible moment for them to get out, and the sense of being almost deserted on a sinking ship is again easy to feel involved in.  Manning provides a good mixed portrait of the earnest, harrowing side of war, and the more banal irritations and obstacles created by it.

This is a war book, but it’s also a book about a marriage.  When we begin, Harriet is not a particularly nice person and doesn’t like herself much, closed off in various ways, while Guy is insufferable in a particular strain of stereotypical masculinity.  He’s quite a broadly drawn picture of the lover of humanity more in general than particular, generous and giving but unlikely to save anyone who needs personal investment and awareness of the risks posed by a hostile world to be saved.  Harriet becomes someone whose side the reader is more likely to take (it would take a contrary reader, I think, to take Guy’s side, but if we are to take a side at all) when she is the one who worries about what will actually happen to someone Guy has taken under his wing and moved in with them.  The worst of Guy is perhaps his idea of marriage; Harriet is now to be considered as part of himself and therefore needs only the consideration he would afford himself.  Being selfless and opposed to personal considerations, this is not much.  He also considers it beyond question that his morality is hers.

Harriet takes some refuge from the emotionally arid atmosphere of their marriage in random passionate investments in stray animals and people, which is a rebellion against Guy’s ethos as well as something of a reproach to its effects on their marriage.  She has non-affairs with irritating young men who tell her how lucky she is to be married to Guy, as if she is both desirable for her connection to him and accessible as the lucky one in the relationship.

There are plenty of characters in this book, and one of the pleasures is the way they wander in and out.  Harriet and Guy battle with a plethora of rather odd, selfish scheming men who are out for what they can get out of the war, usually at Guy’s expense.  One of Harriet’s frustrations with Guy is his unwillingness to see and combat others’ venality.  There is Prince Yakimov, an aristocratic parasite, plaintive and always hungry, who enrages Harriet before she becomes, like me, rather fond of him.  People are not untouching, but there is no one who is your actual thoroughly likeable sympathetic character.

This is one of my favourite books so far this year, but it wasn’t perfect.  I would have liked the characterisation to be a little more fine-grained.  Because it is very autobiographical, sometimes I had an indefinable sense that things were as they were because that was how it was in real life, without providing sufficient evidence for necessity and inevitability in the fictional dimension.  Also, I found it annoying that Manning reminds you who everyone is each time, when these really are the sort of books which follow straight on from one another.  But I was always glad to get back to this.  It wasn’t one of those big books that somehow weigh you down even when you’re not reading it.




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