Filed under: Book Reviews, Classic Fiction | Tags: book review, books, bucharest, classic fiction, fortunes of war, harriet pringle, lit, literature, nyrb, nyrb classics, olivia manning, reading, rumania, the balkan trilogy, the great fortune, war, world war two, WWII
In The Great Fortune, the first volume of her Balkan Trilogy (which is itself just half of her six-volume Fortunes of War), Olivia Manning sets a group of the must repugnant people to be found in fiction in front of a backdrop of looming war. The newly married Harriet and Guy Pringle form the center of this self-absorbed party, and it’s to Manning’s credit that by novel’s end these characters become, if not likeable, bearable and intriguing.
Guy Pringle is an Englishman teaching English at the university in Bucharest, returning from a vacation with his new wife, Harriet. Guy is gregarious, and when the couple arrives in Bucharest Harriet is left largely to her own devices – introduced to Guy’s friends, but having to sort out for herself questions of his relationships with these people and where she fits in this foreign country. The lives of Harriet and Guy are spent shifting from one ex-pat bar to another; but though they’re surrounded by English-speakers Harriet is often left adrift in the wake of Guy’s kindnesses to near-strangers or acquaintances.
One of these acquaintances, Prince Yakimov, spends the novel on the verge of destitution, surviving off the kindnesses of often frustrated acquaintances. Yakimov, or Yaki, stumbles into a brief career as a newspaper man, but when that ends is left with no money, no hotel room. He poses as a refugee to get enough money to pay for a room in a poor part of town, but even that game comes to a close, leaving “poor old Yaki” to wander the streets until Guy Pringle takes him in. Yaki is one of the central characters of the novel, and also one of the worst: he’s a man who for much of the book has no aims and no shame, who realizes himself to have no options but who cannot resist spending any money he comes across in pursuit of the small pleasures that salve his wounds. What’s extraordinary about Manning’s writing is that she never shies from showing characters as they really are – only near novel’s end, when he finds some occupation in a play being put on by Guy, does Yakimov become less repugnant, thanks to his absorption in his role as actor. Manning shows Yakimov making the same mistakes time and time again, in so doing suggesting that there’s a limit to the growth any character can go through, that not every reprehensible feature must be countered by a positive one. She manages, too, to sum up Yakimov’s character in brief but telling scenes, as when Yakimov is left to his own devices after crashing a lunch:
Yakimov had expected the offer of a lift, but no offer was made. As Clarence and Steffaneski drove off without him, the glow began to seep from him. Then he remembered he had twelve thousand lei. He went into the confiserie attached to the restaurant and bought himself a little silver box full of raspberry pastilles. Holding this happily, he called a taxi and set out for his new lodgings, where he would sleep the afternoon away. (139)
Oblivious as Manning’s characters may be, behind them is the growing threat of war, suggestions of German advances and victories. That her characters are so unchanging before all this, so often unconcerned with the course of the war, is in some ways a comfort, as much as it suggests how self-interest and self-absorption blind them to what is, inevitably, coming to Bucharest.
Harriet is often a more sympathetic character than either Yaki or Guy, left largely to herself in a foreign city where she’s unable to speak the language and has to get by on her schoolgirl’s knowledge of French. But she, too, joins in the minor cruelties that the others do, without pausing to think of what those cruelties signify. In one scene Harriet, Guy and some guests pants one of their guests, Clarence, placing his trousers on the balcony and leaving Clarence on the floor in his underpants. When he retrieves his trousers he does so without a word, then letting himself out of the apartment in silence. After:
There was a silence, then Harriet said: “What is the matter with us? Why did we do that?”
“It was a joke,” said Guy, though he did not sound sure of what he said.
“Really, we behaved like children,” Harriet said and it occurred to her that they were not, in fact, grown-up enough for the life they were leading. (185)
Manning captures something here – a sense of wanting to be better but knowing that’s impossible, maybe – but doesn’t push it, lets the scene end and stand as is. By leaving the cruelties and half-thought-out acts of her characters to the reader, not elaborating on these scenes but letting them shift one into another into another, is sometimes exhausting, but develops an appeal as the novel progresses. Manning shows us what her characters do and say, without ever telling us what these things mean. Whether Guy cares as little for Harriet as he often appears to, then, is left to the reader, as are suggestions that Harriet is not happy with the arrangement of their marriage, that Guy is not, when surrounded by friends, the man she thought he was when she had him to herself.
Behind all this is the growing threat of war. Guy and Harriet and their circle are often either oblivious or unconcerned with the progress of the war, dismissing it as something that is unlikely to impact their lives in Rumania. Near novel’s end the German advances begin being tracked in the windows of the British Propaganda Bureau and the window opposite, run by the Germans. At this time Guy and the other ex-pats are working to put on one of Shakespeare’s plays, and the reaction to these windows and their displays is eerily similar to the reactions of playgoers:
The map with the red arrows disappeared. The window remained empty. No one was much impressed. The move had not, after all, been the beginning of events. It seemed a step into a cul-de-sac. The audience waited for more spectacular entertainment. (244)
What a damning, nightmare description of war: nothing more than an entertainment. The war doesn’t seem to come alive for Manning’s ex-pats until the shocking change of the newsreels run before films in Bucharest. The French films cease arriving, the English films are blocked, and only U.P.A. news films are coming in:
People sat up at them, aghast, overwhelmed by the fervour of the young men on the screen. There was nothing here of the flat realism of the English news, nothing of the bored inactivity which people had come to expect. Every camera trick was used to enhance the drama of the German machines reaping the cities as they passed. Their destructive lust was like a glimpse of the dark ages. (255)
Manning handles the relation of her characters to the war masterfully. That the reader is seeing events through the characters’ eyes, knowing that the war is more serious and closer than they imagine or want to believe, makes the fall of France a shock not just for those in the book but for the reader as well. The gulf between Manning’s characters and the war is so vast that to see it bridged is a shock, a disappointment. We know it’s coming, of course, but don’t want to see the war make its way into the lives of the Pringles simply because they don’t want to see the war make its way into their lives.
The Great Fortune isn’t an easy book to enter, but it’s one that’s worth the attempt. Manning pulled many details of the Pringles’ lives from her own life, and to read this first volume of The Balkan Trilogy is to gain a truer sense of how the seemingly inevitable German progress of this war could be such a shock to those living through it, or adjacent to it.
Filed under: Read-a-Thon | Tags: bruce coville, dewey, elizabeth george, fortunes of war, francisco goldman, olivia manning, read-a-thon, readathon
Ever since I first heard about Dewey’s Read-a-Thon I’ve mostly expressed confusion over what the point is. Although I had a proud read-a-thon run as a child (two-time winner of my elementary school’s read-a-thon) I am not all that into aggressive or speed reading or whatever you want to call it. But today I made bombitsa (you know, little snow bombs) with my host sister, and then I ate way too many of them, and now my stomach hurts and I can’t even think about getting off my sofa, and the best way to salvage this day seems to be devoting myself to knocking some books off my reading list, top among them the first novel in Olivia Manning’s Fortunes of War.
So, without further ado, here are the books I plan to tackle today, though I’ll probably get distracted and end up turning this into a Gilmore Girls marathon or something.
Olivia Manning – The Great Fortune
Francisco Goldman – Say Her Name
Elizabeth George – Missing Joseph
Bruce Coville – Jennifer Murdley’s Toad
I’ll edit this post as I go along, like to update you that my stomach feels better and I’m outside playing jump rope with my sister, or that I fell asleep during the Manning (it’s pretty good, actually, but usually I have to read it not while laying down) or that I still can’t figure out when the mystery is going to get going in the Elizabeth George.
Pages Read: 404
Update: 7:19PM – Ahh. As a couple have suggested in the comments, reading does do wonders for the stomach struggling under the weight of too many cookies. Green tea & Olivia Manning, Yaki being the most frustrating character ever (also, Manning must be the best at writing cruel & unlikeable characters ever – I’m not sure there’s a single person in the book I really care for), my host siblings playing football outside, sun going down, call to prayer.
Update: 9:09PM Fortunes of War carries on. 25 pages in two hours. Bah! There is such a weird disconnect between the lives of the ex-pats Manning writes about, and the war that’s gathering all around them. Her characters so often seem like children wanting entertainment, without another thought in their heads. I think I’m going to finish reading Howl’s Moving Castle now.
Update: 11:58PM: Howl’s Moving Castle is so funny and weird. I’d forgotten it was made into a movie – I need to watch that after I finish reading. I just finished The Great Fortune, the first volume in Olivia Manning’s The Balkan Trilogy, which is itself just half of her Fortunes of War. Pushing myself to read through this (more than half of the book since this afternoon) seems to have done something good for me and the reading, getting me over the natural inertia of facing a long, long book with characters who I halfway hate from their first appearances. It’s nice to remember that feeling, too, of reading like I did when I was a kid, getting all hyped up to finish a book so that I would never go to sleep on time but instead would lay under the covers with a reading light, not going to sleep until I’d finished whatever Nancy Drew & Hardy Boys Super Mystery I was on at the moment. Somehow it wound up being midnight but I thought it was about 10PM. Also, my copy of The Balkan Trilogy is getting that sort of nice floppy spine thing going on that announces to the world, I’ve Been Read. Also, I really like the smell of nyrb classics. They remind me of some books I read when I was younger, but I’ll have to come back later when I remember what the series or publisher was.
7:35AM – It looks like it’s going to be the nicest day ever out. Howl’s Moving Castle is still fun but kind of grating when it’s the only thing I’m reading. Last night I felt so inspired by my great time finishing up the Olivia Manning that I felt ready to declare myself a convert to the “one book at a time” thing. Not going to happen.
8:34AM – Second cup of coffee on the way. If there is one good thing about this read-a-thon thing it’s that it pushed me to wake up early today – good preparation for work tomorrow morning. Lynley & Havers finally showed up in Elizabeth George’s Missing Joseph, after over one hundred pages without them. Huge relief but something – being tired or reading too much or things that I’ve been kind of weird about, in relation to this series, but never let myself think about too much before now – has me noticing all the ways in which George has made Havers a sort of half-person. Like, every time Havers is described there is no question that she’s got “chunky” legs or wears frumpy clothes or that, despite only being 33 years old, she is never ever going to have a romantic partner. This is so weird and kind of disturbing – is this what women have to look like when they have successful careers? The day looks even more gorgeous – I am expecting my six-year-old host sister to be pounding on my door within an hour telling me to come out and play, and odds are I’ll take her up on the offer…assuming I haven’t fallen asleep by then.
12:53PM – Okay, I have to be honest: my enthusiasm has faded. I’m glad this read-a-thon got me through the first volume of The Balkan Trilogy, but now I am just tired and, bah, read-a-thons! Still, you know: I am finally moving on that trilogy, which I’ve been “reading” for months now, and that’s worth something.