The Balkan Trilogy begins when Guy and Harriet Pringle are traveling the Orient Express to Bucharest where Guy is returning to his work teaching English literature at the university. He met and married Harriet in a whirlwind romance while on holiday in England and now they are beginning their life together. They have been married a week.
Guy works for a government cultural program affiliated with the university and is a popular, beloved teacher. Hitler is in power and is advancing on Poland.
The Balkan Trilogy is the first three novels of six that make up the Fortunes of War series by Olivia Manning. It is likely she planned a final trilogy, but died before than could happen. In The Great Fortune, the first of the three novels, the Pringles come to Bucharest, settle in and enjoy ex-pat life, their small income enough to make them privileged in the eyes of Romanians. The second in the trilogy, The Spoilt City, begins shortly after Germany has declared war on Britain and the ex-pats in Bucharest are losing influence and living in fear of impending invasion. The Nazis are present, but not technically in power. By the end, though, they have taken over and the Pringles must flee for Greece, Harriet going ahead with Guy left behind to follow. In the final book, Friends and Heroes, Guy and Harriet are reunited in Greece, with each other and with many of their friends from Bucharest, some of whom prove to be disloyal to their friendship. Not long after they arrive, Italy declares war on Greece, but it’s not until Germany advances, that again, at the end, they are forced to flee, this time to Egypt. The trilogy ends with them on a refugee boat entering Egyptian waters.
However, the events of the war are secondary to the story of their marriage and Harriet’s slow realization that Guy is at once too generous and too selfish. He is unfailingly generous and open-hearted with other people, but for Harriet, he sees her as himself and as he neglects himself, he neglects her. “She had supposed this large, comfortable man would defend her against the world, and had found that he was on the other side…The responsibilities of marriage, if he admitted they existed at all, were for him indistinguishable from all the other responsibilities to which he dedicated his time. Real or imaginary, he treated them much alike, but she suspected the imaginary responsibilities had the more dramatic appeal.”
Guy is a brilliant man who wastes his life. Harriet is only twenty-one and not nearly as educated as Guy, but she is perceptive. She sees things as they are and sees people as they are. She is not as open-hearted as Guy, but then perhaps Guy’s generosity is foolish naïveté. In Bucharest, out of pity he employs a couple of men who are unqualified for their post and abandon it the moment there is risk. In Greece, they have used their posting in Bucharest to get work they are even less-qualified for and prevent Guy from getting employment. That kind of duplicitous betrayal is clearly going to be Guy’s lot in life because even after that, he is forgiving of them in the end. Harriet, left on her own far too much, is lonely and in Greece even meets a man who loves her and whom she loves, but loyalty and convention are strong.
The trilogy also tells the story of Prince Yakimov, “Poor Yaki” an impoverished White Russian who scrounges a life, wearing his threadbare finery and the sable coat the Tsar gave his father. He has a remittance, quickly consumed, and relies on the kindness of friends and strangers. Guy takes him in to play a role in a play he is putting on and Yaki is a great success. His story is comic and tragic, he’s a raconteur whose too hungry and tired for the kind of conversation that he used to earn his keep. Sometimes he is shockingly stupid and awful, he is always self-obsessed, but oh, I could not help but care about him.
I loved The Balkan Trilogy, all nine hundred plus pages of it. The story was interesting in many ways, showing us a different side of the war. Perhaps because Romania and the Balkans fell to the Soviets after the war, popular culture has paid less attention to their war than the war of western Europe. The struggles of the Romanians, the flight of the Jews from Romania and Bulgaria and the British community in Greece are vividly described. It’s true brilliance though is in its deep understanding of people and how they are. Manning has a gift for writing people who are real. I probably should qualify that, so long as they are British, she has a gift for contextualizing people. The Greeks and the Romanians are more one-dimensional as people are when you don’t speak their language.
The story is also fascinating as we watch Harriet grow in understanding, not just of herself and Guy, but of the world around her. She gets stronger and she realizes Guy is not all that she once though him, but still he is a good man in her eyes, but her eyes are not starry any long, they are very clear. I am curious to see what happens next.
- The Balkan Trilogy at New York Review of Books
- The Balkan Trilogy at Penguin Random House
- Fortunes of War: a review of the entire six book series
- Olivia Manning