The Balkan Trilogy first came to my attention via the 1987 BBC series starring Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh. Did you remember that they were once married to each other? They met while playing husband and wife in the series. Called Fortunes of War, it condensed The Balkan Trilogy and its successor The Levant Trilogy into seven episodes that followed the adventures of the young English couple Guy and Harriet Pringle during the early years of World War II. I was quite taken by the three novels at the time and thought they’d provide me with a good long stretch of escape reading for Christmas-time transcontinental plane flights.
Did I not notice, 25-odd years ago, how stodgy and undramatic the narration was? Or have I been seduced by flashy reads like The Goldfinch and Game of Thrones? Apparently Olivia Manning based these books on her own experiences with her husband Reggie Smith, a gregarious British Council lecturer whom she married in 1939 and with whom she moved to Bucharest. The narrative point of view rests heavily with Harriet Pringle, Manning’s alter ego. Harriet and her gregarious husband Guy knew each other for a week before marriage, and once they resume Guy’s life in Bucharest, Harriet realizes that though Guy loves her, she will never be the center of his life. There’s a feminist thread to this story line, as Harriet casts about for her role in the marriage and in Romania, a country she does not warm to.
But in addition to the somewhat self-pitying marriage narrative, there’s a far more interesting wartime saga. Romania was nominally neutral, but highly vulnerable to both Allied and Axis powers. Its neutrality meant that it offered shelter to refugees early in the war, but we’re aware of shifting alliances and increasing menace to our English characters. Life gets more difficult; food is hard to come by, friends disappear, money is tight, employment vanishes. All of this plays out at a stately pace: the New York Review Books edition weighs in at 944 pages.
So I bet I haven’t sold you on The Balkan Trilogy, right? But its flaws are also its strengths. If it feels as if Manning is often transplanting her own experience direct to the page, that does give her real authority. And the meandering plotting of these books ultimately seems appropriate to give readers a deep-seated sense of the bewilderment and boredom of wartime conditions. I often thought of Alan Furst, whose territory this is as well. Furst would have shaped and heightened Manning’s material into half the space and twice the drama. But in the end, I wanted to keep faith with the Pringles, and see them safely to British-controlled Egypt. I felt we’d been through something momentous together.