Olivia Manning, “The Balkan Trilogy”

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.

Romania in 1939, surrounded by potential enemies or allies of enemies.

Romania in 1939, surrounded by potential enemies or allies of enemies.

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.

About carolwallace

I spend most of my time writing and reading. Most recent publications: the reissue of "To Marry an English Lord,"one of the inspirations for "Downton Abbey," and the historical novel "Leaving Van Gogh." I am too cranky to belong to a book group but I love the book-blogging community.
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5 Responses to Olivia Manning, “The Balkan Trilogy”

  1. whatmeread says:

    Hmm, I saw the TV series but didn’t know it was based on books. However, I can’t decide from your description whether I would like it or not.

  2. carolwallace says:

    Yes, it’s hard to know with this one. I might not have stuck with it if I hadn’t been on a plane, but I was glad, in the end, that I did. I’d ordinarily suggest doing a Kindle sample chapter but that might not be quite enough of a sales pitch!

  3. Alex says:

    I knew the books before the television series was made and I have to say that when I read them I loved every word. I went through all six one summer vacation and wouldn’t be parted from them. I’ve not gone back to them since and so that must be nearly thirty years ago now. Whether I would still feel the same way I don’t know. If it wasn’t for the fact that I’m trying to avoid re-reads at the moment I might have been tempted to put January to one side and immerse myself again.

  4. carolwallace says:

    Well, if you ever do go back to them, Alex, I’d love to know what you think. Was it the era? Have our tastes been debased? I did enjoy the series this time and actually I rather miss Guy and Harriet — but maybe my enjoyment also had something to do with the fact that I (and you, I guess) was their contemporary. And there was something in the marriage/feminine identity thread that I responded to, I think. On this reading, Harriet is something of a pill, and Guy’s affable-yet-unavailable quality is highly exasperating.

  5. I was put on to these by Meg O. in the 80’s and became besotted with them. Seriously. I thought they were world-changingly brilliant. And now, based on your report, I suspect that may have been the reaction of an inferior, less discriminating, former self. Or, perhaps a more open, enthusiastic and less pedantic former self? I won’t have the time to find out anytime soon.

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