I read this book for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2021.
A 20th century classic. A modern novel with the backdrop of the most destructive war in history seemed the ticket to read for this category. About this time last year friends gave me The Balkan Trilogy for a get-well present when I was recovering from getting my chest sawn open.
The Great Fortune - Olivia Manning
This is the first book in The Balkan Trilogy, a fictionalized autobiography which brilliantly captures the expatriate community in a European capital city haunted by the harsh reality of war in 1939-40. I enjoyed the novel a great deal, though Balkan critics sniff that since neither Manning nor her fictional stand-in, Harriet Pringle, spoke or read Romanian with advanced proficiency, their view of the country was superficial, with plenty of scenes in pricey eateries, snug coffee houses, buggy rides and parties hosted by embassies.
As an ex-superficial expatriate myself, I confidently attest that this novel tells how expatriate life feels for working adults, their spouses and their colleagues and rivals. In the late 1930s Romanians and non-Romanians (English, Germans, Jewish people, Romany) feel the same uneasy uncertain insecurity about the imminence of WWII. In the middle 1990s, Latvia had a bank panic that, believe me, gave everybody a case of full-blown heebie-jeebies. Along with the local people at the school (who could ill-afford financial loss however slight), I had feelings of alarm I didn’t have again until the panic shopping of March 2020. This is an example involving large ructions, but Manning represents day to day expat life and its rhythms and trials really well too.
Also feeling genuine is the sense that main characters Harriet and Guy Pringle were too young to get married in the first place, much less be newly married in another culture. Though they don’t really know what they’re getting into (which is probably just as well), young people have inner resources and distractions, trivial and not, that make them draw closer. For instance, the climax of this novel involves a student production of Troilus and Cressida. Poor Harriet is really tested when Guy casts his Romanian Ex in the title part, but she comes to see another side of him and admires him for being such a great director.
The female protagonist Harriet is only 22 years old, from a loveless family background. She’s just getting to know her new husband Guy, who is 23 years old, a combination of cluelessness and exuberance. You can tell he’s young even for his age when he tells Harriet, “I expect from you only what I expect from myself.” Guy is often irritating and unpleasant especially when he carelessly puts Harriet in a bad position, ignoring her, not taking her opinions into account, and making her look stupid, especially when Guy’s Ex, a local named Sophie, is involved.
Introverted Harriet, who has had little experience accepting people as they are, has trouble with friendships. She ends up hanging out with Bella, an Englishwoman she never would have befriended in England, but who ends up being a woman of great resource and if not wisdom, then sense. Guy forces Harriet into a lot of acquaintanceships and unwanted house-mates, especially the marvelous comic character, Prince Yakimov, a dim bulb and scrounger and glutton.
The novel works on both the social and personal level so, I’m looking forward to the next two books in the trilogy. Readers who are into Europe between the wars will enjoy this novel, calling to mind work by Rebecca West, Victor Serge, Alan Furst, and Eric Ambler.