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Fortunes of War: The Balkan Trilogy (New York Review Books Classics) Paperback – January 19, 2010
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One of the "Five Best of World War II Fiction" — Antony Beevor, The Wall Street Journal
"Books not nearly as good are touted as definitive portraits of the war; very little on a best-seller list is more readable. Manning's giant six-volume effort is one of those combinations of soap opera and literature that are so rare you'd think it would meet the conditions of two kinds of audiences: those after what the trade calls 'a good read,' and those who want something more." --Howard Moss, The New York Review of Books
"The Balkan Trilogy: A fantastically tart and readable account of life in eastern Europe at the start of the war. The follow-up Levant Trilogy is just as good, too." --Sarah Waters
“Dramatic, comic and entirely absorbing.” —Carmen Callil
"I shall be surprised, and, I must admit, dismayed if the whole work is not recognized as a major achievement in the English novel since the war. Certainly it is an astonishing recreation." --Walter Allen, The New York Times
"The Great Fortune, The Spoilt City, and Friends and Heroes comprise a remarkable impression of traumatic world events as they impinged on the daily lives of (mostly) British permanent or temporary expatriates, encountered...[Manning] writes with blessed economy, evoking the sights and smells of the Middle East, the spring-green deserts and a mosque at dawn, with beautiful precision rather than purple passages...She has been compared with Graham Greene and Anthony Powell. Anthony Burgess, who thinks the two trilogies may prove to be the 'finest fictional record of the war produced by a British writer,' finds in her a kinship with Tolstoy." --Charles Champlin, Los Angeles Times
"Her gallery of personages is huge, her scene painting superb, her pathos controlled, her humour quiet and civilized." --Anthony Burgess
"Miss Manning is one of the very best of our novelists. She has a voice of her own." --Pamela Hansford Johnson, The New York Times
"So glittering is the overall parade...and so entertaining the surface that the trilogy remains excitingly vivid: it amuses, it diverts and it informs'." --Frederick Raphael
"Neither eye nor ear nor memory has failed the author. She has reproduced, in the atmosphere of wartime Rumania, exactly that miasma compounded of bravado and fear, extravagance and hunger, pretense and anguish, chicanery and stoicism, which hung over all the little, rumor-ridden capitals before their doom."--V. Peterson, The New York Times
About the Author
Olivia Manning (1908–1980) was born in Portsmouth, England, and spent much of her childhood in Northern Ireland. Her father, Oliver, was a penniless British sailor who rose to become a naval commander, and her mother, Olivia, had a prosperous Anglo-Irish background. Manning trained as a painter at the Portsmouth School of Art, then moved to London and turned to writing. She published her first novel under her own name in 1938 (she had published several potboilers in a local paper under the name Jacob Morrow while a teenager). The next year she married R.D. “Reggie” Smith, and the couple moved to Romania, where Smith was employed by the British Council. During World War II , the couple fled before the Nazi advance, first to Greece and then to Jerusalem, where they lived until the end of the war. Manning wrote several novels during the 1950s, but her first real success as a novelist was The Great Fortune (1960), the first of six books concerning Guy and Harriet Pringle, whose wartime experiences and troubled marriage echoed that of the diffident Manning and her gregarious husband. In the 1980s these novels were collected in two volumes, The Balkan Trilogy and The Levant Trilogy, known collectively as Fortunes of War. In addition to her novels, Manning wrote essays and criticism, history, a screenplay, and a book about Burmese and Siamese cats. She was made Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1976, and died four years later.
Rachel Cusk is the author of seven novels and two works of non-fiction. She teaches creative writing at Kingston University, London.
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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.
War, displacement, the death of the old Europe, the boredom of waiting, the shock of defeat, temporary lives clinging to the small space they've carved out for themselves, and a vast cast of vividly drawn supporting characters who drift in and out of the stage lights as events overtake everyone the way waves and wind overtake small boats.
Olivia Manning's trilogy is brilliantly sketched from life, the main characters based on her and her husband as they flee Bucharest and the advancing Nazi armies at the outbreak of war, first to Athens and a brief period of calm, and then as refugees making a last minute escape on a rusted boat to Egypt.
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Before Hitler sent in the panzers.