Fat Books & Thin Women

Review: Olivia Manning’s The Great Fortune

In The Great Fortune, the first volume of her Balkan Trilogy (which is itself just half of her six-volume Fortunes of War), Olivia Manning sets a group of the must repugnant people to be found in fiction in front of a backdrop of looming war. The newly married Harriet and Guy Pringle form the center of this self-absorbed party, and it’s to Manning’s credit that by novel’s end these characters become, if not likeable, bearable and intriguing.

Guy Pringle is an Englishman teaching English at the university in Bucharest, returning from a vacation with his new wife, Harriet. Guy is gregarious, and when the couple arrives in Bucharest Harriet is left largely to her own devices – introduced to Guy’s friends, but having to sort out for herself questions of his relationships with these people and where she fits in this foreign country. The lives of Harriet and Guy are spent shifting from one ex-pat bar to another; but though they’re surrounded by English-speakers Harriet is often left adrift in the wake of Guy’s kindnesses to near-strangers or acquaintances.

One of these acquaintances, Prince Yakimov, spends the novel on the verge of destitution, surviving off the kindnesses of often frustrated acquaintances. Yakimov, or Yaki, stumbles into a brief career as a newspaper man, but when that ends is left with no money, no hotel room. He poses as a refugee to get enough money to pay for a room in a poor part of town, but even that game comes to a close, leaving “poor old Yaki” to wander the streets until Guy Pringle takes him in. Yaki is one of the central characters of the novel, and also one of the worst: he’s a man who for much of the book has no aims and no shame, who realizes himself to have no options but who cannot resist spending any money he comes across in pursuit of the small pleasures that salve his wounds. What’s extraordinary about Manning’s writing is that she never shies from showing characters as they really are – only near novel’s end, when he finds some occupation in a play being put on by Guy, does Yakimov become less repugnant, thanks to his absorption in his role as actor. Manning shows Yakimov making the same mistakes time and time again, in so doing suggesting that there’s a limit to the growth any character can go through, that not every reprehensible feature must be countered by a positive one. She manages, too, to sum up Yakimov’s character in brief but telling scenes, as when Yakimov is left to his own devices after crashing a lunch:

Yakimov had expected the offer of a lift, but no offer was made. As Clarence and Steffaneski drove off without him, the glow began to seep from him. Then he remembered he had twelve thousand lei. He went into the confiserie attached to the restaurant and bought himself a little silver box full of raspberry pastilles. Holding this happily, he called a taxi and set out for his new lodgings, where he would sleep the afternoon away. (139)

Oblivious as Manning’s characters may be, behind them is the growing threat of war, suggestions of German advances and victories. That her characters are so unchanging before all this, so often unconcerned with the course of the war, is in some ways a comfort, as much as it suggests how self-interest and self-absorption blind them to what is, inevitably, coming to Bucharest.

Harriet is often a more sympathetic character than either Yaki or Guy, left largely to herself in a foreign city where she’s unable to speak the language and has to get by on her schoolgirl’s knowledge of French. But she, too, joins in the minor cruelties that the others do, without pausing to think of what those cruelties signify. In one scene Harriet, Guy and some guests pants one of their guests, Clarence, placing his trousers on the balcony and leaving Clarence on the floor in his underpants. When he retrieves his trousers he does so without a word, then letting himself out of the apartment in silence. After:

There was a silence, then Harriet said: “What is the matter with us? Why did we do that?”

“It was a joke,” said Guy, though he did not sound sure of what he said.

“Really, we behaved like children,” Harriet said and it occurred to her that they were not, in fact, grown-up enough for the life they were leading. (185)

Manning captures something here – a sense of wanting to be better but knowing that’s impossible, maybe – but doesn’t push it, lets the scene end and stand as is. By leaving the cruelties and half-thought-out acts of her characters to the reader, not elaborating on these scenes but letting them shift one into another into another, is sometimes exhausting, but develops an appeal as the novel progresses. Manning shows us what her characters do and say, without ever telling us what these things mean. Whether Guy cares as little for Harriet as he often appears to, then, is left to the reader, as are suggestions that Harriet is not happy with the arrangement of their marriage, that Guy is not, when surrounded by friends, the man she thought he was when she had him to herself.

Behind all this is the growing threat of war. Guy and Harriet and their circle are often either oblivious or unconcerned with the progress of the war, dismissing it as something that is unlikely to impact their lives in Rumania. Near novel’s end the German advances begin being tracked in the windows of the British Propaganda Bureau and the window opposite, run by the Germans. At this time Guy and the other ex-pats are working to put on one of Shakespeare’s plays, and the reaction to these windows and their displays is eerily similar to the reactions of playgoers:

The map with the red arrows disappeared. The window remained empty. No one was much impressed. The move had not, after all, been the beginning of events. It seemed a step into a cul-de-sac. The audience waited for more spectacular entertainment. (244)

What a damning, nightmare description of war: nothing more than an entertainment. The war doesn’t seem to come alive for Manning’s ex-pats until the shocking change of the newsreels run before films in Bucharest. The French films cease arriving, the English films are blocked, and only U.P.A. news films are coming in:

People sat up at them, aghast, overwhelmed by the fervour of the young men on the screen. There was nothing here of the flat realism of the English news, nothing of the bored inactivity which people had come to expect. Every camera trick was used to enhance the drama of the German machines reaping the cities as they passed. Their destructive lust was like a glimpse of the dark ages. (255)

Manning handles the relation of her characters to the war masterfully. That the reader is seeing events through the characters’ eyes, knowing that the war is more serious and closer than they imagine or want to believe, makes the fall of France a shock not just for those in the book but for the reader as well. The gulf between Manning’s characters and the war is so vast that to see it bridged is a shock, a disappointment. We know it’s coming, of course, but don’t want to see the war make its way into the lives of the Pringles simply because they don’t want to see the war make its way into their lives.

The Great Fortune isn’t an easy book to enter, but it’s one that’s worth the attempt. Manning pulled many details of the Pringles’ lives from her own life, and to read this first volume of The Balkan Trilogy is to gain a truer sense of how the seemingly inevitable German progress of this war could be such a shock to those living through it, or adjacent to it.

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I read this a couple of years ago and I admired it – particularly the portrayal of Yakimov – but the trilogy went on forever! Your review reminded me of aspects of Manning’s writing that I enjoyed.

Comment by Nicola

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