(At this time and in this novel – Romania was spelt as Rumania – and as either is deemed correct even now I have stuck to the spelling used in the novel).
The Great Fortune is the first book in Olivia Manning’s autobiographical Balkan trilogy – which I first read many moons ago and have been wanting to re-read for ages. Naturally I had forgotten a lot of the details of the novel, and so it was like coming to it afresh.
What Manning captures perfectly is the ex-pat community clustered together in city beset by rumour and the ever-present threat of invasion. It is clear she knew just how it felt to live in such circumstances. Rumanian officials, poverty stricken aristocrats, University teachers and tetchy landladies – are portrayed with realistic authenticity. Manning’s Rumanian characters are not always portrayed sympathetically – there is frequently an air of irritation surrounding them, but what Manning also recreates so well is the awkwardness of different nationalities coming together, and living in difficult times fraught with tension.
Rumania at this time had declared itself to be neutral – but how long it would be able to remain unaffected remains to be seen.
It is 1939, and Guy Pringle brings Harriet; his new young wife back from England with him to Bucharest, Rumania. He and Harriet have not known each other all that long, and Harriett must adjust herself to both married life, and being a member of an ex-pat community in war time. Guy has a job teaching English, he slips easily back into the life he knows – having already spent some time in Bucharest before returning to England where he met, fell in love with and married Harriet.
“She was a pretty enough girl, dark like many Rumanian, too full in the cheeks. Her chief beauty was her figure. Looking at Sophie’s well developed bosom, Harriet felt at a disadvantage. Perhaps Sophie’s shape would not last, but it was enviable with it lasted.”
Guy has friends and acquaintances unknown to Harriet, one of whom, Sophie, a Rumanian beauty who has quite obviously set her cap at Guy, and is bitterly resentful of Harriet’s presence. Harriet is alarmed to hear that Guy had once idly considered marrying Sophie to give her a British passport in case of German invasion. Harriet shows everyone her nervousness about the war, England feels like a long way away – and yet none of Guy’s colleagues seem very concerned at all.
“Where is the war now?” Harriet asked.
“As the crow flies, about three hundred miles away. When we go home for Christmas…”
“Do you really think we will?” She could not believe it. Christmas brought to her mind a scene, tiny and far away like a snowstorm in a globe. Somewhere within it was ‘home’ – anyway, England. Home for her was no more defined than that. The aunt who had brought her up was dead.”
Bucharest is a city where the ex-pat community have its regular haunts, places like The Athenee Palace hotel and The English Bar where Guy is already a regular. In these places, we see various members of this wartime Bucharest society gathering to buy drinks, discuss the news and attempt to predict what will happen next. One of the most colourful characters is Prince Yakimov, a White Russian émigré who is practically penniless.
“Yakimov, in his long full-skirted greatcoat, an astrakhan cap on top of his head, his reed of a body almost overblown by the wind, looked like a phantom from the First World War–a member of some seedy royal family put into military uniform for the purposes of a parade.”
Yakimov – or ‘your poor old Yaki’ as he generally refers to himself – exists largely by scrounging off his friends, he is a man used to exquisitely rich food – and he is frequently very hungry. When his credit is exhausted at the hotel, he removes himself to some lodgings, soon falling foul of his landlady to whom he inevitably owes money. As Yaki borrows more and more money off various friends, he finds his friends diminishing, and Harriet is particularly annoyed by him after he insults Guy (an insult Guy doesn’t even notice). However, Guy likes to take people under his wing, and he takes pity on Yakimov, eventually moving him into the small spare room in the flat he and Harriet have moved into. Whenever Yaki gets some money for rent or clothing he generally splashes out on restaurant food, and copious amounts of wine, he is hopes with money – and everyone knows it.
With Guy, so often busy with his own concerns, Harriet can be a little lonely, she finds herself thrown together with a colleague of Guy’s; Clarence – separated from his fiancé, it is obvious he really admires Harriet. Guy seems oblivious to any potential risk, and is not a bit jealous, unlike poor Harriet who practically boils with rage whenever Sophie is present.
As everyone keeps a careful eye on what is happening with the war, and in which direction the Germans are moving – they take heart from the news that the troops are sweeping West – well away from Rumania. Still rumour is rife – and foreign nationals need to secure visas for neighbouring countries to use in the event of a German invasion. The Drucker family (wealthy Jewish bankers – whose son is one of Guy’s students) have been arrested on some apparently trumped up charges and are discussed and speculated over at some length. In the meantime, Guy decides to produce a play – a project which does an excellent job of distracting many of the participants from the gathering storm. Troilus and Cressida is the play – and Guy has the perfect role for everyone – especially Yaki. Harriet is originally supposed to play Cressida – however Guy knows she doesn’t take the project quite as seriously as he does, and so recasts the part – giving it to Sophie.
I loved every bit of this novel it’s wonderfully evocative and though there is not a tremendous amount of plot – the characterisation and evocation of a city under threat of invasion is fantastic. I can’t wait to read The Spoilt City – book two of the trilogy – in fact I see Olivia Manning could become a writer I start reading a lot of.