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Posts Tagged ‘Olivia Manning’

the danger tree

Today is the start of the 1977 club hosted for us again by Simon and Karen. I got started a few days ago – as I had been looking forward to reading this particular book for a while.

The Danger Tree is the first novel in Olivia Manning’s Levant Trilogy – which follows directly on from her Balkan Trilogy – that I re-read with such relish last year. The Danger Tree is every bit as compelling as those first three novels. Enormously intelligent, it is, at times, a no holds barred account of the war in the desert.

“Cairo had become the clearing house of Eastern Europe. Kings and princes, heads of state, their followers and hangers-on, free governments with all their officials, everyone who saw himself committed to the allied cause, had come to live here off the charity of the British government. Hotels, restaurants and cafés were loud with the squabbles, rivalries, scandals, exhibitions of importance and hurt feelings that occupied the refugees while they waited for the war to end and the old order to return.”

Having been forced to flee Greece – where they ended up having fled the German occupation in Romania – Guy and Harriet Pringle find themselves in Egypt. Again, they are surrounded by the flotsam and jetsam of war – thrown together with strangers and old friends – and enemies – with German forces still far too close for comfort.

1977clubThe novel opens with Simon Boulderstone, just twenty years old, who has just arrived with the draft. A young officer, he had formed close alliances aboard ship – but is now separated from his mates – and finds himself alone, in the midst of chaos. Tobruk has just fallen. After reporting to his new barracks Simon is given two days leave and in search of a friendly face, goes to Cairo to look up his brother’s girlfriend; Edwina Little. Simon knows that somewhere out there in the desert is his brother Hugh and he hopes to get a chance to see him.

Harriet is also in Cairo – though Guy has had to go to Alexandria to find something to do for the Organisation – the Organisation is educational not mafioso which is what it always sounds like to me. Harriet is alone – and there are moments when the heat, flies, loneliness and constant rumour takes its toll.

“On one occasion she was in a landscape which she had seen years before, when riding her bicycle into the country. It was an ordinary English winter landscape; a large field ploughed into ridges that followed the contours of the land, bare hedges, distant elms behind which the sky’s watery grey was broken by gold. She could smell the earth on the wind. There was a gust of rain, wet and cold on her face – then, in an instant, the scene was gone like a light switched off, and she could have wept for the loss of it.”

Harriet encounters Simon in the company of some other ex-pats – when together they go off on a sight-seeing tour. The days end with a stark and tragic reminder of war at the desert home of Sir Desmond Hooper.

Guy is in a reserved occupation but his arrival in Egypt brings him back into conflict with those colleagues who had undermined his position in Greece. Finding himself on the outside again – Guy is not the man to sit back do nothing and get paid – he needs to be doing something. Guy always has a host of people around him – he puts everybody before Harriet – who finds herself every bit as frustrated by this behaviour in her husband as she was in Romania and Greece. While Harriet endures the discomfort of Madame Wilk’s pension, working in the American embassy, where she is daily reminded of her outsider status — Guy is running a course for just two students in Alexandria.

Returning to Cairo – to Harriet’s relief – Guy’s career prospects suddenly improve when he is appointed director. Guy’s appointment means the Pringles can move into better accommodation too – a large room in a shared embassy flat which they share with Edwina Little, a strange, rather sad man named Percy Gibbon and Dobson – who the Pringles first knew in Romania. Outside their window is a large mango tree – the danger tree of the title. Harriet loves the tree, Guy hates it.

“The Danger Tree”. You know that in England someone dies every year from eating duck eggs? – Well, in countries where a lot of mangoes are eaten, someone dies from mango poisoning every year.’ Edwina, who had been putting out her hand for another mango, withdrew it, saying, ‘Dobbie, how could you! What a horrid joke!’”

As the novel progresses we also follow the fortunes of young Simon Boulderstone as he joins his new unit. He is a young, inexperienced officer – and his days are long, hot and often boring. When action comes its swift, terrifying, and bloody. Olivia Manning brings us the realities of war with neither sentiment or gratuitous violence. As ever her storytelling is superb.

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I’ve really come to love Olivia Manning’s writing, and so I was delighted when I received The Doves of Venus as part of the Librarything Virago secret Santa parcel exchange. This accompanied me on the journey home from Devon almost two weeks ago now and proved to be one of the highlights of last month. Sometimes it is hard to write about a book I loved as much as I did this one, as I can’t really be objective. So, I should probably keep this simple.

Actually, the plot is very simple, but Olivia Manning brings so much to the story, her exploration of the characters is absolutely spot on. As always, her characters step fully formed from the page, they have a past and a future – and speak with the voices of people Olivia Manning herself must have known.

Eighteen-year old Ellie leaves her home in the provincial seaside town of Eastsea in search of independence. In Eastsea, Ellie’s mother runs a restaurant, and favours Ellie’s sister – who is about to get married. Ellie’s help is wanted – and everyone in the town seems to think it entirely appropriate that Ellie should stay and help her mother – and completely scandalous that she has gone off to London instead. Ellie is suffocated by the atmosphere of home; the small-town mind is not hers – she seems to be able to do nothing right anyway – and is always getting on the wrong side of her mother. Having done a night school art class at the technical college Ellie has her sights set on the art world.

In London, Ellie takes a small bedsit in Chelsea and manages to get a job at a furniture studio – initially in packing – but soon she is moved to the ‘antiquing’ room where she paints bits of furniture. She also acquires a middle-aged lover Quintin Bellot – who has a much more laid-back attitude to their affair than Ellie – who has fallen head over heels. The affair is destined to be a short one, with Ellie learning quickly, the complexities of a married lover.

“During her weeks with Quintin she had lived, it seemed like the ‘Snow Queen’ girl, in a garden where it was always summer. Now she was shut out from the summer garden of love.
‘My fault’ she said
All female gossip, all advice given in women’s magazines, made it clear that a woman thrown over had only herself to blame.”

Quintin is harried continually by his estranged wife – Petta; a familiar figure around the pubs on the Kings Road with her circle of assorted bohemians. When Petta leaves her most recent lover, she lands back at Quintin’s flat – much to his irritation – charming his housekeeper Mrs Trimmer and setting up home in his dressing room. Petta is manipulative and slightly hysterical, bitterly resentful toward all of Quintin’s ‘little girls’ – shrugging off her own indiscretions, a previous marriage and an abandoned daughter. She yearns sadly for a time that is long gone, a world she understood, the world as it had been when she was young.

“‘Why is it all so dismal now? What happened to life? What’s missing from it? It used to be such fun. It’s true, conditions were different. Money bought things then. Everyone had country cottages: they picked them up for a few pounds. Other people did the work for us – but it wasn’t all that that made life fun…’”

When Quintin tells Ellie, he won’t be able to see her anymore, she is devastated – but is determined to believe he will come back to her in time. In the meantime, Ellie concentrates hard on impressing with her work at the studio – and ignoring her mother’s attempts to get her to go home. Ellie is at the bottom of the rung at the studio – her tasks quite menial – she attempts to win the friendship of colleagues Denis and Bertie and when a new girl Nancy starts the two become firm friends.

Although she doesn’t see Quintin again for months – Ellie unknowingly spends time in a world not so far from Quintin. Nancy introduces Ellie to her uncle. Tom Claypole an old roué – who is also related to Quintin. Tom loves to surround himself with young girls, the doves of the title (nothing inappropriate occurs, Tom’s a gentleman). Ellie and Nancy spend several delightful weekends at Clopals – Tom’s country home. Nancy wants to put Tom’s mistress Maxine’s nose out of joint – and the two enjoy dancing attendance on the old man – who is a generous host. There is a wonderful exchange between Nancy and Tom about equal pay for men and women – an argument that rumbles on still.

“Recently she had spoken to Daze, the chief of staff, and had been told that there was one wage scale for men and another for women.
Tom nodded his approval: ‘Men need more money.’
‘They don’t need more’ said Nancy crossly, ‘they just get more, that’s all. Prices aren’t reduced for me because I’m a woman. You bet they’re not.’
‘Surely my dear girl, you’ve discovered by now that you’re living in a man’s world. You must try to gain things by your charms. We men are delighted to reward you, but we won’t disarm ourselves in your favour, Why should we? Eh?”

As the months pass, Quintin is never too far from Ellie’s thoughts – though the image of him fades a little – and she stops seeing him everywhere she goes. When they do meet again, he is no longer quite the romantic figure he was. Ellie has had to learn how to live in London on little money – and with few friends – she loses her job and is terrified to be in debt to her landlady. Ellie’s determination to remain independent sees her through – and by the time the novel ends she is a stronger, wiser young woman – who has found a new happiness for herself.

The Doves of Venus is a brilliant novel – which has reminded me I should get back to the Pringles and read The Levant Trilogy – having finished my re-read of The Balkan trilogy some months ago.

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One of the best things about social media is how it allows us to share our enthusiasms and discover new ones.

Over on Twitter just lately I have been very much enjoying the #NeglectedLadyNovelists tweets from writer Judith Kinghorn – and the conversations resulting from them. Now I do like a good bit of Twitter banter.

I found the World cup of #NeglectedladyNovelists particularly good fun. Several rounds and a semi-final have come and gone – with Twitter folk having to vote for who they consider the most neglected of the lady novelists in each round. Now, I have always taken my democratic responsibilities very seriously – and so I naturally thought very carefully over my choices. For women writers of a certain period – whether neglected or not – are very much my thing. It was really, really hard – and sparked a bit of debate – for instance in group 1 we had Elizabeth Taylor pitted against Anita Brookner, Jean Rhys and Rosamond Lehmann, while in group 3 the choice was between Sylvia Townsend Warner, Flora Mayor, Storm Jameson and EM Delafield, to me it seemed quite impossible to choose. In each group there were at least two writers I wanted to vote for. In all seriousness I want all these writers to enjoy a resurgence in popularity, that is why I love Persephone books and the VMC publications of the 1980 and 90s so much.

I began to wonder how people were voting – surely if we were looking for those women writers who have become truly neglected then I would have expected the likes of Flora Mayor, EH Young or May Sinclair to have made it through to the final. May Sinclair made it to the semi-finals but neither of the other two did terribly well. It’s hardly surprising that people ended up voting for writers they loved most – and I was guilty of this myself. I couldn’t help but vote for Sylvia Townsend Warner and Rosamond Lehmann as I love them so much. I do, also consider them to be rather neglected, however in truth some of their novels are still in print. Virago still publish three or four Rosamond Lehmann titles – and Selina Hastings’ biography of her is also available. VMC print on demand editions of some Sylvia Townsend Warner novels are available – as well as some NYRB editions (though why they felt it necessary to change the title of Mr Fortune’s Maggot is a mystery) – so are these writers truly neglected? Knowing all this I cast my votes – perhaps wrongly. In truth it is perhaps those writers who work is only to be found on second hand book sites, and on the shelves of (very good) second hand bookshops that are truly neglected – so in some rounds I voted with my heart and not my head. I do feel a little guilty – but at least it has got us all talking about these wonderful women writers, and that can’t be a bad thing. I didn’t vote for Elizabeth Taylor despite my great love of her writing because I can’t honestly say she is as neglected as she once was – that is definitely a good thing. How many of these writers’ works can be found in high street bookshops though is another matter – easily bought from a certain online seller perhaps – but how many times do readers get a chance to idly pick up Sylvia Townsend Warner or Rosamond Lehmann in their local branch of Waterstones I wonder?

When I start thinking about the list of #Neglectedladynovelists I would compile – it begins to get very long. Two writers I have been enjoying during this past week would definitely be on the list; Pamela Frankau and Pamela Hansford Johnson, both very good writers and excellent storytellers.

Many of the other novelists considered under that hashtag however – are exceptionally good writers, women who really did have something to say – they were not merely the tellers of good stories – although they did that too. When I consider the likes of Rebecca West, Olivia Manning, Antonia White and Winifred Holtby and others I am reminded what amazing, varied lives, they all lived. They each had so much to tell us – worlds to show us, so much to say – of course I want more people to read them.

I have wondered before how it is that some writers fall out of favour – while others endure – fashion and tastes change I suppose, and new writers come along. It is sad how many wonderful writers get forgotten during that process – when it comes to books I might sometimes be swayed by a pretty new edition, but I don’t much care about fashions. It is probably unrealistic to expect lots of these writers to be re-issued in shiny new editions – the cost for a publishing company would I suspect be prohibitive.

Still no reason why we who love these #NeglectedLadyNovelists shouldn’t continue to scour the bookshelves of second hand bookshops and celebrate our finds on our favourite social media sites. That way these wonderful voices will still be heard – at least by some of us.

Should you still want to get involved in the chat – the final of the world cup of #NeglectedLadyNovelists is at the end of the week. Make sure you are following @Judithkinghorn if you don’t want to miss it.

The original list has now been whittled down to Sylvia Townsend Warner and Jean Rhys – both truly wonderful writers – but I wonder if you can guess where my vote will be going? If neither of them take your fancy (and why wouldn’t they) who would be your choice of most NeglectedLadyNovelist?

(Incidentally, Sylvia Townsend Warner will be the Libraything Virago Group’s author of the month in December – and I am going to be re-reading Lolly Willowes as I have persuaded my very small book group to read it in December.)

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friends and heroes

It is always particularly difficult to review books which are part of a series – Friends and Heroes is the third book of The Balkan Trilogy – which is continued in The Levant Trilogy. The two trilogies make up The Fortunes of War series which Olivia Manning published between 1960 and 1978.

Following on from the events in the previous novel, Harriet Pringle is newly arrived in Athens, her husband Guy has stayed behind in Bucharest. Rumania – where the Pringles have been living since their marriage at the start of the war is under German occupation, and most of the ex-pat community have left or are in the process of leaving. Harriet is in a fever of anticipation waiting for Guy to arrive in Athens. Yakimov, and his sable lined greatcoat is already in Athens, and despite previously having disliked him Harriet has become much fonder of him, and it is Yakimov who first brings Harriet news of Guy.

Guy arrives in Athens much to Harriet’s relief – who is eager for them to visit the Parthenon together – but in typical Guy fashion he wants to immediately find himself something to do. Always rushing about somewhere – although not always where Harriet wants to rush off to – Guy can’t easily sit still.

“At breakfast, on his first morning in Athens, Guy said: I must see the Director and get myself a job. Have you discovered anything about him?’
‘Only that he is called Gracey. Yakimov doesn’t know him and I was too worried to think of anything like that.’
‘We’ll go to the Organization,’ Guy said, ‘We’ll report our arrival and ask for an interview with Gracey.’
‘Yes, but not this morning, our first morning here. I thought we could go and see the Parthenon.’
‘The Parthenon!’ Guy was astonished by the suggestion but realizing that the excursion was important to her, he promised: ‘We will go, but not today. For one thing, there wouldn’t be time.’
‘I thought of it as a celebration of your arrival. I wanted it to be the first thing we did together.’ Guy had to laugh, ‘Surely there’s no hurry? The Parthenon’s been there for two thousand years and it’ll be there tomorrow. It may even be there next week?”

Guy is an academic employed what is always referred to as the organization – which I can’t help but think makes it sound rather more shadowy than it is. In Bucharest Guy held a prominent position in the English department of the University. Now Guy fully expects to be able to walk into a similar position in Athens, the organisation is responsible for the staffing here too – but Guy was never meant to end up in Athens – his original posting was going to be Egypt – and two former colleagues Toby Lush and Dubedat, who Guy had upset in Bucharest are now happily installed in Athens. They are working for director Gracey, who is off sick, and Toby and Dubedat are rather enjoying having the chance to do things that Guy wouldn’t allow them to when they worked for him. Harriet is furious that Guy isn’t being given the opportunity he should, Guy is more philosophical about it.

Though the peace that Guy and Harriet think they have found in Athens is destined to be short lived, and soon the war which is raging across Europe creeps ever close to their door. They live at first in cramped conditions in an hotel, but Harriet is keen they should have their own home. They move, in time to a small, isolated house which comes with an elderly servant who speaks no English.

With possible invasion a daily concern, the city rife with rumour – it is remarkable how much jealous professional manoeuvring goes on between Guy, Toby, Dubedat, Gracey, Professor Pinkrose and their newer acquaintances Ben Phipps and Archie Callard. As Guy and Harriet get to know the ex-pat community of Athens they realise that Gracey – who certainly has his critics – is mostly concerned with getting himself on the next boat in the role of an invalid. Once Gracey has left – the directorship will be up for grabs and then Guy could very well get his chance. One of the key figures in the ex-pat community is Mrs Brett – who has a particular loathing of Gracey – she seems keen to help Guy.

Guy is soon occupied again, and shows us he has learned nothing. Again, just as he did in Bucharest, Guy throws himself into another project. In Bucharest is was a production of Troilus and Cressida – in Athens it is a revue – the result of course is the same. Guy spending hours and hours away from his young wife, wrapped up completely in preparing the revue – Harriet feels his absence keenly. When Harriet hears a British film is to be shown to members of the ex-pat community – an event which warrants a party, dressing up, food etc – she is childishly excited, having looked forward to it, in full expectation of attending it with Guy, she is devastated when Guy says he is too busy to attend. She refuses to go alone, but her disappointment in a missed treat is palpable. There are signs here that the Pringle marriage could be in trouble, Harriet loves Guy, but they have their differences and Guy seems to think Harriet has less need of his presence than she actually does, and seems happier when doing his own thing. The war is getting closer to Athens, Italy invades, although the Greeks do a good job of pushing them back, there is an unsettled tension in the air, a feeling among some that they are practically sitting ducks. Charles Warden is a handsome young officer, temporarily stationed in Athens before being sent elsewhere – he and Harriet are obviously attracted to one another, and spend a little time together, before Guy even senses there might be a danger here.

“With faces lit by the café lights people could recognize one another, and Guy and Harriet, stopping or being stopped by acquaintances were told that the Thermopylae defence was breaking. The Germans could arrive that very night. What was there to stop them? And the retreat went on. The main roads were noisy with the returning lorries. At times, passing through patches of light, they could be seen muddy as farm carts, with the men heaped together, asleep or staring listlessly at the crowds.”

Danger of another kind though is looming, and despite the best efforts of the Greek forces, the time comes when the Pringles and all their friends must try to get out of Athens. The problem, however seems to be a lack of ships.

As ever, Olivia Manning portrays a capital in the midst of war to perfection, her ability to capture the different personalities of the ex-pat community – thrown together during extraordinary times is especially superb.

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school for love

It does seem as if I am on something of an Olivia Manning binge at the moment – this being the third of her novels I have read in something like six weeks. Although I realise I am reviewing this at least a day late for the event itself – I chose to read School for Love for Simon and Karen’s #1951 club. Simon and Jacqui have already reviewed it – it’s a book which has been a big hit with them.

School for Love is a beautifully written coming of age novel, set in Jerusalem towards the end of World War Two. Felix Latimer is a boy (we’re never told exactly how old; I assumed fifteen or sixteen, although there were moments he seemed younger) who has recently lost his mother. Told in the third person, we see everything through Felix’s eyes. While hostilities continue, he is unable to return to England – where he’s not lived for several years anyway. Felix had been living in Baghdad with his mother, about a year before his mother’s death, Felix’s father was killed by Iraqi forces. Now Felix is alone, his loneliness and total bewilderment is touchingly portrayed by Olivia Manning, a boy who has had the rug pulled out from under him. As a last resort, it was arranged by friends of his mother’s, for Felix to go to a distant relative in Jerusalem. Miss Bohun an older adopted sister of his father and a woman his mother had never wanted Felix to visit. As Felix arrives in Jerusalem, there is snow on the ground, though he is assured it won’t last too long.

Miss Bohun turns out to be quite a character – one beautifully rendered by Manning, complex and endlessly infuriating, she feels like a character who must have been drawn from life. Felix arrives at the house Miss Bohun runs as a kind of inferior boarding house – friendless, grief-stricken, not knowing what to expect.

“Miss Bohun was so unlike his mother, and, for some reason, he felt sure that when she had raised her eyes and looked at him she had somehow expressed disappointment in him. Perhaps she had imagined he would be older, or younger, or better-looking, or a more unusual sort of boy. Anyway she retired now into her own thoughts, eyes hidden, and he gave his attention to the meal of grey, gritty bread and tasteless tea. Then he heard a slight movement beside him. He looked down and cried out involuntarily in delight. As the bars of the fire had grown red, a Siamese cat had come out towards the warmth. It looked a sad little cat, as lost as himself, and his heart seemed to swell with relief at the sight of something – something he could love.”

Miss Bohun is hardly a warm, welcoming presence – she is in constant conflict with Frau Leszno and her son Nikki who work and live in the house. Like the rest of the house, Felix’s room is cold and unwelcoming, while Miss Bohun keeps an empty front bedroom, spick and span for some mysterious purpose, while the old Mr Jewel lives in the attic. Later, when Mr Jewel has been removed to the hospital – a new tenant; Mrs Ellis is installed and Miss Bohun moves up to the attic. Mrs Ellis is a very young widow, Felix can’t help but be enchanted by her.
Living in her house, eating her food and relying upon her for the only home he has, Felix is often uncomfortable by Miss Bohun’s frankly monstrous behaviour. Compelled by his reliance on her to legitimise her treatment of others, Felix clearly needs to see it as completely normal. Miss Bohun is miserly, desperately deluded, she suspects everyone of cheating her, and sees herself as a long-suffering paragon of virtue. Having bullishly taken over the house from its previous occupant; Frau Leszno, the Polish refugee, has been reduced to the role of a servant living in tiny, servants’ rooms. Miss Bohun, appears to honestly believe, that she has done the poor woman a great service.

Miss Bohun keeps fierce hold of the household purse strings, making savings where she can (substituting deep fried aubergine for fish!) Always calculating ways of making her money stretch, she manages to prise almost all Felix’s monthly allowance out of him, refuses to buy from the black market and successfully plots to get Mr Jewel out of the attic so she can have it herself.

Much of Miss Bohun’s time is taken up with a religious group known as the ‘ever-readies’ – whose exact purpose she seems shy of explaining to Felix at first – yet in time we discover it is all to do with the second-coming.

In the midst of the chilly atmosphere of Miss Bohun’s house, Felix finds companionship in Mrs Ellis, who couldn’t be more different from Miss Bohun, and who opens his eyes to his relative’s true character. With her scarlet, pointed finger-nails, she frequents the cafes and bars in the city – and in following her around – Felix finds himself entering a world he doesn’t entirely understand. He is a child still, in so many ways, clinging to the memory of the life he led with his gentle mother.

“A bleak atmosphere, like that which preceded the going of Mr Jewel, haunted the meals, but now it was not Miss Bohun who controlled the discomfort. Mrs Ellis had shut herself off in a silence that seemed to put Miss Bohun completely at a loss, Once or twice, perhaps attempting to test the surface of this frost, Miss Bohun had repeated tentatively and unconvincingly, remarks like: ‘Well, here we are! Just a happy family!’ or ‘One day, Mrs Ellis, we really must have that cosy chat in my room,’ but Mrs Ellis made no sign that she had heard. When she did not come in to meals, Miss Bohun would sometimes say to Felix, meaningfully: ‘Mrs Ellis seems to be sulking about something. So childish of her. It spoils everything, we could be such a happy family.’”

Felix continues to visit old Mr Jewel in the hospital – though stops short of telling him about the attic. Taking lessons from Mr Posthorn, Felix’s life is spent entirely with adults. There are few pleasures – he loves to go to the cinema, but the money he gives Miss Bohun leaves him with practically no pocket money. Soon however, the war will end – and a passage arranged for him back to England.

This is a deeply touching novel, the portrayal of Felix, growing up yet not quite grown up enough – coming to terms with his loss, and all at sea with the world around him, is breath-taking. Most impressive, however, is the extraordinary depth of character. Olivia Manning’s portrait of Miss Bohun is brilliantly unforgettable.

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In The Spoilt City; Olivia Manning continues the story of Guy and Harriet Pringle, Yakimov, Inchcape, Clarence Lawson and co that she began in The Great Fortune. Picking up where the previous novel ended, the city of Bucharest is increasingly a city beset with uncertainty – the so called phoney war is over, and German invasion seems a greater possibility than ever. Olivia Manning writes beautifully about the city of Bucharest in the summer of 1940.

“As the sunset threw its reds and purples across the sky, the waiting crowds grew restless. Time was passing. Those in the square had been mostly men of the working classes. With evening, women appeared, their light clothes glimmering in the twilight. The first breath of cool air brought the prosperous Rumanians out for the promenade. Though they walked from habit into the Calea Victoriei and the Boulevard Carol, they were drawn back again and again to the square, the centre of tension.
When Guy returned from the University, Harriet said they must eat quickly, then go out and discover what was happening.”

The position of English people appears to be more precarious than it was – and as some people begin to leave the Pringles stay on. Guy is determined to hang on to his job in the English department at the university – insisting he must wait to be reassigned and can’t just abandon his post. Harriet is more concerned about their position, and watches Guy holding on to a job that is daily becoming less and less required, with frustration. Guy’s students are dwindling in number and Harriet isn’t convinced, that the summer school, Guy is planning is a very good idea.

Yakimov – the glory of his appearance in Guy’s production of Troilus and Cressida fading – is still installed in the Pringle’s flat – much to Harriet’s irritation. As time goes on Yakimov is becoming more and more shameless in his constant pursuit of good food, money and something like a return to his former glory days. He thinks nothing of rummaging through Guy’s desk and removing something he thinks will make a good story and get him a couple of drinks bought in the English bar.

“In the small central drawer of the writing-desk he came on a sealed envelope marked ‘Top secret.’ This immediately excited him. He was not the only one inclined to suspect that Guy’s occupation in Bucharest was not as innocent as it seemed. Affable, sympathetic, easy to know, Guy would, in Yakimov’s opinion, make an ideal agent.
The flap of the envelope, imperfectly sealed, opened as he touched it. Inside was a diagram of a section through – what? A pipe or well. Having heard so much talk of sabotage in the English Bar, he guessed it was an oil well. A blockage in the pipe was marked ‘detonator’. Here was a simple exposition of how and where the amateur saboteur should place his gelignite.”

Yakimov is also ridiculously out of touch and naïve – asked to run a simple errand to Cluj – Yakimov decides to drop in on his old friend Fredi von Flugel – now a high-ranking Nazi – hoping only to benefit from his generous hospitality – thinking nothing will have changed between them.

Rumania has allied itself strongly with Germany in a bid to prevent German aggression – sacrificing some Transylvanian territory in the process. Soon there are Germans all over Bucharest – propping up the English bar and swaggering through the streets. Harriet’s friend Bella – married to a Rumanian, who speaks good German, claims to feel great comfort in the presence of their new allies – a stabilising community in a city rife with rumour and dissension. Harriet suspects her attitude to be one brought about by fear – a necessary bit of self-preservation in frightening times. Revolution is in the air, there are demonstrations against the king – who had been reigning as a dictator, and is finally forced to abdicate.

balkan trilogyIn the Great Fortune, Drucker a wealthy, Jewish banker was arrested and imprisoned, his son Sasha a student of Guy’s disappeared with his stepmother and the city has been rife with rumour about his whereabouts ever since. One day Guy and Harriet run into Sasha – though he looks nothing like he did. Guy says Sasha can stay with them, though with Yakimov still in the spare room, the only place he can sleep in some small servants’ rooms on the roof. Sasha manages to charm the Pringles servant Despina who delights in feeding him and keeping him company in the kitchen when the flat is empty – but Harriet is worried about what might happen if Yakimov becomes aware of Sasha’s presence – Yakimov is horribly indiscreet.

Things are becoming more frightening, there is news of people being attacked in the street – and more and more people are wondering about leaving. The Pringles realise that Yakimov has simply taken himself off – and they need to find a way of getting Sasha out of Rumania alive. In the midst of all this uncertainty and chaos Inchcape decides to invite Professor Pinkrose to Bucharest to give a lecture – inexplicably given the turmoil across Europe, Pinkrose travelled thousands of miles, expecting a rather more rapturous reception than that which he receives. Inchcape is attacked, and Guy persuades Harriet (finally thinking of her before everyone else) to leave for Athens and wait for him to join her.

In this second book of the Balkan trilogy Olivia Manning again brings to life the atmosphere of a city at war. It was a world she well knew; having lived there with her husband, a lecturer – arriving in Bucharest the very day that Britain declared war on Germany. There is much more drama and action in this novel, it is enormously compelling, and I can’t wait for Friends and Heroes; volume three – after which I shall no doubt immediately go on to The Levant Trilogy.

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(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.

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