Book Corner – March 2019 (4)

The Spoilt City – Olivia Manning

The second of what is known as Manning’s Balkan Trilogy, The Spoilt City, published in 1962, continues the tale of Guy and Harriet Pringle. The storm clouds of war are gathering around Bucharest, rumours abound that the Germans are going to occupy the country, or perhaps the Russians, and there are fascist marches, uprisings and, eventually, a coup.

Bizarrely, but true to form, the Brits, marooned in the city, go about their business, trying to go about their daily business. Part of what they perceive to be the role of the British is to preserve the cultural life of the city. So a distinguished academic, Lord Pinkrose, is flown in on the pretext of delivering a few keynote lectures on English poetry, just what the locals need. And Guy, fresh from his triumph of staging Troilus and Cressida, immerses himself in running a summer school for the dwindling band of students who are able or minded to continue their studies.

Although the book is structured as a stand-alone story, many of the characters we came across in the first book, The Great Fortune, populate its pages. The comic sponger, Prince Yakimov, is now living with them and a new waif and stray, a potentially dangerous one at that, Sasha, a deserter and a Jew to boot, has joined the Pringles, hiding away in the attic. Inevitably Manning has to allude to events that featured in the first book to allow new readers to catch up, a mildly irritating feature for those readers to whom the first book is still fresh in the memory but an understandable ploy, nonetheless.

The newly wed Harriet is becoming more and more irritated by her husband, Guy. Universally admired, a good egg, she sees that his willingness to immerse himself into projects that seem futile is his way of coming to terms with the gravity of the situation in which he finds himself and into which he has brought his young bride. But she also detects that Guy sees her as part of himself rather than a separate individual. Gut automatically assumes that what he wants, she wants, a tension that comes to the fore in the second half of the book, when je stubbornly refuses to leave Bucharest when all the other ex-pats are fleeing.

Eventually, after the assualt on his boss, Inchcape, the discovery of Sasha and the raid on their flat, Guy reluctantly agrees that Harriet should leave Bucharest for Athens. The book ends with the assumption that Guy will join her, as soon as he is able.

In real life, Manning arrived as a newly-wed in Bucharest at the outbreak of the war and it is tempting, and probably correct, to assume that her experiences informed her vivid portrayal of a city whose confidence and resistance is crumbling, apprehensive of its future. The characterisation is vivid and the use of small, often comic, sometimes chilling, vignettes to illustrate the mundanities, indignities and frustrations of everyday life and the perils facing an eclectic and eccentric group of Brits thrown together is well judged.

It is a fast read and there is more action and drama contained within its pages than in the first volume. If I had a criticism, it is that Manning’s narrative didn’t involve and immerse me as I thought it might. I felt as though I was a bystander, watching the action from the sidelines.

Still, on to the third!

Book Corner – March 2019 (2)

The Great Fortune – Olivia Manning

This is the first of what became Manning’s Balkan Trilogy and was published in 1960. I have not read Manning before and so was unsure what to expect, save that greater critics than I rate the series.

In truth, I found it an undemanding read, ideal for perusing whilst lying on a sun lounger, and when I came to think about it after finishing it, it seemed to me to be much ado about nothing. There is little in the way of action or, indeed plot, which is a tad surprising, given the book’s premise.

We are in Bucharest in 1939 at the time when Britain declares war on Germany. Rumania is ostensibly neutral but even during this first part of the trilogy the vultures are circling the carcass. The principal characters are two Brits, Guy and Harriet Pringle. Guy has lived in Bucharest for a while and has a teaching post at the University. He returns bringing his new bride, Harriet, whom he has married after a whirlwind romance.

There is little in the way of back story so we really don’t know much about the nature of their romance or why Harriet was persuaded to live in a country far away from Blighty with a man she barely knew. What we should know, though, is that the book is semi-autobiographical, Manning arriving in Bucharest as a newly-wed just as war was declared.

The Pringle’s world is principally that of British ex-pats, fellow academics, bureaucrats and members of the press. Their interaction with Rumanians is marginal and Manning’s portrayal of the locals is not flattering. They are loafers, beggars or domestic menials. The ex-pats’ diurnal routine is work, drinks in the English Bar at one of the city’s hotels, gossiping and conducting their own petty feuds. There are some interlopers, none more so than the inveterate sponge Prince Yakimov, who provides a comedic element to the tale.

What does come through in this book is Manning’s astute sense of time and place. It is an atmospheric novel. It would be easy for her to ramp up the tension and drama of a group of beleaguered Brits in a foreign and potentially inimical country but her approach is one that emphasises the mundanity of their life. The war is a mild irritant that barely gets in the way of the lead characters’ lives but you sense through her narrative that it is the reality of their situation is creeping ever nearer.

It is a cliché that the Brits holed up in a corner show a certain stiffness about the upper lip. Guy with an astonishing insouciance for the situation decides to produce a play, Troilus and Cressida, as that is what would be expected of the Brits in such circs. The second half of the book is dominated by the play, Harriet finding herself excluded from proceedings and left to her own devices and to ponder the state of her relationship with Guy. The timing of the play which deals with the fall of Troy coincides with the German invasion of France, the capture of Paris and Britain’s bleakest moments.

There is a temptation to compare the book with Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time but this should be resisted. The same characters crop in different circumstances but Manning’s book lacks the satirical bite of Powell.

It was an entertaining enough read and I found enough in it to entice me to read the second part, The Spoilt City, more of which anon.