The Great Fortune, by Olivia Manning
I’m a latecomer to Olivia Manning. She’s one of those authors who’ve often been recommended to me but who seemed to blur in with a lot of other solidly talented mid-twentieth Century writers it doesn’t seem essential to return to.
Recently I was reading some spy fiction reviews over at Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau and there was an aside “If you haven’t read The Balkan Trilogy yet, stop reading this post and do so immediately.” I’d just abandoned a book I hadn’t taken to so I thought, why not?
The answer incidentally is that The Great Fortune is the first in a six part novel sequence. I’ve now committed myself to the whole series. That’s the danger of impulses…
The book opens with newlyweds Guy and Harriet Pringle travelling by train to Bucharest, where Guy is a teacher. It’s 1939, borders are closing and Europe is awash with refugees, spies and chancers.
The first sign of what’s to come arrives in the form of a darkly comic episode where the waiter at dinner insists on payment in full before serving the coffee, then immediately whips away the cups. They’ve arrived at the border and the dining car belongs to the Yugoslav railways. As the waiter explains, at times like these no nation would let its rolling stock cross a frontier.
Meanwhile, Harriet sees a tall, thin man being harried on to the train by officials. She doesn’t quite realise, but it’s evident he’s being expelled from Yugoslavia. He’s Prince Yakimov, a White Russian but British citizen and Harriet will come to know him well.
Harriet is the main narrator here, which for me worked well as like the reader she’s new to Bucharest. Initially at least she speaks no Romanian and knows nothing of the culture or customs. She’s reliant on Guy to show her the ropes.
Prince Yakimov is the other viewpoint character (though he has far fewer chapters than Harriet). He’s an adventurer, down on his luck and not as young as he used to be. He relies on charm and front but it’s hard to be charming when you’re hungry and it’s hard to act rich when your clothes are threadbare.
That’s three characters, but the book has a dizzying number of others. Manning conjures up an entire English expat community and while I could largely keep track of who was who there are a lot of them and some of them naturally stand out more than others. There’s then the international press corps, which Yakimov briefly falls in with, and a host of Central European and Russian émigrés. The whole book comes in at under 300 pages but it’s packed with people.
The reader of course knows what the characters don’t. War is coming. Over the course of the novel Poland falls, the Romanian prime minister is assassinated, the Russians invade Finland, the German blitzkrieg starts and advances and the British are driven out of Europe. All of this is offscreen, most of it announced in the windows of the increasingly ebullient German propaganda bureau (on the opposite side of the street from the British one).
A WEEK AFTER the German invasion of Denmark and Norway, Inchcape displayed in the British Propaganda Bureau window a map of the Scandinavian countries with the loss of the German destroyers at Narvik restrainedly marked in blue. In time came the landings of British troops at Namsos and Andalsnes. In the window opposite, the red arrows of Germany thrust the Norwegians back and back. One day the Allies announced an advance, another the Germans announced an Allied retreat. Merely a strategic retreat, said the British News Service. The Germans, advancing up the Gudbranstal, claimed they had joined up with their Trondheim forces. The British admitted a short withdrawal.
The focus here then isn’t on great events themselves, but on lives caught in their backwash. Harriet, a spikily intelligent young woman, soon finds that married life isn’t all she’d hoped. Guy is a good man, but a bad husband and he spends all his energy befriending strangers, going out to dinners and inviting hard-up acquaintances to stay at their home. Guy is a committed communist, full of love for the poor, the dispossessed and the masses but not quite so good when it comes to making time for his own wife. He even expects her to make friends with his ex, a young Romanian named Sophie, distinctly resentful of being replaced.
Guy, as they walked, had been lecturing her on her unwisdom in not making better use of Sophie, who would, he knew, be only too delighted to help Harriet, if only Harriet would ask for help. Sophie had been very helpful to him when he was alone here. He was sure she was, fundamentally, a good-hearted girl. She had had a difficult life. All she needed was a little flattery, a little management. …
Yakimov (“A problem that need not be faced straight away was no problem to him.”) meanwhile finds the world’s kindness diminishing. Fewer people are willing, fewer able, to lend him a bit of spare cash. His old trick of offering to buy a round then pretending he’s forgotten his wallet doesn’t work anymore. Being amusing doesn’t cut it. These are unsympathetic times. For a while he still manages to get by:
The day before, when he handed his British passport to the clerk, he had been asked if he wished to be awakened in the ‘English manner’ with a cup of tea. He had replied that he did not wish to be awakened at all but would like a half-bottle of Veuve Clicquot placed beside his bed each morning.
But like European civilisation, Yakimov will soon discover that his time is running out.
If you like Harriet, you’ll probably like the book. If not, probably not. The Great Fortune is very good at conjuring up a city on the verge of war. That feeling of small changes signalling something worse coming. That sense of options and time running out.
People went fearful to bed and rose to find everything much as they had left it. The rumours of yesterday were denied, but repeated the day after.
For all that, this is very much the portrait of a marriage. For the bulk of the book Harriet is more concerned with getting a share of Guy’s attention, fending off Sophie, managing the expectations of a male friend who took her tentative friendship as sign of something more, getting an apartment and developing her own circle independent of Guy. The war is offscreen. It impacts Harriet, but as the news impacts most of us.
Personally, I really enjoyed it. I thought the evocation of Romania and Bucharest excellent and atmospheric and I thought it was clever in the subtlety with which events accumulate and the situation slowly worsens. There’s a scene where the Pringles visit a local Jewish banking family, rich and established and solid and certain. It’s no surprise to the reader when the head of the family is arrested and the rest flee. What Manning shows is that however solid someone’s world may seem, at times of war it can all be undone in an instant.
They left the park by a side gate where a statue of a disgraced politician stood with its head hidden in a linen bag.
Most of all, I really liked Harriet as a character. Her intelligence, her scepticism and slightly biting wit, her quick adaptation to realising that the world isn’t as her sheltered upbringing led her to believe and her frequent (perhaps too frequent) realisations that in her arguments with Guy he wasn’t always the one in the wrong. I liked too her relationship with Guy, which felt flawed and messy and irritating but felt real too. I could see why she loved him, even if she might be better off if she didn’t. But then, her life would be much less interesting, so who can say?
All that and there’s a lovely sense of humour running through the book. There’s some marvellous set-pieces, mostly involving Prince Yakimov (“poor Yaki” as he tends to refer to himself) and some very nicely observed absurdities of the times:
The waiter brought tea and toast for Harriet, then, unasked, put on the table a plate of ball-shaped chocolate cakes pimpled over like naval mines. “Siegfrieds,” he announced. “Not our line,” said Dobson, imperturbably, in English. At once the waiter whipped away the plate, retreated a few steps, returned and put it down again. “Maginots,” he said, and went off well satisfied by Dobson’s amusement.
The humour, like the Pringle’s privileged lifestyle, can’t last. The reader knows, as increasingly they do, that the war will catch up with them. To borrow the title of another book, this is the Summer before the dark.
I had a feeling that Kaggsy of kaggsysbookishramblings would have read this, and in fact she’s read the entire first trilogy. Her review is here and interestingly she was much less taken than I was. The key difference seems to be our reactions to Harriet. I thought she was well drawn and interesting, Kaggsy found her to lack depth and found Guy intensely irritating (which is fair but I think intentional). The book sinks or flies according to how you find Harriet and if you don’t take to her then I can see why it might all seem “a triumph of style over substance”.
Anyway, Kaggsy’s review is great (particularly on the significance of the play staged by Guy in the final section of the book) and I can absolutely see where her criticisms come from. Even so, I’m looking forward to the next volume, particularly when having sneakily peeked at Kaggsy’s other reviews it seems she liked that one much more.