Loads of Learned Lumber

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Olivia Manning, _The Great Fortune_

This is the first volume of "The Balkan Trilogy," a paperback of which I picked up remaindered for $1.99 or so back in the late 1980s or early 1990s, shortly after it had been turned into a Masterpiece Theatre production starring Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson (ditto its sequel, "The Levant Trilogy"). Somehow twenty years slipped away without my so much as opening it, even though it had the signal honor of being reprinted as a New York Review of Books Classic in 2010. Then, somewhat out of the blue, it was tapped by the book club my spouse and I belong to...

... and it turns out to be excellent. All six novels center upon Guy and Harriet Pringle, a recently married young English couple, who owing to Guy's teaching position at a university in Bucharest are in Romania in the fall of 1939 when Germany and the Soviet Union descend on Poland. The Great Fortune takes us up to the fall of Paris in 1940. The ambiguities and uncertainties of the "phoney war" period find their analogue in the the tentative, what-in-the-world-is-he-thinking, what-have-I-done-now feints and parries of the Pringles' brand new marriage. As the marriage gets serious when Harriet has to deal with a strange rebuff from Guy (he casts her for, then dismisses her from, an amateur Shakespeare production he is organizing) and at the same time gets a sudden offer to run off with one of his colleagues, so the war, after a winter's hibernation, gets serious as the Germans invade Belgium.

The writing is strong, brisk, intelligent, the characters sharply drawn (especially the shamelessly cadging Russian aristocratic exile, Prince Yakimov), the sense of history looming over one's shoulder convincing. Not surprising that Anthony Burgess called this "the finest fictional record of the war produced by a British writer." It certainly measures up to the the other British WW II novels I've read (Anthony Powell, Evelyn Waugh).

It's a stroke of genius, for instance, that the Shakespeare play Guy Pringle is mounting in Bucharest is Troilus and Cressida -- a systematic dismantling of the romance of war. On virtually every page is a deft descriptive touch; from a balcony on a rainy afternoon, Harriet looks out on the crowd watching the funeral procession of an assassinated prime minister: "As the band drew near, the umbrellas, quilted below, moved towards the kerb: the police, wearing mourning bands on their arms, rushed wildly along the gutter pushing them back again." It had never occurred to me that a crowd of umbrellas, seen from above, would resemble a quilt; but as soon as I read that, the whole scene popped into my imagination.

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