Monday, December 3, 2007

Arriving in Bucharest on the Eve of War (Books - The Balkan Trilogy by Olivian Manning)



I have begun The Balkan Trilogy by Olivia Manning, my second book for the Outmoded Authors Challenge hosted by Imani. It and The Levant Trilogy are a fictionalization of Manning's life with her husband in which, as a newly married couple, they moved to Bucharest on the eve of World War II, staying there until the Germans invade Greece and then moved to the middle east. The six books are collectively titled Fortunes of War and were the basis for the Masterpiece Theater series of the same name.

Manning's ability to present the sweep of a scene in which many small dramas seem to be happening at once, and to people those dramas with detailed characters, is remarkable.

During the afternoon the receptionist rang through three times to say a lady wished to speak to Domnul Pringle. "The same lady?" Harriet asked the third time. Yes, the same lady.

When, at sunset, Guy's figure appeared in the square, Harriet's forbearance was not what it had been. She watched him emerge out of a blur or dust - a large, untidy man clutching an armful of books and papers with the awkwardness of a bear. A piece of pediment crashed before him. He paused, blinded; peered about through his glasses and started off in the wrong direction. She felt an appalled compassion for him. Where he had been a moment before, a wall came down. Its fall revealed the interior of a vast white room, fretted with baroque scrolls and set with a mirror that glimmered like a lake. Nearby could be seen the red wall paper of a cafe - the famous Cafe Napoleon that had been the meeting-place of artists, musicians, poets and other natural non-conformists. Guy had said that all this destruction had been planned simply to wipe out this one centre of revolt.

Entering the hotel room, Guy threw down his armful of papers. With a sasualness that denoted drama, he announced: "The Russians have occupied Vilna." He set about changing his shirt.
"You mean, they're inside Poland?" ask Harriet.
"A good move." Her tone had set him on the defensive. "A move to protect Poland."
"A good excuse, anyway."
The telephone rang and Guy jumped at it before anything more could be said: "Inchcape!" he called delightedly and without consulting Harriet added: "We're dining up the Chaussee. Pavel's. Come and join us." He put down the receiver and, pulling a shirt over his head without undoing the buttons, he said: "You'll like Inchcape. All you need do with him is encourage him to talk."
Another character has also been introduced, Yakimov. I don't really know who he is yet. He could be nobility fallen on hard times or a swindler.

He held a suitcase in each hand and his crocodile dressing-case hoisted up under his right elbow. His sable-lined greatcoat hung from his left arm. The porters - there were about a dozen to each passenger - followed him aghast. He might have been mobbed had not his vague, gentle gaze, ranging over their heads from his unusual height, given the impression he was out of reach.

When the dressing-case slipped, one of the porters snatched at it. Yakimov dodged him with a skilled sidestep, then wandered on, his shoulders drooping, his coat sweeping the dirty platform, his check suit and yellow cardigan sagging and fluttering as though carried on a coat-hanger. His shirt, changed on the train, was clean. His other clothes were not. His tie, bought for him years before by Dollie, who had admired its 'angelic blue', was now so blotched a be-yellowed by spilt food, it was no colour at all. His head, with its thin, pale hair, its nose that, long and delicate, widened suddenly at the nostrils, its thin clown's mouth, was remote and mild as the head of a giraffe. On top of it he wore a shabby check cap. His whole sad aspect was made sadder by the fact that he had not eaten for forty-eight hours.

A description like that and at once I want to know more. We are introduced to the Pringles and Yakimov on a train heading for Bucharest. In the first pages, a German refuge on that train loses his papers. At once the atmosphere of burgeoning war gripped me, a sort of hysterical tension. I've only read a few chapters but am already completely drawn-in to the world of Manning's novel.

4 comments:

Danielle said...

I have this book, and picked it up and started reading--it looks so good, but I have to try and catch up on my other books first. Though this is the second post I've seen and the temptation is getting stronger!

Ted said...

Danielle - I can't promise that I won't add to that temptation if it keeps on as it has started. It's only my finals that may save you.

BooksPlease said...

As you know I've read this and I agree with you about the detail and the way Manning succeeds in portraying the hysteria and tension of life at that time - a wonderful book. I'm about to start the second in the trilogy - The Spoilt City. I just hope it's as good.

d. chedwick bryant said...

I read the Balkan Trilogy a long time ago--it was after the mini series with Emma Thompson was shown on PBS--the books were in every bookstore window suddenly. I really enjoyed them.