Tuesday, December 18, 2007

History Re-lived (The Great Fortune by Olivia Manning)

What was most impressive in The Great Fortune, the first of the three books in The Balkan Trilogy, is how Olivia Manning creates a story of suspense out of historical events to which we already know the ending. Set at the start of World War II as a newly wed English couple comes to Roumania, the story is -necessarily - the war. What will the Axis do? Will the allegiance with Russia last? Will they be able to return to England? Will the English protect Roumania as they had promised? Will the Nazi's invade France? We actually know the answers to these questions, but I care about the outcome because this story is really about the lives of a broad cast of warmly observed people and how their existence is affected by the world's events. My first post can be found here.

The story is related mostly from the perspective of Harriet Pringle, the young wife of a English lecturer at the University, and Prince Yakimov - of a Russian czarist father and an Irish mother. Harriet is new to Bucharest and her husband is the only person she knows there. She is naive and yet also tough. She is caught in the difficult role as a practical partner to a dreamer - her husband is a big softy who can never say no to helping an army deserter, a poor depressed orphan, or a drunken scrounging prince like Yakimov, who ends up living with the Pringles. Guy Pringle decides to direct a production of Troilus and Cressida at the university with the roles assumed by the broad cast of characters to whom Manning has introduced us. The production forms the unlikely but delightful climax to this first of three books in the trilogy.
what [was] is for - this expense of energy and creative spirit. To produce an amateur play that would fill the theatre for one afternoon and one evening and be forgotten in a week. She knew she could never give herself to such an ephemeral thing. If she had her way, she would seize on Guy and canalise his zeal to make a mark on eternity. But he was a man born to expend himself like a whirlwind - and, indeed, what could one do but love him?

The tumult of their domestic life is the foreground and the war the background and as a result, we follow a character walking down the boulevard who stops to look at the movement of troops on a map in the window of the German propaganda office with interest. What will happen next in the world happens to these people for whom we have come to care. Prince Yakimov has never worked a day in his life. He dances delicately between his role as a member of a royal family (long dead) and a master manipulator in a manner that works fiercely to maintain a facade of graciousness - even to himself:
He could also make a little pocket-money when he dined out with the Pringles. Guy, who over-tipped in a manner Yakimov thought rather ill-bred, always left a heap of small coincs on the table for the piccolo. Yakimov, insisting that Guy precede him from the table, would pocket all he could gather up as he passed.

Guy was absurdly careless with money. One noonday, when they were rehearsing alone, Yakomov saw him pull out with his handkerchief two thousand lei notes. Retrieving, and borrowing, these unseen, Yakov excused himself and went to Cina's where he sat on the terrace eating the aspragus of which he had been deprived and heard the orchestra play in the elegant chinois stand over which the Canary creeper was breaking into flower.

He is infuriating and Manning seems to have a delicious time devising his next plot to live one more day able to sleep till noon and have a hot bath. Both Guy and Harriet seem powerless to refuse him as he has no where else to go.

It's fascinating to observe the political and military progress of this well-known war through naive eyes. Manning has a talent for placing us back in that circumstance. Even though the events of the book are based on her life, it was written in the 1960s. The dissolving fortunes of a Jewish family who's wealth is tied up in German industry, the future of Bessarabia, fought over for centuries by the Russians and the Roumanian's, even the future of Paris become newly interesting amidst the domestic conflicts of the Pringles and the dissolved fortunes of a drunken hanger-on. I'm already 100 pages into the second book of this 900 page trilogy, The Spoilt City, but I've no doubt I'm going to finish it before Christmas. It moves swiftly and its cast of characters are well-known to me now. Which brings me to another more pressing question, I had really hoped to reach the meaningless goal of having read 50 books this year. When I complete this trilogy I'll be at 41. Think I can make it? Nine more books in about three weeks, it's going to be close.

Now I'm off to one of my two finals. The other is tomorrow. Wish me luck!


Jodie Robson said...

Have you seen the BBC series Fortunes of War, based on Manning's books? If not, I do recommend it - Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thomson turning in exquisite performances. And, although I think Manning's writing of Prince Yakimov is superb, Ronald Pickup was completely convincing as a man too innocently charming to be resisted.

Good luck!

Eva said...

Ohhh. I already wanted this trilogy, and now I'm lusting for it! Good luck with your finals. :)

Ted said...

GC - I haven't seen the series but I just love Emma Thompson and I've heard it's good so after I read it, I may get it from the library.

Eva - Thanks! One down, one more tomorrow.

Sheila O'Malley said...

You can do it! I'm 2 books short of 52 - one book per week. I started the 7000 page Rob Chernow biography of Alexander Hamilton the other day - and while I am loving it, I am putting it aside for now - because no WAY will I finish it by the new year.

Why do I care about such things?? I don't know but I do.

Ted said...

S - I'm glad to hear someone else is strategizing about reading shorter books in the last days of the year to make their count (ha-ha-ha)! Why you care about such things is why we're getting drinks tomorrow and why, whoever arrives 2nd will find the other one reading at the bar!

Sheila O'Malley said...

Ted - of course!! The very first time we went out together - the night of Harold and Maude and Play it Again Sam at the Music Box - we met up at Southport Lanes beforehand and WE BOTH arrived an hour early so we could read at the table. So hilarious. Like: Ohhhh, you're here an hour early too? To .... read??? Okay, I know you're a kindred spirit.

Ted said...

That was truly one of my funnest nights ever!

heather (errantdreams) said...

Sounds wonderful! It's a great book that can draw you in even though you know what will happen. I love running into authors with that skill.

Good luck!

Ted said...

Thanks, Heather. All done now!!