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The Balkan Trilogy by Olivia Manning
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The Great Fortune
Yakimov, a naturalised British White Russian, and Guy and Harriet Pringle, as newly married English couple, arrive in Bucharest as the Second World War starts. Yakimov is escaping from a Poland being overrun by Nazi Germany and Guy Pringle is returning to teach English at the university with his new bride, Harriet. This is part of the history of the Second World War that I did not know.
The story is told alternatively by “poor Yaki” and Harriet. Both Yakimov and Guy have annoying personalities, representing extreme self-interest and selflessness, with Harriet observing matters as a more typically “bourgeois” viewpoint.
The book ends with the set piece of an amateur performance of Troilus and Cressida put on by the British, which helps Harriet understand Guy better and brings out a more likeable side of poor old Yaki, following his fall portrayed throughout most of the book. Overall I felt that this book fulfilled less than its potential and this is perhaps due to the lack of empathy that you feel for the main characters. ( )
  CarltonC | Nov 20, 2014 |
I did my best to put myself off this trilogy - firstly by watching the TV series before reading it, and secondly by making myself read all 3 books back to back (they were sold as one book - it felt like giving up to take a break after each novel). As a result, I was stuck with Emma Thomson and Kenneth Brannagh in my head playing Harriet and Guy - the fact that this rarely jarred as I read is a tribute to the adaptation.

The series is well-written and enjoyable, but I agree with other reviewers in that there is something lacking in the characters. Harriet is particularly frustrating - she's an intelligent woman, so why doesn't she do anything?! Admittedly, she is constrained by her inability to speak Romanian or Greek, and by expectations of women at the time, but I still couldn't help but feel a bit disappointed in her.

Despite the disappointments, I still enjoyed this trilogy enough to read the sequel. ( )
  cazfrancis | Jun 2, 2014 |
I really like the series, and the front half of it is more thrilling than the last. The widely ranging characters, their great depth and the skilful weaving of all sub-plots are entrancing! I admit to having seen the TV Mini-series first, but the prose format allows for greater depth. I wasn't conscious of the pacing, so it must have been great, Was Guy a spy ,or not? ( )
  DinadansFriend | Sep 25, 2013 |
The Balkan Trilogy goes very well with Waugh's Sword of Honour trilogy and the war movement of Powell's A dance to the music of time as a view of World War II as seen by a middle-class, not very bellicose, British intellectual of liberal/conservative leanings. There's the same puzzled attempt to come to terms with what it means for a civilised person brought up in the liberal-humanist tradition suddenly to find themselves in the primitive state of war, the same sense of being on the outer periphery of big events that are happening somewhere else, even the same trilogy format and some of the same characters. Prince Yakimov could step into any Evelyn Waugh novel with no questions asked, and he would be just as much at home attending one of Anthony Powell's bohemian parties.

So what does Manning provide as added value to make us read this doorstop as well as the others? The background of the fall of Romania and Greece, for one thing. There aren't all that many first-hand accounts of this in English, and not even that many second-hand accounts (Captain Corelli's Mandolin is just about the only one I can think of). Manning was one of a handful of British people who remained in Romania after the outbreak of war, and seems to have been the only one to write a novel about it. This personal experience makes her account very interesting, but it also means that she has a tendency to forget that she's writing a novel and drift into memoir mode, leaving her characters stranded for a while.

The book should also be very interesting as an account of the war from a woman's perspective, but I found this aspect of it a little disappointing. Her central character, Harriet, is too narrow and limited to carry a novel of this length. Essentially, she is an automaton programmed to do three things: to observe political events inefficiently; to feel vaguely disappointed in her husband; and to form sentimental friendships that lead nowhere with animals and good-looking men. She does these three things repeatedly in all three parts of the trilogy, but she doesn't seem to develop at all between summer 1939 and Easter 1941. Even when she finds a job for a while, her duties seem to consist exclusively of lunch dates with a good-looking man. Harriet doesn't get very far in forming friendships with other women, and she only has very limited direct contact with people outside the "British community" in Bucharest and Athens. So, while it's a book that confirms that war and international politics are not to be seen as exclusively male territory in literature, apart from this it does about as much for the feminist cause as the film Brief Encounter.

Despite these limitations, the book is very agreeable to read. Manning's style is clear and fluid, there's a lot of striking visual description, and the characters, whilst repetitive, are often amusing. A very good novel, but less than I was hoping for, somehow. ( )
2 vote thorold | Jul 16, 2013 |
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SOMEWHERE NEAR VENICE, Guy began talking with a heavy, elderly man, a refugee from Germany on his way to Trieste.
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Living and working in Rumania, Guy and Harriet Pringle are forced to evacuate to Greece before the steady advance of the German army. 'The Balkan Trilogy' is the portrait of their marriage, a haunting evocation of a vanished way of life and an ironic comedy of manners in a breaking world.… (more)

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NYRB Classics

2 editions of this book were published by NYRB Classics.

Editions: 1590173317, 1590177037

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