Back in November last year, I read the first book in the Balkan Trilogy by Olivia Manning, “The Great Fortune” (review here). I was left a little undecided at the end, finding that I disliked the two main characters, Guy and Harriet Pringle, quite a lot; although I was very fond of the supporting characters and her writing about the city and the events. It’s taken me till now to get to the second book, “The Spoilt City” and I think that break was necessary, as I found myself approaching this volume with quite a lot of enthusiasm. I’m finding recently that it’s better not to read a writer or series with an all-encompassing approach, as I end up getting stale and wanting a change.
Anyway, the book opens with Guy and Harriet still in Bucharest, and the situation there is becoming more and more unstable. The titles of the four parts: “The Earthquake”, “The Captain”, “The Revolution” and “The Raid” give you an idea of the kind of events taking place. The Iron Guardists, a rebel group, gradually develop and come to the fore. The king refuses to abdicate and then is forced to. The Germans gradually take more control and the British contingent splinters and various friends and colleagues of the Pringles start to leave for other countries. Against this background, Guy and Harriet’s relationship fluctuates – they are such different personalities that they often seem to be at odds. Add in the fact that they have to cope with Yakimov lodging with them, and have Sasha Drucker, deserted and son of the disgraced financier, hiding on their roof, and there is a recipe for plenty of tension. The book ends with Guy persuading a reluctant Harriet to leave for Egypt while she still can – will they meet up again, and will the marriage survive?
I found myself enjoying this book a lot more than the first, as I think I have come to terms with the fact that I will always find Guy Pringle unbearable! Manning develops her characters much more in this second volume, and I am coming to understand them and their motivations a lot more. It’s revealed here (for the first time, if I remember correctly) that the Pringles had something of a whirlwind courtship, marrying and leaving for Hungary after 3 weeks’ acquaintance. So the books are very much about their discovery of each other as they are patently not what the other thought when they married. Harriet was looking for a safe harbour and Guy looking for someone to be strong for him – and both were wrong in the belief they had found someone who could offer this to them, and so they end up constantly pulling in different directions.And on a short ‘holiday’ in the mountains, she finds herself becoming much more judgemental about him:
“At one time she had been indignant when others were critical of him. Now, she realised, she was criticising him herself. Even more surprising, she could feel bored in his company. And yet, watching as he sat there, unsuspecting of criticism or boredom, an open-handed man of infinite good nature, her heart was touched. Reflecting on the process of involvement and disenchantment which was marriage, she thought that one entered it unsuspecting and, unsuspecting, found one was trapped in it.”
Harriet is developing very clear sight about her husband – he is only interested in the individual in an abstract sense, not as a real person, so is insensible to the consequences of his involvement with them.
“With him, in any case, talk was too general for intimacy. He despised the metaphysical and the personal. He did not gossip. She was beginning to believe that what he had lacked was a fundamental interest in the individual – a belief that would astonish him were she to accuse him.”
Although she clearly loves him and feels loyalty towards him, she finds him frustrating to deal with – there is a kind of evasiveness in his character, and I was never entirely sure if he deliberately misunderstood situations to get the result he wanted, or if he was just dense and detached. As Harriet says at one point,
“You interfere in people’s lives. You give them a false idea of themselves, an illusion of achievement. If you make someone drunk, he’s likely to blame you when he wakes up with a hangover. Why do you do it?”
But throughout Guy remains as irritating as ever, and his stubborn refusal to get them out of a dangerous setting is selfish at the very least and quite unbelievable. Even if you submitted yourself to staying in a dangerous, war-torn area, why would you do that to your loved one?
Harriet herself does develop as the book progresses, gaining confidence and telling Guy what she actually thinks. She is a strange mixture of hard and soft, wanting to protect Guy and eject Yaki and Sasha from the flat but lacking the strength. And she has a soft-heartedness when it comes to animals which extends to her judging the flashy women who will change allegiance to whichever particular power is in charge:
“Was there any more repellent sight, Harriet wondered, than a silly, self-centred, greedy woman clad in the skin of a beast so much more splendid than herself?”
As ever, the supporting cast are excellent. Inchcape, Guy’s boss, hangs on until the end but suddenly capitulates, after an act of violence, and leaves the capital. Clarence escapes, with the dreadful Sophie in tow, and there also a very funny episode with a ghastly visiting professor who seem to have no idea of reality! Sasha’s fate is unknown, and the threat of violence hangs over everyone – the raid on the Pringles’ flat at the end is particularly chilling.
And then there is Yakimov – he is quite a wonderful creation, and I’d love to know whether Manning based him on a real person. Surprisingly, he dominates much of the story and his escapade to meet an old friend who is now obviously a Nazi is funny and frightening at the same time. Despite his selfishness, he’s an engaging character and ends up being surprisingly helpful at times, particularly when he encounters Harriet at the end of the book in Athens and is comforting and kind when she needs it. “Poor old Yaki” is one of the main reasons I keep reading these books, although I do rather fear for his future.
“Occasionally when Yakimov overslept in the afternoon, he would awake to find the Pringles had gone out and Despina – to spite him – had cleared away the tea things. When this happened on one of the molten days of late July, he suddenly felt to the full the deterioration of his life and could have wept for it. There had been a time when the world had given him everything: comfort, food, entertainment, love. He had been a noted wit, the centre of attention. Now he did not even get his tea.”
I ended up liking this book very much, which I didn’t expect. It’s a wonderful portrait of a war-torn land, a picture of what it was like to live in close proximity to the Nazis with danger always lurking and Manning’s sense of place and landscape is always excellent. Some of the descriptions of the area Guy and Harriet visit on holiday were very striking and I always felt as if I was in the book, alongside the action, which is one of the best effects a writer can hope to have, I suppose! I’m looking forward to the final volume in the series, and finding out what happens to Yaki – though I shall leave it a little while before reading as I want to get on to some Greene For Gran, in the form of “The Third Man” and “No Man’s Land”!