Many moons ago, my BFF at the time G. used to nag me to read Olivia Manning’s “Balkan Trilogy” (and its follow up, “The Levant Trilogy”). I suspect now that she was drawn to them from having watched the TV adaptation, as she was very much a Ken-and-Emma fan. However, I was in my French existentialist phase and refused to have anything to do with the books.

Fast forward a good number of years, and I came across the two fat Penguin TV tie in volumes in a charity shop for not many pennies. I read the first couple of pages and figured that as Manning was a Virago author I really ought to give these a try.

I knew enough about these books to know that Manning based much of the story on her real-life experiences in Romania during the early part of the Second World War. The first book, “The Great Fortune”, opens with newly married Guy and Harried Pringle travelling across Europe by train. Guy is a lecturer in Bucharest and is returning to his work after a summer at home. We get an instant hint of Guy’s character by the interest he takes in the strangers around him, talking at length to a troubled refugee. Already Harriet seems not to know her husband very well and one would imagine it was a quick marriage of people only recently in love under wartime circumstances. As the Pringles travel through Europe they encounter a British-educated, exiled Russian prince, Yakimov, who will become an important character in the first book.

The first part of this volume is titled “The Assassination”, and it covers the arrival of the Pringles back in Bucharest and Harriet’s early experiences in this new country. She does not speak the language and in some ways feels an interloper as she meets her new husband’s friends and acquaintances. There is a wide array of characters – Clarence, one of Guy’s colleagues; Inchcape, their head of department at the University; the aforementioned Yakimov; a group of journalists holed up in a hotel bar; Sophie, a local girl who obviously had designs on Guy and is furious that he has brought a wife back with him; and, as the saying goes, many many more! This section ends with assassination of a minister and reprisals on those suspected of carrying this out.

In part 2, “The Centre of Things”, the Pringles are becoming more established. They find themselves a flat in close to the centre of the city and are witness to the funeral of the assassinated minister. There is a strong German faction in the city which seems to be in effect waiting for an invading army from either side to take control. Harriet is more settled and is making contacts – apart from the Jewish Drucker family (who are later arrested), she makes a friend of her own called Bella, whom Guy does not like.

Winter sets in during the next section, “The Snow” – the weather dominates and becomes a major issue. Peasants freeze and starve to death, a rather strange maverick British soldier turns up to try to lead sabotage attempts, and the Germans continue to advance. Harriet gains a cat and has her first big quarrel with Guy. The attitudes towards the peasantry continue to be more harsh and brutal.

The fourth and final section is entitled “The Fall of Troy”. The English contingent throw themselves into a performance of Shakespeare’s “Troilus and Cressida” with Guy as the obsessive maestro behind the whole production. Tensions are hinted at between the Pringles when Guy replaces Harriet with Sophie for the role of Cressida. Initially hurt and upset, Harriet comes to realise that she would have been bored by the whole thing. As the book ends, Paris falls to the Germans and the triumph of the performance is counterpointed with the tragedy occurring in France.

It’s taken me several days of thinking about this book to come to any real conclusions about it, and I’ve found it difficult to explain why. The book is well written; the descriptions of Romania are excellent and the story gives a good sense of the uncertainty and day-to-day uneasiness of living in a potential war zone with both sides of the conflict represented. But although I ended up quite enjoying the book, some of it just doesn’t quite gel for me, and I think much of the problem is with the Pringles. Harriet has a real lack of depth; it may be that this is meant to represent her naivety, and she does come alive a little bit more as the book progresses. But she is still a cipher – hardly anything is revealed about her past, and her personality is a bit undefined.

Guy is unfortunately an extremely irritating character. His all-encompassing interest in humanity in general means that he actually has very little time for his new wife who is left to her own devices constantly. She consequently ends up spending a lot of time with Clarence, who obviously carries a torch for her, while Guy is off lecturing, having meetings from which Harriet is excluded and producing his Shakespeare. You don’t actually see the Pringles in relation to each other, having a normal life together or any real evidence of closeness. When Guy talks about the effect that producing Harriet in “Troilus” would have on their relationship, you think “What relationship?” His behaviour concerning Sophie is ridiculous and if we are meant to believe that he has no idea what Sophie feels for him and has been happy to in effect string her along, this reduces him as a person. The Pringles marriage is an odd one; they seem almost strangers, know nothing of each other and learning as they go along. While this may have been the case for many rushed war-time pairings, it stretches credulity a little bit here because we are given very little idea of what the attraction would have been between them. They’re not often seen expressing emotion towards each other – there’s a kind of coldness here. I think Harriet may have married him in a kind of bid for security which turns out to have been a mistake – in a flash of inspiration, she sees him clearly:

“He was one of those harbours that prove to be too shallow: there was no getting into it. For him, personal relationships were incidental. His fulfilment came from the outside world.”

In many ways the subsidiary characters are often better developed than the two main protagonists. Yakimov, the White Russian wearing his father’s coat “Given to him by the Czar, dear girl”, is by far the most memorable, emerging fully rounded from the tale. His ups and downs and final emergence at the end in the play are some of the most interesting aspects of the story. He makes more impact on the reader than Harriet, and although this may have been Manning’s intention (as presumably Harriet represents herself and is in the position of observer/narrator) I did feel that the balance was wrong. We find out considerably more about Clarence and his past and his feelings than either Guy or Harriet which is odd, as they should be the focus of the story.

I ended up feeling that Manning is in many ways better at evoking place than people. A wonderful array of mortals passes us by but they drift in and out of the story with no apparent reason, and their characters in the end mostly make no impact. Bucharest itself however comes across vividly, with its changing seasons and parks, and Manning does give a convincing portrait of what it felt like to live through the early part of the war somewhat stranded in middle Europe. Because it is based on life there is a lack of structure that pure fiction would have had; this would be acceptable in autobiography but not so in the traditional novel form which demands more control. I found the last section, “The Fall of Troy” to be the strongest because of the extraordinary portrayal of the English frantically burying their heads in the sand, obsessively producing a Shakespeare play while Europe crumbled around them. Troy in the play obviously represented the falling Paris, and Manning succeeded most here with what I think she was trying to say – that all the faith in the world in civilisation and culture will not stop the barbarian at the door.

I have heard this series described as “a triumph of style without substance” and I think this is fair comment. There are good points about the book – some well-developed characters, a wonderful sense of place, descriptions of the foot, the location, the lifestyle in Bucharest. But Manning doesn’t pull all the threads into a coherent enough narrative for my liking, and there are too many peripheral characters and sidelines drifting in and out.

I’m trying not to sound too negative because there is a lot I did like about the book  and the fact that I’m still pondering on it several days after finishing it proves it has power. I found it picked up a lot in the third and fourth sections where I was more eager to read on. However, I didn’t feel a huge emotional response to it, such as that I had to a book like, say, “A Pin to see the Peepshow”, where I feel the need to recommend it to all and sundry! This rather pinpoints the fact that I hadn’t come to care about many of characters at all (particularly the Pringles), which is essential in fiction – even if they are not likeable people, the author should make you care about what the protagonists are experiencing and their eventual fate. I’ve read some reviews since finishing this volume that say the series improves with the later books so I shall read on – though at the moment it is mainly Yakimov and Clarence (who I found the most interesting, well-developed characters) that I want to follow to the end of their journey.