Sunday 27 April 2008

Olivia Manning: The Great Fortune (1960)

Published: Mandarin, 1990

Olivia Manning's two trilogies featuring Harriet Pringle make up one of my favourite reading experiences of the last couple of years. The Great Fortune is the first book of the earlier Balkan Trilogy, set in Roumania in 1940 during what was known as the Phoney War. The book covers more or less the period from the British declaration of war on Germany to the fall of Paris, during which time Roumania went from being an ally of Britain who guaranteed protection to being a rather reluctant friend of Germany. Naive English newly web Harriet travels to Bucharest with her husband Guy, who teaches English under the auspices of the British Council. She does not speak the language; she has no work; she does not yet know Guy all that well - it was a whirlwind romance. So she is a lonely outsider, standing at the fringes and observing.

Indeed, no important character in the novel is really on the inside. Roumania itself is affected by, but on the fringes of, events in Western Europe; the expatriate British community become more and more isolated as German victories lead up to Dunkirk and the fall of Paris; Guy and Harriet are not really part of the English community, which is split between the British legation and journalists; other characters, such as Prince Yakimov, are excluded by poverty. This last mirrors the condition of the chorus of the Roumanian peasantry, who appear in the guises of mobs and groups of beggars, driven to the city by hunger and exploited by the upper class. (It is the behaviour of the ruling class in the country which provides the novel's title, as they are described as having squandered the "great fortune" of Roumanian natural resources.)

The characters are none of them without faults, naturally - and in some cases, these are what have led to their exclusion from the in crowd. Yakimov is greedy and perpetually whining; Harriet is over-critical. But Guy is portrayed, through his wife's eyes, in the most unflattering way. Charming he may be (and that is a very difficult quality for a writer to portray), but self-centred to an extreme: so much that it is hard to believe that anyone would get to the point of marriage to him without perceiving it and pulling out. The picture is so strong that it quickly becomes clear that part of Harriet's character is involved as well as Guy's: she is an exasperated, bored spouse, tired of being taken for granted when there are new people for Guy to captivate, new projects for him to keep himself in the limelight. Harriet feels that she has a closer relationship with a stray kitten than with the people around her, she is so lonely.

While the theme of exclusion is a major one in The Great Fortune, and indeed flows through the whole of both trilogies, this is not a sad read. The tone of the story is anecdotal, like a memoir rather than a fictional account, despite the third person narrative convention used: this is a woman telling you what she did in the war (even if the fighting is offstage throughout). And Manning is an expert storyteller, putting together a series of set pieces which are amusing vignettes in themselves but which add up to a picture of a lost world - as Roumania under the monarchy in 1940 is far more different from England then or now than any European country is today. The Great Fortune climaxes with a performance of Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida, directed by Guy, from which only Harriet is excluded (Guy deciding that wives and husbands should not work together, and casting a former girlfriend as Cressida instead). Despite the war situation, and despite Guy's rather naive Communist sympathies, the production is completely apolitical in nature. Even in the amateur dramatic field, it is today commonplace to make productions of plays comment on current affairs, and this particular play is one that lends itself to such treatment, with the very different portrayal of the Trojan and Greek characters. To me, the lack of a political theme in the production is at least as telling a political statement (in the circumstances) as the use of an obvious one would have been, and suggests a lack of involvement which underlines the outsider theme. I don't know whether this would have been Manning's intent, as a straightforward presentation of the play like Guy's would have been more common and certainly expected of a British Council production.

In some ways, The Great Fortune reminds me of Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time novels, with the same satirical air; but for me Manning is more successful. The interest provided by the background is sadly lacking in Powell's novels, even the ones set during wartime, and Manning is able to solve the plotting problem Powell had with coincidence (both having a small group of characters constantly running into one another by chance) by setting her work in the small emigré community. The absurdities caused by the culture clash between the English and the Roumanians, particularly during the rehearsals for Troilus and Cressida, are to me much more felicitously reminiscent of some of my favourite humourous short stories, Lawrence Durrell's Antrobus collections.

The Great Fortune lays out the ground for the rest of the series of novels in the two trilogies. Understated in a very British way, it is a rather overlooked classic and an antidote to the more melodramatic portrayals of heroism and extreme suffering in the way, though these too have a place.