by Olivia Manning
"All I have is here," newlywed Harriet Pringle says of British expat life with her husband Guy, stateless freeloader Yakimov, and assorted displaced malcontents in faraway Bucharest, a problem since the storm clouds of what will soon become World War II are increasingly threatening the then neutral Romania with just what it means to be "a peaceful nation in someone else's war" (267 & 235). That heavy duty geopolitical backdrop notwithstanding, I really enjoyed this first foray into Manning's The Balkan Trilogy and the first of six volumes in her Fortunes of War double trilogy. On the most superficial level, I was pleased to discover that Manning's something of a Muriel Spark-like savage charmer on the observational front--perceptive in painting sympathetic but conflicted Harriet into something of a haves and have nots corner during an early run-in with some child beggars ("The children clung like lice. They caught hold of her arms, their faces screwed into the classical mask of misery while they whined and whimpered in chorus" ) but also completely unremorseful in alluding to a poverty-stricken local dressmaker as "a tiny creature, very thin, smelling of mouldy bread. Her face, which had one cheek full and one caught-in like a deformed apple, was dark yellow and heavily moustached" out of sheer descriptive malice elsewhere (262). More significantly, although somewhat related to this, I appreciated the fact that Manning's a bit of a slippery character when it comes to narrative POV. If it wasn't always clear to me how much those sort of class-conscious sentiments were hers rather than her roman à clef characters', I'm willing to chalk that up to nuance in a novel which grapples with condescension to the Romanians on the part of the international community and the prejudice of the rich against the poor among all but one or two of the more idealistic characters regardless of nationality. One of The Great Fortune's successes or at least one of the more ironic examples of Manning's sleight of hand, in fact, is how long the novel seems to side with the expat community in focusing on its fear about "the disintegration of their adopted world" (259) even while the disintegration of that same world has been hiding in plain sight all along for the Jews who have been hauled into jail on trumped-up charges and the poor freezing to death in bunches every time winter rolls around. In short, a lively, fast-paced read but also "a cheap holiday in other people's misery" as some other blokes might have it.
Olivia Manning (1908-1980) in 1955