Olivia Manning’s two Fortunes of War trilogies (Balkan and Levant) have been hovering in my consciousness for a while now. Not sure when I first heard of them, but Jacqui’s recent reading of the Balkan Trilogy certainly brought it to the forefront of my mind. Today’s republication by Windmill Books of the first part of that trilogy – The Great Fortune – has seen me make a start.

Harriet and Guy Pringle are hastily married newly-weds travelling on the Orient Express to Bucharest. Their timing is unfortunate, for this is not a romantic honeymoon trip. Germany invaded Poland two days prior, and this journey is a race against time to get back to Guy’s university post and the relative security of neutral Rumania (as was the spelling back then.) The trip is fraught with tension. There’s the nameless man who has lost his ticket and money, who is hauled off the train. The Pringles give them what change they have, thus ensuring that they only have enough money for dinner, a meal they cannot finish because the restaurant car is to be decoupled. Also travelling on the train is one Prince Yakimov, a white lieutenant in extremely reduced circumstances.

Once in Bucharest, Guy slots right back into his ex-pat life, while Harriet remains an outsider. She is left to make her own friends and to face her own fears. She is shocked at the discrepancy between the haves and the have-nots and the attitude of the ex-pats to the Rumanian population. She seems to be the only person in ex-pat circles concerned about the possibility of a German invasion. The others are blithely unconcerned, their faith in the precarious status-quo complete. Yet as time goes by, and the Germans blitzkrieg their way through France, doubts creep in. What will happen when the Germans turn eastward? Or does the German-Russian non-aggression pact mean that – heaven forfend – the Russians will march in first? With the supposed neutralised Iron Guard, advocates of an alliance with Nazi Germany, making a comeback, transit visas for neighbouring countries are secured, just in case ….

What a time to be coping with a marriage to a man you barely know, who has more time for everyone else (including a Rumanian beauty he once considered marrying to give her a British passport). No wonder Harriet is soon disillusioned. Not that her husband is fickle. Guy is an intellectual, completely oblivious to Harriet’s concerns. On another planet, as we say these days. Yet with a heart of gold. The giving of his change to the man on the train a foreshadowing of the generosity he displays to many less fortunate than himself, including the aforementioned Prince Yakimov.

Which brings me to “poor, old Yaki” as he calls himself. A former white lieutenant who has fallen on hard times, not only because of the whims of history. He lives off a remittance which he blows on rich food and alcohol as soon as it arrives. The rest of the time he lives from hand to mouth on “loans”, meals and booze he can cadge from his acquaintances. As the novel progresses, his circumstances reduce even further. For he never pays back his debts, and people become less willing to help him out. All except Guy, who much to Harriet’s dismay (and I stand firmly shoulder to shoulder with her) agrees to let him move in with them, on the proviso that he will take on the main part in the play Guy producing to distract everyone from the reality surrounding them.

That play is Shakespeare’s problem play, Troilus and Cressida, ambiguous, vascillating between bawdy comedy and classical tragedy, a wonderful fit into Manning’s novel. Not that there is any bawdiness in The Great Fortune, but there is a mix of comedy (Prince Yakimov – although the joke wears pretty thin pretty quickly – sorry, Ali, but I am not a fan) and tragedy (all these lives that are about to be “riven by history”). Ambiguity too, for I am not sure of my feelings to Guy. I know I am as exasperated as Harriet, but like her have to admit there is method in his madness. The production is a tremendous success, an evening when everyone can “forget their worries and their cares”.

The political allegory works on two levels. Rumanian neutrality is about to be erased by the Trojan horse that is the Iron Guard. As the Trojans are about to be beaten by the Athenians, so too Britain is about to fall to the fascists (or so it seems). Guy’s production coincides with the fall of Paris and the Dunkirk evacuation.

Which means the afterglow of his triumph is shortlived. Another case of unfortunate timing.

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