Tuesday, January 02, 2007

The Balkan Trilogy

The Internet is a wonderful source for the discovery of new reading. Norman Geras has sold me Sophie Hannah's poetry which has been a mainstay of this year's Christmas presents. I read James Hawes thanks to Nick Cohen. I agree with both Oliver Kamm and Johan Hari's choice of Why Truth Matters as their neglected book of the year, first recommended on blogs. This time though my holiday reading came from one of those idiosyncratic book lists posted by customers on Amazon. This one was of books about Greece and this was the last entry, even though two thirds of this particular novel is actually set in Rumania. The novel is Olivia Manning's The Balkan Trilogy. Originally published as three separate books, it is really one very long one. The author makes only the most perfunctory attempt re-introduce the characters at the start of each new volume and the plot flows seamlessly between them.

Set at the outbreak of the Second World War there is a strong narrative thread and at first it seemed a little dated and almost too conventional. However, the sparse, precise prose drives the reader through a compelling story and you are quickly hooked. I knew nothing of Manning before but I am distinctly impressed. The themes are both big and small. If anything, the novel is about individuals and the complexity of their relationships, but there are two grand themes running through it as well, the war and liberal individualism's conflict with collectivism.

The focus is on the wife, Harriet, of an outgoing and gregarious English teacher, Guy, who is totally unprepared for marriage. This is especially so as Harriet is politically out of sympathy with Guy's Communism and combines sensitivity with close observation and intelligent judgement. Just as there is a struggle for power in Rumania, so there is in the marriage. What is curious is how passionless their love is. Harriet is deeply passionate about cats, a young Jewish army deserter, and comes close to an affair with an army officer. Marriage is more calculating, more about partnership and solidarity than passion. It is, in an un-didactic way, a feminist novel. Harriet is central, independent, an outsider, an observer and fiercely intelligent. The themes are semi-autobiographical and Harriet is clearly Manning. Whereas Guy is the critic, teacher and producer, Harriet is the writer, the one who sees. Manning, who died in 1980, teases the reader, there are possibilities that are never fulfilled, relationships and personalities are constantly shifting and they are revealed piecemeal, so that there is always a sense of future discovery and intrigue.

The final volume is set in Greece up until the Nazi invasion and the picture of the country that emerges is one that will be familiar to all of us who love this country. It is a warmer and far less uncomfortable one than that of Rumania. I sensed a fellow Greekophile in Manning. Whereas Rumania ended by embracing Fascism, Greece succumbed through invasion alone after fierce, undivided resistance.

I am not sure whether I have read a great novel or merely a very good one, but as I finished it tonight, I contemplated my own far less dramatic departure with a sense of poignancy. Tomorrow the house will be packed up and the day after a long journey will bring me back to Hull. Greece is a hard country to leave and saying goodbye to Pelion is always sad. The Easter return will be eagerly anticipated and I might just get hold of Manning's The Levant Trilogy to accompany me.

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