The first volume of Olivia Manning’s Balkan Trilogy, The Great Fortune, is fascinating and repellent, brilliant and distasteful. It is like gazing on a Max Beckmann painting for 287 pages. Like most readers and Masterpiece Theatre watchers of my generation, the Fortunes of War series introduced me to Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson, so easy to fall in love with them and the story. Not so when I read the novel. The series made Harriet Pringle an ingenue with a feckless husband, one or two train stops away from being caught in a war zone. The novel was an entirely different matter. I started it with these words from Rachel Cusk’s introduction as fulcrum to my understanding and interpretation: “As this vast narrative progresses it becomes clear that what these people lack, what stunts them and renders them no more than oversized children, is the transformative experience of love” (xi). By the end of the first volume, the one I discuss here, it was obvious Cusk and I disagree. I found myself retorting her claim with “Maybe they’re just terrible people;” except for the mitigating presence of Guy Pringle, Harriet’s husband, The Great Fortune is peopled with snobs and sycophants, bigots and anti-Semites: they do look like a Beckmann painting and their world is petty and claustrophobic.
I think both the series and Cusk’s introduction make Harriet’s perspective the novel’s centre and on some level, they are correct. We spend more page-time with Harriet and we see the unfolding world through her eyes. Cusk even goes so far as to make Harriet a kind of moral centre; Cusk’s words are so eloquent, I’ll indulge in a lengthy quotation:
Harriet’s impoverished heart is the unvarying leitmotif of its thousand-odd densely filled pages; a nondescript twenty-one-year-old girl’s lack of parental love the central metaphor for war, displacement, cataclysm, and the death of the old world in 1940s Europe…a world of emotionally stunted men and women, of people starved by the reticence and coldness of their upbringing, of people who have lacked attention and acceptance and love…Indifference, injustice, hatred, neglect: in The Balkan Trilogy these are the constituents both of personal memory and of social reality, of private unhappiness and of public violence. In Olivia Manning’s analogy, war is the work of unhappy children [sorry, Rach, war is the work of assholes, as we’re seeing right now in Ukraine]; but while Harriet embodies the darkness of this perception, she represents too the individual struggle to refute it. Harriet’s determination–against every provocation–to preserve her marriage, to stay rather than to abandon, to keep instead of smashing, is the novel’s other, private war. (vii-viii)
I don’t think Harriet, at least not yet, in any way “heroic”; rather, while both series and Cusk make Guy the immature antagonist to Harriet’s “struggle to preserve her marriage,” I would say it’s Harriet who experiences a modicum of growth by coming to see things from Guy’s point of view. Guy is, yes, negligent, as far as Harriet’s petit bourgeois concept of marriage goes, but Guy is a good man, not too bright, never on time, but essentially, except for one confused slip in which he is befuddled participant rather than initiator or enthusiast, a good person: expansive, inclusive, forgiving, and loving. Harriet may yearn to be exclusive to him, but he’s not that guy (sorry, couldn’t help myself). There’s a brilliant moment when Guy’s friend Clarence is speaking with Harriet about pre-Harriet Guy (he has “designs” on Harriet, which Harriet rebuffs, though she’s willing to hang out when Guy is not around, which is often): ” ‘Before he married he owned hardly anything. He had no room of his own, not even a cupboard. People used to put him up: they loved having him. He didn’t mind where he slept. He’d sleep on the floor. Now you’re surrounding him with bourgeois comforts. You’re corrupting him’ ” (191).
We meet Guy and Harriet on a train bound for Bucharest. While Harriet gazes out the window, Guy converses with a German refugee. We learn that “Guy’s sympathy had drawn the German half out of his seat,” while “a current, like affection, seemed to keep Guy’s attention directed on the refugee” (9). When the refugee, in self-absorbed misery, realizes he has lost ticket, wallet, all, Guy exclaims, ” ‘He’s penniless too,’ said Guy to his wife, ‘What can we give him?’ ” (10), soon pulling out three pounds. Guy realizes he and Harriet are penniless, but his response to the refugee is to give; Harriet’s, in this and other instances, is to keep (in that sense, maybe Cusk is right, to see Harriet as “preserver,” but it’s not necessarily a moral stance). Guy is, yes, an extrovert to Harriet’s introversion, but he is also generous and kind. And continues to be throughout the novel. No matter how much I wanted to side with Harriet, on the side of “what a husband owes his wife,” I couldn’t help but like Guy way more and better than any other character. Instances of his generosity and kindness pepper the narrative, both occurring in “present time” and recalled. Guy is not very bright in the way of survivor-pragmatic-like, more like Dostoevsky’s Alyosha or Prince Myshkin, but he is a good person, even while he’s not often a “good” bourgeois husband. Harriet is bright, but she often behaves badly, and when she behaves well, it’s largely because, as she notes herself, she’s thinking and reacting as Guy would. I suspect that readers will tend to identify Manning herself with Harriet, but her theme, at least in this first volume, belies that. I think The Great Fortune is about Harriet coming to recognize the virtue in Guy’s world-view, not about Harriet growing to understand Guy’s shortcomings and “preserving” her marriage, despite them. Just because we’re ensconced in her point of view, it doesn’t make Harriet the novel’s theme-carrier, nor does Guy necessarily, except insofar as he embodies goodness and generosity. In a world such as Harriet and Guy inhabit, what effect does it have? Like his Troilus and Cressida production, fleeting.
Harriet is constantly confronted by Guy’s generosity towards others: the refugee, to start, but especially the beautiful, self-absorbed, needy Sophie Oresanu, a girl Guy considered marrying in order to help her out of a jam. Sophie pouts and takes advantage of Guy and Guy is unfailingly kind and generous, but he never betrays Harriet, nor even “lusts in his heart”. In that sense, Guy is a true husband to Harriet: faithful and steadfast as he cleaves to her, but devoid of the bourgeois need for an enclosed, “just the two of us” world. Harriet’s reaction to Sophie is an interesting one: “Harriet had failed to consider the possibility of Sophie. Foolishly. There was always someone. There was also the fact that, whether Sophie had received encouragement or not, Guy’s natural warmth towards everyone could easily be misinterpreted. She had herself taken it for granted that it was for her alone” (45). Ah, there’s the rub. Guy’s affection is an innate part of him and Harriet’s need to be primary fails to understand who he is until this one-of-many junctures in their marriage. That line, in the Cusk-world, would be noted ironically, “for her alone”; instead, it is a painful, important lesson for Harriet (“the net of his affections too widely spread to hold the weighty accompaniment of marriage,” (46), unless Harriet can come to see “marriage” as something other than the narrow English middle class world from which she and Guy come): part of a movement that nudges her one needle-space closer to being more like Guy than the person who came on that train with him. It’s tiny and there’s backsliding, but I’m only at the first book. 😉
The Sophie-story reaches a climax one night when Sophie’s neediness calls Guy to her side. Guy duly gets dressed to go to her and Harriet is furious; the scene is brilliantly drawn:
“If you go,” said Harriet “you won’t find me here when you come back.”
“You are being absurd,” said Guy. “I expected more sense from you.”
“Because I married you. You are part of myself. I expect from you what I expect from myself.”
“You mean you are taking me for granted? Then you are a fool. I won’t tolerate any more of this Sophie nonsense. If you go, I leave.”
“Don’t be a baby.” He went into the hall and started to put on his coat, but his movements were uncertain. When he was ready, he stood irresolute, looking at her in worried enquiry. She felt a flicker of triumph that he realised he did not know her after all, then she choked in her throat. She turned away.
“Darling.” He came back to the room and put his arms around her. “If it upsets you, of course I won’t go.”
At that, she said, “But you must go. I can’t have you worrying about Sophie all night.”
“Well!” He looked into the hall and then looked at Harriet. “I feel I ought to go.”
“I know,” she said, solving the problem as she had intended to solve it all along. “We’ll go together.” (161-62)
Well. Much to unpack: there is Guy’s notion of marriage as going beyond individual identity, beyond the assertion of self. We know there is something authentic in it because Guy hesitates, takes a moment to see Harriet as not-like-himself. Is Guy immature in his notion? Is he just plain wrong?
Only Harriet can answer that for us. There is her “bad faith”, because she had intended to join Guy “all along” this argument. And then, there’s Harriet’s realization as she waits for Guy to finish speaking with Sophie: “She had, she knew, done her worst with Sophie. She had made no attempt to flatter, she had not admitted herself to be vulnerable, she had not wanted Sophie’s assistance. She had made none of those emotional appeals to which Sophie, once put into a position of power, might have responded with emotion. Had she, she wondered, lacked charity? Had Sophie had some justification in seeing her as a monster? She had withheld herself. Now she could not defend herself” (163). Harriet, though she doesn’t say in so many words, realizes what Guy has, that Harriet “won”. She won Guy; she has what she wants, she can afford to be generous, as Guy always is. If Cusk is right, in a sense, about Harriet, it’s that we are witness to Harriet’s growing consciousness. Guy is an unconscious creature, living life without introspection; because his heart is pure, he doesn’t contain a “split self,” an inner struggle, between himself and others, between ego and conscience. When Guy emerges to Harriet, “He took her hand and tucked it under his arm. ‘That was nice of you,’ he said’ ” (163). Guy is guileless; nothing has changed for him, nothing changes for him: he is Harriet’s and she is his.
For Harriet, nothing tests her marriage as Guy bringing Yakimov home to live with them. Yakimov is a spectacular character: indolent, profligate, dissolute. He lives in the moment: taking money, wheedling his way to dinner invitations, pathetically needy, incapable of taking any responsibility for himself, or his actions. He’s harmless, wouldn’t hurt a fly, wouldn’t bother to rip off its wings, nothing like a cruel little boy; and yet, a little boy he is, a giant, dependent, inveigling idiot. In a fascinatingly Freudian sense, Yakimov is orally-fixated: deriving pleasure solely from food and drink. How brilliant that Manning makes him tall and thin: because his hunger for food and drink is not exactly greed, or need, but pleasure. In one scene, when he’s on his last pennies and homeless, he spends his last bits on raspberry lozenges: a frivolous, unnecessary extravagance without a thought for the morrow.
Guy brings him home and The Great Fortune‘s last act begins; at first, with Harriet’s rage and mollification:
She turned on him angrily, saying: “I’ve told you I will not have that man in the flat.”
Guy reasoned with her: “Darling, he’s ill: he’s hungry; he’s been turned out of his lodgings..Listen! He’s not well. I’ve never before seen him looking so thin and ill.”
“I don’t care. He’s a scrounger and a glutton.”
“Yes, you do care.” Guy, holding her by the shoulders, shook her affectionately. “We must help him, not because he’s a good person but because he needs help. You understand that.” (220)
Harriet is right: she has read Yakimov correctly, he is a “scrounger” and “glutton”, but Guy is “righter”: help is not dependent on virtue, but need. The world is full of people who can’t navigate Hamlet’s “this thing’s to do” and equally full of people who can and do. When Guy speaks here, it’s with the moral voice of the father in one of my favourite Biblical parables, that of the prodigal son. Like the older son, Harriet feels as if Guy’s generosity shortchanges her. She comes to see Yakimov Guy’s way because as she notes later, “Guy, grown cunning, had not given her a chance to refuse. He had circumvented her with her own compassion” (221). Again, when Harriet experiences growth, it’s because and when she sees the world the Guy-way.
The novel’s last quarter is brilliant, as Guy brings his students, colleagues, and “house-guest” Yakimov into staging a production of Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida. Harriet grows more sullen and resentful as Guy is absent for rehearsals and so absorbed in the production, he’s is absent in spirit even when he’s around. In the background, Nazi jackboots make their way across Europe, as, on stage, the Greeks are stalled outside of Troy, but we know how that ends, don’t we? What is magnificent about this last quarter of The Great Fortune is how everyone, in Guy’s wake and following his lead, are swept away by the play. Everyone, including Harriet, is rapt as Yakimov finally finds a calling in playing Pandarus and is redeemed somewhat. The war on stage becomes more real than the war raging outside Rumania’s borders. How long before everyone is drawn in doesn’t register while Shakespeare’s words ring out. Before this moment of transformative artistic magic, Harriet, with her male mirror-image, Clarence, once more, talk about Guy:
“…Take Yakimov, for instance. Now, there’s a mollusc on the hull of life, a no-man’s-land of the soul. I doubt if Guy will ever shake him off. You’ve got him for life now.”
Harriet, refusing to be upset, said: “I think Guy saw him as a subject for improvement. He could turn him into something, even if it were only an actor. You know what Guy is like. I’ve heard you say he is a saint.”
“He may be a sort of saint but he’s also a sort of fool. You don’t believe me? You’ll find I’m right. He can’t see through people as you can. Don’t be misled by him.”
Harriet said: “He’s not a fool, but it’s true, he can suffer fools. That’s his strength. Because of that, he’ll never have a shortage of friends.”
“There’s a streak of the exhibitionist in Guy,” said Clarence. “He likes to feel himself at the centre. He likes to have a following.”
“Well, he certainly has got a following.”
“A following of fools.”
“That’s the only sort anyone can hope to have. [My favourite line of the whole novel is the next one.] The discriminating are lonely. Look at me. When Guy is occupied, I have no one but you.”
What an exchange: two characters, both “discriminating” and “lonely,” discern Guy’s power. Harriet sees herself clearly, as she does Guy, open, all-embracing, forthcoming, big-hearted, generous, affectionate, a noble figure. What may appear to the “discriminating” as Guy’s quixotic pursuit of this one-time amateur production while “armies clash by night” is a great cause, a “great fortune,” to take limited, forked creatures to transcendence through the “transformative” power of art. Even Yakimov is elevated and made purposeful, he who has lived without purpose his entire life. If, as Cusk claims, love is transformative, it’s Guy who knows how to love, even Harriet comes to recognize “Only someone capable of giving much could demand and receive so much. She felt proud of him,” (230). As Harriet watches Guy directing his players about to give their one and only performance, she has a moment of profound understanding of who Guy is and what role she plays in his life: “Harriet stared up at Guy, her heart melting painfully in her breast, and asked herself what it was for — this expense of energy and creative spirit. To produce an amateur play that would fill the theatre for one afternoon and one evening and be forgotten in a week. She knew she could never give herself to such an ephemeral thing. If she had her way, she would seize Guy and canalise his zeal to make a mark on eternity. But he was a man born to expend himself like a whirlwind — and, indeed, what could one do but love him?” (272). When the play ends and players and audience emerge into the night, Harriet hears a voice declare, “Paris has fallen.” As they watched Troy fall, Harriet notes, ironically, “They had all forgotten Paris.” Such is the power of art, to forget the war you’re in because you’re absorbed in the war on stage.
All page references are to the NYRB Classics edition I own, which contains the entire trilogy and has the heft of a brick. I need a break from Guy and Harriet and their Beckmannesque entourage, but stay tuned for my reading of The Spoilt City some time in the next few months.