The Godfather: Peter Corris on Olivia Manning
Part of the pleasure of reading (or being read to, in my case) is revisiting something with renewed enjoyment or perhaps beneficially changing one’s mind. I experienced both of these pleasures on re-encountering Olivia Manning’s The Balkan Trilogy comprising The Great Fortune (1960), The Spoilt City (1962) and Friends and Heroes (1965).
Many years ago on being advised to read Manning I tried the first book of the trilogy and found it tepid. I thought the chief characters, Guy and Harriet Pringle (perhaps I was put off by the name) pallid and the setting, Bucharest in Romania, alien and uninteresting. I abandoned the book in favour of something else.
Recently, keen for something of substance, I tried again with the audio version and was quickly drawn in. Perhaps because I had travelled myself in the interval and had had various experiences good and bad, I found myself involved with those two characters and with others like the ever-sponging perpetual exile Prince Yakimov and the self-punishing Clarence.
Romania, culturally poised between east and west, corrupt at the core and on the brink of war with Italy, came alive for me as a place of danger, indulgence, duplicity and steadfast courage.
For anyone who has experienced a disintegrating or severely challenged marriage and a thwarted love affair or both, the trials of the Pringles are starkly realistic. These difficulties, as in real life, take place against a backdrop of mundane matters – Guy Pringle’s work as a teacher, and Harriet’s struggle to find a place for herself in an alien environment.
Not usually much interested in writing about the weather, landscape, fauna and flora, I found Manning’s use of such descriptions to reflect the characters’ emotions and the fraught political situation compelling and effective.
Manning’s sensitivity to the condition of the Jews is moving, given what was to come. Ignoring the fact that there were poverty-stricken Jews in parts of the country, the Romanians tended to lump them all together as greedy and affluent, yet also to accord them a grudging respect for their supposed success. However, when economic circumstances deteriorate, they are castigated, blamed and the stage is set for horror.
I went eagerly from one book to the next, impressed by Manning’s handling of the narrative threads and the background themes. I found the substance I’d been looking for: the writing skills that projected a realistic world under stress and people coping – or not coping – in the face of forces apparently too large to control or resist.
My surprise and change of mind came with the reading, or the narration, as it is properly called. I’ve written before about finding women’s rendering of male voices unconvincing. Not so with Harriet Walter’s rendering of Manning’s books. It’s not that she deepened her voice to approximate male tones, rather that she differentiated between the male speakers, so that I grew used to accepting them as male characters despite them speaking at a higher pitch than is natural.
Olivia Manning’s books gave me many days of interest and enjoyment and I looked forward to the continuation of the Pringles’ journey in the books comprising The Levant Trilogy, which followed them from Greece in a rust-bucket freighter to Egypt. Alas, The Levant Trilogy is not available as audio books. Manning’s impressive creation, critically well received, was given added popularity by the 1987 television series starring Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson (hard to imagine better casting), which followed the whole cycle. Why leave the audio version half done? I must make enquiries.