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Olivia Manning – The Balkan Triligy


Much has changed in Bucharest since 1938 when this book is set, but a lot hasn’t. Olivia Manning I think was a woman with remarkable powers of observation, her writing has an almost forensic quality about it with each character dissected with almost forensic detail. The first moments of the book tell us almost all we need to know about the main players, Guy and Harriet, with Guy giving almost all he has to a refugee who has lost his papers while Harriet, sympathising, is more circumspect. Later, Harriet tells her husband she loves him, to which he responds ‘I know’.

I can’t decide whether this book is more remarkable for the details of daily life and descriptions of Bucharest and Athens (although the latter is less vivid for me, perhaps because I do not know it). I know all the places she describes and can imagine the peasants, the beggars and the spirits of dead Bucharest. She captures the fact that Bucharest has always been a city of big and grand dreams which never quite come to fruition, its grandiose ambitions and aspirations which somehow seem absurd rather than natural when she describes the characters such as Bella, Sophie and Sasha. But she is not kind to the Romanians, while describing the dark sides of the national character (which again I recognise) does not describe the warmth and humour of the people I have chosen. The Greeks are more sympathetically written of (which reminds me how one of the players in the book remarks that no one admires the Romanians and Manning certainly doesn’t).

Of the individuals Guy and Harriet are vivid but the others, although well drawn (especially the tragic yet cruel figure of Clarence and the toadying Toby) the others less so, I got especially irritated with Yakimov who is 2 dimensional and while such narrow figures exist in real life reading about them is tiresome. However the delicate interplay of Guy and Harriet is superb as each grows to know each other they realise that love is more than daydreams and that as they realise what the other is they will be disappointed. However where she does not have real experience the author is weaker, I would not describe her as a great imaginative novelist,I have no doubt she is describing her own marriage.

The real triumph of the books lies in describing events and nowhere more so than in describing what it is like to live in a place which may ver soon become a war zone where you don’t quite know what is going on. Gossip and rumour abound and there is only a sense that something bad will happen but you are powerless to do anything in reaction. Reading it I felt as though she were describing the shit that we are living through now as my emotions and Harriet’s are as one.


It was a good read and I look forward to the Levant Trilogy which I hope to get read this year.

Shakespeare on Toast - Ben Crystal.

I enjoy the videos Ben Crystal does with his Father (the wonderful and Erudite David) about Shakespeare and this little book is a nice introduction to what makes Shakespeare's stuff great, some elementary poetic and linguistic analysis for the non specialist and context of the theatre and performances. Good as a simple and easy to read intro on the bard.


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February 2017


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