I have just read the Balkan Trilogy by Olivia Manning (1908-1980), first published in 1987, based on her experiences in Romania and Greece between 1939 and 1941 (i.e. during the Second World War). It is a story of war, seen from the point of view of numerous civilians caught up in it.
Native Romanians and Greeks feature in the pages; but most of the characters are British – people who have either chosen to live abroad or have been posted there to work for the British Government.
At the very end of the story, Harriet Pringle (principal character) and Guy (her husband) are obliged to flee from Greece as the Germans invade (1941). Harriet thinks about the scattering of the people they have got to know:
Harriet thought of Charles left behind with the retreating army, of David taken by the enemy, of Sasha become a stranger, of Clarence lost in Salonika, of Alan who would share the fate of the Greeks, and of Yakimov in his grave. Not one of their friends remained except Ben Phipps; the ‘vainest and the emptiest’.
Note that Harriet is a woman in a man’s world; and the above-named are all men.
One conclusion I draw from my reading is that the people named (and others described in the trilogy) are acquaintances and temporary colleagues rather than genuine friends – friends only for a “reason” (e.g. work) and a “season” (the period 1939-41). Moreover, there are many squabbles among them – they are not united in the face of adversity.
The British exiles go through various emotions as the war continues and the territories of allies and neutrals are lost to the “Axis” – ranging from hope (which turns out to be ill founded) to ironic humour and to worry (even panic). Finally they get to grips with the practicalities of getting away (or even staying put). Their predicament is exacerbated by the fact that, while troops can be evacuated from Dunkirk as France falls in 1940, they find themselves on the “wrong” side of Europe – beyond the easy reach of Allied forces that might keep the enemy at bay or rescue them.
The Brits tend to be unrealistic about the true nature of their plight. (Make some allowance for hindsight, here.) One can read signs, between the lines, of the gradual but steady decline of the Britain as a world power.
The air of unreality that hangs over the Brits is reinforced by Guy Pringle’s enthusiastic putting on, in Bucharest, Romania, in 1940, of an amateur production of William Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, a play set in the context of the legendary Trojan War. It is performed to raise the morale of the British residents and to impress the Romanians. The casting is inspired, and the performances are widely regarded as a success. But what an incongruous choice! Shakespeare’s language is difficult in places, especially in this play, even for people whose first language is not English. Indeed, it is seldom performed.
One characteristic of Troilus and Cressida is the squabbles among the Trojans (whether to keep Helen or to hand her over to the Greeks), balanced with the squabbles among the Greeks (as to how best to restore the authority of Agamemnon while persuading Achilles to return to the front line) – quite apart from the actual war itself. (See too Homer’s Iliad, while noticing the major differences in plot, characterisation and tone.)
A second feature of Troilus and Cressida is the evidence displayed that both Helen and the eponymous Cressida are women in a man’s world: they can be reduced to the status of bargaining counters – in other words, “articles of trade….weak and oppressed” (see Prof R A Foakes’s Introduction to the 1987 Penguin edition of the play). At the same time, none of the male characters can be taken seriously as a hero (with the possible exception of Hector), either in matters of war or in those of love – they are proud and self-serving. The end of the play is neither tragic nor comic (certainly, it’s not funny).
At the end of Troilus, the war is still going on. But (outside the framework of the play) Troy will eventually fall. One Part of Olivia Manning’s Balkan Trilogy is itself called ‘The Fall of Troy’ – a clear allusion made to the momentous Fall of France in 1940.
It so happens that, earlier this year, I had re-read Troilus and Cressida, before reading the Balkan Trilogy for the first time. The reference to the former, within the body of the latter, came as a pleasant surprise.
Returning to the Trilogy: Harriet Pringle has a mind of her own, intelligence, perception and sensitivity. However, by virtue of her married status (Britain, 20th century style), and the roles that both she as an individual accepts and that societies as a whole ascribe to her, she trails behind her husband Guy, in his wake; and she makes a series of concessions to his wishes and needs, in order to keep him happy – swallowing her pride but feeling resentment.
The 21st century reader may see things differently from Harriet intellectually while sympathising with her predicament emotionally. (Make up your own mind.)
The Balkan Trilogy is an excellent read. You feel you’re there, in time and place.
Troilus and Cressida is an excellent read too. (You may never get the chance to see it performed.)