Trilogies, Quartets and Quintets
There is nothing as enticing as getting stuck into a weighty trilogy, quartet or quintet that you know means immersion in a parallel world for at least a good few weeks. My favourites all involve Europe in the middle of the twentieth century – The Balkan Trilogy and The Levant Trilogy by Olivia Manning, and The Alexandria Quartet and The Avignon Quintet, by Lawrence Durrell.
I first came across the Balkan Trilogy and the Levant Trilogy after the excellent TV adaptation Fortunes of War with Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh in the 1980s. The trilogy tells the story of a young couple Harriet and Guy Pringle who are in Bucharest as a newly married couple just as the second world war breaks out. It then follows them through the start of the war as they flee first to Athens and then to Egypt. The characters are extremely well written and their domestic lives are balanced perfectly with the backdrop of world events.
I was an avid reader of Gerald Durrell as a child and knew Lawrence Durrell mainly from his depiction by Gerald in My Family and Other Animals (also an excellent television adaptation). I discovered him as a writer many years later when someone recommended Bitter Lemons, which led me on to his other travel writing Prospero’s Cell and Reflections on a Marine Venus. Whatever you think of the man and the allegations of misogyny and incest, for me nothing detracts from the splendour of his masterpieces.
The Alexandria Quartet is set in Egypt before and during the second world war. The books are written from each different character’s viewpoint of the same events. Passion and deception take place against the backdrop of an exquisite portrait of Alexandria itself.
The Avignon Quintet is set before and during the second world war in France, Switzerland and Egypt. A cast of contradictory narrators draw you in to a complex web, as some narrators claim to have invented the others through their writing. The themes of Gnostics and Templars fascinated me. The writing is beautiful and some scenes still stay with me vividly several years after reading it – particularly the macabre one of a mother failing to deal with the death of her child.
If you need something to really get stuck into (maybe over a gloomy winter, or for a long summer holiday), are interested in the second world war, and love good writing, I would highly recommend these four.