They Were Found Wanting (translated by Patrick Thursfield and Katalin Bánffy-Jelen, review copy courtesy of Arcadia Books) begins with a parliament (as usual) in turmoil. With a fragile coalition government unable to pass any meaningful legislation, time is spent on petty squabbles, while outside in the real world (and the Hungarian parliament is a bubble which appears blind to events outside Budapest) Europe is taking the first steps towards the catastrophic war which will erupt in just a few short years.
Things are no less dramatic for the two main characters of the series. Laszlo Gyeroffy, having fallen from grace, is reduced to living in squalor in his ramshackle family home, even though there is no shortage of women ready to take a chance on the attractive drunkard. As for the aristocratic Balint Abady, while his love for Adrienne Miloth is as strong as ever, he is becoming impatient for her to finally take the step of leaving her husband, the sinister Pali Uzdy. However, there's something preventing her from asking for her freedom, something which may make the divorce impossible...
I read the first of the trilogy, They Were Counted, a few months back, and it took a while to remember all the names and connections, but once I'd found my feet, I again raced through Bánffy's world of the Hungarian élite in the pre-WW1 era. It has that same, calming feeling as reading one of the big Victorian novels I enjoy so much, but dating from a later era (and another location), there's a slightly different mood hanging over the novel, a gloomier modernist Weltschmerz which contrasts with the more confident and secure Victorian era.
Of course, there's every justification for the tone as Bánffy is looking back from the 1930s to a time just before his country was to be torn apart, both by the war and the peace that followed. While the writing is clearly on the wall, hindsight is a wonderful thing - the poor Hungarians of the time, blinded by petty squabbles, are oblivious to the impending disaster, even when they read of dramatic events elsewhere in Europe:
"The news was mulled over when they read the morning newspapers, argued and discussed in the clubs and coffee-houses and possibly even discussed at the family meals but, while it was, everyday life went on as usual and most people only thought seriously about their work, their business interests, property, family and friends, their social activities, about love and sport and maybe a little about local politics and the myriad trifles that are and always have been everyone's daily preoccupation. And how could it have been otherwise?"We, who have history to guide us, realise how foolish this is, knowing what's just around the corner...
p.301 (Arcadia Press, 2011)
A large portion of the novel is set in the Hungarian parliament, and through the eyes of the main character, Balint Abady, we are able to witness how futile the years of discussions there are. A junior (rather submissive) partner to Austria in the dual monarchy, the Hungarian government spends its whole time with its head in the sand, trying desperately to keep together a ruling coalition which has achieved absolutely nothing. It won't be to everyone's taste, but if you're a fan of Anthony Trollope's Palliser novels, you'll be at home in the Budapest parliament's dark corridors, even if it's a little noisier than you're used to ;)
If it's Trollope's Barchester Chronicles that appeal more, though, then the other half of the story will be for you as the time outside parliament is mostly spent in the country, where the landed gentry, drink, flirt and shoot anything that moves. There's a hunting scene which could have come straight out of a Trollope novel, and we're not short of a scheming lady or two, hoping to make a conquest of a handsome young visitor (either for life or for the night...). With the addition of dances and a country fair, it would be easy to think we'd ended up in Barchester by mistake.
Even here, though, the more melancholy mood is evident, and the love lives of the two principal characters, Abady and his cousin Gyeroffy, rarely go as planned. Balint and Adrienne are separated by the small fact of her being married to a madman, while poor Laszlo continues the downward spiral started by his addiction to gambling in the first novel. Tragically, he is unable to accept the help of those who wish to save him (and there are plenty of people who want to help the attractive, talented musician), and he is degraded further and further the longer the novel draws on. It's tempting to compare his decline with that of the country in general...
They Were Found Wanting isn't a light, fluffy read, but it's an excellent novel for those prepared to devote their attention to it. Populated by likeable characters, the book delights in complicating their lives, leaving them searching, usually in vain, for the one thing that will make it all worthwhile:
"Whatever Fate sent one's way, somehow it was never enough. It was not a question of wanting more of the same thing, it was just that there was always something else, something one did not yet have but which was or now seemed necessary for complete happiness. It was this constant desire which kept human joy in check, for everyone felt that if only he could achieve just this one little thing more then all would be well." (pp.105/6)Alas, the moral of the story seems to be that you can't always get what you want (and if you try sometimes, you might find yourself even further away from your happiness...).
The 'Transylvanian Trilogy' ends with They Were Divided, a title with a multitude of implications, and with the first two books slowly leading us up to the First World War, you sense that the series will end with a bang. Will our heroes finally find happiness? It's doubtful, but one thing's for sure - the reader is likely to enjoy it all, whatever the outcome. I'm sure I will :)