Tuesday, 20 May 2014

'They Were Counted' by Miklós Bánffy (Review)

Do you like big Victorian novels?  Are you a fan of fiction in translation?  Are you always on the lookout for quality books with a couple of sequels ready for you to move on to?  Well, come this way, gentle reader - I may just have something to interest you today...

Miklós Bánffy's They Were Counted (translated by Patrick Thursfield and Katalin Bánffy-Jelen, review copy courtesy of Arcadia Books) is the first in a trio of books entitled The Writing on the Wall (The Transylvanian Trilogy), a series whose focus on blood is more regal than vampirish.  This first novel is set in Hungary in the first years of the twentieth century, a country proud of its long history but nervous of its junior role in the Austro-Hungarian dual monarchy.  Despite the very real threat of a loss of autonomy, though, the upper classes continue to drink, gamble and fool around in parliament while Vienna schemes to strip the Hungarians of much of their glory.

The novel focuses on two main characters, cousins representative of the national elite.  Balint Abady is a nobleman who has become an independent member of parliament, an intelligent and hard-working man who dreams of dragging his estates (and the country) into the twentieth century; Laszlo Gyeroffy, by contrast, is a bit of an outsider, a talented musician whose ambition to master music is threatened by his weakness for cards and drink.

Of course, it wouldn't be an epic classic novel without a touch of romance, and both of the cousins are unlucky in love.  The bright (but relatively poor) Gyeroffy is in love with Klara, for whom her parents have much higher ambitions, and his affairs of the heart threaten to derail the plans to become a talented musician.  Abady's love is directed in an even more unfortunate direction, as his desired partner, the beautiful Adrienne Miloth, is actually already married.  Still, in a society where appearances and honour count for everything (and reality nothing), it's always possible to find a way...

They Were Counted is a truly ambitious novel, a deep, melancholy attempt to capture a time of great change in Hungary.  From its opening scenes of Balint on his way to a grand ball at a large country house, the lover of Victorian literature is in familiar territory.  The first page is Hardyesque in its description of the solitary traveller (as is much of the natural description in the novel), but the castle Var-Siklod, and the ball itself, is more Downton Abbey in its imposing majesty.

If I were looking for one apt comparison, however, it would have to be Anthony Trollope, albeit a more melancholic, modernist, Weltschmerz-laden Trollope.  Abady, the well-to-do politician from the Transylvanian provinces, can't help but remind the reader of a character like Phineas Finn, particularly in his initial naivety:
"Balint's innocence stemmed not only from his straightforward nature and an upbringing that had shielded him from dishonesty and greed, but also from the fact that the protected years at the Theresianum college, at the university and even in the diplomatic service, had shown him only the gentler aspects of life.  He had lived always in a hothouse atmosphere where the realities of human wickedness wore masks; and Balint did not yet have the experience to see the truth that lay behind."
p.4 (Arcadia Books, 2013)
Ah, the innocent making his way towards the metropolis - rest assured, the end of the novel will see a much more worldly Abady...

The book, while set in 1904/5, was written in the 1930s, and the story is overshadowed by the knowledge of what was to come (the First World War, and the subsequent loss of Abady's Transylvanian homeland to Romania) and the uncertainty in the air due to Germany's belligerent rumblings in Central Europe.  This lends the book a sombre mood, with echoes of death and darkness scattered throughout, as shown in a small dinner party hosted by one of the main characters, where the table glistens with light, while behind the guest the food is served from the darkness:
"And yet, thought Laszlo, behind all this lay the uncertainty of real life; bleak, cold, cruel, unrelenting and evil.  In front was every pleasure that man could invent: food to be savoured with knowledge, wine to drive one to ecstasy, beauty and colour, light and the rosy temptation of woman's flesh to make one forget everything, especially the merciless advance of death which lurked in the shadows behind them.  The feast had been prepared so knowingly that it seemed to Laszlo that everyone present ate and drank more voraciously than usual and chatted with more hectic vivacity, as if they were driven to enjoy themselves while there was still time." (p.305)
Laszlo, in particular, is a man unlikely to meet with a happy ending.  He certainly enjoys himself, but you always have the sense that he is living on borrowed time.

Laszlo's struggles, though, are merely a distraction from the main character, Balint.  His efforts to understand the political intrigues of the fractured Empire, with the ethnic Romanians demanding more say in their affairs, and the Austrians determined to take the Hungarian military into its fold, allow the reader an insight into the events leading to 1914 (which, I'm sure, will be covered in the sequels).  He is determined to play the part his breeding demands, and when Laszlo scornfully dismisses politics, Balint replies:
"All life is politics; and I don't mean just party politics.  It is politics when I keep order on the estates and run the family properties.  It's all politics.  When we help the well-being of the people in the villages and in the mountains, when we try to promote culture, it's still politics, I say, and you can't run away from it!" (p.455)
Hmm.  Retreating to the country to help the peasants - remind you of anyone?

They Were Counted is a wonderful novel, and I'm keen to move on to the sequels when I get the chance; however, there is one aspect to the book which is a little off.  Balint's pursuit of his former love Adrienne is made unpalatable by the fact that she is scarred by her relationship with her brutish husband, a man who simply forces himself upon her.  While this is bad enough, Balint himself, blinded by his obsession, is determined to have a physical relationship with her, despite her obvious trauma.  It's unpleasant reading for a modern audience, an example of the vast gulf that can appear between cultures and eras...

I wouldn't let that put you off reading the book though, especially if you're a sucker for a novel with dashing army officers, magnificent ball scenes, gambling and promissory notes, and women in enough jewels to cover the debt of a decent-sized country.  With an excellent translation, one which reads like one of the V-Lit classics so many of us love, this is a book to enjoy leisurely - over a long period of time.  It's well worth setting aside a few weeks for ;)