Friday, 21 April 2017

Book Review: They Were Counted by Bánffy Miklós

The twentieth century before World War One is widely known as the belle époque although already at the time those willing to see could make out the signs of looming disaster. Then just like today, the vast majority preferred to block out forebodings of a ghastly future and went on with their lives as if what was to come were none of their business. The once celebrated and then long forgotten Hungarian classic They Were Counted by Bánffy Miklós shows Hungaro-Transylvanian nobility indulging in balls, hunting parties, horse races, gambling, political discussions, amorous adventures, duels, and voyages abroad. While young Count Bálint Abády represents his district in Hungarian Parliament in Budapest and runs after his married youth friend Adrienne, his sensitive cousin and gifted musician László Gyerőffy falls a victim to unhappy love and to the temptations of Bohemian life, most importantly gambling for high stakes.

Count Bánffy Miklós de Losoncz was born in Kolozsvár (today: Cluj-Napoca), Austria-Hungary (today: Romania), in December 1873. Although multitalented in the arts, he studied law and entered a political career while co-editing the magazine Erdélyi Lapok (Transylvanian Leaves) and writing journalistic articles, acclaimed short stories and plays as Miklós Kisbán. From 1912 he was director of the Hungarian State Theatres in Budapest, but after World War One he resumed politics and was Hungarian Foreign Minister in 1921/22. In 1926 he moved to Transylvania turned Romanian to avoid losing ancestral castle and estates. His first novel Reggeltől-estig (From Dawn to Dusk) came out in 1927; a play and two memoirs, fictitious Fortéjos Deák Boldizsár memoriáléja (1931; The Memorial of Tricky Boldizsár Deák) and real The Phoenix Land (Emlékeimből: 1932; tr. From My Memory), followed before his chef-d’œuvre The Transylvanian Trilogy (Erdélyi Tőrténet): The Writing on the Wall consisting of They Were Counted (Megszámláltattál: 1934), They Were Found Wanting (És hijjával találtattál: 1937), and They Were Divided (Darabokra szaggattatol: 1940). Between 1928 and 1944 he was chief-editor of the literary journal Erdélyi Helikon (Transylvanian Helicon). Expropriated by the Romanian Communist regime, Bánffy Miklós died in Budapest, Hungary, in June 1950. His unfinished memoir The Phoenix Land (Huszonöt év: 1993; tr. Twenty-five Years) appeared only after the end of Communism.

In the early 1900s, when They Were Counted the golden days of the Hungarian kingdom within the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Count Bálint Abády returns to his ancestral castle near Kolozsvár in Transylvania after several years abroad to run for a seat in Parliament. At the reception of a befriended count he reconnects with local notables and old friends. He meets his orphaned cousin László Gyerőffy whom he hasn’t seen in a while. László is a gifted musician, but his guardian obliges him to study law and moreover he keeps him short of money, so he looks forward to coming of age, to finally taking control of his inheritance and to doing as he likes. Among the guests is also his old friend Adrienne Milóth who got married since he last saw her and makes the chaperone for her younger sisters. Bálint remembers with relish the many discussions that he had with her as a young man and can’t understand how she could ever accept a gloomy man like Pál Uzdy for husband. While László returns to Budapest, Bálint and Adrienne frequent the same limited circles where they see each other often. They become closer and closer without realising that they are falling in love and beginning a hesitant affair. When Bálint is in Budapest for Parliament sessions, he learns that László neglects his music studies and succumbed to the temptations of gambling for high stakes out of despair at the hopeless love for his cousin Klara. Bálint anticipates disaster, and yet, can’t do anything to save his cousin. Meanwhile, the political powers in Parliament get stuck in futile controversies about how best to work against the hated Habsburg rule. And at home in Kolozsvár, the reforms that Bálint wants to implement on his estate meet resistance from local potentates and his mother’s steward.

Count Bánffy’s Transylvanian Tale in three volumes, titled The Writing on the Wall in English, is a work of epic dimensions and already its first part They Were Counted must be called monumental. My German edition counts almost 800 pages, while the English edition may be shorter because I read that the translators omitted passages dwelling on details of Hungarian or local politics and history that would have called for explanation. In fact, the German (annotated) edition felt a bit lengthy occasionally for the author’s obvious desire to give a comprehensive picture of the world of Hungarian, notably Transylvanian nobility just after 1900. The novel’s title – like the titles of the other two parts – and the quotation on the fly-leaf are lent from the Old Testamentary Book of Daniel to hint at decadence and degeneration going on unnoticed. Dealing with the final years of the Austro-Hungarian dual monarchy the entire trilogy may be called the Hungarian counterpart to Joseph Roth’s The Radetzky March (»»» read my review) although in style it rather reminds of Russian writers like Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevsky. The skilfully interwoven different layers of the plot and the psychologically deep characters feel very realistic and make the book an engaging read.

Admittedly, I passed a longer stretch of time than expected with They Were Counted by Bánffy Miklós, but I thoroughly enjoyed (almost) every page of the thick tome and long to read also the other two parts of the trilogy. It certainly helped that I’m Austrian and that when I plunged into this rediscovered Hungarian classic I was familiar at least with the outlines of Austro-Hungarian history as well as with some of the politics — although only from the Austrian point of view. But I believe that even without this background knowledge I would have taken similarly great pleasure in the read since first of all it’s a novel dealing with the vicissitudes of life that the politically active protagonist and his surroundings (noble or not) have to cope with. It’s a pity that World War Two and Communism prevented The Transylvanian Trilogy for so long from getting the attention that it undoubtedly deserves. Highly recommended!

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1 comment:

  1. I can see how this book would have meant a lot to you.


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