They Were Counted by Miklós Bánffy (tr. Patrick Thursfield & Katalin Bánffy-Jelen)

Originally published in 1930s, They Were Counted is the first book in Hungarian writer and politician Miklós Bánffy’s Transylvanian Trilogy, also known as The Writing on the Wall. It’s a sweeping epic full of politics, love affairs, family tensions and dirty dealings, days at the races and nights at the ballroom – quite different from the stereotypical image of Transylvania as the land of gothic castles and vampires. If you’re in the mood for a winter (or summer) chunkster, this trilogy is well worth a look. They Were Counted may well turn out to be one of my reading highlights of the year – all in all, I consider it a truly great work of literature.

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Broad in scope yet intimate in detail, Bánffy’s trilogy covers the period leading up to the start of WW1 and the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the early part of the 20th century. The first book, which opens in 1905, features a number of interconnected narrative strands. The most engaging of these is, perhaps, the life of the young independent politician and former diplomat, Count Balint Abády, an inherently good man who is trying to do his best in a rapidly evolving world. At a fairly early stage in the novel, we learn that Balint is attracted to Adrienne Miloth, a beautiful, cultured young woman from his past who is now trapped in a loveless marriage to a sadistic and brutal nobleman, Pali Uzdy. On the surface, the couple’s marriage appears respectable, but when Adrienne comes back into Balint’s life, he can tell that something is terribly wrong.

He was worried about Adrienne. What was troubling her? Why did she seem so disillusioned? She had married Pal Uzdy of her own free will – she had chosen him herself. No one had forced her. Presumably she had been in love and so she had married him: why else? But, if that were so, whence came that inner revolt, that tension, the bitter tone in her voice when she spoke of the purpose of life and its aims? Perhaps her husband had turned out to be cruel. Perhaps he even struck her. Balint would not have put it past that evil-faced satanic man. […]

And why did she still retain that girlish, maidenly appearance? She did not have either the assurance or the mature look that came to most girls with marriage and motherhood. The oddly shy movement on the terrace when she pulled the stole up round her bare shoulders was not the normal assured gesture of a fulfilled woman. (pgs. 72-73)

Bánffy is very strong when it comes to portraying the inner thoughts and feelings of his central characters. The novel is full of sensitive and insightful observations, particularly those on the treatment of women in this society – for example, Balint only discovers the true horror of Adrienne’s private life by gradually piecing together a series of clues based on her behaviour.

The relationship between Balint and Adrienne, their growing love for one another, forms the beating heart of this novel. It is quite wonderful to observe the gradual reawakening of Adrienne as Balint gently and carefully teaches her how to love. She is a luminous creature, and Balint is utterly captivated by her. In this scene, Balint watches Adrienne as she skates across a frozen lake – in effect she is dancing on ice as a barrel organ plays in the background.

How beautiful she was! She looked weightless and ethereally tall as she danced with both men at once, doing a few turns with one and then, with a double turn, seeming to fly into the arms of the other, […].

As she danced Adrienne seemed more youthful than Balint had ever seen her, her fine elongated silhouette more slender, more alluring, watching her now, passing so lightly from one admirer to another, her lips parted in a dazzling smile of pleasure as each man in turn caught her by the waist and whirled her away with the speed of an eagle taking its prey. (pg. 169)

Also of note is Balint’s somewhat troubled cousin and dear friend, Laszlo Geyeróffy, as his story forms another highly compelling stand in the novel. Orphaned at an early age and raised by a series of aunts, Laszlo has struggled to gain true acceptance within his adopted family (and to a certain extent, within the broader society of the day). As the years pass by, he becomes increasingly conscious of the gulf that separates him from his cousins, of the ‘financial and social differences that set him apart’.  Consequently, Laszlo is left feeling rather inferior to his peers – all this despite the fact that he is a highly talented musician.

As Laszlo and Balint had passed through the red salon, and again as they had greeted their hostess and the others present, Laszlo could not help noticing his cousin’s calm assurance. Though every bit as polite as and deferential as the occasion demanded, every movement, every word showed that he belonged to these circles, that he knew himself to be in every way their equal and in no way an intruder. Laszlo watched him with envy, wondering if he had acquired this air of smooth distinction while en poste abroad, and wondering too if he could ever attain the same ease, he to whom every greeting, every nod and handshake seemed fraught with condescension, as if he were no more than a humble serf tolerated by consciously superior beings. (pg. 94)

Laszlo’s desire for acceptance leads him into deep trouble, both romantically and financially. He is in love with his young cousin, Klara Kollonich (and she with him), but the path of true love never runs smooth, especially so in this instance. Moreover, several of Laszlo’s nights are spent gambling at the casino, the one place where he feels accepted by others as an equal – after all, only luck and style matter here, not rank or social standing. And it’s not just Laszlo’s own money at stake at the card table, but that of his lover, too – as such, he has to face the possibility of financial and personal ruin on more than one occasion.

Love, money and honour are the cause of much friction between the characters in this story. There are hearts to be won and lost, debts to settled, and reputations to be maintained. For the most part, it’s thoroughly absorbing stuff.

There’s a fair bit of politics here, too. We follow Balint as he becomes involved in various political developments in Budapest. I must admit to finding these sections (which are threaded through They Were Counted) a little less engaging than the other strands in the story, but I soon got the hang of stepping back from the minutiae. The overall direction of developments is the important thing here – that and the tone of the debates as they typically end in mayhem with politicians eagerly jostling for position. (There is much dogmatic underhand behaviour along the way – virtually everyone’s focus seems terribly insular and short-sighted.) Developments on a local level also feature in the shape of Balint’s efforts to establish a farmers’ co-operative in support of the working classes – social enterprise in the community for want of a better phrase.

For the most part, They Were Counted reads like a sumptuous 19th-century novel. There are shooting parties, duels, lavish balls and excursions to the country. Central politics aside, the novel is largely set in the Transylvanian city of Koloszvar, alongside grand country houses such as the Kollonich residence at Veszprem. The descriptions of the surrounding landscape and natural world are wonderfully evocative, too. By conveying a portrait of this society, Bánffy opens up the history of the nation. This, coupled with the novel’s elegiac tone, adds to the feeling that we are witnessing a world that has vanished, a society swept away by the passage of history.

As this first volume draws to a close, various threads are left hanging. How will Balint and Adrienne’s relationship develop? What will become of Laszlo? What does the future hold for Transylvania? All these questions and more left me eager to read the second instalment of the trilogy, They Were Found Wanting, which I finished over the holidays.

I’ll wrap up with a quote from one of the novel’s wonderful society scenes as it gives a good indication of the style. In this scene, the crowds are gathering for a day at the races.

There were smart two-in-hands drawn by high-stepping trotters, four-horse English coaches driven by their owners with eight people seated on the roof together with a liveried coachman whose only function on that day was to blow lustily on his coaching horn. […] In the open carriages the ladies would sit with lace-covered hats; and when one of the rare automobiles entered the procession, with its rattling engine-noise and stinking exhaust fumes it seemed as if even the horses turned up their noses, sensing, perhaps that these horrible new-fangled machines had been sent to destroy them. (pg. 331)

I’ve barely scratched the surface of They Were Counted here. For a more detailed analysis, do take a look at Scott’s excellent review of the trilogy over at the seraillon blog. The novel also comes with a fascinating introduction by one of the translators, Patrick Thursfield, and a forward by the esteemed author, Patrick Leigh Fermor.

Update: The ever-reliable Stu at Winstonsdad has also reviewed this book – click here to read his review.

They Were Counted is published by Arcadia Books.

58 thoughts on “They Were Counted by Miklós Bánffy (tr. Patrick Thursfield & Katalin Bánffy-Jelen)

  1. MarinaSofia

    Really, really want to read this. I’ve read the history of Transylvania via personal fiction from the ‘other’ side (i.e. the Romanian), so want to see what the Hungarian side has to say as well.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, you must, Marina! It’s a big commitment, but I think you would find it fascinating and hugely enjoyable too. There’s a huge amount of detail on the politics of Hungary, but the main thing that struck me was the insular focus of many of the Hungarians at the time. While key events were happening elsewhere in Europe, members of the Hungarian parliament were more concerned with petty infighting and jostling for position over internal affairs. Very little of value was achieved in the end, whereas elsewhere in Europe the balance of power was shifting…

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Susan. The writing is absolutely wonderful. That particular scene where Adrienne dances on ice was one of my favourites in the whole trilogy – a beautiful passage.

      Reply
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  3. gertloveday

    How intriguing. But ars longa, vita brevis- I think I’ll have to content myself with the JacquiWine version. Will you be reviewing the second and third vols (please)?

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Haha! Well, I’m not convinced that the JacquiWine digested version does it justice. The whole trilogy is hugely rewarding.

      To be honest, I doubt whether I’ll review books two and three, partly because I think it would be very difficult to do so without revealing spoilers on the first book (and book two by the time we get to the final one). I had that problem when writing about a couple of the books in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan series, and I’m wary of falling into the same trap again. Plus, pretty much everything I’ve written here about Banffy’s themes applies to all three volumes in this trilogy. It reads like one extended story, albeit a very compelling one. I might write a shorter piece on Banffy’s evocation of Transylvanian environment, the landscape and wildlife of the country. There is some wonderful writing here on the natural world, and it’s the one aspect I haven’t captured in this review. Let me have a think about that…

      Reply
  4. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Excellent review Jacqui. I have all three parts of the trilogy lurking but it’s just finding the time ot commit to such a long book! Even more keen now!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Karen. You have it? Great news as it’s absolutely the kind of series I would have recommended to you. Yes, it is a big commitment, and I know what you mean about finding the right time for something like this. I read the first book at the end of last year and then the Christmas holidays gave me the right opportunity to take a good run at book two. Just finished the final volume last night. It’s a terrific trilogy, hugely rewarding. I can only encourage you to dust it off and schedule it in. :)

      Reply
  5. Brian Joseph

    Great review Jacqui.

    I have heard really good things about this trilogy and I want to read it.

    I really like that first quote you posted. The second paragraph describing why the narrator is worried about Adrienne is insightful and nuanced.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Brian. I really think you would get a lot out of this trilogy. It’s definitely worth the investment in time.

      I’m glad you like that first quote as it hints at one of the main threads in the book: the true nature of Adrienne’s life with her husband and Balint’s effort to win her heart. I probably can’t say too much more without revealing spoilers, but it’s a beautiful storyline.

      Reply
  6. TJ @ MyBookStrings

    I’ve seen this one pop up in various places recently, and all I’ve read about it has been positive. (I actually think I might have seen it in the library’s catalog, too, now that I think about it.) I have this grand plan of reading more from Central and Southern Europe, and this one will definitely be added to my reading list. It sounds intriguing, and I love the quotes you included in your review. And sometimes, a good chunkster absolutely does the trick.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s funny how that happens every now and again, books lay dormant for a while and then all of sudden they appear in two or three places in the space of a few weeks. I noticed that Bellezza is planning to read this at some point this year – she mentioned it in a post on future reading plans, so you may have seen it there.

      I’m glad you like the quotes as I think they give a good feel for the trilogy’s themes and style. This series has been a bit of a revelation for me – hugely enjoyable and very rewarding. It’s definitely worth considering, especially if you’re thinking of reading more from this region.

      Reply
  7. realthog

    A tremendous review, Jacqui! Alas, I have to echo gertloveday — right now I’m in no position to take on a chunkster, not until I’ve tackled the various chunksters sitting on my shelves . . .

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, John – very kind. I’m sure you’ve got more than enough to keep you interested, especially on the crime/noir front! I always enjoy your monthly round-ups of books read as there’s usually something to catch my eye there. :-)

      Reply
  8. Guy Savage

    I bought the trilogy last year but haven’t got to it yet. It sounds like something that may make my best of year list too. Nice when you hit one of those so early in the year.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It is. If truth be told, I read the first book at the end of last year, but with more than enough books to make my end-of-year highlights I ended up holding it over till January. Plus, I’m forever running behind with my reviews.

      I think you’ll like most of the elements in this trilogy, with the possible exception of a few of the scenes between Balint and Adrienne. Some of these passages are quite ‘romancey’ in nature, possibly too romantic for your liking. That said, I think there’s more than enough in the other threads to keep you engaged. You’ll love the society scenes and everything about Lazlo’s storyline — his love affairs are not overly romancey in any way. Plus there are the family conflicts to look forward to. There are one or two rather wicked characters tucked away in all this. The politics are really interesting as well, even if these elements do feel too detailed at times. As I mentioned in my review, I think the most important aspects of the politics are the strategic direction of developments and the tone of the debates. Most of the Hungarian politicians are very insular, intent on focusing on their own internal affairs at the expense of keeping abreast of developments on the broader European stage…we know what’s coming of course. It’s not too difficult to stay above the minutiae though, especially as Banffy’s prose is so readable. I’ll be fascinated to see how you find it, Guy.

      Reply
  9. Scott W

    Terrific commentary, Jacqui, on one of my favorite works – the one that compelled me to start blogging in the first place. I actually found the political elements fascinating; I can’t recall another literary work I’ve read that contains such perceptive insights into the machinations of legislation (if I recall correctly, though, Thursfield and Katalin Bánffy elected to omit some of the “political” passages that they felt were a bit too granular in treating specifics of empire politics of the time).

    Though I understand your reluctance to reveal spoilers, I do hope you’ll write about the other two volumes. If your post on the first volume is any indication, surely you can find ways to communicate the essence of these books without giving too much away – not that I’m pressuring you! Though the trilogy is a commitment, I have seldom been so engaged by a work of literature, and seldom so chagrined to have no more of it to read after I’d finished the last volume. I’m delighted to know that you’ve shared that enthusiasm.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thank you, Scott – that means a lot coming from you as I know how highly you value this trilogy. I fear I haven’t done it justice here, but I’m so glad you enjoyed my commentary!

      Isn’t that interesting about the politics? I still found those sections compelling despite all the minutiae…I guess I just tried to read it at a higher level without getting too worried about trying to keep track of every little detail. As you say, this element does lift the lid on the inner workings of political life, and it does so in a way I’ve yet to encounter in any other piece of literature of its kind. It would be fascinating to have been a fly on the wall of the political chamber at that time, don’t you think? That said, I still found the other strands more engaging: Balint and Adrienne; Lazlo’s story; all the society scenes; and the Transylvanian setting. In a way, that’s no bad thing as I think there’s something for everyone in these novels.

      Ah, books two and three. I’m not going to make any promises on that front, particularly as I really struggled to write about the third book in Ferrante’s tetralogy. (It never even crossed my mind to think about reviewing the final volume, even though I liked it very much, more so than book three.) As you’ve probably seen in my reply to Gert, I may well write a piece about Banffy’s evocation of the natural world, an aspect I’ve barely mentioned in my review. I loved his descriptions of the Transylvanian forests and the wildlife, so it’s possibly something to address in another post.

      Having finished the final book last night, I’m feeling a little bereft now. The final section is very poignant…I just know I’m going to miss these characters over the weeks and months ahead. Thank you for providing me with the spark to read this trilogy, Scott – your review was instrumental on that front. It really is a remarkable achievement of the part of Banffy and his two translators, a wonderful read.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Glad to hear you enjoyed this novel, Stu. (I hadn’t realised you’d reviewed it when I posted my piece, so I’ve just added a link to yours.) Yes, even though the style reminds me of one of those epic 19th-century novels, Banffy does a great job in capturing this period. You get a real sense of a world on the brink of being swept away by the developments elsewhere on the European stage.

      I can only encourage you to read the books two and three – they’re just as good as the first instalment in this remarkable story.

      Reply
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    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, very much so. As I’ve mentioned above, I think I tuned into the relationships and characters in this story (more so than some of the political threads). That’s not to say that the politics didn’t interest me — the overall shape and direction of the political developments were fascinating — it’s just that I was more captivated by the society scenes and the emotionally-driven storylines! It’s a great trilogy, similar to something like War and Peace in its scope and sweep.

      Reply
  11. Emma

    It sounds marvellous and really something I’d like.
    This one is on my wish list. The only thing that keeps me from reading it is that it’s a series of 3 chunksters.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s great, and I think you’d like it very much. At first sight, the trilogy’s length (1,400 pages) might seem a little daunting, but these books are hugely compelling and very readable. It took me a little while to get to know the characters at the start, but once I’d reached page 50 or 60 (when the Balint-Adrienne storyline kicked in) I was pretty hooked. Banffy was a natural-born storyteller, and it shows – I’m so glad I read this series.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, me too. Balint, Adrienne and Laszlo are all marvellous creations, so I felt fully invested in their lives. I can’t quite recall where I first heard of this trilogy, but it was a case of seeing it in two or three different places over the course of a year. I’d seen it mentioned in tweets from Arcadia Books and then I spotted the first book on display in Waterstones Picadilly. The final push came from Scott’s review, which I stumbled upon last year – his post convinced me to read it.

      Reply
  12. Caroline

    If I wasn’t so averse to chunky books I’d have read this already. It sounds so rich. However, I might, if I could make up my mind which translation to choose. I only compared the German and the English and you’d think they had been written by different authors. It’s very confusing. Then there’s also the French one . . . Decisions.
    Great post, Jacqui.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Caroline. Well, I’m not usually a massive fan of chunky books either, but I can wholeheartedly recommend this one – it’s an incredibly rewarding trilogy, well worth the investment in time.

      Gosh, that is confusing (and annoying) about the English vs the German translations. For what its worth, I found the English translations eminently readable. That’s not necessarily the same as saying they’re accurate translations of the original text (I’ve no idea how representative they are), but they do read very smoothly. One of the translators, Katalin Bánffy-Jelen, is Miklós Bánffy’s daughter, so bearing in mind her involvement one would hope the English versions are pretty faithful to the originals. She’d already made a start on the translation into English some years ago and then it was passed on to Patrick Thursfield to take things forward. Do you know if she had a hand in the German or French translations?

      Reply
      1. Caroline

        I have no idea whether she helped but seeing the difference I’d say she didn’t. It doesn’t necessarily mean they are closer to the original even if she helped. It depends what agenda she had. The English is more elegant. Did she want to make it more accessible, prettier for English readers? You never know.

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          That’s a good point…it’s hard to say. As for the French translation, I wonder if Scott ever looked at that version? It might be worth asking him – he has spent time in France in the past so he may have considered it.

          Reply
          1. Scott W

            Though I saw the French translation in bookstores in Paris, I did not have a close look (and in any case, wasn’t carrying around the 1200 pages of English translation to compare!). If I recall correctly, though, the French edition was translated from Thursfield and Banffy’s English edition, and not directly from the original Hungarian, thus the possibility of amplifying the “telephone” effect.

            Regardless, given a choice, I would almost certainly opt for the English translation because of the extraordinary circumstances in which it came about. Thursfield’s introduction describing this effort is probably worth a blog post in itself. The translation won the top translation award in the English-speaking world – the Oxford-Weidenfeld prize.

            Reply
            1. JacquiWine Post author

              Oh, that’s useful to know – many thanks, Scott. I didn’t realise that the French translation had used the English version as a starting point. I guess that type of sequencing is not uncommon in certain cases. As I mentioned above, I found the English translation a joy to read. No idea how close it is to the Hungarian original, but as a work of literature in its own right I thought it was wonderful.

              Reply
    2. Emma

      I noticed differences in the translations between the French and the English when I included quotes in my post about Krudy’s Sindbad. I don’t think it comes from the translators.

      I wonder if it comes from the fact that the original language is the Hungarian. It would be interesting to see if we have the same differences between English and French or German translations of Finnish books since, if I’m not mistaken, Finnish and Hungarian belong to the same group of language.

      Reply
      1. JacquiWine Post author

        You could well be right there…it’s not easy to get to the heart of some of these differences.

        Yes, that comparison would be interesting – I think Finnish and Hungarian are part of the same linguistic family (Uralic?).

        Reply
      2. Caroline

        I’m not sure I understand what you are saying. That Hungarian can be translated different ways? Yes, Hungarian and Finnish come from the same family, still, the differences in the German and Engkish beginning of the books are huge. Especially the length of sentences and mood. Unfortunately one can’t read the beginning of the French. I’d have loved to compare.

        Reply
        1. Emma

          I meant that as the Hungarian language is very different, there might be several ways (and equally accurate) to translate it.
          Or it’s old translations from a time when cutting or alternate the original wasn’t so frowned upon.
          But the Sindbad translations I’ve read are recent.

          Reply
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  15. 1streading

    Your review reminded me what a great novel this is. You’re doing exactly the right thing reading the trilogy as, because I didn’t move onto the second novel within a reasonable time, I now feel I’d have to read this one again first.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Well, I’m glad to hear that my review turned out to be a welcome reminder for you. It’s such a wonderfully textured novel, so much so that I found it quite difficult to give a sense of all the different themes in my piece. All I can do is to encourage you to return to it, especially given that books two and three are just as good as the first. (Having just finished the final instalment of the trilogy I’m feeling a little bereft now.) Maybe you could read the last couple of chapters of They Were Counted, just as a reminder of the ending? I’m sure you’d be able to pick it up again without too much trouble!

      (PS No worries about the typo – I’m forever making mistakes myself, so I’ve just tweaked your first comment.)

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ooh, if you’re putting together an Austro-Hungarian reading list, Banffy’s trilogy is definitely worthy of serious consideration. This such a rich novel – there’s something remarkable on virtually every page.

      Reply
  16. Max Cairnduff

    Lovely review Jacqui, I’m glad I came back to read it. I have these as you know, and this does make a great case for starting, but I’d want to read the trilogy in reasonably quick succession and I still have I think three volumes of Proust to go…

    Might be a while therefore, but delighted to see it’s as good as I hoped it would be.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Max. Reading all three in fairly quick succession is definitely the way to go with this trilogy. In essence, it’s just one extended story that flows very naturally from one book to the next. Having finished the final instalment earlier this month, I can confirm that books two and three are just as good as the first. I’m pretty confident that you’ll get a lot out of this. It’s so rich, very difficult to do it justice in a review.

      Reply

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