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.
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.