Tag Archives: Arcadia Books

New post: They Were Counted by Miklós Bánffy – the politics

Earlier in the week, I reviewed They Were Counted, 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 missed it, you can read my review here.

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At nearly 600 pages, They Were Counted is a big book in every sense of the phrase. As such, I couldn’t find enough room in my review to include a passage on the political developments of the time. So, for the interested, I thought I would post a couple of extended quotes here, particularly as they help to illustrate one of the key themes in the book, the tensions over the fate of the Hungarian nation in the early 20th century. (The trilogy spans the ten years prior to the start of WW1 and the subsequent dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.) Hopefully, they will give you a flavour of some of the political themes and the tone.

The novel covers the key political developments affecting Hungary in the run-up to the Great War. Other than Count Balint Abády, the young independent politician and the main protagonist in Banffy’s marvellous epic, many of the other Hungarian politicians of the day seem rather blinkered and insular in their focus. Several of the parliamentary debates end in mayhem with politicians eagerly jostling for position, and there is much dogmatic, underhand behaviour along the way.

First up is a quote from one of the early chapters of the first book – it is worth reading in full. The year is 1905: Tisza is the Prime Minister of Hungary; Slawata, a Counsellor to the Foreign Office, is rumoured to be close to the heir to Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the Austro-Hungarian throne. Unlike the ruler of the day (Franz Joseph I), the Heir is a fan of centralisation with one grand central council controlling everything from the politics to the economy to the armed forces, a point that Slawata has already revealed to Balint during a previous conversation. The quote also says much about Balint’s character, that of an inherently good man trying to do his best in a rapidly evolving world.

Balint pondered the programme outlined by Slawata: centralization, rule by an Imperial Council, the ancient kingdom of Hungary reduced to an Austrian province, and national boundaries to be re-arranged statistically according to the ethnic origin of the inhabitants! Why all this? To what purpose? Slawata had given him the answer: Imperial expansion in the Balkans so that feudal kingdoms for the Habsburgs reached the Sea of Marmora; and it was all to be achieved with the blood of Hungarian soldiers and paid for by Hungarian tax-money! So it was merely to help Vienna spread Austrian hegemony over the nations of the Balkans that Tisza was to be helped to build up the Hungarian national armed forces.

It seemed now to Balint that both parties in Parliament were fighting instinctively, but without a clear understanding either of their motives or of the inevitable results of their policies and strategy. While Tisza battled to strengthen the army, he could have no inkling that, once strengthened, it would be used to suppress the very independence it was designed to assure – and when the opposition delayed the implementation of Tisza’s policy by petty arguments about shoulder-flashes and army commands, they were unaware that, inadvertently, they were providing ammunition for those very arguments that in the near future would threaten the integrity of the constitution.

How simple everything could seem if one looked only at the figures, those cold statistics that took no account of people’s feelings and traditions. How much would be destroyed if men were to be treated as robots! What of the myriad of individual characteristics, passions, aspirations, triumphs and disappointments that together made one people different from another? How could anyone ignore all the different threads of experience that, over the centuries, had formed and deepened the differences that distinguished each nation?

How would anyone believe that any good was to be obtained by adding the Balkan states to the already unwieldy Dual Monarchy and so increasing the Empire to a hundred million souls with differing cultures and traditions? Of course armies could be recruited and young men could die, but great States evolved only through centuries of social tradition and mutual self-interest; they were not imposed by bayonets. To believe the contrary would be as mad as the folly which had put the Archduke Maximilian on the throne of Mexico. (pgs. 126-127, Arcadia Books)

This next quote highlights the insular nature of the Hungarian politicians, many of whom are intent on focusing on their own internal affairs at the expense of keeping abreast of developments on the broader European stage, By now we are a couple of years down the line.

In the great world outside Hungary events were taking place that would change all their lives: the uprising in Russia, the dispute over Crete, the Kaiser Wilhelm’s ill-timed visit to Tangier, the revelation of Germany’s plans to expand its navy – but such matters were of no importance to the members of the Hungarian Parliament. Even events closer to home, such as the rabble-rousing speech of an Austrian politician in Salzburg urging revolt among the German-speaking minorities in northern Hungary, or the anonymous pamphlet, which appeared in Vienna and revealed the total unpreparedness of the Austro-Hungarian forces compared with those of the other European powers, went unnoticed in Budapest. Naturally when Apponyi made a speech in favour of Deszo Baffy’s proposal to limit the demand for Hungarian commands in the army to using Hungarian only in regimental matters, everyone listened and discussed it as if their very lives depended on it. (pg. 314)

I may well write another (shorter!) piece on Banffy’s evocation of the natural world, one of the many pleasures of this trilogy. Next weekend, perhaps.

They Were Counted is published by Arcadia Books.

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.

Escape by Dominique Manotti (tr. Amanda Hopkinson and Ros Schwartz)

Escape is my first encounter with Dominique Manotti – a French crime novelist and specialist in the economic history of the 19th Century – and it’s a very enjoyable one indeed.

The novel opens in 1987 with the escape of Filippo and Carlo from an Italian prison. For the past six months, Filippo, a simple petty criminal from Rome, has been sharing a cell with Carlo, a former leading figure in the left-wing Red Brigades movement. During this time young Filippo has been in thrall to Carlo, mesmerised by his charismatic cellmate’s story of activism and violence against the authorities.

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Carlo has engineered his escape via the prison’s waste-disposal chute, and Filippo, who happens to be in the right place at the right time, dives into the rubbish skip to join his cellmate as he makes his exit. Carlo’s associates are waiting for him on the other side, but no one wants Filippo tagging along for the ride. As a result, Carlo sends Filippo on his way with some sage advice, words that continue to flit through Filippo’s mind during the days and months to come:

‘We part company here.’ He places a canvas bag at Filippo’s feet. ‘I’ve put everything I could find in the cars in there for you. Clothes, two sandwiches, and some money.’ Carlo pauses, Filippo says nothing. ‘My escape will be in the news, I think. And they’ll be looking for you, because you broke out with me. You’ll have to keep a low profile for a while, until things settle down.’ A pause. Filippo still saying nothing. ‘Do you understand what I’m telling you?’

A nod. Filippo continues to gaze at the mountains.

‘If things get too tough here in Italy, go over to France. Here on this envelope, I’ve written the address of Lisa Biaggi, in Paris. Go there and say I sent you, tell her what happened. She’ll help you.’ Filippo takes the envelope without looking at Carlo and slips it in the bag. Carlo stands up.

‘Goodbye, Filippo. Take care of yourself.’

And he leaves, walking fast and without turning round. (pg. 5, Arcadia Books)

Carlo’s swift departure leaves Filippo feeling bereft and abandoned. He decides to head north across the mountain paths and two or three weeks later, he hits Bologna. On his arrival in the city, Filippo buys a newspaper and reads of Carlo’s death during an attempted bank raid in Milan. Moreover, two of Carlo’s accomplices were observed fleeing the scene leaving a member of the carabinieri and a security guard for dead.  Filippo quickly realises he’s almost certainly a prime suspect for the crime, and skips to Paris in search of Lisa.

Lisa – a political refugee from Italy and Carlo’s girlfriend – is suspicious of Filippo and believes Carlo’s death may have been a planned assassination, a set-up involving the Italian Secret Service. Nevertheless, she finds Filippo an apartment in Paris (by way of her friend, Cristina), but wants little more to do with him. Once again, Filippo feels dumped and worthless:

He’d jumped because he’d followed Carlo, like iron filings to a magnet. His thoughts always returned to Carlo. His form, so clear, so close, within reach, a warm glow – Filippo closes his eyes and hold out his hand, as he used to do in their cell, but only encounters emptiness. He hunches over his sheet of paper; his drawings overlap. Above all, Carlo is a voice, a language, and stories. The memories of never-ending nights spent listening to him flood back powerfully, overwhelming him, those memories that he’d tried to bury, to destroy because he felt abandoned, betrayed. Carlo had the words to talk about the struggle of those heady years, the passion, the battle against slave labour, the thrill of the fight, the euphoria of victory, the agony of defeat and the joy of freedom, jubilant violence. Being prepared to put your life at risk, every day. For a while I wanted to forget everything about him. Betrayal. Impossible. Filippo is suffocating. The sheet of paper is now covered in black. He screws it into a ball, throws it into the waste-paper bin and picks up another. (pgs. 43-44)

Gradually, Filippo channels his frustration in a more positive direction. Filippo recalls how Carlo inspired him to find a way of expressing his feelings through language, and the young escapee decides to document his story. He sees this as a means of demonstrating his own importance, to show Lisa and Christina he means business. Filippo wants to claim Carlo as his own:

Those two [Lisa and Christina] will come to understand that Carlo is mine, not theirs, and that he never did belong to them. A story of men. (pg. 45)

Filippo writes the story, starting with the pair’s escape from prison and ending with the botched bank raid, embellishing his own role in events at every stage. His narrative is compelling, his characters realistic and free of the typical stereotypes of the genre, and his novel is snapped up by a publisher. Keen to position Filippo’s ‘story’ as a fictional one, the publishers advise him to change the characters’ names together with the date and location of the bank raid just to be on the safe side. On its publication in France, the novel is a major success and Filippo – expertly groomed and coached by the publisher’s in-house publicist – is in demand for interviews and public appearances. But as the novel’s fame grows, Filippo is at risk as the Italian police, the public prosecutor and intelligence services begin to suspect that the book presents the authentic version of events. And as Lisa, a former journalist, begins her own investigation into Filippo and Carlo’s story, her discoveries lead back to political events and acts of corruption in the recent past.

I enjoyed Escape very much. Manotti draws on The Years of Lead, a period of socio-political turmoil and terrorism in Italy that lasted from the late-sixties to the eighties, to provide some context for events in her novel. Acts of unrest and terrorism were attributed to far-right and far-left groups depending on the source, and corruption was rife. Manotti uses this framework to produce an intelligent and intricately-plotted novel with several layers and developments, one that held my attention throughout. At 160 pages, it’s a pacey and thought-provoking read on a political and emotional level.

Filippo, the novel’s central character, is very engaging and so much more than just a one-note street criminal. We understand his conflicted emotions: his admiration for Carlo during their time as cellmates; his feelings of rejection when Carlo abandons him; his need to prove himself to Lisa and Cristina. And we follow his transformation from naïve kid to self-assured literary star.

Escape also shows us how the relationship between reality and fiction is often complex. In an afterword to the novel, translator Amanda Hopkinson mentions that Manotti, a former political and union activities herself, has turned to writing novels ‘par désespoir’. As one of the characters in Escape reflects ‘If I want to try and salvage our past, there’s only one thing left for me to do. Write novels.’

Stu at Winstonsdad’s and MarinaSofia at findingtimetowrite have also reviewed Escape.

Escape is published in the UK by Arcadia Books. Source: review copy kindly provided by the publishers.

Zenith Hotel by Oscar Coop-Phane, tr. by Ros Schwartz

I’m a streetwalker. Not a call girl or anything like that, no, a common streetwalker with high heels and menthol cigarettes (p. 5-6, Arcadia Books)

Zenith Hotel, a raw and powerful novella by Oscar Coop-Phane, introduces us to Nanou, a Parisian streetwalker.  By following Nanou’s movements over the course of a day, we see a microcosm of her life presented as brief, yet piercing, vignettes. She lives in Zenith Hotel, but there are no soft towels or creature comforts here. Her lodgings are squalid. The communal toilet is ‘not a proper toilet, just a hole in the ground with two little white ceramic footrests’ and the floor is always wet.

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The narration starts with Nanou, so we gain access to her thoughts as she starts her morning in her room with a coffee and cigarette, a routine she maintains from one day to the next. Once Nanou heads out for the day, the focus shifts and much of the narration comes from the perspective of Nanou’s clients. We meet a high-school teacher crushed by the administrative burden of his job and a slightly stale marriage. We see a moped-loving man in his late thirties who has moved back in with his parents following the failure of his relationship. And there’s a bar manager in the process of leaving his current role to open a café with his brother. Cooper-Phane sketches these distinctive pen-portraits with a striking combination of insight, compassion and raw honesty; he shows us the lonely, the disconnected, those bruised by the harsh realities of life.

Perhaps the most moving and memorable of these portrayals is ‘Victor and Baton’, in which we encounter a solitary man as he cares for his one friend in life, his dying dog – this is a deeply affecting picture of an isolated individual desperately trying to escape the ‘crushing burden of solitude’. (p. 47):

Baton was abandoned at birth. Victor took him in and washed him, caring for him like his own son. He raised him in his little apartment in the 11th arrondissement. He made him a space in the sitting room, in his life, in his heart. When he went off to work, Baton waited for him, the only soul who has never deserted him. (p. 44-45)

At the end of each client vignette, we return to Nanou and briefly glimpse her thoughts as she continues to walk the streets. Once again, there is a raw candour to the writing; it’s spare and direct, but penetrating, too:

They find it comforting to taste destitution, to defile themselves a little. When they get home, they’ll have a shower and forget all about it.

I wash myself too, but it doesn’t come out. Their filth is under my skin, under my nails, in my hair. Their smell clings to my body. I scrub myself raw but I can’t get rid of it. Even though I’ve been doing this for a long time, you don’t get used other people’s filth. It contaminates you as much as it did on the first day. (p. 41)

Nanou turns to writing as a way of squashing time; it’s a means of getting through the day:

When I get home, I’m going to burn all this. I don’t want anyone to read it. So why write? I don’t know, it’s stupid.

I will have managed to talk about myself, though, a few pages of self-indulgence. I didn’t think I was capable of it.

Forgive my style and my mistakes. Don’t feel sorry for me either, that’s not why I’m doing this. Like I already said, I write to kill time, so don’t go thinking it’s for sentimental reasons or anything like that. (p. 57)

Zenith Hotel is a very good novella. At just under 100 pages, it’s a one-sitting read which manages to convey so much emotion in such a brief space. Cooper-Phane writes with brutal honesty, and yet there’s real compassion and humanity here, too. One of the things I most admire about his writing is the way he uses realistic details to flesh out his characters. Cooper-Phane avoids cliché to show Nano’s clients in a way that is believable and feels true to life. He also writes with raw candour about the grime and stench of life in the seedy side of Paris – brace yourself, as some of these images may not be for the weak stomached.

Zenith Hotel (winner of the Prix de Flore in 2012) is this author’s first book, and it’s all the more impressive to discover he penned it at the age of 23.

My thanks to Stu at Winstonsdad’s who recommended this book – if you’d like to read his review of Zenith Hotel, just click on the link. I’ll finish with a few final thoughts from Nanou as they seem to capture the essence of this story:

I’ve got no nerve. Maybe one day I’ll develop some. And I’ll follow it outside my body, wherever it leads me. What else can I do but wait? I harbour my little woes, caress my little scorchmarks. I don’t try and heal them. I wait for them to leave my flesh. You live with your burns. What else can you do? (p.19-20)

Zenith Hotel is published in the UK by Arcadia Books. Source: personal copy.