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They Were Counted by Miklós Bánffy

They Were Counted (1934)

by Miklós Bánffy

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  1. 10
    Between the Woods and the Water by Patrick Leigh Fermor (Lirmac)
    Lirmac: Patrick Leigh Fermor walks through much of the same terrain and meets similar characters to those found in Bánffy's great work.

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The Transylvanian Trilogy isn’t what you think it is. Assuming you were thinking it involved vampires.

It’s natural that you might suppose so. The one thing everyone knows about Transylvania is that it’s the home of Bram Stoker’s fictional Count Dracula. Most also know that it’s an actual territory in Romania. That’s true now, and has been for many decades, but it’s not the whole story. We tend, or at least I do, to get stuck on a concept of world geography that was formed by the globes and maps that we used in elementary school, and think of those borders as more or less permanently fixed. Nothing could be further from the truth, of course.

But I’m not here to talk about my general ignorance, just one example of it. Or rather, one former example of it. Through an informal program of reading where one book leads accidentally to another, I have lately been traveling down the Danube into central and eastern European history, and I’ve learned a lot about Transylvania. Did you know that this region was for a thousand years, from the turn of the first millennium to the early 20th century, an essential part of Hungary? The trans-sylvan “land beyond the forest” was wide and wild, and its residents were seen as more rugged and authentic than those closer to the capital city of Budapest–it seems to have occupied much the same place in the Magyar imagination that the American West does in ours. The handing over of Transylvania to Romania in the aftermath of World War I was a devastating blow.

That national calamity is what Miklós Bánffy slowly, deliciously works his way toward in his sweeping trilogy. The individual volumes borrow their titles from the famous writing on the wall in the biblical book of Daniel, a prophecy about the collapse of a legendary kingdom–They Were Counted, They Were Found Wanting, They Were Divided–and together they describe the decline of a fascinating real place.

The story begins as a young nobleman (a Bánffy stand-in) returns from diplomatic service abroad and is flung back into the social and political Hungarian swirl. Tempted by selfish interests but dedicated to the betterment of his society, he charts a course toward the future, beset on all sides by frivolity and obliviousness. Old ladies gossip and young ladies angle to win marital competitions while generals compare mustaches and bicker pettily about their junior status in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, all unaware that their lives are about to turn upside down.

Though written in the 1930s, the trilogy is both in style and substance the last of the great 19th-century novels, grand and stately and ambitious and utterly immersive. The characters, including the upright Count Abady, the captivating Adrienne with her “flame-colored shift,” and the doomed artist Laszlo, are playthings of their omniscient author but also fully dimensional, and the set pieces they occupy will not soon be forgotten by anyone with the leisure to read them. Hunting parties, parliamentary debates, duels, intrigues, stolen moments of romance, midnight sledge rides through the snow … it’s positively sumptuous. The lush surface enraptures, but there’s also an underlying seriousness that appeals, an insistent moral drumbeat that asks What Is the Right Way to Live? There’s simply too much to this epic to do it proper justice here, so I’ll just flippantly call it a cross between Gone with the Wind and War and Peace with an added dash of paprika.
2 vote lucienspringer | Sep 11, 2016 |
They Were Counted is the first of three books in The Transylvanian Trilogy. Set in the early 1900s, it is a sprawling tale of a time and place in history, told through the lives of two young men: Balint Abady, a new member of parliament, and his cousin Laszlo Gyeroffy, a musician. Balint is clearly of a higher class and moves easily through the myriad of balls and dinners common to his social circle. He also is responsible for significant land holdings long owned by his family. He and Laszlo are long-time friends, but it’s clear Laszlo is a peg or two down the society ladder; he’s present at many of the same balls but lacks Balint’s financial resources and political influence.

Balint is very much in love with Adrienne, who is locked in an unhappy marriage. Balint quickly uncovers scars from the marriage that have made her unable to experience passion. He visits Adrienne regularly, intent on both expressing his love and helping her to once again feel what it means to love and be loved. Laszlo, meanwhile, has made a name for himself at court. He is in charge of the dancing at all of the balls, directing the musicians and keeping things moving for the guests. Laszlo also gets involved in romantic relationships, but early on he is knocked back when the family of the woman he loves rejects him. He turns to gambling to satisfy some underlying need, which has serious consequences not only for Laszlo but for many others in his circle.

Balint’s role in parliament is used as a device to cover important moments in Transylvanian history. These sections weren’t as interesting to me as those focused on high society in that period, but since I know next to nothing about this time and place, it was worthwhile to gain some historical context. [They Were Counted] was an interesting book; I was never completely “hooked,” but whenever I sat down to read I enjoyed it very much. ( )
2 vote lauralkeet | Jan 30, 2016 |
This is an enjoyable read for those who like Tolstoy or Joseph Roth, especially the latter as it covers some of the same ground -- the waning days of the Austro-Hungarian empire. The locales are not limited to Transylvania, but most of the action and descriptive prose are focused thereabouts. It pretty much leaves you hanging at the end; there are major plot lines that have yet to be resolved, so I guess I'll have to continue reading the trilogy.

I first came across this writer when researching the homeland of my maternal grandparents, who both grew up near Sibiu, which in those days was called Hermannstadt. Since they both emigrated in their late teens just a couple of years after the time frame in which the trilogy takes place, I thought it might give me some additional insights into what life there was like for them as Romanian peasants. And this book was marvelous in its descriptions of the landscape and the people living there.

Now that I have finished this part of the story, I am struck by how much the world in general has changed since 1905. (To be fair, life in many parts of Transylvania is not terribly different than it was then. This part of Romania remains an agrarian backwater that has few opportunities to export food or other products.) The world my grandparents lived in is starting to disappear, but books like this tell us what it was like when they were children, which I find priceless. An author cannot know how his/her writing may affect a reader in ways that the author could not possibly anticipate. This book (and most likely the entire trilogy) is destined for classic status in the Hungarian canon.

One caveat: the Arcadia Press edition of this book has numerous typos, and the translators at times have awkward sentence constructs. Try the Everyman's Library version instead. ( )
  nog | Mar 4, 2015 |
The Transylvanian "War and Peace". Banffy somehow infuses Hungarian politics and banking with as much excitement as the hunting, gambling, and love scenes throughout. The alternating focus on the two cousins does not slow the momentum. The characters are all over dramatized and rigid but still come across as genuine. ( )
  albertgoldfain | Jan 3, 2015 |
This is review of the Transylvania Trilogy, also known as The Writing of the Wall, and I am posting this in each volume. The trilogy is composed of:

They Were Counted
They Were Found Wanting
They Were Divided

These titles are taken from the Book of Daniel, from the Belshazzar’s Feast, when a hand appeared and wrote on the wall:

God has numbered the days of your kingdom and brought it to an end; you have been weighed on the scales and found wanting; your kingdom is divided and given to your enemies.

This is how Rembrandt saw this episode:

What Banffy sees in this Writing is the Advent of WWI and the end of Hungary’s Dreams.

I would like to read a good biography of Miklos Banffy. He must have been a fascinating person. From what I could learn from the web, he was originally from Transylvania and part of the nobility (a Count). He was an independent Member of the Hungarian Parliament before WWI, becoming Minister of Foreign Affairs during the first period of the Horthy Regency, when István Behtlen was Prime Minister (a relative, and also a Count). It was Banffy who signed the Peace Treaty with the US after The Great War. During his time in the Ministry his main interest was to try and renegotiate the Trianon Treaty and recover for Hungary many of the land tracts lost to its neighbors.

If a great part of his mind and ideals were in politics, his heart lived with the arts. He was a man of the theater, of music and of opera. He was Superintendent of the Budapest Opera around 1906. Puccini’s Madama Butterfly (1898), still a very modern work, features in these novels. He was a friend of Kodaly and Bartok, sponsoring the production of Bartok’s then avant-gardish opera Blubeard’s Castle (1911).

These books--which should be read all three (total of about 1400 pages)--, were written between 1934 and 1940, although the setting is the years before the First War, namely from 1905 to the Fall of 1914. The general impression upon reading is somewhat disconcerting, it feels like a nineteenth century novel, but some more modern elements sometimes creep in, contributing to the general nostalgia for a foregone age.

For me there were two threads of interest in the book. There is a plot embedded in the portrait of a society in the “realist” model tradition, but there is also a highly crafted account of the political inter relations of Hungary, Austria, Transylvania and Romania during those times.

The first thread, or the plot, develops as a family saga with elements of a Bildungsroman, with plenty of entertaining scenes of balls, dinners, shooting-parties, horses and hunts, romances, adulteries, gambling, drinking, dueling, etc. And although it is a society of rentiers, for whom money is present but should rarely be seen, there are also plenty of money issues with debts from gambling, squandering, traumatic inheritances, and situations in which exotic and magnificent pearls are being pawned to save someone’s honor. All this makes for a rich story.

The second thread is the political account. These sections almost read as a chronicle of what was going on in the Budapest parliament from 1905 until 1914. The issues at stake were: a separate Army from Austria’s; the drawing of a new Constitution based on a wider system of universal suffrage with repercussions on the representation of the minorities and consequently on the Parliamentary balance; the conspiracies of the Heir of the Crown, the much hated Archiduke Franz-Ferdinand (István Szabo’s films Colonel Redl and Sunshine come to mind); the possibility of a separate banking System from the Austrian; and the always difficult relationship with the Romanians and the Croatians, etc..

I found this second thread absolutely fascinating and unique. It has a similar value to a document, given that Banffy had been there.

It may have been this part that invited significant criticism amongst the contemporary Hungarians. For although Banffy adored his country (but was it Transylvania or Hungary?), he is bitterly critical of the Politics of Obstruction that set the pace or dynamics within that spectacular Parliament during those crucial years. Inevitably, Edward Crankshaw’ acerbic criticism of the Hungarians in his [b:The Fall of the House of Habsburg|479667|The Fall of the House of Habsburg|Edward Crankshaw|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1348219557s/479667.jpg|468073] comes to mind. Banffy sadly sees his country men as hopelessly parochial, concerned only about their petty internal issues, and dangerously unaware of what was going on outside their borders (soon to be lost).

They were not seeing the Writing on the Wall.

I am surprised this work is not better known. And although in translation, it has been a pleasure to read. The English edition is the fruit of the collaboration between Banffy’s daughter Katalin Banffy-Jelen and Patrick Thursfield.


The other two volumes:

[b:They Were Found Wanting|6478712|They Were Found Wanting (The Transylvanian Trilogy, Book 2)|Miklós Bánffy|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1328694598s/6478712.jpg|456985]

[b:They Were Divided|8190367|They Were Divided (The Transylvanian Trilogy, Book 3)|Miklós Bánffy|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1348054867s/8190367.jpg|1863082] ( )
2 vote KalliopeMuse | Apr 2, 2013 |
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» Add other authors (4 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Miklós Bánffyprimary authorall editionscalculated
Bánffy-Jelen, KatalinTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Leigh Fermor, PatrickForewordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Thursfield, PatrickIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Thursfield, PatrickTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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... El rey dio un gran banquete a mil de sus príncipes; bebieras vino, alabaron a sus dioses de oro, plata, de metal, de hierro, de madera y de piedra; y se burlaron los unos de los otros, y discutieron por los dioses de cada uno.
   En aquella misma hora  aparecieron unos dedos de mano de hombre que escribieron delante del candelabro, sobre el yeso de la pared del palacio real. Y la palabra que escribieron fue "Mené: Tu reino ha sido contado...". Pero nadie ció la escritura porque estaban embriagados por el vino y la ira, y porque estaban peleándose por sus dioses de oro, de plata, de metal, de hierro, de madera y de piedra...
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 190514797X, Paperback)

Painting an unrivalled portrait of the vanished world of pre-1914 Hungary, this story is told through the eyes of two young Transylvanian cousins, Count Balint Abády and Count László Gyeroffy. Shooting parties in great country houses, turbulent scenes in parliament, and the luxury of life in Budapest provide the backdrop for this gripping, prescient novel, forming a chilling indictment of upper-class frivolity and political folly, in which good manners cloak indifference and brutality. Abády becomes aware of the plight of a group of Romanian mountain peasants and champions their cause, while Gyeroffy dissipates his resources at the gaming tables, mirroring the decline of the Austro-Hungarian Empire itself. The first book in a trilogy published before World War II, it was rediscovered after the fall of Communism in Hungary and this edition contains a new foreword.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:22:35 -0400)

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Paints an unrivalled portrait of the vanished world of pre-1914 Hungary, as seen through the eyes of two young aristocratic Transylvanian cousins.

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