They Were Counted by Miklós Bánffy

December 27, 2017 Leave a comment Go to comments

They Were Counted by Miklós Bánffy (1934) French title: Vos jours sont comptés. Translated from the Hungarian by Jean-Luc Moreau.

For December, our Book Club had picked They Were Counted by Miklós Bánffy, the first volume of his famous Transylvanian Trilogy. Miklós Bánffy (1873-1950) was a liberal Hungarian nobleman from Transylvania involved in politics. He was part of the high society in Budapest and in Transylvania. His Transylvanian Trilogy pictures Hungary before WWI and the downfall of the Austro-Hungarian empire. While Joseph Roth describes this decline on the Austrian side in The Radetzky March, Bánffy shows the other side of the coin in Hungary.

They Were Counted is a great picture of the high society in Budapest. We follow two cousins, Bálint Abády and László Gyerőffy. We’re in 1904 and they’re both in their twenties. Bálint went to university in Vienna and spent a few years in Foreign Affairs abroad. He has just been elected at the Hungarian Parliament. Bálint is now ready to take part in the country’s political future and to take the reins of his estate. László lost his parents when he was young and was raised by relatives. He’s a talented pianist but could not go to music school as he would have liked. He feels that he doesn’t belong to any family, that he’s barely tolerated in high society and it’s a big chip on his shoulder. He’s secretly in love with one of his cousin, Klára Kollonich. His future is uncertain because he would love to be a musician and he doesn’t have the fortune to stay idle and just go to music school.

The century is young, they’re at the beginning of their adult life and they have to choose their path.

Bánffi describes the life in Hungarian high society, a life made of balls, hunting parties in the country. It’s the classic life of European nobility at the turning of the century. According to the atmosphere and the mores, Budapest sounded closer to Paris than to London though.

Bánffi also portrays the complicated political issues that Bálint has to face in Parliament. I suppose that everything is accurate as Bánffi was part of this world. I have to confess I got lost in the intricacies of Hungarian politics. I got the big picture though: they were always in opposition with Vienna, they were not over the missed opportunity of the 1848 revolution and they were fighting futile battles instead of concentrating on real issues to improve their fellow citizen’s living conditions. In mirror to Roth’s Radetzky March, we see a Hungarian nobility who fails to see the real challenges of a changing world and a country hindered by old-fashioned politicians unable to renew themselves. The situation in Transylvania is even more complicated as the Hungarians and the Romanians have to live together and don’t speak the same language. I understood that the Romanians were oppressed by the Hungarians who had the actual power. (Power lent by the Austrian emperor.)

I suspect that of the two main characters, Bálint is the closest to Bánffy himself. He’s open-minded and a progressist. Now that he’s a deputy and that he’s back home on his land, he wants to modernize his country. Bálint’s father died when he was young and during his illness, he left a set of directives to help his wife manage their estate and keep it intact for their son. Now that he’s old enough to manage it, Bálint is determined to improve the economy on his land. He visits with his steward and tries to implement new methods. His naïve enthusiasm bumps into the established order. His men don’t dare to speak their mind in front of him and say yes to everything. They have also implemented a system made of corruption and violence and they don’t want the master to shatter it through misplaced modernism. The conservatism that kills the country is not the prerogative of the noble leading class.

László is more like a Balzacian hero. He goes to Budapest firmly decided to live modestly on his income and study music now that he’s the master of himself and can afford this choice. This lasts a few weeks until he’s sucked into a whirlwind of parties as the new season starts in Budapest. These social events are opportunities to see Klára and it pushes him to attend as many balls and soirées as possible. This high life costs a lot of money though and puts him in a difficult financial position. He’s also too charming for his own good and craves acceptance from this world. With this personality, he was set to be snatched by this life and drown in it.

Both Bálint and László have a complicated love life. Bálint found out too late that he was in love with Adrienne Milóth, someone he could have married. They had a real friendship, made of deep conversations and complicity. But at the time, Bálint was blinded by his affair with a married woman and when he came back from abroad, Adrienne was married to the oaf Pál Uzdy. It’s not a love marriage, Adrienne only wanted to be independent from her parents. On László’s side, we have the classic love for someone he can’t marry because Klára’s parents would not approve of it. Her mother has other plans for her daughters and they all involve climbing the social ladder through prestigious marriages. Nothing new here compared to 19thC literature.

However, Bánffi goes further than putting his heroes in desperate situations. He also shows how stifling their world was for women. They have no freedom at all. They go from their parents’ rule to their husbands’ one. They have no opportunity to have a career and he doesn’t picture the equivalent of literary salons in Budapest. Surely there were some. Bánffy draws a sad picture of the men of his class. They objectify women, they are predatory and wooing means hunting. Even the polished and respectful Bálint acts this way around Adrienne. And at the same time, we see women who cheat on their husbands, select a new lover and weave a well-thought trap to get them. All in all, the relationships between men and women didn’t seem very healthy to me. It’s violent under the politeness. And again, we are in a society that discards half of their brains because these brains belong to females.

They Were Counted is a fabulous picture of Hungary and Transylvania at the time. Bánffy wrote it in 1934 after the war and the collapse of the empire. He’s very lucid about the nobility’s failure to handle changes. This world was dying and WWI only accelerated its agony.

The original title of Bánffy’s masterpiece is Erdélyi Tőtenét – Megszámláltattál. Sometimes I like to check the original title of a book and see if the French title is the direct translation of the original or if it’s something different for the French public. Since I don’t speak Hungarian, I went to Google Translate to see the translation in French and in English. Same result in both languages, the title means Transylvanian torture with anxiety. It gives another vision to the book, doesn’t it?

They Were Counted ends with a double cliffhanger. With 750 pages, it’s a long book and I haven’t decided yet if I’ll read the two volumes left. On the one hand, I want to know what will become of Bálint and László. On the other hand, I’m not sure I want to start another 600 pages book right now. Still on the fence on this. If you’ve read it, how are the two other volumes?

  1. December 27, 2017 at 11:48 am

    I have this on my shelf, so will return to your account when I’ve read it – some time this year, I hope.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. December 27, 2017 at 12:47 pm

    Thoughtful and detailed review, I felt like you about the relationship between men and women. Idealising them but also scheming to catch them in very transactional terms. I was completely immersed in that world and plan to read more, though perhaps not all in one go.

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  3. December 27, 2017 at 12:58 pm

    Megszámláltattá seems to translate as ‘numbered’ in Romanian and German, so I think there is something there. Erdelyi is the Hungarian name for Transylvania, and the first part of the title means something like ‘The transformation or transfiguration of Transylvania’ – but it’s hard to find the proper translation online. I might have to ask a Hungarian friend.

    Like

    • December 27, 2017 at 12:59 pm

      Thanks for that. I’m in contact with a Hungarian publisher, I’ll ask her.

      Like

  4. December 27, 2017 at 1:49 pm

    Good review Emma. My father raves about this trilogy.

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    • December 27, 2017 at 4:10 pm

      Thank you. I guess your father is right!

      Like

  5. December 27, 2017 at 6:51 pm

    Joyeuses Fêtes, Emma! As you may know, Bánffy’s trilogy was the literary work that finally moved me from a keeping a private reading log to starting a public blog, so I’d say yes, go ahead with the other two volumes (each shorter than the preceding one, if that helps at all!). I think it’s a really stupendous work, with some completely indelible scenes. I’m planning to read it again this winter in preparation for what I hope will be a trip to Transylvania in the spring.

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    • December 27, 2017 at 10:31 pm

      Joyeuses fêtes également. It’s nice to hear from you. I hope you’re doing well.
      Thanks for the encouragements. I think I’ll read the other volumes. I hate to leave it unfinished.

      Like

  6. December 27, 2017 at 7:37 pm

    It’s one of my goals to read this in 2018. Maybe not all three, but certainly the first!

    Happy New Year!

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    • December 27, 2017 at 10:29 pm

      Looking forward to your review too!
      (I’ll wait for New Year wishes as we don’t do that until the D-Day in France)

      Like

  7. December 27, 2017 at 10:21 pm

    I have the trilogy (unread). Sometimes it helps to take a break in between in a series when you’re not quite ready to plunge back in right away

    Liked by 1 person

    • December 27, 2017 at 10:27 pm

      I’m not sure I’ll ever start again if I don’t read them now.

      Like

  8. January 3, 2018 at 9:04 pm

    Happy New Year Emma! I’m glad you were able to start on the Bánffy trilogy. I devoured that very same volume several years ago while wwoofing in the sun in western Hungary, and then read the two next volumes at a more sedate pace. I really recommend reading them too: I read them too long ago to remember my impressions in detail, but I do remember the change in the overall atmosphere as I turned pages and as the years went by in Bálint’s story as well in Hungary’s history.
    Regarding the title, I’m really surprised Google came up with such a contorted translation. In Hungarian, the original title is pretty much the same as in the English and the French translation. Erdélyi történet = Transylvanian Story; and Megszámláltattál = You were counted (I don’t know why the English translation chose the third person plural). The title makes sense if you continue with the next volume (“You were found wanting”)
    I double-checked with my Hungarian other half before writing this, but perhaps the Hungarian publisher (Ibolya Virág?) will be able to offer further insights?
    Wishing you many more interesting reads and literary discoveries in 2018!

    Like

    • January 4, 2018 at 10:28 pm

      Hi, Bonne année à toi aussi.

      Your comment was in the spam bin, I’m glad I checked it before deleting anything.
      Thanks for the encouragements.
      I kind of liked the Google translation, it suits the atmosphere of the book, don’t you think? Usually, I look up translations from languages where I have a slight idea of whether the translation is fishy or not. With Hungarian, it’s impossible to guess anything.

      I also wish you a wonderful reading year.

      Like

  9. Andy Kelley
    March 27, 2018 at 8:34 pm

    Your thoughts on this book were insightful and fun rather than pedantic. Looking forward to reading this trilogy since you’ve offered up this delicious appetizer!

    Like

    • March 27, 2018 at 9:52 pm

      Thanks for your message and welcome to Book Around the Corner.
      I don’t think I could become pedantic if I tried, I’m not knowledgeable enough literature for that. I’m a common reader and I just share my readinds with you all, in this virtual living room that is Book Around the Corner.

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  1. March 27, 2018 at 6:26 pm

I love to hear your thoughts, thanks for commenting. Comments in French are welcome

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