Monthly Archives: October 2014

They were Counted

by Miklos Banffy
Translated by Patrick Thursfield and Katalin Banffy-Jelen
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It was after a trip to London visiting my sisters that I started writing this blog. It was on a trip to London to visit my sisters that I finally found this one. And as with Human Traces, there is a pre-war Austro Hungarian setting, although in this one the action is mostly split between Budapest and Transylvania.
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As you can see from the above photo I really don’t need to buy any more books. (Those were the books that needed to go up to the attic after we finished unpacking and every single shelf in my house was full). And yet, sometimes I feel like if I personally stop guying books in bookshops the whole publishing/bookstore industry will fall apart. I’ve stopped feeling guilty about the number of books I have. I probably need to do a thorough clear-out of some more disposable books but in general I like books, I don’t see why I need to hide that fact. My husband has a lot of bikes, more than some people think proper, in the same way I have a lot of books. I think there are actually quite a few I’d be ok with giving away, but preferably to good homes, to people who want them. They are not so disposable that I like the idea of them ending up in a charity shop’s recycling. I probably should reactivate my bookmooch account, but I was really bad at delivering while in Spain, it wasn’t easy to get to the post office and I ended up getting a lot of bad reviews so I’m not too eager. Well in any case, I need a job before I can afford all that postage!

Seeing as I am currently not working, you would think I would have a lot of time to catch up with this blog. However for one thing, we have been travelling and for another, interviews take a lot of time and energy! But on a sunny Sunday in London and I could forget about that for a little while. But whatever about writing, I have been neglecting my reading. I remember when my mother used to have to hide books from me until after my exams, or at least until my homework was done. I would read any moment I could. But now, rather than trying to eat lunch with a book held in one hand, I’m swiping a screen. It’s not even that I’ve swapped for e-books, it’s just that I’m not reading many books at all.
Which is why a book like this one was just what I needed.

I can’t remember where I first picked up ‘They were found wanting’. Set in the Austro Hungarian Empire in the early 1900s, how could I resist? Also, that title! It conjures up such amazing images. I have to admit that it sat on my bookshelf for a while. When I wanted to start reading it I realised it wasn’t stand-alone but part of a trilogy. I wasn’t scared off by that idea of commitment, but alas, I had the second part.
In any case I caved and read it. And loved it. The…..sweep! This was such an immensely readable book with a vast array of characters. As I had missed all the introductions, in some sense I was jumping in at the deep end with these characters, but I got to know them pretty quickly, learning whom to love and whom to loathe. When I finished I felt like I needed to get the next book and find out what happened next, but I also knew I needed to go to book one and start from the beginning.

So I looked, but I always seemed to find the second or third book. We even found a fantastic bookshop in Budapest with a large selection of English language translations of Hungarian literature. Even there I saw no sign of number one.

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Of course on my trip to England I packed my bag full of different clothes for all eventualities but wore mainly the same things over and over. Every time. And yet there’s always a way to pack more efficiently and fit some books in. Which is just as well, because when you see a copy of ‘They were counted’ for the first time ever there is no choice, you have to buy it. And possibly some others. Eventually I emerged into the sunlight, happy. Not for me any overnight in Waterstones, though I wonder if it might not be the perfect solution to avoid London hotel prices?

It was nice to get swept up in this universe again. And to meet the characters I’d previously met, except this time with proper introductions. On meeting them properly for the first time, some of their motivations and actions in the second book are clearer. Though it’s frustrating to watch Laszlo start on the slippery slope. I have to say, I had a real soft spot for him in book two. I wanted to know what was happening with him, that he was ok, still ticking over (I haven’t read the foreward to the first book, but my eyes glimpsed a sentence talking about the characters’ fates and I feel slightly spoiled.

I love reading forewords for background but I hate when they tell me what happens at the end. That’s what I’m reading the book for. Then again, I may just be naïve. I got annoyed at an amazon review when, as a teenager, I was spoiled for the ending of Anna Karenina. I didn’t realise that it was one of the most famous endings in fiction, so it usually is a known entity for anyone reading the book. I mean, from the first sentence it’s obviously not a happy story, but I didn’t know how it ended.

But the Transylvanian trilogy is not as well-known, even if it should be and I like to have a sliver of hope to hold onto, even if I know it’s most likely in vain.

I wonder if my feelings about characters would be different if I’d read the books in the correct order. Dodo is only a very, very minor character in ‘they were counted’ but in the early part of ‘They were found wanting’ there are some nice scenes between her and Laszlo. Despite the summarised version of prior events I did not realise how far down the slippery slope he already was and I really was hoping that they might make it, that she would be his saviour (his princess charming?)

But this is how it is, somebody who is mentioned in passing may be forgotten for a long while, then take on an important role when you least expect it. And vice versa, people who are crucial to the story at one point are then side-lined and forgotten (to reappear in book 3 maybe?) There are times when I feel like a few family trees might come in in handy!

I’ve been dipping into ‘They were found Wanting’ and I think I really will read it again from the first to the last page. I might wait until I can find part 3 though, so that I can head straight into that one once I’ve finished. After all the delight of seeing part 1 in London, I saw it in Hodges Figgis too a few days later, but I can’t remember if they had the others.

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I don’t know if so far there has been a single happy marriage in the books. There are a lot of missed connections, misunderstandings, miscommunications and marriages born out of spite and of course the need for money. So it’s probably not surprising that few of these marriages are held sacred.

I was first introduced to the idea of poor princes and princesses in Tolstoy. The sheer number of them surprised me and then the idea that they might be broke and need to marry well in order to keep the life to which they are accustomed. There are a lot of feckless counts about in Banffy’s Transylvania. (And in more naivety, to go even further back: because of that other famous Transylvanian count, I used to think that all counts were vampires!).

I just want a happy ending for some characters. At least on a personal level. It’s obvious from the time and place that things will not end well, no matter how oblivious the protagonists are or how many balls or shooting parties they attend. But perhaps a tiny personal triumph, too much to ask?
Also, I would love a TV series, will anybody do that for me?

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The translation of this book was obviously a labour of love by the writer’s daughter. I’m glad that we have the opportunity to read it. I do want to try to approach some other translations today. I’m thinking of working on my neglected Irish, so might attempt a few pages of this one before going to a conversation group in the library this evening:
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And I have an interview auf Deutsch next week, so having looked on my shelves I found this book. I think I’ll read some of this and watch some German movies to prepare, rather than getting into the FAZ.
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But I don’t know, despite what I wrote earlier I probably will head into book two. I’m not ready to leave this universe yet.

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