When, in the 1920’s, George Mallory was asked why he persisted in trying to climb Mount Everest his famous response was “because it’s there.” A pretty fucking brilliant retort, even though it isn’t clear what exactly he meant by it. Did he mean I’m doing it because I can? Or because it [climbing] is what i do? Or was he just taking the piss? The beauty of his response is how enigmatic it is, how insouciant. If I had to give my own interpretation of Mallory’s words, if I had to make a guess as to what is at heart of a desire to climb Everest, I’d say that what it truly comes down to is man’s conquesting spirit. That spirit is evident in many things – sex, war, business etc. Reading too. Why do so many people make repeated attempts to read James Joyce’s Ulysses. Because it’s there, right!? Sure, you could read The Great Gatsby but that takes no balls, no commitment; it involves no possible sense of achievement, no risk. The Great Gatsby? 170 pages? No, no, every so often one must step into the ring with a true heavyweight.
Miklos Banffy’s The Transylvanian Trilogy weighs in at something like 1400 pages, broken down into three volumes. It is not a book to trifle with. It will punish your wrists; and while it may not be, like Ulysses is, difficult to read, it will, at times, test your patience, your endurance. As will this review, most likely. Before I get to all the things I have loved about the first volume, They Were Counted, I ought, because there is really only one issue or problem of note to discuss, get the negative out of the way. There is quite a bit of obscure politics in the book. Not so much that it becomes unbearable, but certainly enough for those of us who are not fascinated by the finer points of Austro-Hungarian historical political conflict to occasionally switch off. Truth be told, a good deal of that stuff not only left me cold [and I am a man who enjoyed the farming discussions in Anna Karenina!], but actually confused me. Banffy, probably not expecting his work to have a large international audience, appeared to assume that the reader would know and understand what he was writing about. Therefore, very little is explained in layman’s terms.
However, even if these sections are confusing or sometimes tedious, it is clear that the main thrust of the conflict was the independence of Hungary. Yet more importantly Banffy’s aim, his point, is also clear, which was to satirise and wag his finger at the Hungarian aristocracy and politicians. While the book is more popularly referred to as The Transylvanian Trilogy, Banffy actually titled his work The Writing On The Wall. My understanding of this title is that it is a judgement. Nearly all of the political sections of the book descend into farce, with egg-throwing or violence or general idiocy or silliness. The author appeared to be saying that these people, who cannot take this most serious of subjects seriously, are doomed, that they are, in fact, doomed because they are too frivolous, or silly or corrupt etc.
In any case, political conflict is only one of the three main narrative strands; and the other two are, thankfully, far more engaging. These involve the relationship between Balint Abady and Adrienne Uzdi and the ups and downs of Balint’s cousin Laszlo Gyeroffy. I won’t say too much about Laszlo because, while I very much enjoyed all his bits, there is nothing out of the ordinary about his tale. He falls for a girl, he loses the girl, he drinks, he has sex, and he gambles heavily. He’s a good man, but he is weak; and, more importantly, in terms of understanding his behaviour, he has a big chip on his shoulder about his status as an orphan. This inferiority complex makes Laszlo needy, both for affection and acceptance. It is the need for acceptance that leads him to gamble, and his need for affection, for constant reassurance, that leads to him ruining his chances of happiness with Klara.
If Laszlo’s story is pretty standard [but enjoyable!] fare, Balint’s and Adrienne’s relationship is, on the other hand, one of the most extraordinary and moving I have ever encountered. It is revealed early on that the pair had a friendship and perhaps a mild flirtation in their youth. Eventually Balint went away and Adrienne, desiring most of all her freedom, married Pali Uzdy even though she didn’t love him. When Balint returns the couple meet and rekindle their friendship, which develops into a love affair. So far, so predictable. However, when Balint tries to push his luck and get in Adrienne’s knickers she recoils. The reason for this gradually becomes clear to Balint over the course of They Were Counted, but from the very beginning it dominates their relationship. What is the reason? That her husband has been raping her since the start of their marriage.
Banffy handles the whole thing with admirable subtlety and sensitivity and, bearing in mind that rape within marriage is a controversial topic even now, bravery. Not only that but he, incredibly, manages to wrest beauty out of it. For example, there’s a wonderful scene when Balint asks Adrienne for a kiss. While he, being experienced, expects a passionate open-mouthed kiss, she responds with a closed mouth. She doesn’t do this because she is unwilling, but because she simply doesn’t know how to kiss properly. This kiss is a pivotal moment in their relationship. At first, Balint is astonished, confused. Previous to this incident he had thought that she was being physically standoffish, or prudish, or playing games; yet after the kiss he comes to realise that isn’t the case, that she is merely artless, like a child, because she has never been given the opportunity, due to being married to a brutal and violent man who cares nothing about intimacy, to learn. Honestly, there was a little lump in my throat. I actually knew a girl who kissed in the same way, in short bursts with a closed mouth. Unlike Banffy’s character she was sexually very open and willing, but it was obvious to me that, despite her age, she had never been kissed passionately by someone who cared about her enjoyment. It was very sad.
Adrienne is an amazing creation. I believed in her completely. In fact, in my opinion, she absolutely dominates the book. Her journey is one of self-discovery, of sexual enlightenment and empowerment; she literally becomes a woman before our eyes. For me, Balint is almost irrelevant in this, he is merely the conduit, he allows her to find herself. Yet, I do not want to give the impression that she falls into bed with him and all is wonderful. The first volume is over 600 pages in length; her journey is a long and often painful one. Adrienne spends a large part of the novel pushing her lover away, refusing to allow him to touch her. I have known more than one woman who has been the victim of rape and, although I am obviously no expert, Banffy captures the fear, shame, anger that, in my experience, they often feel; he also, crucially, captures the great strength of character as well as the vulnerability. I was so, so impressed by all this. In fact, nearly every female character in the book is wonderful; they almost all have great depth, which is not true of the male characters. Indeed, the more I think about it, the more I am of the opinion that the abuse of women is one of the book’s major themes. The Countess Abonyi is ill-treated by Egon Wickwitz, who steals her money; Egon also cynically manipulates Judith Miloth; Balint’s mother is being hoodwinked and taken advantage of by her employee Azbej; Fanny Beredy is essentially used by Laszlo; a young maid is raped and made pregnant by the Kollonich’s butler; and so on.
Of course, I am less than halfway through the book, having only completed one volume. So it is possible that these ideas and reflections will not hold true for the whole of the series. I can, obviously, only write about my experience of the work at this stage. In any case, there is no question of me not carrying on, of not reading the next two volumes. Because they are there? No, because I expect them to be equally as brilliant as this one.