politics

RED HARVEST BY DASHIELL HAMMETT

I often get asked why, as someone who appears to be politically switched on, I try and avoid the news media as much as possible. Well, the thing is, the truth of the world is too much for me these days. I can’t take it. Call it cowardice if you like, but I hate feeling angry or upset all the time. I’m not a masochist. A while ago I learnt that the UK government has agreed to sell arms to countries that have been blacklisted for human rights violations, countries that – as in the case of Libya, for example – our politicians will then go on TV and condemn. And that’s nothing new, you know. This has been happening for years [Saddam, the Taliban], but, still, the two-facedness is extraordinary; it doesn’t become any easier to swallow the third, fourth, fiftieth time. But this is only one example, a dribble of spit in a vast ocean of thick snotty phlegm.

In Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, Robert De Niro’s character talks about how ‘someday a real rain will come,’ a rain that will wash all the scum – the corrupt politicians, the pimps, the crooked businessmen etc – off the streets. I don’t advocate violence of any kind, but the film’s popularity attests to how powerful and attractive a fantasy this kind of ‘clean up’ is. It is, moreover, something that is at the heart of Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest, although it takes a little time to warm up to all that. The early stages of the novel are mostly concerned with what appears to be a relatively straightforward murder investigation. The Continental Op has been asked to come to Personville by Donald Willson, yet Willson is offed almost as soon as he arrives. A number of suspects are quickly identified, including Willson’s wife, his father, a local tough and his gold digger girlfriend.

“I first heard Personville called Poisonville by a red-haired mucker named Hickey Dewey in the Big Ship in Butte. He also called his shirt a shoit. I didn’t think anything of what he had done to the city’s name. Later I heard men who could manage their r’s give it the same pronunciation. I still didn’t see anything in it but the meaningless sort of humor that used to make richardsnary the thieves’ word for dictionary. A few years later I went to Personville and learned better.”

However, before too long the Continental Op has collared the culprit, sown up the investigation, and really should be intent on getting the hell out of dodge. Yet he isn’t. Indeed, one gets the impression that the author was eager to get all that stuff out of the way, that he himself wasn’t particularly interested in who shot Donald Willson, and that once it is all neatly tied up the real fun can start. It is from this point onwards that one truly comes to understand why Personville is nicknamed Poisonville, as Hammett embarks on a convoluted, twisty and twisted, tale of backstabbing, corruption, power games, homicides and attempted homicides, dirty secrets and double-dealing, involving just about every prominent person in the town.

In the centre of this maelstrom of violence and immorality is the Continental Op, who appears, despite his irascible manner, to be having a whale of a time. In fact, he could be said to be the director of events, as he takes it upon himself to smoke out all the rats, play them off against each other, and, in one way or another, put them out of action. However, one should not make the mistake of thinking he is the hero of the piece, or some kind of avenging angel; his ethics are far too sketchy and dubious for that. In fact, at one point he openly admits that he wants to clean up Poisonville as revenge for the attempts upon his life during his stay, and gleefully talks about opening it up ‘from Adam’s apple to ankles.’ At times the plot comes across as being little more than a bunch of psychopaths being rounded up and manipulated by another psychopath; and the overall effect is of a grim dance, one that will never end.

“Play with murder enough and it gets you one of two ways. It makes you sick, or you get to like it.”

It’s interesting that Red Harvest helped to pioneer the hard-boiled genre, because it only bears a superficial resemblance to the classic works that came after it. Certainly those by Raymond Chandler, who is probably the most famous titan of noir, seem safe and cosy in comparison. First of all, the Continental Op is overweight, apparently ugly, and, at 40, relatively old. He is tough, sure, and he cracks wise [although most of his one-liners are laced with spite, rather than humour], but he isn’t suave and is certainly no babe magnet. Moreover, he has absolutely no qualms about putting a slug in someone.

3l

[Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo is generally thought to have been inspired by Red Harvest]

The femme fatale, Dinah Brand, doesn’t conform to one’s expectations either, being more fatal than femme. She is described as having stains on her dress, badly applied lipstick, and an untidy hairdo. She isn’t, it is fair to say, Jessica Rabbit. She’s also unscrupulous, with dollar signs in her eyes and just about any other place you could mention. In fact, outside of one of Balzac’s or Dickens’ misers, I’ve not encountered a character like her, i.e. one who would happily sell out her grandmother for a tarnished nickel. She does, however, have a strange kind of charm, in that there is something child-like about her attitude, her honesty vis-à-vis her motivations, and her insistence that it is only right and natural that she get paid for every service she renders. In this way, she reminded me of Undine Spragg, the villainess in Edith Wharton’s The Custom of the Country.

“You’re drunk, and I’m drunk, and I’m just exactly drunk enough to tell you anything you want to know. That’s the kind of girl I am.”

It ought to be clear by now that Red Harvest is at the grittier, darker end of the noir spectrum. There are a lot of savage and unpleasant crime novels these days, and while it cannot compete with those in terms of sheer graphic [or pornographic] brutality, there is a great deal of bloodshed, and, by the final page, the book has racked up a body count that would give Jeffrey Dahmer a stiffy. It is hard to say whether I find it admirable or not, but at no point does Hammett flinch. Perhaps the most surprising thing of all, however, is just how odd this book is, how surreal almost. Bullets seem to constantly be in the air, people go to prison and then minutes later are walking the streets, bodies pile up and no one bats an eyelid [at one point the Op enters a house and steps over an unexpected corpse without even breaking stride], etc, until Poisonville stops looking like a dirty old town, and more like a Boschian Hell from which it is impossible to escape.

I got to the end of this review and realised that I hadn’t at all engaged with any potential flaws or criticisms. I enjoyed Red Harvest a lot but the book, as is the case with all books, is certainly not perfect. Therefore, so as to not ruin the structure of what is written above, I’ll note a few things here, which may be construed as negatives.

I wrote earlier that Hammett’s novel has a convoluted plot, and, well, some might actually call it ridiculous, or unbelievable, or at least hard to follow [the pace is breakneck, which gives you barely any time to catch your breath]. Moreover, the characters have very little substance, all of them being a type or one sort or another, but, having said that, I don’t know if you turn to noir for character depth. It is also worth pointing out that the book is almost entirely composed of dialogue, so that at times it reads more like a play. This isn’t necessarily a criticism, or it didn’t bother me at all, but I imagine that it might put some readers off.

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THE SECRET AGENT BY JOSEPH CONRAD

In the aftermath of a tragedy people often look towards artists, towards novelists, musicians and poets also, for comfort, the kind of comfort one finds when someone is able to capture an event, or feelings, that you yourself find incomprehensible or unfathomable or inexpressible. For example, after 9/11 there was a rush to proclaim certain kinds of art as speaking for the time[s], and it was then that Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent received a lot of attention, it being a novel concerned with a plot to blow up a well-known building. Subsequent to the attacks on the Twin Towers, this book has now come to be known as The Great Terrorism Novel, and is seen as a kind of prophetic/prescient work. Yet, there is something about the The Secret Agent, something about the particular brand of terrorism that it deals with, that people often choose to ignore or simply misunderstand; or perhaps, if one was being especially cynical, which I almost always am, one might wonder if a lot of the journalists who put the book forward have actually read it.

Adolf [yes, Adolf] Verloc has two jobs. One is to run a seedy shop in London with his wife and her simple-minded brother, and the other is as the secret agent of the title. However, Verloc is no James Bond; he is an observer, and informer; that is, until one day he is told, by the shady Mr. Vladimir, who is some kind of foreign ambassador, that observation is not enough. He must, says Vladimir, prove to be indispensable if he wants to remain on the payroll. This being indispensable involves blowing up Greenwich Observatory, the aim of which is to stir England into decisive, even extreme, action against criminal/revolutionary/terrorist elements or organisations. It is Vladimir’s idea that in order to do this one must get the attention of, to wake up so to speak, the middle classes.

‘The imbecile bourgeoisie of this country make themselves the accomplices of the very people whose aim is to drive them out of their houses to starve in ditches. And they have the political power still, if they only had the sense to use it for their preservation. I suppose you agree the middle-classes are stupid?’

Mr. Verloc agreed hoarsely.

‘They are’

‘They have no imagination. They are blinded by an idiotic vanity. What they want just now is a jolly good scare.’

This is blistering stuff. The terrorists are not crazy Arabs hellbent on destroying democracy and taking over the world, as some commentators would have you believe was the case with 9/11, this is violence and terrorism used against an ignorant or complaisant people in order to enrage them, in order to manipulate them into doing what you want them to do. So, far from providing balm for the masses, The Secret Agent is actually more likely to fuel conspiracy theories; its take on the political world is, in fact, far closer to the popular conspiracy theory that the World Trade Centre attacks were an inside job, that they were brought down in order to give the US government a reason to wage war in the Middle East.

‘You give yourself for an “agent provocateur.” The proper business of an “agent provocateur” is to provoke.’

One of the first things you will notice about The Secret Agent is that although the novel is purported to be set in London, there is not a great deal that is recognisably English about it. All of the revolutionaries, for example, have continental-sounding names – Ossipon, Verloc, Michaelis, etc – despite it being the case that they are meant to be British citizens. Furthermore, Conrad’s capital city is a particularly gloomy place; even taking into account that London may have been dirty and so on, there is something almost phantasmagorical, but certainly very odd, about the way the Pole presents it. In Bleak House Dickens writes about the fog and such, but Conrad’s London appears to be permanently in darkness, with a palpable threat of violence or madness always in the air; Indeed, the sense of madness or mental strain that pervades the work is reminiscent of Dostoevsky [although Conrad was, apparently, not a fan].

A blank wall. Perfectly blank. A blankness to run at and dash your head against.

For a novel so obviously, relentlessly, political and satirical it would be easy to see the characters as mere symbols, or representations, or one-dimensional puppets. Yet there is also a strong human aspect to the work. First of all, there is the conflict resulting from the task given to Verloc, by which I mean that of the observer who is forced to be an active participant. It takes a special kind of person to do this sort of thing, to bomb a building; most people are capable of standing by and letting it occur, but it’s a different thing, takes a different kind of personality, altogether to be the one holding the explosive, to detonate it. As one would imagine, if you force someone to act who is more suited to observing the consequences are likely to be disastrous.

Secondly, there is the relationship between the simple-minded Stevie and the Verlocs. Stevie does have a representative or symbolic function in the novel: he is innocence and confusion and, one could also say, chaos [at least mentally/emotionally]; he is, in a sense, both the moral conscience of the novel and a human mirror of the emotional state of Mr. Verloc himself [as well as perhaps all revolutionaries]. Yet he also provides the most tender moments in the book, such as his sympathy for the whipped horse and the poor driver of the horse, and all of the tragedy. Stevie is a tragic figure because he is a wholly trusting and loving brother and brother-in-law. Mrs. Verloc sacrifices herself in order to provide a safe and comfortable home for him, while Mr. Verloc ultimately takes advantage of him in an apparently mindless, yet cruel manner.

I hope that so far I have gone some way to summing up some of the book’s strengths and points of interest, yet it would be remiss of me not to mention that many readers raise serious objections. Of these objections most are related to Conrad’s style. On this, there is no doubt that The Secret Agent is at times a mess of adverbs and repetition; no character does or says anything in the book that isn’t, in some way, over or unnecessarily described and repeated. For example, Verloc is said to ‘mumble’ or speak ‘huskily’ with such frequency that it is liable to cause mirth or extreme irritation in the reader. Indeed, if you were to be brutally honest, this over-reliance on certain words, and excessive number of adverbs, is the kind of thing you would expect from the most amateur of YA authors, not one of the most renowned novelists of the 20th century.

So, does this mean that Conrad was a bad writer? Or that The Secret Agent is a badly written book? That is certainly one way to look at it. One might say that as Conrad was a Pole writing in English it is understandable that his vocabulary would be limited and his sentences idiosyncratic. Yet I don’t quite agree with this. All of his novels are dense and difficult but, unless my memory is faulty, this is the only one written in this particular way. Furthermore, some of the repetition, for example ‘Ossipon, nicknamed Doctor’, occurs on subsequent pages in the text, and, for me, it is absurd to think Conrad wouldn’t have noticed. This suggests that these flaws were perhaps intentional, that it was a style choice. However, one is then, of course, faced with coming up with some way of justifying that style choice.

The Secret Agent features intellectually dull men, incompetent revolutionaries with radical ideas or, in Verloc’s case, an incompetent secret agent. As with Stevie, Conrad’s banal yet convoluted style in a way mirrors the mental, intellectual state of these characters. Furthermore, as previously noted, the novel’s atmosphere is that of confusion and anxiety and potential violence. The repetition, the overall strange writing style, to some extent, makes the reader feel how the characters themselves feel; it is, whether one likes it or not, disorientating, and that does not strike me as a coincidence. Indeed, it is worth noting that the novels that The Secret Agent most closely resembles, to my mind, are The Foundation Pit by Andrei Platonov and Petersberg By Andrei Bely, both of which are also written in a bizarre style that some readers have wanted to proclaim as bad writing [or translation].

While many argue that The Secret Agent’s style is unsophisticated the same could not be said of the structure. In the early part of the novel each new chapter deals with a different character, often introducing a previously unknown one. Rather than follow Verloc as he carries out his assigned task, the narrative moves around, shifts perspective; and during each of these shifts characters will discuss both past and present events, thereby only gradually revealing what is going on. For example, one finds out during an early chapter featuring Ossipon and the Professor that someone has blown themselves up, and that it is assumed that it is Verloc. But you never see the event itself, and you don’t find out what actually happened until much later. There is, therefore, no linear timeline of events; much like a detective, you have to piece together the timeline yourself, and this is particularly satisfying.

However, towards the end of the novel the focus narrows, and in the last 50 or so pages Mrs. Verloc comes to the fore. There is a long passage between her and her husband that is difficult to discuss without spoilers, but it is a truly brilliant piece of writing. Conrad manages to show grief and shock in a way that is more accurate and moving than I thought possible in a novel. For me, it is worth reading The Secret Agent for this long passage alone. Yet, that is not necessary, one need not only read Conrad’s work for this passage, because it gives you so much more: farce, tragedy, murder, satire, mystery, and so on. It may not be The Great Terrorism Novel, it may not comfort the masses the next time a bomb explodes, scattering far and wide the flesh of hundreds or thousands of destroyed bodies, but it is a fucking great book.

KOLYMA TALES BY VARLAM SHALAMOV

I’ve written before about the idea of an ‘irrational attachment to life,’ which means that no matter how awful, how painful and degrading existence is one cannot forsake it. Not only that but, with a miser’s spirit, one actively clings to it. Of course it is not true of all – otherwise there would never be any suicide – but it is certainly true of many, including me. I had a very difficult childhood, and I would fantasise a lot about getting away, but at no point did I ever not want to be here. Quite the opposite: I would often cry in bed at night because I was so scared of dying. There’s something very funny about that, in a way…some kid weeping…begging…please give me more of this excruciating, this horrible life!

Why do some of us cling to life, no matter how awful that life may be? You could argue that it is the masochistic impulse. I believe in that, certainly. I think we have both a sadistic and masochistic impulse [one of which may be more pronounced in some], and that these influence many of our behaviours. I’m not convinced, however, that the masochistic impulse is responsible in this case, because an attachment to life in awful circumstances need not involve actively seeking out those circumstances [which would be necessary for me to consider it masochistic]. I think the desire to stay alive is a more basic, primordial impulse. A few years ago my cat fell out of a window and smashed his legs and split the palette in his mouth in two, but rather than lie down and succumb to what must have been a strong desire to give in he actually managed to drag himself out of the way of immediate danger and under a car. His instinct for survival was, you might say, absurdly strong, but there it was, urging him to protect what was left of his pain-wracked body. It’s an extraordinary thing, although It’s not necessarily admirable.

Varlam Shalamov spent, in total, seventeen years in prison and labour camps or Gulags. After his final release he commenced work upon a collection of short stories that dealt with camp and prison life. This collection came to be called Kolyma Tales. Kolyma is the name of the region where the camp was located in which the author served ten years. As this book, and others, attest life in the Russian labour camps was extraordinarily grim, with arctic conditions, beatings, scurvy, meagre rations, and near-unendurable work being the norm; the prisons weren’t much better.

“We have to squeeze everything out of a prisoner in the first three months — after that we don’t need him anymore.” – Naftaly Frenkel, Camp commander [from Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago].

конченый
Translation: ‘goner’ or ‘doomed.’

If there is a philosophical idea behind Shalamov’s work it is what I wrote about in the opening paragraphs. Most of his characters are survivors, as was the man himself, even though the desire to survive seems absurd. Another day of this? Of starvation, misery, exhaustion? Yes. Because what else is there but another day?

On numerous occasions the author is at pains to impress upon the reader that suffering, true suffering, does not engender camaraderie or ennoble the spirit. The consequence of life in the camps is that the prisoners become animalistic, their engagement with life is reduced to that of instinct. In many of his stories the most important thing to the characters is to get warm, or attempt to; many also steal from the dead in order to give themselves a better chance of survival. However, it is, once again, important to point out that for Shalamov this survival is absolutely not heroic, it just is. This is emphasised by the author’s dispassionate or matter-of-fact style. It is a style that is reminiscent of Imre Kertesz’s Fatelessness, yet lacks the Hungarian’s subtle irony. Shalamov plays it straight, without the hint of an upraised eyebrow.

I do not want to give the impression, however, that the Russian’s stories are thinly disguised autobiography, or that they are essentially a form of documentary or reportage. To see them in this way does the writer a huge disservice. What was most impressive, for me, aside from the incredible consistency, was the literary quality of each of Shalamov’s short tales. The structure and pacing, for example, are immaculate. There is one story, In the Night, in which two men set out along a path leading to a pile of rocks. One thinks, of course, that they have been put to work, especially when they start to move the rocks. Yet the conclusion of the story reveals that what they are actually doing is digging up a deceased comrade, in order to steal his clothes. There is no unnecessary exposition, no melodrama, just a great deal of control and a sharp, quick punch in the guts at the end. In the Night is one of the earliest stories in the collection, and I knew after reading it that Shalamov was a master of the form.

In the very best short stories there is a world both inside and outside of the narrative. This is true also of Shalamov’s work. Take In the Night again where there is the actual narrated action, but also a host of unanswered questions about who the dead man is, how he died, who the two men digging him up are, how they came to be incarcerated, and so on. In this way I was reminded strongly of Raymond Carver, whose snapshots are similarly restrained and yet suggestive of a more detailed narrative that is ultimately left to your imagination. Also like Carver, and Chekhov too, Shalamov is essentially apolitical and totally non-judgemental. For Carver and Chekhov that would have would been, one imagines, an easier feat than for this writer, whose tales all deal with people arrested [often on trumped up charges] under Stalin’s government. This refusal to fully engage with politics, the distance Shalamov maintains from the political climate of the time, serves to emphasise just how isolated, how cut off, his characters are from the outside world.

Shalamov does, however, make frequent references to literature. In certain stories he writes about Pushkin and Chekhov; in others he mentions a deck of playing cards that are made out of a Victor Hugo novel and discusses how inmates who can retell well-known or published stories are called novelists. More interestingly, some of the prisoners are named after famous Russian characters, such as Tolstoy’s Vronsky; and Andrei Platonov, a real life figure, and fellow writer, also makes an appearance, even though we know, of course, that he never served time in a prison. Russian writers, it has always struck me, are the most self-referential, but Shalamov, I imagine, wasn’t merely giving shout-outs. If you take Platonov as an example, he himself was a controversial figure, who Stalin apparently disliked, and so one might argue that he could easily, on this basis, have ended up in a camp, which were full of intellectuals anyway. I think in using Platonov and Vronsky and so on, he is saying that this could literally happen to anyone, that anyone, no matter what their status is, could find themselves in this horrific situation. Furthermore, by populating his tales with well-known Russians, in pointing to the country’s golden past or literary heritage, one might argue that Shalamov, whether intentionally or not, is subtly saying: look how we have come from that to this.

I’d like to have my arms and legs cut off and become a human stump – no arms or legs. Then I’d be strong enough to spit in their faces for everything they’re doing to us.

gulag-russi

THEY WERE DIVIDED [THE TRANSYLVANIAN TRILOGY PT.3] BY MIKLOS BANFFY

For my previous two reviews in this series I have churned out over 2500 words and so as I come to write the third and final review I find myself at something of a loss. What can I say about Miklos Banffy’s Transylvanian Trilogy that I haven’t already said? Not a lot, it seems. It doesn’t help that They Were Divided is much shorter than the two preceding volumes. Indeed, while all three follow on, volumes one and two did feel, in some way, like separate entities. They dealt with markedly different stages in the lives of the main characters; and each unfolded at a different pace. This one, however, does not feel distinct; in fact, it feels odd that it stands alone.

As befitting the concluding volume of a series, the one thing that does stand out about They Were Divided is the increased atmosphere of decline and destruction hanging over it. As noted previously, the real title of the whole work is The Writing On The Wall and that makes most sense in relation to the book under review here. First of all, there is destruction on what I will call a local level i.e. amongst the inhabitants of the novel, within their families etc. There have been deaths in the preceding two volumes but there are more of them in They Were Divided and, unlike before, it is major characters that are struck down. There is, in the book, a very real sense of things coming to an end, of the end of an era, so to speak, and this means that it is the most moving of the three volumes.

In addition to the deaths of certain beloved characters there is also the prospect of large-scale death on an international level. The timespan of the trilogy is 1904 to 1914. I don’t think you have to be a historian to know what the significance of the date 1914 is. The reality of what is happening in the world outside of the communities we have been so focused on becomes more apparent in They Were Divided; it can no longer be ignored. Indeed, it was always the case that the narrative was moving towards destruction, towards, more specifically, war. Yet it is easy for the reader to lose sight of that, to put it to the back of your mind; it is easy to become so engrossed in what is happening between, and to, these charming, interesting characters and to therefore not recognise the full significance of what is taking place in the world-at-large. It’s a neat trick, because that is exactly the same mindset that the majority of the characters have; they are so taken up with their own dramas, their own fun and games, that they are unaware of just how quickly they are hurtling towards, well, extinction or certainly the end of life as they know it.

Now that I have read the entire thing my opinion of some of what came before this final instalment has altered somewhat. I loved the first volume, almost without reservation, but I was far less enamoured with the second. A few of those reservations, however, seem less serious upon reflection. The drop off in drama, the slowing of the pace in They Were Found Wanting now seems necessary, for an entire 1500 pages of the kind of intensity that They Were Counted provided would perhaps have been too much. Furthermore, Balint, who I previously called a non-entity, takes on something of a heroic edge by the end of They Were Divided. His simple-minded goodness, his strong values and sense of honour were always admirable, but not particularly interesting. However, he is one of the few, if not the only, character who is not so self-absorbed as to not see what is coming; and there is something, for me, incredibly moving about the idea of one man, surrounded by jovial but ignorant people, who has his eyes open and turned towards a world that is set to burn.

There was nothing to see but ice and snow, only ice and snow, a petrified world were there could be no life. Ice everywhere, like the frozen inferno of Dante’s seventh hell. Even the sky seemed carved from ice, clean, majestic…and implacable…and even the stars held no mercy.

in front rose the ink-black outline of the Matterhorn, seeming more than ever like a claw, Satan’s claw, reaching for the Heavens. The great peak was no longer a natural pyramid of rock but rather some fatal, razor-sharp milestone threatening death to the sky above – a milestone that pointed to the end of the world.

So, ultimately, despite its flaws [I still can’t accept the repetition], The Transylvanian Trilogy is a large-hearted, beautiful novel, which may not, contrary to the hype, stand shoulder-to-shoulder with War & Peace, but is well worth the considerable time that is required in order to read it.

THEY WERE FOUND WANTING [THE TRANSYLVANIAN TRILOGY PT. 2] BY MIKLOS BANFFY

Within the music press there is a cliché regarding the second album, which is that often it will be a disappointment, usually because it is a re-tread or, more specifically, an inferior version of what the band or musician debuted with. The suggestion is that bands and songwriters will splurge all their best material and ideas on their first record and then find themselves at a kind of creative standstill when it comes to the next one. A good example of this would be The Strokes. I’m no fan but I know that their debut is much loved, while their second effort was largely seen as being the same but slightly worse and so was met with lukewarm praise. Of course, this need not solely apply to music, it can equally apply to literature. It is not an identical situation, because the books are not separate entities, but the second volume of Miklos Banffy’s Transylvanian Trilogy could be described as a sophomore slump, in that it contains many of the same elements that I enjoyed in They Were Counted, but is less original, less startling, less interesting and ultimately less satisfying.

In fairness, They Were Found Wanting starts brilliantly, with an extended serenade scene involving a number of familiar characters. While I don’t like to simply describe, or retell, aspects of a novel it is probably worthwhile in this instance because the whole thing is so charming. According to Banffy serenading a woman you are in love with doesn’t simply involve turning up under her window and warbling your heart out, but is a coordinated, complex and expensive procedure. First you need to hire a band to accompany you, then you need a table and some champagne. Serenading is not, as I had thought, a singular pursuit either, but can be done with a bunch of friends. This is what happens in They Were Found Wanting; Pityu Kendy, Uncle Ambrus and others get together in order to pay homage to Adrienne, sharing the cost and taking it in turns to sing.

Perhaps the most engaging aspects of this second volume are Pali Uzdy’s increasingly bizarre behaviour and the continuation of Laszlo’s fall from grace, and both characters are present at the serenade. Laszlo is not, of course, interested in declaring his love for Adrienne, but rather tags along because he is a drunk and will go where the booze is. In my review of They Were Counted I said that Laszlo’s story is of a type, by which I mean that it is predictable. However, although his role is not as prominent as before, his story is actually less predictable in They Were Found Wanting. Banffy takes the young man’s sadness, his self-destruction to a greater level, so that Laszlo basically becomes a penniless, embittered alcoholic. I imagine a lot of readers will root for Laszlo from the very beginning; he is artistic and sensitive, and so to bring him so low is a brave move on the author’s part.

While Laszlo is only a kind of harmless bystander, Pali Uzdy’s appearance at the serenade is more disconcerting for those who are in earnest about paying homage to Adrienne. Her husband is, of course, meant to be away, but turns up in the middle of the operation, plonks himself down at the table, ruins the mood by making strange mocking comments, and ends up firing a shot at Laszlo. Uzdi is a fascinating character, an unpredictable and sinister man. As we found out in the first volume, he is a rapist, but his villainy in volume two comes to have a surreal, crazy, almost satanic quality about it. His shooting at Laszlo, for example, is absolutely without justification. Uzdy clearly gets off on frightening people; it is how he exerts power over them. Indeed, rape itself is often described as being more about power than sex. I would say that, as with Laszlo, Uzdy doesn’t appear frequently enough in They Were Found Wanting, or at least not until the final 60-70 pages, but when he does appear the book comes alive, if only because one has no idea just what exactly he will do next. He seems capable of anything.

Unfortunately, these small gains, or improvements, are not enough to cover for the series’ serious loses. Balint and Adrienne’s relationship, for example, which previously provided most of the excitement, here lacks momentum [again, at least until the final 60-70 pages]. Throughout volume one the action and drama centred around whether they would get together, but that issue was resolved at the end of the previous novel. In They Were Found Wanting their relationship coasts for long periods or, to put it more negatively, goes through the motions. Indeed, Adrienne’s vow to kill herself has been all but forgotten and, although they still speak about love etc in lofty terms, and even though there is some tension regarding whether she will leave her husband, their interactions struck me as oddly pedestrian and stilted. This change in tone and pace, and lack of drama, also has consequences in terms of how we respond to the characters themselves. Not only is a less despondent Adrienne less captivating, but, more problematically, Balint is revealed as pretty much a non-entity. Without his partner providing the emotional fireworks it becomes clear that he is little more than a well-meaning dolt. Over 1000 pages into the book and I don’t think he has done or said a single memorable thing.

Having said all that, I guess that one could view many of They Were Found Wanting‘s issues as typical of a very long novel. I am, of course, reviewing each volume separately, and perhaps that is not the best way to go about judging The Transylvanian Trilogy. True, this second volume may not stand up very well on its own, but it is also true that it does make more sense as part of a whole; it certainly is not gripping, but then life is not always continual sturm and drang, there are longueurs. However, if one wants to argue that the series ought to be read as one long novel, then there is one aspect of this particular book, one fault with it, that cannot be justified, which is that Banffy wrote it as though one either had not read the previous volume or one cannot remember anything about it. What I mean by this is that he, infuriatingly, tediously, consistently, repeats things – both in terms of plot and character traits – that you already know and can well remember if you are reading the two volumes back-to-back. It gets so bad at points that They Were Found Wanting is like reading a synopsis or summing up of volume one, much like one of those ‘last week on…’ voiceovers that precede a new episode of a TV series.

THEY WERE COUNTED [THE TRANSYLVANIAN TRILOGY PT. 1] BY MIKLOS BANFFY

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.

THE CASE OF COMRADE TULAYEV BY VICTOR SERGE

If you’ve read any of my reviews you may have come across me rambling on about interconnectedness; in fact, i think I last wrote about it only a few days ago. I always, by way of justifying it perhaps, preface this rambling by admitting that interconnectedness is an obsession of mine; of course, it being a genuine obsession, it is very often on my mind and it does, therefore, colour the way that I see and approach the world, including the way that I read things. So, uh, although I fear I am in danger of being as much of a bore as Charlie Citrine [whose theosophy twaddle mars Humboldt’s Gift], I cannot promise that this is the last time I’m going to chat about this shit. Fair warning, and all that. In any case, what, for me, is interconnectedness? I believe [not uniquely] that everything, my entire experience of the world, my entire existence, is connected to the experience and existence of every person and thing on this planet, both in the present day and historically, in an infinite and complex number of ways.

While I said that I cannot promise that this is the last time I will write about interconnectedness, I can promise that it is especially relevant in terms of the book under review here, because Serge’s novel is not merely an example of interconnectedness [all things are examples of it, to my mind], but is, on one level, actually about it. The Case of Comrade Tulayev starts from the arbitrary point at which the man of the title is shot and killed. This event, with a grand flap of butterfly wings, sets in motion a seemingly unending, subsequent, series of events, spreading out in numerous directions like an insane spider-diagram. Each chapter of the novel deals with a different consequence of that initial act; Tulayev’s murder begats Erchov’s dismissal, it begats Rublev’s arrest, and so on. These people, none of whom were involved in the man’s death, are all drawn into the cyclone created by it.

Of course, in terms of plot, this is actually a novel about the Stalinist purges. The Party, desirous of being seen to be strong and impervious to random acts of terrorism, need to pin the crime on someone, need to give the impression of being in control of the situation, and so have no qualms about punishing innocent men. There is a temptation to say that The Party reacts with paranoia, but this is not so; far from exhibiting psychological distress, it cynically goes about its business, offering sacrificial lambs to the great God of Communism.

Aside from the sophisticated construction, and the engaging exploration of political ideology, the novel interested me in one or two other ways. Firstly, there is an extraordinary amount of detail here, bureaucratic detail, and it has a disorientating, mind-spinning, effect on the reader. While this isn’t so interesting in-and-of-itself, it is when one considers that many of the characters themselves feel burdened or confused by all the dossiers, meaningless memorandum, and organisations. One is put, as a reader, in the same position as the people in the novel and I found that especially impressive. The second point of interest, for me, is in the way that Serge managed to create a novel that runs to only 400 pages and yet feels like a grand epic. At every point, in almost every sentence, there is a hint of something, some tossed off anecdote, some potential back-story, that other novelists would have spent at least 50 pages detailing. This makes the novel incredibly rich.

While all this may seem insufferably dry there are, trust me, also moments of great beauty in the text. One scene in particular will always stay with me: Erchov and his wife hunting ibex, and the similarly-hunted Erchov whispers in his wife’s ear as she lines up her shot “above all, darling, miss him.” Don’t miss this brilliant book though.