[P], brow furrowed and with the hint of a tear in his eye, sat on the bed, the bed that was little more than a valley surrounded by mountains of books. He had finished the book he had been reading nearly two weeks ago and was engaged in choosing the next, although, from the outside, it appeared as though he was building himself some kind of fort. Of the high mountainous piles of books around the bed, [P] had read at least 50 pages of each, before abandoning them, Goldilocks-like, as not quite right. [P] was at the pitch of madness when he spied a spider crawling down his wall. ‘Stop!’ he screamed, and the spider looked at him, stared at him like one of Flannery O’Connor’s more under-developed characters. [P] leapt from the bed, a heap of books falling from his lap, Buckaroo-style, and made for his killing-shoe. Shoe in hand, he cautiously stepped towards the spider, raising hand and shoe in readiness for the fatal strike.

‘Wait!’ said the spider.

‘No! I must kill you!’

‘Why? What have I done to you? Why must you end my life?’

‘It’s not what you’ve done, it’s who, or what, you are. Now, be quiet and take your medicine like a man!’

‘But I’m not a man. I’m a spider; and I’m female.’

‘Arachne, is that you?’

‘What? Oh, Ovid? You do know that was just a story, don’t you?


‘Have you ever thought about seeking professional help, [P]?’

‘Quit stalling, spideress! It is time for you to die!’

‘Wait! Wouldn’t you like me to tell which book you ought to read next?’


‘I know what the perfect book is for you.’

‘Go on.’

The Arabian Nights is the perfect book for you right now.’

‘Fine. Now, let us finish this!’

‘Wait, wouldn’t you like to know which edition to read? There are hundreds of them out there, and you yourself have three at the last count.’

‘Go on.’

‘If you spare me tonight I will tell you.’

[P] considered the spider’s proposition and decided to accept, for the killing could wait until the following day.

The First Night

‘We meet again!’ said [P] as the spider emerged from her hiding place late the next night.

‘As planned and as foreordained, master.’

‘So, deliver on your part of the agreement, strange speaking-spider!’

‘I will.’


‘If I recall correctly you own the Burton single volume edition, published by Modern Library, and the Haddawy translation of the Mahdi edition, and the most recent Lyons translation.’

‘That is correct,’ said [P].

‘Richard Burton’s version of The Nights has its detractors and its supporters.  It is based on a French edition by Galland, who is said to have added stories from a variety of sources, and may possibly have written some of them himself. Ali Baba, for example, is not meant to have been part of the original manuscript, but was added by the Frenchman; many of the most famous stories became part of The Nights in the same way. Burton’s original translation spanned 16 volumes, but, I think in 1932, a single volume compendium of the best stories was published. This is the volume you own. Now, as I said, the Burton translation has been heavily criticised and praised. It is praised, mostly, due to the Englishman’s [possibly insane] personality, which comes through in the text in his notes and comments and in the way that he interprets or translates the stories. Be warned, his is not a reliable edition if you want something authentic; it is very much Burton’s book. And, to some extent, this makes for an enjoyable experience. One of the main gripes one might have is that The Nights is a bunch of random stories and it is sometimes difficult to find the impetus to read it cover-to-cover; Burton side-steps this problem, because he unifies the stories, his voice brings them together and makes the book feel like a complete work. However, Burton is an acquired taste and what some enjoy about his version of The Nights is what others dislike about it. Firstly, his language is biblical and that certainly alienates certain readers. Secondly, his asides and comments are by no means politically correct, and it has been said that his work actually goes beyond being merely close-to-the-bone and could be accused of racism. Certainly there are references to…’

‘To?’ said [P] eagerly.

‘Sorry, [P] I’m getting tired. See out the window, how late it is? I need to go to bed, and so do you. If you let me live tomorrow, when the night comes I will tell you all about Burton’s racism.’

[P] was so anxious to find out what Burton had written that he allowed the spider to live.

The Second Night

On the second night the spider and [P] met up as arranged.

‘Ok, so, spider, here we are, as promised tell me what Burton wrote and then enlighten me as to which edition of The Arabian Nights I ought to read

‘Of course! Burton presents the people who populate his tales in a less than complimentary way, adding commentary about female circumcision and pederasty, and describing the moors as having big dicks. None of which is particularly palatable. At its best it is reactionary and lazy stereotyping, at its worse it is racist. Lyons’ translation is much less intrusive, although it, too, retains the tales added by Galland and taken from various sources. If you want a multi-volume edition of The Nights then I’d perhaps advise you to read that one.


However, if you were to ask me which edition of The Nights I favour, I would, without hesitation, point you in the direction of Haddawy’s. His version is, as I mentioned yesterday, a translation of the Mahdi edition. The Mahdi edition is based on what some claim to be the earliest surviving copy of The Nights, a Syrian manuscript dating from the 15th or 16th century which is to be found in the Bibliotheque Nationale. Of course, this Syrian manuscript, which is believed to be ancestral to all other versions of The Nights, does not…’

‘Does not what, spider?’

‘I want to tell you, my lord, but I’m afraid I’m rather sleepy.’

‘Goddamn it, spider, are you narcoleptic? You’ve only just started!’

‘I’m not sleeping very well lately.’

‘Why not?’

‘I’ve just given birth to hundreds of children.’

‘Oh, congratulations…hold on, hundreds? In my room?’

‘Er, I must turn in now. If you want to know more about the Haddawy translation you must let me live and I will tell you all I know tomorrow night.’

The Third Night

‘I hope you’re well rested, spider,’ said [P] on the third night. ‘If so, now tell me everything you know about the Haddawy translation so that I can make an educated decision as to which version of The Nights to read and then finally put you to death.’

‘Your wish is my command, sir…Galland and Burton both used the Syrian manuscript as the basis for their versions, but, as noted, they both re-worked or added stories and commentary. The Mahdi edition, however, does not  contain any stories or content that is not to be found in the original manuscript, it is therefore, for the man who wants an authentic experience of The Nights, the only version untouched by Northern and Western European influence.’

‘So, you’re saying, really, that if you want to be an Arabian Nights hipster then Haddawy’s is the translation to read?’

‘Yes, think of how superior you’ll seem if you can say oh, I see you’re reading Burton’s Arabian Nights; I, myself, prefer the original.’

‘It’s a little like going up to a kid who is playing The Best of The Smiths and telling him that, yeah, Hand in Glove sounds ok on CD, but it sounds even better on the original 7″ vinyl!’

‘Ha, indeed.’

‘Cool. I’ll read the Haddawy translation.’

[P] picked up his killing-shoe.

‘So, I’ll try and make this quick.’

‘Wait! Don’t you want to know if the content and style will suit you?’

‘I know what the content is and what the style is like, everyone does,’ said [P] impatiently.

‘But I’ve told you that the Mahdi edition lacks most of the really famous stories, which are probably the only stories you would know in advance. In any case, you are on record as not really liking short stories; don’t you want to know what you’re letting yourself in for?’

‘Ah, yes. Proceed.’                     


‘The stories in Haddawy’s translation of The Nights are less well-known, but for me this works in its favour. Ali Baba, Alladin, Sindbad etc, are all so much a part of popular culture that one could feel as though reading the stories is actually pretty pointless. Haddawy’s Nights is fresher, more surprising, although, of course, it still features demons and magical events, princes and princesses and so on. Crucially, every story in his edition is of the highest quality. Seriously! Burton’s and Galland’s and Lyons’ versions are so long that the quality is bound to be uneven; Haddawy’s is roughly 450 pages, which is about half the size of the single volume of Burton published by Modern Library and not even a quarter of the length of Lyons’ version. All the stories are taken from the same source too, so they work together, are less jarring. Indeed, the book, in this edition, reads like a complete work, not as a seemingly never-ending compendium of short stories tied tenuously together. Some of my favourites include the hunchback who died in one house, is taken and left on the stairs of another, and is then subsequently passed from house to house as each man who finds him thinks he has killed him; then there is the story of the three girls who invite some men into their home but on the condition that they will not ask questions about the strange things they will see.’

‘What did they see?’

‘I’d like to tell you, O impatient one. But, I’m rather exhausted. If you promise not to kill me tonight I will tell you about the three girls tomorrow.’

The Fourth Night

At nightfall [P] and the spider reconvened. [P] said, ‘no more delays, tell me what happens in the house with the girls.’

‘My pleasure,’said the spider. ‘The girls invite into their home a porter, three one-eyed dervishes, and a king and his adviser. During the night one of the girls brings out two black dogs, and begins to beat them until they faint. At the end of the beating the girl weeps over the animals and the animals weep with her.’

‘Why did she beat the animals and then weep over them?’

‘If I tell you it will spoil the story.’

‘What about the dervishes? All one-eyed, you say? What happened to them?’

‘This too is revealed in the book, for the king calls the dervishes and the girls to his palace the next morning for explanations. Each dervish has a wonderful story to tell.’

‘So, within each story there are other stories?’

‘Oh, yes. I see your arm there, that matryoshka doll tattoo of yours; the stories in The Nights are like one of those dolls; within each story there are other stories. Just like life! With the advent of every incident in your life, other incidents have taken place in order to bring it about. Indeed, I would say that the most satisfying thing about reading this version of The Nights is how sophisticated and complex the stories are in structure. Some of the main narratives can last for 40-50 pages, containing within that framework another 6-7 stories. Not only that, but the content of the stories often mirrors the structure, in that they are concerned with labyrinths and secret rooms and rooms-within-rooms, surprise revelations, etc.’

‘I like that, spider, I really like that! Say, all of this sounds like Calvino; Borges too maybe.’

The Nights is very much like If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, but better, master, so much better. Why? Because all the stories contained within it are superior to those in Calvino’s book. It is also similar to, and superior to, Rousell and Perec and a whole host of others. As for Borges, well, I know you love him; I, too, rate him very highly. I wouldn’t want to say that The Nights is better than Borges’ best work, but it is the equal of it, certainly. Borges himself, actually, was a massive fan, he even wrote his own stories about it.’

‘I must not have read those stories. Tell me one.’

‘My lord, I would be happy to do so, but I am unable to keep my eyes open.’

‘You’ve got lots of eyes, I’m sure you can keep a couple of them open long enough to tell me!’

‘I’m afraid that isn’t possible. But if you spare me tonight I will tell you tomorrow evening.’

The Fifth Night

With the coming of evening [P] said to his eight-legged companion:

‘I’m anxious, spider, to hear what you have to say, so reveal to me Borges’ story.’

‘As you wish, sir,’ said the spider.


‘In one of Borges’ stories Shahrazad tells the king the story of a girl who must tell her king stories to keep him from killing her.’

‘Very droll. I am satisfied, spider. And how early it is! You can’t be tired already, so tonight will be the night that you perish, as you have no more to tell me!’

‘But, my lord, wouldn’t you like to know if The Nights is sexist, if women are relentlessly mistreated, if there are numerous rapes? Don’t forget, you regularly complain about the frequency with which you encounter this kind of thing in books, how, indeed, it actually compromises your enjoyment.’

‘That is true. Tell me then, O weaver of webs, for it is so early that you can complete your task and I will still have plenty of time to end your existence.’

‘[Hoarsely] Master, nothing would make me happier, but I’m afraid I have a sore throat and cannot speak for much longer without losing my voice entirely. A good night’s rest will cure me of this ailment and tomorrow night I will be able to reveal all.

‘Very well, till tomorrow then.’

The Sixth Night

‘Hear me, my black-backed foe! Come forth and tell me, in fine voice, whether The Arabian Nights will depress me with tales of abuse and rape.’

‘My lord, my voice has recovered so I am able to do your bidding.


So often I have read that The Nights is sexist and yet I don’t agree; or, it is, in some versions, certainly in Burton’s edition, but that is not the case with Haddawy’s version. Yes, there are adulterous women, but there are an equal number of adulterous men; yes, the women are often portrayed as manipulative, but is that any more insulting than the men they dupe who are portrayed as idiots? Some women are ill-treated physically, but as far as I remember none are raped. But, then, men too are physically ill-treated, so where is the sexism? Women are killed at the drop of a hat, but so are men. Furthermore, women are shown to be very interested in sex and are shown to enjoy it. The only real basis for complaint would be how women are kept veiled and not allowed outdoors, which is an odd complaint considering that it is an accurate representation of the times and culture. Not only that, but Shahrazad, a woman, is the strongest-willed, most admirable, and heroic, character in the entire book! As everyone knows, the framing narrative of the work is that a king, who has a bad experience with a woman, decides to take a new wife every night and kill her in the morning. Shahrazad, against her father’s wishes, offers to marry the king, who himself advises against it due to his vow to dispose of all of his wives within 24 hours. She insists though, stating that she will put an end to these deaths or die herself trying. By telling the king stories every night she saves her own life and eventually the king softens and gives up his vow. Her bravery and resourcefulness is what saves the day.’

‘Wonderful! You have put my mind at ease. Now, say your final prayers.’

‘But, master, what is the moral of the story of Shahrazad and the king? What do you think it may be telling you vis-a-vis you and I?’

‘Not to be rash, not to be blood-thirsty, and not to be unkind to an innocent? That we ought to live together, peacefully and happily?’


‘Yes, I see that. Accept my humble apologies, spider. You have my permission to live here; this is your home too now. Go and fetch your children and bring them to me so I can bless them all. But first one last question.’

‘Anything, O benevolent master!’

‘Is there a word limit for a review on wordpress?’

‘What? I don’t know.’

‘No matter then; bring me those lovely children of yours!’

The spider merrily departed and returned in haste with her offspring. [P] gazed at them in turn and then, from behind his back, produced his killing-shoe and took care of each and every one. Next, he turned on the articulate arachnid and administered a most brutal and fatal squashing. After cleaning up the mess he’d made he pulled from his bookshelves Haddawy’s translation of the Mahdi edition of The Arabian Nights and took it with him to his bed, laid down and began to read. And it was good.


For a long time the prospect of re-reading Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu has terrified me. My first experience of the novel-series was so rewarding that I feared that it would not live up to the idea I had of it in my mind, that a re-reading would, in some way, sully my memories of it. It is a little bit like considering getting back together with an ex: sure, it is appealing, and it could turn out great, but one cannot help but think that one has perhaps forgotten all the bad things and retained only the good, giving you a false impression of what that earlier relationship was actually like. So, I have dithered; I have thought about picking up the first volume numerous times, only to succumb to my anxiety. Is it better to protect your positive memories of something or try to forge new ones? It’s a risk.

What eventually compelled me to re-read Swann’s Way was purchasing a different translation; this, I felt, gave me an excuse, gave me a way of defending the book, if I found it disappointing in this unfamiliar form. It’s a poor translation, I could say to myself, and so would be able to continue to hold dear my first reading. The version that I had read a few years ago was Lydia Davis’; the one I recently tried was Moncrieff’s translation, as revised by Kilmartin and Enright. I knew, of course, that Moncrieff’s original translation was considered beautiful, but suspect. The revisions, I have been told, corrected many of Moncrieff’s errors and pruned his flowery language.

However, twenty or thirty pages into Moncrieff’s book, I was struggling. My worst fears had been confirmed. Well, maybe not quite my worst fears. I liked it, of course. I hardly think it possible I could read any version of Swann’s Way and not like it at all; but I was disappointed. It felt prissy and fey and precious. As promised, it read beautifully, but it also read as though it had been written sometime in the mid-1800’s, rather than the early 1900’s. I tried to persevere but it was genuinely making me sad; I felt cheated, as though I had been informed that someone had only been nice to me in order to steal my wallet when I was not looking. I was now in crisis. I was wrong too, about my excuse; I could not just put it down to a translation issue and leave it at that. So, I pulled out my copy of Davis’ translation. And I compared them, briefly. They seemed very similar at first glance, but there was something about Davis’ version that drew me in, that made me instantly happy.

In order to understand why that is the case, one might point to the obvious stylistic differences between the two. Davis’s translation is tougher, and not as flawlessly elegant [although I would wager that she would say that this is Proust]; and, crucially, it does not read as though it was written by some smoking-jacket wearing fop. Yet I think my admiration, my affection for it goes deeper than mere style. As soon as I held the book I experienced a kind of comfort. The smell of it, the flash of recognition as I eyed the cover, the spine, the type, the bumps and folds and tears…all of these things conjured up in me an intense sensation, a sweet, almost nauseous feeling of nostalgia, and warm memories of the days I had spent with the book, with this specific copy.

Photo on 25-01-2015 at 11.37

It struck me, as I read on with complete calmness and joy, that my relationship with this book is itself Proustian. Towards the end of the series, in Time Regained, if I recall correctly, Marcel writes about how the most intense experiences are those that are, in a sense, layered. He uses, I think, the example of music. A piece of new music may be beautiful, one may appreciate the beauty of it, but one’s emotional response will be greater if that specific piece is in some way personally connected to you, if it evokes some feeling or memory; it is, for Marcel, the combination of memory – or the mind or intellect – and the physical object or world that is significant. Of course, there is a more famous example of this idea, which involves Marcel eating a little cake, a madeleine, with his tea, the taste of which reminds him of his childhood. So, in this way, my original copy of Swann’s Way has become a madeleine for me.

On that madeleine, it is often thought to appear in the text at the very beginning. It does not, however. It actually turns up some fifty pages into Swann’s Way, after the almost equally famous mother’s kiss episode. One of the most pleasing things about re-reading a book is how much richer, or deeper, one’s understanding becomes. You are able, a second time around, to move forward and back at will, because you know the story, you know where it is going. This allowed me to make a connection, maybe a tenuous one, between the mother’s kiss episode and Swann in Love [the novella in the centre of this volume] and Marcel’s relationship with Albertine much later in the series. Young Marcel is desperate for his mother to give him a kiss goodnight, considers himself unable to sleep unless she does so; and eventually he gets out of bed in order to go to her. She is angry, because she wants him to be independent. It stuck me that this kind of behaviour, this neediness, this being prepared to anger the object of your affection, is not particular to mummy’s boys, but is also an aspect of romantic love. For example, Swann finds himself behaving in exactly this kind of manner; he knows that it is not in his long-term interests to badger Odette, but he cannot help himself.

It is my understanding, based on a large amount of reviews and articles, that many readers give up on Proust sometime during Combray, the first section of Swann’s Way. Although I like it very much I can understand why some people would bail on it, why they would find it problematic. Like Pynchon with Gravity’s Rainbow, Proust does not let you find your feet, but instead immediately drops you into the toughest part of his entire work. Combray is roughly 190 pages long, and is entirely plotless; it is frequently lovely, and funny, but is also occasionally tedious. However, despite being plotless it isn’t pointless. It is significant, I think, that Proust begins Combray with a discussion of sleep and, more importantly, waking; indeed, he writes that upon waking he would, in a sense, recreate his room, would bring it back, would piece it together bit by bit…first the bed, then the lamp, the walls…etc. This is exactly what he is doing with his narrative in this first section; he is forming it, he is, in a non-linear fashion, just like when one opens one’s eyes after sleep and bring back one’s bedroom in no particular order, pulling together the bones of the major themes and stories from the whole of In Search of Lost Time. So, he references Swann and Odette, he hints at his own future love troubles, he introduces his family, and Vinteuil, and mentions the Baron de Charlus, and Balbec, and so on. If you have not read all six volumes before you would not notice that he is doing this, nor would you understand the significance of the references, but as someone re-reading the work Proust’s intention becomes clear.

As already discussed, In Search of Lost Time is, amongst other things, about memory, and this scattershot opening section is an attempt at recreating how memory functions. Combray is strangely out of time; it is never made clear how old Marcel is at any one time, even though it is clear that he is not always the same age; likewise, one does not know what year, or years, the events are taking place. This is, indeed, the nature of memories; they are not time-stamped and not coherently ordered. Furthermore, they do not come to us as fully formed narratives, or stories, they come piecemeal, or as snapshots, or moments or fragments. For 190 pages Proust sorts these fragments, he examines them, and then, over the course of the following sections and volumes, he puts the pieces in order, he reveals the full picture, he, essentially, works these fragments into a coherent narrative. In this way I find Combray fascinating; and it is entirely justified to begin with it, even though it could turn people off.

That is not to say that there are no straightforwardly entertaining anecdotes and passages and insights or ideas, there are many of them. I particularly enjoyed the snobbish Legrandin, who doesn’t want to admit to having a sister in Balbec so as to avoid having to introduce her to Marcel; when the boy’s father asks Legrandin if he knows anyone in Balbec, he answers ‘I know everyone and I know no one.’ I liked Mademoiselle Vinteuil and her lesbian lover and what that, according to Proust, reveals about sadism. Marcel watches the two women through a window; they are carousing in front of Monsieur Vinteuil’s picture, who we are told disapproved of their union, and the lover threatens to spit on it. This leads Proust to discussing how sadists are not evil, because they must know what good is, must actually be good to some extent, in order to get a thrill from doing bad.

There are also some lovely little asides concerning Swann; such as when the aunt is said to consider any high-ranking society person as diminished if he or she knows Swann, rather than, as one would expect, it being the case that Swann knowing this person raises him in her estimation. My favourite, however, is the grandmother, who will not present someone, who has an interest in volcanoes, with a picture of Vesuvius, but will give him a painting of it; she will not buy someone a brand new chair, but an antique, even if it functions much less successfully as something to sit on. The idea, which I have already touched upon at the beginning of this review, is that the more layers of meaning a thing has, the greater it is, so that a chair that has a history is preferable to an ordinary chair, and a painting of a volcano more worthwhile than a photograph of it; it is a kind of embellished reality.

After Combray comes Swann in Love, the events in which, however, take place some time before. As intimated, this section is much easier to read than the one that preceded it. It is essentially the story of Swann’s relationship with the cocotte Odette de Crecy, who, Combray already informed you, he eventually marries, and who was considered to be, by Marcel’s family, a bad sort, so much so that they went to some lengths to avoid meeting her. [You will also know that it was suspected that Odette had an affair with the Baron de Charlus]. In Swann in Love, Proust, appropriately enough, bearing in mind the title, makes many charming observations about what it means to be in love, how one comes to love certain people, etc. More interesting, however, is the way that he shows how the dynamics of a relationship can change. Initially, Odette does all the chasing; she wants to catch Swann and, consciously or not, her traps are baited with girlish modesty; she appeals to his manly pride, she positions herself as the clearly inferior, silly, and love-stricken, little girl. Swann falls for it, and falls for her. Yet once bitten by love, once the toxin has seeped into his blood, he finds that it somehow transfers all the power over to Odette. Being intensely in love involves a kind of abdication, involves a loss of power and position. Swann needs Odette, and therefore she holds the cards; she has, in fact, taken those cards directly from his own hands.

They are chronically ill-suited; Swann is refined, and intelligent, yet prefers earthy women; Odette is rather stupid, morally dubious, but classically attractive. A large part of Swann in Love is about Swann’s fears regarding Odette’s past [she may have put it around, folks] and her current fidelity. Somehow Swann, who famously says of himself that ‘I felt my deepest love, for someone who did not appeal to me,’ makes of such meagre ingredients a feast of intense suspicion, jealousy and heartache. I tend to find books concerned with jealousy compelling, for it is thoroughly destructive and seemingly irrational. It makes the subject of it miserable, and the object also. No one wins. Swann in Love brilliantly captures the agony, the hopelessness, the hope, the mood swings, the bitterness, etc. It is, in this way, very much like Othello, but is perhaps even more true than Shakespeare’s great play, in that most often the real jealous person is both Iago and the Moor, he pours pestilence into his own ear.

During this section, Proust, although not explicitly, brings us back to sadomasochism, which I have already briefly mentioned, and which is a recurring theme in the entire work. Jealousy is, for me, both sadistic and masochistic. There is within it the desire to master, and an enjoyment in causing him or her some pain or discomfort [which we justify to ourselves as either punishment for a perceived wrong, or as necessary in order to teach a worthwhile lesson – like when Swann asks Odette if she is ‘one of those creatures in the lowest grade of mentality’ who is ‘incapable of giving up a pleasure’]. There is also a kind of pleasure in one’s own pain and discomfort. Think about how the jealous person will linger over their evidence, will go over it multiple times, will embellish, will feed their suspicions, will strive to be proved correct in their theories. Proust says of Swann: ‘he took pleasure in pursuing his evil fantasies further and further.’ The jealous person enjoys the pain, otherwise he would stop, or make a break from the person whom he cannot trust.

Speaking of stopping, I really ought to bring this review to a close. Swann’s Way does include a short third section, Place Names: the Name, which is excellent, but not really worth discussing at any length.  In any case, in order to sum up my feelings about Proust, about this volume, and the work as a whole, I want to finish with a quote from the man himself. When discussing a piece of music [Vinteuil’s phrase], he writes:

Of course although human from this point of view, it belonged to an order of supernatural creatures whom we have never seen, but whom despite this we recognise with delight when some explorer of the invisible manages to capture one, to bring it, from that divine world to which he has access, to shine for a few moments above ours.

This is exactly what Proust – an explorer of the invisible – could do; he could capture those supernatural creatures with impressive ease and frequency, and deliver them to us.


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].

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.



Canto I

One day, although not yet half way through life’s journey,
I found myself in a forest dark, having wandered
From the path intended. Poor me! This wood, so foreboding,
Promised me evil beyond telling. So, must I tell then
Of what I saw, though in telling my fear would return anew?
With three savage beasts, at my heels attending,
I trod with heavy heart deeper into the leafy labyrinth.
I spent the night without even fitful sleep, hour upon hour,
My eyes open and turned towards the pitch-dark abyss
Above my weary head. Is this what death holds, I wondered,
To wander, hopeless and hunted, without our natural rest?
With daybreak I took up my peregrinations, until upon
A mountain I there came. No way over or around; and so
The beasts closer came, encircling, with stern attention.
All lost, thought I, but, at that moment, I beheld a figure
Of human form. ‘Save me!’ I cried, ‘Be you man or shade.’
Man I am not, yet once I was. Augustus I served, in Rome
I dwelt, as a poet. I, it was, who once famously sang of
Mighty Aeneas, the Trojan prince.’ What good fortune!
‘I too am a poet!’ I said, at which the great man chuckled.
‘Your poetry, I am aware of, but please let us not speak of it.
You know my name and my work?’ ‘You are Virgilius, author
Of The Aeneid, which I recently read, although you look
Like Italian midfield maestro Andrea Pirlo!’ The poet smiled,
And said, ‘I took the form of famous footballer, peerless Pirlo,
Because you know not what Virgil looks like. Now let’s
Take a stroll; no harm will befall you while you walk with me.’
And so we moved off, with Virgil leading; the way now clear,
And fear from my heart cast. ‘Where are we going,’ I asked
My guide. ‘Down we go, to a place terrible and frightening.
Many things you’ll see, and lessons learn, if that world
You can bear.’ ‘I’ll bear up, master, but please, do not
In darkness leave me. What’s the name of this awesome place?’
‘It is Book-Review Hell, son. Look!’ And before me I saw
A dark opening, a door, with these words above:
Abandon perspective, humility,
And conventions of grammar,
All who enter here.

Andrea Pirlo as Virgil, painting by Gustave Dore 1874

Canto II

Inside, in fear, I clung to the hard wall as we descended deeper,
Despite the poet’s promise that no harm would me befall.
‘Tell me, master, as a distraction, about your hero Aeneas;
Isn’t he but one-dimensional? No personality has he to speak of.’
The poet puffed with indignation, ‘What know you, boy,
Of personality?’ A low-blow, I thought. ‘Aeneas is a hero;
Don’t they almost always blandly embody traits like courage,
Honour and so forth? If one-dimensional bothers you,
I suggest from epic poetry, impertinent youth, you keep away!’
For the offence I begged his pardon. The poet softened slightly,
And went on to say, ‘He may not, on the surface, be compelling,
But of interest there is much. He is a man burdened by destiny,
With no control over his life. By divine will he’s pushed forward,
Away from his new wife Dido and into a great and bloody war;
And his brutal frustration is murderously poured out in the end.’
At that, reticent to enrage him further, I fell silent, despite
Being eager to speak about the structure of the poem;
How episodic The Aeneid is! How I often felt like I was
Playing Zelda: at every plot point, crucial, there is an obstacle to
Overcome, or a task to complete, to pass to the next stage!
O sage, do not think this is a criticism, if you are reading this.
‘Look!’ he said, to regain my attention, and before me now I saw
Many men, all alike, with dress identical, moving one to another.
As one spoke, the other listened, then stepped away towards
The next man, to repeat what he had just heard. ‘What is
This place?’ I asked great Virgil. ‘This is Plagiarism,’
He replied. ‘To avoid a stay here, one must never take
What isn’t yours and pass it off as original thought.’
I nodded, seriously. ‘Master, I agree, but some claim
Your poem is but Homer’s work, re-written.’ ‘Listen,
[P], I’d never deny the influence of the Greek genius,
But his work I used as a launch-pad for my own. I did not
From him steal; the aims, the style, etc, are different,
The similarities between our poems are superficial only. Tell me,
Have you heard Be My Baby?’ I told him I had, that I love
That song. ‘The drumbeat, how many times have you heard it,
In how many songs throughout the years? Homer is like that
Beat; he’s the foundation upon which many build their own work.
Now, come, let us proceed.’

Zelda, illustration by Gustave Dore 1880

Canto III

As we penetrated deeper, I pressed the poet further, ‘Master,
Would it displease you, if we speak more about The Aeneid?
At least allow me to say how much I enjoyed your poetry,
Your graceful lines, your use of extended metaphor and simile;
But by far my favourite aspect of your work was how dark
And gothic your presentation of events, your Cyclops,
For example, and how Dido meets her end. And what about
the work of Allecto? Pure horror’.’Now is not the time,
But, speaking of gothic, of dark and unsettling, turn your eyes
Towards what stands before them now.’ I raised my eyes as
I was bidden, and there I saw a room. From floor to ceiling,
From wall to wall, were crushed, or packed tightly together,
Men and women, with no space to move in, each groaning,
Some dead, some dying. ‘O master, what is this awful place?’
‘This is Personal Anecdotes, [P]; somewhere I thought you’d well
Know. Here one is forced to struggle for breath in a room
With all the people one has used in one’s reviews.’ I now saw
I thought, the error of my ways, and so asked my guide
To please take me away, for I could not bear any longer
To gaze upon the terrors of that room.

Canto IV

My guide obliged and swiftly showed me to the next,
A place where silence reigned. A relief for my ears,
After all the ungodly groaning. ‘Where are we now?’
I asked my companion. The room in which we stood
Was dust-filled, sported spider webs a-plenty, and on
Hard wooden benches sat large groups of men, all seemingly
Asleep. Without answering Virgil held a finger to his lips,
The universal request for quiet. But I could not hold my
Tongue, I was consumed by curiosity, and so I whispered,
‘Tell me, master, what goes on here?’ And at that the men
Awoke, and as they moved great clouds of dust ascended
Into the air. The men, in panic, screamed and shouted,
‘I can’t breathe, please save me!’ The dust, it seemed,
Was choking them; their eyes streamed, their skin
Itched, and loud sneezes erupted from all noses, bringing
Further dust down from the rafters.’These men cannot die,’
My guide proclaimed, ‘But suffer greatly, they must. The dust!
The dust! O until it again settles it will stop-up their throats,
Obstruct their breathing.’ I could not prevent a tear, for
So much woe had I this day witnessed. The poet continued,
‘This is the room of Over-long, Dry, and Academic Reviews.
There is no humour here, no lightness of touch; here you’ll find
the plot-summarizers; and tedious explorers of character,
Motivations, their words taken from University lecture notes.
Review, you must, The Aeneid, but beware do not devote most
Of your review to explaining how Aeneas is a Trojan, who
Fought for Troy in The Iliad, although he was only a small-time
Player; or how The Aeneid begins with survivors of that war
Looking for a new land on which to settle; don’t tell readers
All there is to know about their travels, their travails,
Or Aeneas’ ultimate victory over the Latins, or the short but
Exciting Arrans and Camilla episode.’ I felt as though I must
Interrupt, briefly, ‘Should I not mention how Camilla fights with
Her breast exposed?’ My guide laughed and smiled benignly.
‘I think that is fine; a quite titillating detail, excuse the pun.’
‘She is my favourite character, tits aside,’ I told the eminent poet;
For a female warrior one doesn’t expect to find,
In an ancient epic.

Canto V

‘How much more, master, must I endure, how many
Rooms are left on this tour?’ Virgil patted my shoulder,
Paternally, and said, ‘No more, [P]. The tour has come to
An end.’ I expressed surprise, although not disappointment,
For Dante had been accompanied through nine circles in all.
‘You are correct,’ said Virgil ‘but in order to visit the rest of
The rooms you must buy my tour-guide.’ I grimaced and mumbled
Something about forgetting my wallet; at this, the poet rolled
His eyes. ‘So, what now?’ I asked, for the subject I sought
To change. ‘Now, back you must go, to the world above,
To write a review for The Aeneid.’ I said I would most
Gladly return, but could I first run by him some more ideas.
The poet nodded, and I then commenced, ‘The translation,
Master, whose would you recommend? Latin, most no longer
Comprehend. I read Fitzgerald, and was satisfied. No
Lombardo-like modern phrases, no Fagles-mangling of
Famous lines.’ The poet chimed, ‘Fitzgerald is fine; I approve
Of his work. He did not impose his own style on my poem
Like Fagles did. No translation is perfect, of course, none
Can capture all aspects of my genius. But Fitzgerald, at least,
Makes no glaring errors or missteps. His poetry is fluid and
Most readable.’ I demonstrated my agreement and begged
To raise one last point, which I voiced thus, ‘The Aeneid
You wrote as propaganda, this almost everyone knows;
Your aim to tie the Roman people to the legendary Trojans.
Caesar Augustus is even by name mentioned, as the one
Who will bring an age of gold. And yet, I found it to be
Not as tub-thumping as I had expected. Of course, Aeneas,
It was clear, would be victorious in the end, but still he
Suffers painful losses.’ The poet replied, ‘Good points, [P],
You please me greatly, for I am a poet first and foremost,
political puppet I was unwillingly. But now I have my own
Burning question: how will you review The Aeneid?
My mind you must put at ease, and promise
No poem of your own.’

Yeah, right.


“I detest common feelings, and moderate heroes, the kind that exist in real life.” – Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary.

Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence is one of my favourite novels. I find it both beautifully written, and incredibly moving. It was composed, I seem to recall, as a kind of apology, or as a way of making amends for an earlier, scathing attack on the institution of marriage. It is not always wise, the moral of the novel appears to be, to forsake the homely and the dependable for the glittering, exciting and romantic. Ah, un noble sentiment! Unfortunately, bearing in mind her great love of books, and her tendency to draw inspiration from them, The Age of Innocence was published in 1920, some sixty years after Emma Bovary’s death. Had it been available in 1857 would Emma – the castigator of family values – have heeded Wharton’s warning and changed her attitude towards her husband, Charles, her daughter, Berthe, and her bourgeois life in Yonville? Peut-être. She would probably have given it a go for a day or two. That chick was crazy enough to try anything once.

I find it strange that Emma is so despised by a not insignificant number of readers, that she is thought to be without a single redeeming feature. Not only is she, to some degree, modern in her outlook, and therefore you would think we would identify with her, she is also, well, admirable. She is modern in the sense that she is extraordinarily self-obsessed, and selfish in her actions. Everything, for Emma, is about me; and considering, and judging, everything only in the way that it affects me is, I would argue, the prevailing modern attitude. Furthermore, as far as I am concerned, people, certain types of girls especially, are increasingly of the opinion that they are entitled to some kind of exciting existence. It is not enough, for example, to have a partner that loves you; oh no, they must treat and spoil you, they must, in effect, provide you with a lifestyle equal to the fantasies that exist within your head or at the very least provide you with one that is superior to those enjoyed by your peers.

How, then, you might ask, can I find all that admirable? Well, on one level, I don’t. Selfishness is an ugly trait; and I do not find competitive living, i.e. the need to have something so that you can rub other people’s noses in it, at all likeable, but, on the other hand, I will not condemn someone for wanting excitement, or novelty, in their life. For me, that is what Emma is looking for, or demanding; she is admirable because she refuses to accept drudgery, to accept mediocrity, even to her own detriment. Of course, she doesn’t go about fulfilling her desires in the right way, but her approach to life is, in my opinion, not without charm; in fact, I find it kind of beautiful. My guess is that the readers who charge Emma with ungratefulness, do so, at least in part, because they have accepted the mediocrity of their own lives, and therefore believe that everyone else must do the same. It’s a ‘suffer with me’ attitude: I have learned to accept a mundane existence, so anyone who does not accept it is therefore worthy of my contempt.

Emma’s life is a life lived in the imagination. She, in fact, appears to prefer her imagination to reality, for reality has a way of always letting one down, of disappointing. The parallels with Don Quixote, which Flaubert himself acknowledged, are clear: they are both influenced by what they read, of course, but, more significantly, they are both dreaming the impossible dream, they are both striving for something, a romantic ideal, that doesn’t actually exist; Quixote wants the world to be honourable, Emma wants it to be intoxicating. Both, also, behave badly in pursuit of their ideal; it seems to be often overlooked, but Quixote is an absolute menace; he frequently attacks entirely innocent people. Emma, on the other hand, is, amongst other things, unfaithful to her husband, and neglects her child. Of course, in the real world, i.e. our world, neither Quixote nor Emma’s behaviour is acceptable, but it doesn’t have to be; these two characters are not, nor were intended to be, examples to follow, but, are, rather, epic personalities, so grand in scale that they resemble the Gods and Goddesses in Greek mythology. You should not try to be them [because both are, let’s face it, mental], yet you should, in my opinion, have a little of their spirit in you.

As hinted at in the preceding paragraph, I do not agree with the popular opinion that Madame Bovary is a realist novel, or the first realist novel. Of course, it does not feature magical creatures, or bending of the laws of nature, but then neither does, for example, Balzac’s work, which preceded Flaubert’s. To a certain extent, I understand the realist tag, because the novel is, at least partly, about the mundane, and features characters that have no great abilities. I’ve already written about why I do not think Emma is realistic, yet, even setting her aside, there is one other important aspect of the novel that distinguishes it from genuine realist fiction, and that is the prose. Flaubert’s prose is what I would call hyper-realist, which means that it is so baroque and sensual and detailed that it makes the real unreal. In this way, his work has more in common with Proust, or Carpentier or Lima or Nabokov, than it does Emile Zola.

It is something of a cliche, but always worth reiterating, that Flaubert’s prose, even in translation, is extraordinary. On occasions, his attention to detail took my breath away [that is not hyperbole – I actually gasped more than once], such as when he describes the fine, stray hairs at the back of Emma’s neck blowing in the wind, or when Charles sees his own head and shoulders reflected in her eyes as they lay in bed, or when the rolling eyes of a man having a fainting fit are likened to “blue flowers drowning in milk.” Flaubert was, also, something of an innovator, with many of his techniques adding to the experience of the novel [which isn’t always the case – flashy authors tend to piss me off]. The best example of this, or the one that sticks in my mind anyway, is when he wants to suggest that Emma and Leon are having sex in a hired carriage. I’ve written recently about sex in literature, and how I think it is unnecessary to linger over the grubby particulars. Flaubert manages to give the impression of a passionate tryst without ever mentioning it, without going into any details at all, by remaining outside the carriage and simply listing the numerous streets down which it passes, its curtains drawn.

Of course, the more renowned an author is for his or her prose, the more important the translation. I’ve read Madame Bovary twice now, most recently Lydia Davis’ treatment of the novel. Davis’ translation has come in for a lot of stick from so-called Flaubert experts. Yet, while I’m certainly no expert myself, I feel as though a lot of the criticism that has been aimed at her is unwarranted, and more than a little bit pompous. This is not to say that her version is flawless; in fact, for the first 40-50 pages I regretted having picked it up. for she frequently falls into the same trap that Pevear and Volokhonsky [the much-hyped translators of Russian literature] do, in adhering too strictly to the author’s original word-order. Thing is, different languages construct sentences differently; therefore, what reads smoothly in French, or Russian, or Spanish, may not, if directly translated into English, make sense. Sticking too closely to the French word-order means that Davis’ English is, in the early stages of the novel, clunky at best, and unreadable at worst. Furthermore, I really do not like to see Americanisms, such as ‘gotten’ in a translation of a French novel. However, after a while her translation settles down and becomes smooth and elegant. Davis’ harshest critics may pick out individual sentences and compare multiple translations [and use this to question her abilities], but that is an unfair and arbitrary exercise, because no translation is without its clunkers, and there is no objective standard, merely one’s personal preference.


Recently I wrote a post about my ten favourite novels, and Madame Bovary was not included, but that was simply an oversight. Had I not forgotten about it, it would have taken its place on that list. Few books touch me, fascinate me, and enchant me as much as this one does.


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.


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.