Review 1814: Temptation

From before his birth in a Hungarian village in 1912, Béla is unwanted. His mother, away working in Budapest, pays Rozi to care for him. But when his mother can’t pay, Rozi doesn’t feed him. So, at age seven, he begins stealing to feed himself.

Rozi also makes him work instead of going to school, that is until he, thirsting for knowledge, goes to the schoolteacher. At school, he begins finding success, until an incident results in him being shipped off to Budapest to live with his mother.

Béla must forget about schooling in Budapest, because his mother has found him a job in a fancy hotel. Unfortunately, as an apprentice he is not paid, and he and his mother are barely scraping by, scrambling to pay rent and eating seldom.

At work, Béla meets Elamér, who begins instructing him in Socialism. Although the Democratic Socialist party is legal, the right-wing government behaves as if it is not. Then Béla is distracted by his infatuation with Her Excellency, a beautiful member of the nobility who uses the boys in the hotel for sex.

Within a background of a country sliding toward chaos and Fascism, we follow Béla in his enthralling journey toward political self-awareness. This picaresque novel is vital and exciting. What a great story!

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Review 1612: Abigail

Gina is a fourteen-year-old girl who is adored by her father, General Vitaly, and has led a carefree life in Budapest. Then some changes occur. Her adored governess, Marcelle, must leave home because she is French and thus on the opposite side of World War II. Then, her father enters her into Matula, a school for girls in the provinces. He does this with no warning, and Gina is at a loss to understand why he has chosen a cheerless, strict Calvinist school.

Upon arrival, Gina is stripped of her possessions and given charmless garments to wear. Her hair is cut off. The other girls in her class seem friendly at first, but after a horrible first day, she has a melt-down and blurts out a class secret. After that, no one will speak to her.

One of the school traditions, at least among the girls, is that if you write a note asking for help and put it in the vase held by a statue named Abigail in the garden, she will help you. This tradition is one of the things Gina finds ridiculous in her first days, but after a while, she comes to believe that someone, perhaps one of the staff, probably is helping.

When Gina becomes so miserable at school that she can’t take it, she plots to run away. She is prevented by one of the teachers, König, whom she despises. Soon, her father comes to see her and tells her a secret, something that requires her to stay in the school. She realizes she must try to make peace with her classmates.

This may sound like a standard novel about life in school, but it is an adventure novel that actually becomes quite suspenseful. The identity of Abigail wasn’t very hard to guess. It is Gina who is oblivious to all the clues until the last sentence of the novel. There is certainly a cast to pick from, including Susanna, the beautiful and strict prefect; Mr. Kalmár, the handsome young teacher who is in love with her; and Gedeon Torma, the director, the source of the cheerlessness and strictness. This is also Mitsi Horn, a former student who is a legend at the school.

Despite knowing who Abigail was almost from minute one, I really enjoyed this novel. Gina, headstrong and oblivious, is still appealing, and the plot is an interesting one.

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Review 1594: They Were Divided

They Were Divided is the third book in Míklos Bánffy’s Transylvanian Trilogy about the fortunes of Hungary and its leaders coming up to the First World War. It again follows two young noblemen, Laszlo Gyeroffy and Balint Abady, but it is mostly about Balint.

I got a little bogged down in They Were Found Wanting, the second volume of this series. I think that was because I wasn’t particularly interested in Balint’s affair with the married Adrienne, which occupied much of that volume. In that book (small spoiler for the second book), Adrienne kept delaying her request for a divorce from her husband out of fear of a man who was becoming more and more unstable. Now, he has been consigned to a mental hospital, which means that Adrienne cannot legally divorce him. So, Balint and Adrienne are forced to discreetly continue their affair.

On the political front, the Budapest legislature continues its obstructive techniques, not allowing any legislation relating to modernization. But Balint is more and more concerned about the events in other countries that he fears are leading to war. The Hungarian politicians continue to behave as if nothing outside their country affects them.

As for Laszlo, having gambled away most of his inheritance and been cheated of the rest, he has settled down in a small cottage on his estate to drink himself to death.

This novel has some amusing moments and is full of eccentric characters, but it is essentially serious. It depicts a society that has ceased to take care of its property and obligations, including its obligations in government, and spends all its time in frivolous activities. It does have one conversation that made me wince, where Balint insists that historically, nobles did not abuse their serfs because it would be against their own interests. It’s hard to tell whether this is supposed to show Balint’s own naïveté or whether Bánffy really believed this, or perhaps the novel is trying to show what a particular type of Hungarian believes (although I am fairly sure that Balint is Bánffy’s alter ego). Obviously, Balint, anyway, doesn’t compare that thought with his own observations of the Hungarian nobles gambling away their inheritances and mismanaging their government.

Did I enjoy this series? It provided me with a window into a time and place I knew very little about. It was more interesting than not. It was evocative in describing scenery, settings, and characters. At times the series went slowly, but this book clipped along pretty well until the last few pages, when Bánffy was trying hard to get the moral in.

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Review 1545: They Were Found Wanting

They Were Found Wanting is the second book of Bánffy’s Transylvanian Trilogy. It again follows the fortunes of cousins Balint Abady and Laszlo Gyeroffy, Hungarian/Transylvanian noblemen, although it spends much more time with Balint.

In the first book, Balint began an affair with Adrienne Uzdy, married to a cruel and unstable neighbor of Balint’s Transylvanian estate. They resolved to part in that book but come together early in the second book. Balint wants Adrienne to divorce Uzdy, but Adrienne fears Uzdy will become violent. Moreover, she will likely lose custody of her daughter.

Laszlo started on the path of destruction in the first book after his cousin Klara rejected him because of his gambling. He has been cheated out of most of the profits from his estate by Azbej, a crooked lawyer, and he is drinking what little money he has. Early in the book, Dodo Gyalakuthy, who is so wealthy that no one will propose to her, asks him to marry her. Laszlo is stung by this and refuses, not realizing that Dodo loves him.

Balint is a member of the Hungarian Parliament, and much of this book is devoted to the machinations of the political parties, who manage to accomplish nothing because of their efforts to prevent the work of the other party. All the while, Balint is conscious of disquieting events in the outer world as it heads to World War I.

I struggled with this book a bit and actually read three other books while I was trying to finish it, something I seldom do. For one thing, there was a much stronger emphasis on Hungarian politics, but I didn’t understand all the ins and outs or sometimes who was whom. The first book came with about 100 pages of explanatory material, but I seldom read things like that and would hope a novel would be understandable without it.

For another thing, the major emphasis was on the affair between Balint and Adrienne, and I wasn’t much interested in it. Although Bánffy certainly can depict vivid characters, Adrienne isn’t one of them. She is almost there only to be the object of Balint’s yearning. You never get much of a sense of what she is like.

Finally, in some ways, Balint began this affair in a reprehensible way, and when he decides they should marry, he is merciless with the emotional blackmail. Otherwise likeable, he is not a nice lover in this book.

Throughout, the most interesting thing to me are Bánffy’s descriptions of customs and life in Transylvania. I am interested in how the third book will come out. Thank goodness it’s not nearly as long as either of the others.

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Review 1527: They Were Counted

They Were Counted is the first volume in Miklós Bánffy’s Transylvanian Trilogy, about the decline of Hungary leading up to World War I. This book follows the events in the lives of two cousins, Balint Abady and Laszlo Gyeroffy. Both are noblemen who feel like outsiders in Hungarian society, Balint because he is Transylvanian and Laszlo because his prospects are not so good.

Balint has been working in the diplomatic service, but he decides to run for Parliament, never suspecting after he wins that votes have been bought on his behalf. He is dismayed to find that the Hungarian Parliament’s two parties are more concerned with scoring off each other than with getting anything done. Early on, too, there are hints that Parliament’s independence is threatened by the Austrian King Franz Joseph.

Likewise, when Balint decides to take more interest in running his estate, he has no idea that the lawyer Azbej, who has been helping his mother run the estate, has been making so much money off it. When he goes to Translyvania for forest management and with ideas about improvements for the peasant villages, he is unable to make much progress as he is seen as a Hungarian interloper.

Finally, Balint has discovered that he is in love with his old friend, Adrienne. Unfortunately, she has married since he was working abroad. Moreover, she has been sexually mistreated by her husband.

Lazslo is a musician who has withdrawn from law school and devoted himself to catching up on his musical studies. He is also in love with his cousin Klara but has no idea that her stepmother will not accept him as Klara’s suitor. Laszlo’s plans to become a composer are derailed when he gets involved with gambling.

This novel paints a picture of Transylvanian and Hungarian society of the time, with descriptions so vivid that I felt as if Bánffy was describing people, rooms, and landscapes that he knew, as he probably was. There are lots of characters, and it is sometimes difficult to remember who all of them are. I also found it a little difficult to understand the politics. Still, I found the novel very interesting.

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Day 841: Night

Cover for NightHere is my review of my Classics Club spin choice for Spin #11!

Night is Elie Wiesel’s spare and harrowing description of his and his father’s time spent in a series of concentration camps during World War II. He begins his story in 1944, where in the town of Sighet, Transylvania, the war did not seem to have touched the Jewish population. They had heard of problems in Budapest, but they knew nothing of the larger Nazi activities aimed at their people.

The first indications came from Moishe the Beadle, a man with whom Elie has been studying the Kabbalah. As a foreign Jew, Moishe was deported to a work camp. But he came back to tell everyone that all of the deportees were driven to Poland where they were forced to dig trenches and then shot. Moishe was wounded but managed to get away and returned to warn them. No one believed him, however. They naively refused to believe the Germans could behave that way. Elie and his family could have gotten a visa out of the country, even at that late date, but they stayed.

Next, all the Jews were rounded up into two ghettos, and not much longer after that, they were shipped out to Auschwitz. Once the women and girls were separated from the men and boys at the camp, Wiesel never saw his mother or sister again. He was 15 and probably only lived because an inmate told him to say he was 18.

At only 120 pages, this is a short but affecting description of his experiences in the camps. It does not dwell overly much on the horrific conditions, but we understand how terrible it was. The book also deals with Wiesel’s spiritual landscape, as he changed from a devout boy to a man who no longer believes.

This book is not a testament to human fortitude, for Wiesel makes it clear that humans under evil conditions behave badly. Instead, it is an important documentation of a black time in human history.

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Day 496: My First Classics Club Review! The Long Ships

Cover for The Long ShipsBest Book of the Week!
Today I’m posting my first review for The Classics Club, the one chosen for me by the Classics Club Spin #5!  The Long Ships is a great start to the Classics Club for me. I found it to be a rousing adventure story full of deadpan humor.

This book is the result of Bengtsson’s desire to write a realistic novel about the Vikings. A poet, Bengtsson also wrote essays and a biography of Charles XII, but he became more widely known for The Long Ships.

His protagonist Orm Tostesson is only a boy when the novel begins. Orm is eager to go a-viking to Ireland with his father and older brother, but his mother tends to be protective of him, so he stays home. Shortly after the men leave, he attempts to stop some sheep stealing on the part of a group of Vikings from Lister and is kidnapped by them. The Vikings soon find him an able and intelligent companion, so he becomes part of their crew rather than being kept a slave.

In the course of their adventures down the western coast of Europe, they are initially successful but eventually are captured and sold as galley slaves. In return for a service they performed for a Jew from Córdoba, they are freed to serve as bodyguards for lord Almansur, the regent and imprisoner of the young Caliph of Córdoba. There they serve for years until circumstances force them to flee for home.

This voyage is the first of three related in the novel, during which “Red” Orm meets his bride to be, loses her when his best friend Toke steals her father’s concubine, goes a-viking to England to try to retrieve her from English priests, and many years later travels down the Dnieper to bring back a stash of hidden gold. Even when he is settled at home, he is involved in tiffs with his neighbors, attempts to murder him on the orders of the evil King Sven, visits from unusual acquaintances, rowdy celebrations, and a Thing, a convocation of various groups of Vikings for settling their differences.

There is plenty of action in this novel, but what I find most charming are its air of insouciance and its ongoing (although somewhat grisly) humor. It has a sense of playfulness, especially about the differences between the Norsemen’s old religion, Christianity, and Islam, to which Orm and his fellows are temporarily forced to convert. Take, for example, this passage from the prologue, about the arrival of the shaven men, or priests, in Skania:

They had many strange tales to relate, and at first people were curious and listened to them eagerly, and women found it pleasant to be baptized by these foreigners and to be presented with a white shift. Before long, however, the foreigners began to run short of the shifts, and people wearied of their sermons, finding them tedious and their matter doubtful . . . . So then there was something of a decline in conversions, and the shaven men, who talked incessantly of peace and were above all very violent in their denunciation of the gods, were one by one seized by devout persons and were hung up on sacred ash trees and shot at with arrows, and offered to the birds of Odin.

To give you another idea of the humor in this novel, a Viking tells a story of a wedding that broke up into a fight. When the bride sees the groom’s friends beating up one of her relatives, she hits the groom with a torch, which starts his hair on fire, beginning another fire in which 11 people are killed. Everyone agrees that it was the best wedding they ever attended.

The story of Red Orm is told in a detached manner but by a truly talented storyteller. It is full of sly humor and observations of human folly. I really enjoyed it.

Day 367: Between the Woods and the Water: On Foot to Constantinople: From the Middle Danube to the Iron Gates

Cover for Between the Woods and the WaterBest Book of the Week!

In December 1933, 19-year-old Patrick Leigh Fermor set out to walk from Amsterdam to Constantinople. He wrote about the first leg of this journey years later in A Time of Gifts, ending the book as he crossed a bridge from Czechoslovakia into Hungary. In 1986, he finished this memoir of the second leg of the journey, which begins on that same bridge in Esztergom the evening of Easter Sunday and ends in the early autumn of 1934.

In the second part of the journey, Leigh Fermor breaks his rule of making the entire trip by foot and also spends much of the time in more luxurious surroundings than he did in the first part. As he makes his way through Hungary and the Romanian border, as it was then, into Transylvania, he is passed by his growing list of acquaintances and friends from one kastély to another, spending days with a learned professor discussing languages and history, borrowing a marvelous horse from a count for part of the journey across the Hungarian plain, staying for weeks with a new friend named István in Romania, and dallying with a young married woman on a motor trip with István to Prague.

Leigh Fermor does not spend all his time in such exalted circles, though. He happily camps out with gypsies, spends the night outside a shepherd’s cottage, is hosted by a Jewish family after an afternoon spent discussing the Hebrew language, sleeps in a cave, and camps on an island in the Danube near a village inhabited by resettled Turks. On his way, he describes the scenery in lyrical terms, explains the ancient history of each area he passes through, and tells us about the people he meets and the sights he sees. His chronicle is supported by the notebooks he kept and a nearly photographic memory of a remarkable journey. In addition, he tells us that he revisited some of the areas 20 years later.

This memoir is beautifully written. Although relatively unacquainted with formal learning, having abandoned military school at that early age, Leigh Fermor has an astonishing range of interests, and he tells us all about them. He is constantly plunging into dusty tomes in his hosts’ libraries but is just as ready to dance and drink the night away. This is a delightful series of books, still full of the youthful joy and enthusiasm Leigh Fermor must have felt when he was 19 and 20 years old.

In the Appendix to this book, Leigh Fermor reflects on how many of the sights he writes about in this book are now under water, for the Danube valley that he traversed and the torrents and currents that once rushed along it as well as the Iron Gates themselves have been subsumed by a huge concrete dam and hydro-electric power plant. And of course there have been other causes of destruction since 1934.

Unfortunately, The Broken Road, the unfinished manuscript of the final portion of the journey, is being republished but is not available from Amazon until March of next year! (It may be available used from some other site.) I am so disappointed to find the book never gets us all the way to Turkey but stops in Greece.

Day 350: The Man Who Went Up in Smoke

Cover for The Man Who Went Up in SmokeAt first, I thought this novel, written in 1966, was a little more dated than Roseanna, by the same authors. However, except for the formality in the characters’ dress, it stopped feeling dated after awhile.

Inspector Martin Beck has been on vacation with his family less than a day when he is called back to take charge of an unusual case. A Swedish journalist named Alf Mattson has been reported missing by his editor. The difficulty is that he disappeared in Budapest. There can be no official investigation because the Hungarian police have not received an official request for assistance, so Beck must travel to Budapest unofficially.

In Budapest Beck is able to retrace Mattson’s movements right up until he disappeared, one day after arriving. He visits a youth hostel where Mattson spent the first night and hears through his colleagues back in Sweden that Mattson claimed to have a girlfriend there. But when Beck finds her, she denies knowing Mattson.

Beck feels himself at a loss. His discussions with the Budapest police have not gone very far. The police can’t conduct a full-blown investigation until Mattson’s visa expires, but they have made some inquiries. It is not until Beck is viciously attacked that he understands he is getting somewhere.

Sjöwall and Wahlöö are known for having reinvented the police procedural, and many of its present-day conventions were first used in their novels. The novels are well written and deal with common people more often than with career criminals or gangsters.