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 552: Dracula

Cover for DraculaHaving experienced other gothic classics of the 18th and 19th century, I was delighted to find Dracula unexpectedly readable. I was also surprised to find how little it resembles its many theatrical and movie productions, even those that attempt to stay closer to the original work.

All versions begin the same, however, with poor Jonathan Harker sent out by his office to Transylvania to complete a property deal with his client, Count Dracula. While staying at Dracula’s castle, he begins to suspect something is badly amiss and eventually fears for his life.

Back in England, his fiancée Mina Murray corresponds with and later stays with her good friend Lucy Westerna at a seaside town. In one day, Lucy has received proposals from three different young men, who all feature strongly in the novel. Dr. Jack Seward is in charge of a local insane asylum. Quincy Morris is a manly, amiable Texan, whom I feared all along was designed for a ghastly death. Lucy’s chosen is Arthur Holmwood, another manly young man who is soon promoted to a lordship by the convenient death of a benefactor. (I don’t think these things work this way, since Arthur is not his benefactor’s relative, but never mind.)

After a freakish storm, a Russian ship arrives unmanned at the port where Mina and Lucy are staying with Mrs. Westerna, who is gravely ill. As it arrives, a large dog jumps off it and runs ashore. Aboard is not a single live human. We horror aficianados know that Dracula has arrived.

While Mina waits for news of Jonathan, Lucy begins sleepwalking and behaving oddly. Dr. Seward makes notes about a patient who eats bugs and babbles about his master. Soon Van Helsing will be needed.

Unlike in most of the spin-offs, except for Jonathan Harker’s experiences at the beginning, Dracula is mostly an unseen menace for much of the novel. I’m guessing that the original readers did not necessarily realize the identity of that bat fluttering outside Lucy’s window.

In any case, the novel covers a lot more ground than does the standard remake. It is epistolary, written entirely as letters and journal entries. It is well written and moves along nicely except for the occasionally long-winded expulsion of pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo by Van Helsing or Seward. In the true gothic fashion, it is a classic battle of good versus evil, with the prize the soul of our heroine Mina.

Modern readers may be bothered by the depiction of the two women. Lucy is supposed to be a modern woman—who else would have three suitors at a time? She is both innocent and pure in herself and quite the seductive vamp when under the spell of Count Dracula. The men do a lot of harm to both her and Mina by trying to protect the “little women” from knowledge of what is going on. Again, try to judge the novel’s attitudes by the standards of its own time, when it was simply considered a whomping good tale.