Hey there, Georgy Girl! #1965Club

My second contribution to the #1965Club is the novella Georgy Girl by Margaret Forster. I must have read it in my teens, and I probably saw the film as well at some point, but I had no idea that the song by The Seekers was written specially for that film.

It is the book that was most mentioned in the obituaries of Margaret Forster in 2016, the book by which she will be most remembered, although she wrote more than 25 novels, as well as well-regarded memoirs and biographies. Georgy Girl was one of her first novels and became an instant bestseller, perhaps because it captured the mood of London’s Swinging Sixties so well.

George is a young working class girl who has had the privilege of a middle-class upbringing. Her parents work for a wealthy childless gentleman who has brought her up as his own daughter, sent her to a posh boarding school and even to a finishing school in Switzerland. Yet, despite her background (or perhaps because of it, because she doesn’t quite fit in anywhere), she lacks self-confidence. She is playful and fun, but quite naive and doesn’t know how to conform. Furthermore, she feels gauche and ugly, and is inclined to bouts of self-pity.

She didn’t see how she could ever stop looking like a caricature. It was something to do with her face being too long and big and her damned hair being the way it was.

Yet her small acts of rebellion, such as a dramatic haircut, do not end well. She earns her living giving dance lessons to children and shares a flat with the pretty but selfish Meredith, who takes advantage of George’s motherly instincts. Described as a ‘warm-hearted ugly duckling’ by reviewers of the book at the time, it is clear that, despite her lack of self-esteem, George has a special charm of her own, since both Meredith’s boyfriend Jos and her ‘uncle’ James fall for her. There might be some wish fulfilment at work here, but one with a very unusual twist: Cinderella looks more like an ugly stepsister, yet she gets her prince… or at least a mutually beneficial but essentially loveless contract.

Lynn Redgrave as Georgy Girl.

It was just the dawn of the sexual revolution and Women’s Lib, so George’s pragmatic approach to life and love, her refusal to give up on her principles for the sake of a man and her frank admission of her carnal desires, must have been quite revolutionary at the time. Certainly the ménage à trois that George, Jos and Meredith engage in must have ruffled feathers at the time, as would the cynical calculations about George’s future. I have no doubt there were plenty of others marrying older men for money and security rather than love, but it wasn’t necessarily as explicit.

Although the book could be interpreted as a bit of fun, it did leave me with a slightly nasty aftertaste. George is presented to us as a survivor, we are encouraged to root for her throughout the book, yet at the end she is still in bondage, although in bonds of her own choosing. Yet, to what extent were her choices limited because of her sex, her class and the age she lived in?

Insiders/ Outsiders: Summary of Recent Reading

Lots and lots of honeypots! And by honeypots I do NOT mean the seedy lap-dancing bar in my home town, but the many good and thought-provoking books I’ve managed to read now that I no longer spend my evenings blogging, reviewing, marketing and so on. Now that we have been given a slight reprieve of sentence for the deadline for exiting the EU, I have time to continue reading and reviewing books for my #EU27Project separately. The ones I briefly describe below are on top of those reads.

Jim Crace: Harvest

My son bought this book out his own pocket money, because one of the colleges we visited had it as a set text for A Level literature. He hasn’t read it yet and, to be honest, I’m not sure he will like it, as he still struggles to handle the ‘slow bits’ of books such as 1984 or Dracula. And this book, although it has no shortage of ‘events’, is far more about the atmosphere and characterisation, hence full of ‘slow’ bits. I enjoyed it though, so eloquent and well-written, with the timeless quality and rhythm of poetry, describing the death of a way of life… and showing that any nostalgia is probably misplaced. The theme of ‘us vs. them’, the aversion to outsiders (some of it entirely justified) is subtly but powerfully done.

The Good Immigrant (edited by Nikesh Shukla)

One of those books that should be required reading in schools and libraries, to make people aware of true stories about (and, above all, by) immigrants rather than skewed media reports. An American edition has just been published, but the original version had to be crowdfunded, as publishers would not touch this project at first. Not all of the contributions are of high artistic merit, but they don’t need to be: they are eyewitness accounts, polemical essays, thinking out loud and trying to make sense of things. One reservation I had: it would have been nice to have had contributions from Roma, Polish, Bulgarian and Romanian immigrants, who have their own stories of discrimination to tell, showing that it goes beyond race and is sometimes harder to pin down or confront because of that. Or am I just biased?

Zahia Rahmani: Muslim, transl. Matt Reeck

Well, if you want to read the story of a person who is never quite at home in any culture, then this slim volume is perfect for you. The author (and the narrator in the novel) are from the Kabyle-speaking, nomadic minority population in Algeria. The narrator protests that they’ve been dumped and labelled together with all of the Muslims in North Africa and have had Arabic forced on them. Her father supported the French army during the Algerian war, so after independence the family are forced to flee to France for refuge, and instead find themselves unwelcome. A lyrical, disquieting prose poem of a novel, moving between past and present, France and the Algerian desert, prison camp and imaginary places.

Helen Dunmore: Exposure

A well-known refugee trope appears in this book: Lili is the daughter of a Jewish family who had to flee Germany during the Second World War, now settled in England and married to the rather naive and hapless Simon, who is working for British Intelligence. It is the height of the Cold War and double agents are being uncovered with alarming regularity, so when Simon is asked to cover up an irregularity for his boss and former lover Giles, he is the one who gets accused of spying. A novel that focuses much more on the consequences of major world events and accusations on ordinary people and families, rather than a spy thriller, mercilessly excoriating the snobbery and small-mindedness of the so-called Golden Age of Little England that so many still aspire to.

The next three books I read are not so much about migration or being accepted into the community. But they still fit in the insiders/outsiders theme, because they are about family. Who gets accepted into a family? And how does love manifest itself in a family? Can love survive at a distance? Are we forever marked by the loved ones who got away?

The German language version was quickly vetoed by English publishers.

Monique Schwitter: One Another, transl. Tess Lewis

Schwitter is a Swiss actor and writer, and her novel moves swiftly between Switzerland, Austria and Germany, as her narrator, a married writer with two children, discovers via a Google search that her first great love has died. This makes her reassess her own life, and remember all of the men she encountered and loved, however briefly, and however you might define love, including her own unreliable husband. Just how much are we shaped by the people we encounter in our lives, especially those we love?

Helga Flatland: A Modern Family, transl. Rosie Hedger

A Norwegian family with grown children and grandchildren are all gathered in Rome to celebrate a seventieth birthday. Instead, it turns out that the beloved parents are planning to get divorced. This shock news shatters all the comfortable assumptions of past and present lives and forces the three siblings to rethink their own family ties and ways of loving. It all seems so normal and civilised on the surface, but it’s all about close observation and what is left unsaid.

Lavinia Braniste: Interior Zero

The very title of this Romanian novel is interesting: it’s the extension number of the narrator, Cristina, who is working well below her abilities as a receptionist at a construction firm. But it also refers to her inner emptiness, how she tries to make the most of a life that doesn’t offer her any great satisfaction and very little hope. Her job is boring, her colleagues annoying and her boss is ruthlessly desperate to make her mark in a man’s world. Cristina has a long-distance, on-off lukewarm relationship with a former classmate. Her rented flat is dingy and her landlord keeps all his junk and pickled vegetables on her balcony. Her mother has been working abroad in Spain for many years now and feels guilty about having left her daughter alone during her formative years, so she sends her money and Spanish delicacies, not realising that her daughter doesn’t like tinned octopus. Unsentimental, refreshingly clear-eyed and slightly self-deprecating, this is the voice of the millenial generation in Romania – but has great similarities with millenial voices elsewhere (Sophie Divry or Sally Rooney, to name but two). If any publisher would be interested in having this translated into English, I hereby offer my services! (It has been translated into German and has been quite a success there.)

OK, I suppose the last one does qualify for #EU27Project read (and Muslim is translated from French, so technically that one does too). But I plan to get around to writing a few dedicated reviews for books from EU countries which have not yet appeared in my reading.

Julia Boyd: Travellers in the Third Reich

What a fascinating book this is! The author draws on a comprehensive collection of mainly American and English (but also French, Chinese and other) sources, often unpublished materials, to describe the rise of Fascism in Germany from 1920 until its collapse at the end of WW2. You get a full caleidoscope of experiences here: from political leaders and celebrity artists and musicians, to students and Quakers, holidaymakers and even children on school trips.

Almost everyone is familiar with the broad outlines of historical progression towards Fascism (although perhaps not as well as they should be, hence history repeating itself today). What surprised me about this book is how enamoured many ordinary and perfectly decent foreign travellers were with Nazi Germany. Of course we do have the benefit of hindsight now, and perhaps some things were not obvious at the time unless you went looking for them really hard. Also, the Germans were very enthusiastic about greeting tourists warmly right until the eve of the war (they badly needed the money). And yet… the dangers and threats were minimised and the ugly reality was ignored for far too long.

Why? In the case of Britain, it started off with them feeling sorry for the Germans and the harsh conditions of the Versailles Treaty, which led to grinding poverty and near-starvation in the years immediately after WW1. Besides, the English and Americans have traditionally felt more affinity with the Germans and their culture than with the French. They forgot all that France had suffered at the hands of the Germans in the First World War and saw that they were being overcharged and cheated in France, while in Germany the towns were cleaner, the people more diligent and disciplined, and the plumbing worked.

Vintage poster for Dutch audiences: Germany, land of music

They also loved German literature, music, art and very soon started admiring the ‘splendid physique and sense of purpose’ of the vigorous young people rising from the ashes of the war. The German love of uniforms and marching was perceived as an endearing foible rather than something to worry about (after all, one had been or rather still was an Empire oneself) – and those uniforms were so goddamn sexy, weren’t they? As for Jews or gypsies or Communists, well, one didn’t like them very much anyone, so why should they meddle in a country’s internal affairs? Instead of squabbling over such minor issues as a few Jews or disaffected radicals, Britons and Americans should be standing shoulder to shoulder with their Anglo-Saxon German brothers, ready to fight the common enemy – communism.

Even thoughtful people empathised with the German’s envy of the Jews.

A people that has suffered and is bitterly poor sees a race that climbs and flourishes upon the ruin of its own fortunes. Small wonder if envy does stir in its heart and it snarls accusations of profiteering against all who belong to this race.

Even John Maynard Keynes, friend to Einstein and banker Carl Melchior, said:

Yet if I lived there, I felt I might turn anti-Semitic for the poor Prussian is too slow and heavy on his legs for the other kind of Jews, the ones who are not imps but serving devils

And the new doctrine was giving people what they wanted: instead of messy complexity, uncertainty and only gradual improvements, it provided simple, clear answers and scapegoats. It gave the people a sense of direction, a feeling (or illusion) that they were going somewhere. Many people did not like Hitler but were seduced by the message:

It was buoyant, exciting and alive. It was not patronising. It broke down social barriers, provided pageantry and stimulus. It was, in a nutshell, a new gospel. Furthermore… the police are quite charming.


The book is so well written, with both a chronological and a thematic narrative flow, that it felt like I was reading a novel at times. Ultimately, however, it chilled me to see how easy it is to flatter and seduce people with lies, simplistic promises and unrealistic solutions (sunlit uplands and sovereignty) and how the ‘powerful or dominant nations’ of the world will support each other against the cries of desperation of the weak and powerless. As someone who has grown up with daily blasts of propaganda, who has seen doublespeak in action every single day of my childhood – and had to learn to use it myself – this was a very powerful reminder that we need to learn more from the past and condone less of what is happening in the present.

#EU27Project: Estonia’s Rein Raud

Rein Raud: The Death of the Perfect Sentence, transl. Matthew Hyde

With such an attractive author name and an intriguing title, I just couldn’t resist getting this book for my #EU27Project. Admittedly, there aren’t many Estonian books in translation to choose from. Given the age of the author (born in 1961), I suspect quite a bit of the ‘before and after’ narrative of Estonia’s recent history are things he has personally experienced.

The story follows a group of young dissidents during the dying days of the Soviet rule over Estonia. Through rapid shifts of viewpoints, we get to know each of them and their reasons for getting involved in clandestine activity and trying to smuggle secret Soviet files out of the country. There is idealistic, artistic Raim with his pragmatic parents who value comfort over nationalist ideals; Ervin, who has been offered a lighter sentence in exchange for denouncing his friends; immaculately turned out Karl, who is older than the others; Indrek, who is rebelling both against his family and the social order; and the youngest of them all, Anton, whose mother is Russian and whose father is a notoriously tough investigator and interrogator known only by his surname, Särg (which means ‘roach’ in Estonian, as in the fish rather than a cockroach). We follow their actions, their fears, their friendships and love stories, and their disappointments.

The author is also a cultural philosopher, literary theorist and translator from Japanese.

That is not the only plot line, however. We get to hear about the rather romantic love story between an Estonian girl and a Russian man, as full of misunderstandings as Romeo and Juliet, although slightly less tragic. We get to to know Anton’s father far better as he interrogates various members of the group, little knowing that his own son is part of it. And, interspersed through all these third person narratives, we have the first person account (I assume this could be the author himself, although it is never quite explicit), with wry asides and anecdotes that are tangential to the main story, remembering what life was like in Estonia and trying to understand the motivation behind all of the actions of both dissidents and collaborators.

Perhaps they were proud of their own professionalism and thought that even if the system which they were helping to keep afloat was not ideal, it was at least preferable to the chaos which would inevitably ensue if it were not for them? Or maybe it was all a kind of rought sport for them, a chess game against invisible opponents, with human fates at stake instead of chess pieces. Or were they really of the view that the rulers of this world were incorrigible brutes and pigs, much the same wherever you went, and that it was a mistake to believe that some leaders could be better than others… Or maybe they didn’t give it much throught so long as they could keep their cosy jobs and put bread on the table. I don’t know.

The issue of guilt, both individual and collective, has been insufficiently addressed in the former Soviet Republics (and in much of Eastern Europe). Perhaps that was necessary to move these societies forward, to focus on reconciliation and progress rather than punishment. However, this does mean that many things have been swept under the carpet, and you bump into people in surprising places, like the KGB operative who after independence ends up working as a doorman at one of the embassies in Tallinn.

In some ways, this description of a divided society (the ‘normal people’ and the ‘informers’ reminded me of Anna Burns’ Northern Ireland). And of course, it reminded me of my childhood, when my parents warned me to be very careful whom I talked to about the things we discussed at home.

There was however another important currency in circulation – trust. Some may use simpler terms such as acquaintances, contacts, but nothing would have counted without trust. Because in the end it was impossible to trust anyone if you hadn’t gone to school together, shared the same sauna, gone scrumping with them, studied together, worked in the same office, done military service together, stolen something, eaten and drunk with them, slept with them… You didn’t use a dentist whom you didn’t trust, you didn’t ask someone to pass a letter to your Swedish relatives if you didn’t trust them. If you could help it you had nothing to do with people you did not trust – they might every well be working for the other side.

Trust was the only valid currency.

It was just so exhausting.

Gratuitous image of Tallinn, because it is so pretty. From Lonely Planet.

Above all, this book is an examination of how individuals get caught up in major historical changes, some of them for misguided reasons, some of them expecting quite different outcomes, and many of them not even aware what they are letting themselves in for. Has independence lived up to its promise? Was the new Estonia worth all the sacrifices, the older and more cynical author appears to ask. And the answer is:

Only a fool would throw away a beautiful apple from his own garden just because it has a few maggot holes in it. Only a fool prefers things which are shiny and never rot. After all, it’s always the tastiest of apples that the maggots go for. And you can bet your life on it, the maggots’ll know these things.

You can read a review of this book and other books by Rein Raud on Melissa Beck’s blog. She was the one who drew my attention to this book, and even has an interview with the author. From his Wikipedia entry, I also discovered that he was President of the European Association of Japanese Studies from 2011 to 2014, so unfortunately well after my time in that organisation.

Rumour Has It… Milkman by Anna Burns

You’ll all have heard about Milkman, the somewhat surprise Booker Prize winner in 2018, and how this changed the life of author Anna Burns, who had been struggling to make ends meet (despite having won other prizes previously). You may also have heard the whole brouhaha about whether it is a difficult read or not, with the New York Times describing it as a ‘willfully demanding and opaque stream-of-consciousness novel’, while the British Times said it was ‘challenging and experimental’ as if hurling accusations at it.

But you know what? I didn’t find it difficult at all. It’s not only a fascinating portrayal of a certain time and place (Belfast in the 1970s, let’s not pretend we don’t know), but it builds upon oral tradition. When you read it, you often feel like you’re listening to the old men, the aunties, the grannies talking – which fits perfectly with the ‘persistent rumours and gossip’ theme of the book, but also links to the timeless classical world, the chorus of Ancient Greek tragedies.

Yet, in spite of the often tragic consequences of rumours, the inability to defend yourself, the deafness to reason, the dangerous silences and ommissions that were such a defining part of the history of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, there is much that is recognisable, mundane and downright funny in this book too.

One of the things that seems to bug readers and reviewers is that none of the characters have proper names. Instead, they are known by their role in their family or community, by their relationship to others. The milkman who keeps pursuing our narrator (simply known as Middle Sister) is not a milkman but a paramilitary, so there is another character in the story who is known as ‘the real milkman’. There are ‘wee sisters’, first and third brothers and sisters (and second ones which must not be mentioned), maybe-boyfriends, longest friends and so on. It sounds messy, but you’ll soon get your head around it. Besides, it’s a great way of describing a society where everyone is almost afraid of giving their real names, for fear of being instantly labelled and typecast in an inescapably divided and claustrophobic society. A timely reminder as the Irish Border is being debated in the whole sorry Brexit tale.

Belfast street in 1972, from histclo.com

As regards this psycho-political atmosphere, with its rules of allegiance, of tribal identification, of what was allowed and not allowed, matters didn’t stop at ‘their names’ and ‘our names’, at ‘us’ and ‘them, at’our community’ and ‘their community, at ‘over the road’, ‘over the water’ and ‘over the border’. Other issues had similar directives attaching as well. There were neutral television programmes… then there were programmes that could be watched without treason by one side whilst hated and detested ‘across the road’ on the other side… The right butter. The wrong butter. The tea of allegiance. The tea of betrayal. There were ‘our shops’ and ‘their shops’. Placenames. What school you went to… And of course there were bus stops. There was the fact that you created a political statement everywhere you went, and with everything you did, even if you didn’t want to.

Middle Sister is 18, bookish, reading and very much trying to stay out of trouble and remain neutral (which, as we’ve seen is impossible in her world). She buries herself in 19th century literature, which she reads while walking (I suppose this is the equivalent of wearing earphones nowadays), and is therefore considered somewhat strange and ‘beyond the pale’ in her community. She has a semi-detached relationship with her maybe-boyfriend, is not terribly close to her mother or older siblings, although she does her fair share of looking after her precocious wee sisters. When she gets accosted by the milkman, a rather notorious and dangerous figure in their neighbourhood, she does her best to shake him off, but the rumour mill goes into overdrive, and everyone, including her own mother, believes she is involved with him, that she is one of those paramilitary groupies. She gives up trying to convince the people around her that this isn’t true, but she doesn’t realise that by refusing to play the game she is making herself stand out even more. She gains a reputation for being eccentric, different, and therefore ‘dangerous’ because undefinable. Although she wouldn’t describe herself as a ‘shiny person’ (someone full of optimism and idealism), her effect on the community is very much that of a shiny person, which she astutely observes elsewhere.

These people could not be open to any bright shining button of a person stepping into their environment and shining upon them just like that… The very physical environment then, in collusion with, or as a result of, the human darkness discharging within it, didn’t itself encourage light. Instead the place was sunk in one long, melancholic story to the extent that the truly shining person coming into this darknes ran the risk of not outliving it, of having their own shininess subsumed into it and, in some cases, it might even reach the point of that individual having to lose his or her physical life… This was why you didn’t get many shining people in environments overwhelmingly consisting of fear and sorrow.

In this community of limited choices, women and especially young girls like our narrator are particularly hard done by. Their mothers fret that they should get married as soon as possible; they are not allowed to aspire to any career or to escape anywhere outside their community – or risk being forever ostracised; they pour out children one after the other; they watch their lovers, husbands and sons get tugged this way and that, expecting them to get arrested or blown up at any point. Above all, they are not listened to, not taken seriously, disbelieved, as we can see in the case of Middle Sister. And yet… when the women of the community band together, they can be remarkably powerful and change the course of things. See what happens when they decide they’ve had enough of imposed curfews and snap:

… these women would break the curfew by taking off their aprons, putting on their coats, shawls, scarves and with the bush telegraph already up and running, they’d go out their doors in their hundreds and deliberately, and permitless, and after eighteen hundred hours or just sixteen hundred hours, encumber the pavements, the streets, every patch of disallowed curfew territory, amply spreading themselves all around. Not just themselves either. With them would be their children, their screaming babies, their housepets of assorted dogs, rabbits, hamsters and turtles. Also, they’d be wheeling their prams and carrying their pennants, their banners, their placards and shouting, ‘CURFEW’S OVER!’

It’s only right to acknowledge here that the talks that led to the Good Friday Agreement might not have happened without the contribution of Catholic and Protestant women’s groups led by Monica McWilliams and May Blood, who joined forces to establish the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition, and who thought much more than the political parties about the long-term agenda of social cohesion, integration and education.

Author photo by Eleni Stefanou.

The interior monologue is not that difficult to follow and the voice is instantly captivating. The reason why some may struggle with the book is that we don’t often get to hear such voices in English literature. It is chatty, very different to the more tight-lipped, repressed English style, and it is occasionally repetitive, much like listening to a garrulous old person reminiscing about their youth. It is perhaps more similar to the Mediterranean style of circling around a subject, full of divagations and distractions. It brings Javier Marias and Elena Ferrante to mind, so I can’t help thinking it might have been more easily accepted as a prize-winner if it had been a work in translation. (More about this in another post: why so many translated novels seem to be heavily experimental, therefore catering to a rather niche audience.)

I found this powerful, and, like all of my most memorable books, an irresistible blend of tragedy and farce, the universal and the particular. If Lisa McInerney captures the world of young people in present-day Cork with humour, sarcastic bite and poignancy, then Anna Burns does the same for young people in Northern Ireland in the 1970/80s. But her themes speak to any divided society, deeply distrustful of each other.

The so-called ‘peace walls’ separating neighbours. From Northern Ireland Foundation.

WWWednesday 13th February, 2019

What are you currently reading? I do believe this is my first one this year, a lovely meme to help us catch up with ourselves and others, as hosted by Sam at Taking on a World of Words. 

The three Ws are:

  • What are you currently reading?
  • What did you recently finish reading?
  • What do you think you’ll read next?

Current:

I’ve been meaning to read Anna Burns’ Milkman for quite a while now, and it finally became available at the library. Belfast and Northern Ireland have always intrigued me, especially how ordinary people experienced in their daily lives. I remember a journalist once telling me that cities starting with B seem to have a knack for getting into the news for all the wrong reasons (Beirut, Belgrade, Berlin, Belfast, he meant Bucharest too at the time, although nowadays we might say Brussels).

Just in case that becomes too grim, I’ve got a firm childhood favourite to make me smile, Emil and the Three Twins, a sequel to my beloved Emil and the Detectives, which converted me to crime fiction such a long time ago. Translation by Cyrus Brooks in 1935, so hmmm… hope it’s a good one. I’d have liked to let Anthea Bell loose on it.

Just finished:

Mihail Sebastian’s The Accident – not going to lie: I cannot be objective about this book, because half of it takes place in the mountains where I myself learnt to ski. I know every place that the author describes and I feel the same freedom and happiness when I ski that his protagonist does. And yes, I find the male protagonist is not nearly good enough for Nora, and why should she try to ‘cure’ him of his heartbreak? Still, if you know the background to this book, under what hard circumstances it was written, it is very much about a desperate man trying to believe once more in the goodness of human beings and in the beauty of the world.

Up next:

On Louise Glück: Change What You See is a collection of essays written about the poetry of this US poet laureate (whom I got to know better via Stanley Kunitz and his poetry), including an interview with her.

Robert Menasse: The Capital, transl. Jamie Bulloch, is a satirical novel about Brussels and the European Commission. Menasse has also written political essays on the topic of Europe, but I gather this is funny, with elements of crime, comedy and philosophy all thrown in for good measure. And a wild pig chase!

Goodness, it’s so much fun to read aimlessly, in complete freedom! Do let me know what you have been up to in terms of reading!

#EU27Project: The Transylvanian Trilogy

It’s taaken years of mental preparation and gradual acquisition of books, and about a year in the reading (the first volume followed by a gap and then a rather breathless devouring of the two remaining volumes). But I’ve finally done it: finished the entry for Hungary in my #EU27Project. And what a magnificent entry it is: Miklós Bánffy’s trilogy The Writing on the Wall, a.k.a. The Transylvanian Trilogy.

I have to admit to a stuttering start with it. I picked it up at least three times to read the first 10-20 pages and got lost in the profusion of unfamiliar names and events. But once I found the key that opened the door, I was rewarded with an entire (vanished) world that I had difficulties letting go of…

The 2nd book in the trilogy.

It’s a monumental work, running to 1392 pages, yet my feeling by the end was that it finished too soon, because it barely addressed the war and its aftermath. So, for people comparing it to War and Peace, I would say it’s more peace overshadowed by the gathering clouds of war. It is far more similar to Joseph Roth’s Radetzky March, mourning the loss of the same empire from the point of view of minority ethnic groups who have benefitted from the Empire, but have an ambiguous relationship to it.

Bánffy himself was an incredibly interesting man, a politician as well as a writer, mature and liberal, suspicious of both Hungarian and Romanian nationalism, trying a conciliatory middle ground after the Versailles Treaty, a rapprochement to the Allies during the Second World War (during the period when both Hungary and Romania were in the German camp) and somehow forever caught in the middle as a proud Transylvanian. He lived long enough to see his beautiful home,
Bonțida, the inspiration for Denestornya in his book, destroyed by the retreating, resentful Germans, and his ‘homeland’ or ‘heartland’ occupied by the Soviets.

Banffy Castle, Bonțida. Renovations have started on it in the past couple of years.

It must have been even more heartbreaking ultimately than described the final chapter of his trilogy, where he allows himself to utter a cry of despair:

Now this beloved country would perish, and with it most of his generation… that deluded generation that had given importance only to theories, phrases and formaleu, that had ingored all reality, that had chased like children after the fata morgana of mirage and illusion, that had turned away from everything on which their stregnth was based, that denied the vital importance of power and self-criticism and national unity.

This is a family saga as well as a description of Hungarian society in the ten years preceding World War One. All of life seems to be present in its pages: we have a love story (several, in fact), affairs, friendships, betrayals, disappointments and heartbreaks, political intrigue, fraud and loving descriptions of a landscape (and its people) that clearly meant a lot to the author.

Bonțida Castle in 1890, from Wikipedia.

I certainly enjoyed reading about the fancy dress balls in Budapest, charity bazaars in Koloszvar (Cluj), carriage processions drawn by Lippizzaner horses bringing guests to a hunting party in Slovakia, weddings and parties, duels and conmen, romantic moonlit serenades, jinks and high spirits like stealing cows by youthful members of the privileged elite to prove the laziness of the nightwatchman… and yet… I felt uncomfortable with the excessive wealth and pomp, the hedonistic lifestyle of many of the characters in the book in their huge manor houses and lands bequeathed to them by the Emperor, and their casual cruel references to the ‘local’ populations who were their servants. I am sure that is precisely what the author intends: there is much affection in describing that lost world, but also a chilling indictment of his fellow aristocrats’ self-indulgence and indifference to the plight of others.

Miklos Banffy and his family in front of Bontida, including his daughter Katalin, who was involved in the translation of his masterpiece.

The main protagonist, Balint Abady, tries to be fair and organise cooperatives on his land (reflecting, I am sure, Banffy’s own liberal beliefs), but the truth is many of the Magyar landlords and artistocracy were unbelievably cruel to the majority Romanian population,
who were essentially their property, i.e. serfs (and not that friendly to the ethnic Germans either, who were however largely merchants and craftsmen, therefore more independent – as for the gypsies and Jews, well…). Balint’s mother has a generous yet very patronising way of distributing Christmas presents, and owns such vast swathes of land that she loses sight of it and falls easy prey to those who trick her and mistreat the people living there.

Still, I can’t help melting when Banffy describes the mountains so lovingly, the same mountains that I grew up with and adore. For him, they clearly represent the Garden of Eden. There are so many moments which impregnate themselves on your retina, like Balint and the love of his life Adrienne bathing naked in an ice cold stream high up in the forest:

They emerged from out of the thick trees onto the bank of a sizeable basin of water, almost circular, with steep banks dipping down to it that were so regular they might have been carved by the hand of man himself. Here the cranberries tumbled in tropical profusion; and here and there could be glimpsed bluebells, buttercups and pale green ethereal ferns. In the middle of the basin, some rocks rose above the surface of the water… glistening with the water that flowed around and over their smooth, polished surface.

Apuseni National Park, photo credit: Gabor Varga, Romaniatourism.com

I have a vested historical interest in Transylvania, of course, as some of my family originated there (then escaped across the mountains into Wallachia when things got too bad), so I found the political elements of the story fascinating. I hadn’t realised before quite how much tension there was between Hungary and the Austrians, despite the ‘K. und K.’ agreement (Emperor – Kaiser – of Austria, King of Hungary, so a dual monarchy and devolved parliament). Some of the speeches in the Budapest Parliament are probably taken word for word from the author’s own speeches and experiences of politics. Banffy (via Balint) is clearly highly critical of the infighting amongst Hungarian politicians, their focus on petty parochial issues instead of the major international threats heading their way.

It is, after all, a generally accepted rule that only some cataclysmic event or terrible danger can wipe away the preoccupations with the joys, sorrows and troubles of everyday life. The news was mulled over when they read the morning newspapers, argued and discussed in the clubs and coffee-houses and possibly even discussed at the family meals, but, while it was, everyday life went on as usual and most people only thought seriously about their work, their business interests, property, family and friends, their social activities, about love and sport and maybe a little about local politics and the myriad trifles that are and always have been everyone’s daily preoccupations. And how could it have been otherwise?

Most readers will skip the politics and be attracted to the diverse characters and family histories (be warned: there are lots of names and complex family alliances through marriage, it’s quite a challenge to keep track of them all). It is an immersive experience, you become so engrossed in the minutiae of their daily lives, anxieties and sorrows, that you are very reluctant to leave that world.

Above all, there are some real set-piece scenes that will linger in your mind long after finishing the books. Balint’s cousin Laszlo Gyeroffy starts out with such high hopes, optimism and talent and becomes a tragic figure, a victim of his own foolhardiness at the gambling tables; his death is ignoble and lonely. The scene of the death of Balint’s mother, by way of contrast, is beautiful, peaceful, as she slips away, surrounded by all she loved. Balint’s lover Adrienne is quite frankly annoying at times, with her dithering between passion and keeping up appearances, although of course we have to understand that she was living in different times and there are examples in the book of what happened to women who defied social expectations.

A captivating and unforgettable reading experience, and if it makes you want to visit Cluj, Bonțida and the Apuseni mountains, then all the better. I’m planning to go there next time I’m in Romania!

Apuseni Mountains, from Senior Voyage website.