Perhaps it says something that many of my most memorable classics were read as part of my ‘geographical exploration’ challenges: either the #EU27Project or the One Country per Month option. The non-fiction books appeared as additional reading for many of my fictional interests this past year, although Deborah Levy’s Cost of Living was recommended by somebody on Twitter.
Ramuz: Beauty on Earth, transl. Michelle Bailat-Jones – reads like a long prose-poem, with all the looming menace of a devastating storm about to break out
Strugatsky Brothers – started off with the story Monday Starts on Saturday, transl. Andrew Bromfield, dripping with sarcasm and surrealism, then the book Roadside Picnic, transl. Olena Bormashenko, which formed the basis for that strange Tarkovsky film Stalker
Miklos Banffy, transl. Patrick Thursfield and Katalin Banffy-Jelen – I started the first in the Transylvanian trilogy back in 2018 and then couldn’t wait to get back to that lost world, recreated with all its magic but also its flaws
Mihail Sebastian: For Two Thousand Years – memorable fictionalised account of living as a Jew in Romania in the period between the two world wars
Eileen Chang: Lust, Caution – a book of stories with several translators; the title story a particular standout tale of love, politics, self-interest and betrayal
Dorothy Whipple: Someone at a Distance – my first Persephone and a truly heartbreaking story of a dying marriage
Elizabeth Jenkins: The Tortoise and the Hare – highly recommended by everyone who had read it. I thought that this additional story of betrayal and loss in a marriage would kill me off completely, but it was exquisitely written, so well observed
Sarah Bakewell: How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and 20 Attempts at an Answer – really made Montaigne come to life for me and ignited my interest in his essays and philosophy
Deborah Levy: The Cost of Living – rediscovering your self and your creativity after marital breakdown, the right book at the right time
Julia Boyd: Travellers in the Third Reich – wonderful collection of contemporary narratives from those travelling in the Weimar Republic and early years of Nazi power, demonstrating how easy it is to believe in propaganda
Mihail Sebastian: Journal – even more heartbreaking than his novel, his diary describes life just before and during WW2 in Bucharest, and the compromises and excuses his friends make in order to survive
Rupert Christiansen: Paris Babylon – very readable account of the lead-up to the Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Commune, in which the city of Paris becomes a main character in all its infuriating, incomprehensible beauty and chaos
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
So what has my first month of reading freedom brought me? By freedom, I mean of course not having to read any books for review, following my own whims and jumping into rabbit holes. There was only one book that I had already promised to review, and that was the controversial story of child killers The Flower Girls by Alice Clark-Platts. But other than that, I was free as a bird or a butterfly, so which flowers have I alighted on?
11 books, no less, and some of these were massive 500+ books, so great in terms of quantity, but also of quality.
First and foremost, January has got me obsessed with Romanian playwright, novelist and essayist Mihail Sebastian. I read his polemical novel about being Jewish in Romania, his essay in response to the outrage he experienced upon publication of that novel, and his diaries which pick up the story from where he left it off in the novel. I am also now rereading his novels and trying to get hold of his plays (in Romanian, of course, but some of his work has been translated into English, with more forthcoming).
I’ve become equally absorbed with the work of Miklos Banffy, as I read the second and third books in his Transylvanian trilogy after a year’s break following the first volume. I was so reluctant to reemerge into the real world after bathing in that beautiful description of a vanished world, although I was slightly disappointed that the story stops with the outbreak of the war (and Balint’s family all gaily setting off as Hussars in the army). I will be reviewing the trilogy shortly for my #EU27Project, and beware! It might end up being a bit of a mammoth post.
The third obsession this month has been poets talking about poetry, where they find inspiration, the craft of poetry, what a poet’s role is in society etc. I’ve started with Denise Levertovand Maxine Kumin, but have a few others planned for next month.
I read a lot of women this month too. In addition to the two poets, I also read Scholastique Mukasonga’s remarkable account of a rapidly disappearing traditional way of Tutsi life in Rwanda just prior to the genocide The Barefoot Woman. Another woman’s account of war was Pat Barker‘s The Silence of the Girls, a very different book, not based on personal experience, more shouty than understated.
I’ve also read Jana Benova‘s Seeing People Off, a Slovakian entry to my #EU27Project. I still have to write the full review of this short, snappy novel, a series of vignettes offering an often hilarious, satirical account of post-Communist life in the artistic milieu in Bratislava.
Another short but biting satire was Fernando Sdrigotti’s Shitstorm, forcing us to take a good hard look at ourselves and how we conduct our lives and debates online, moving quickly onto the next scandal that we can be indignant about, without really being fully implicated. I can’t help but wonder what Sebastian would have made of it all. I think this may become my theme when looking at any present-day news: ‘What would Orwell and Sebastian say about this?’, although Sebastian, with his gentler, more forgiving approach, is perhaps closer to me in spirit.
So much happier now that I’m following my own interests in reading, with no qualms about abandoning books that promise to be average or not quite captivating. This month I didn’t finish The Binding for example, a new book just out which sounded great in concept, but failed to set my heart alight. I’m sure it will do well commercially though, it has The Miniaturist success written all over it.
I am trying to find an alternative to the ‘Top 10 Reads’ of the year, mainly because I find it difficult to stick to such a small number. So this year I will be listing some of my favourites by categories (although not giving them awards, like Fiction Fan does so wittily) – and I won’t even stick to numbers divisible by five. I am not counting any of the books I read in the original languages – those will form a separate category. Interesting sidenote (and perhaps not coincidental): only one of the books below was on my Kindle rather than in paper format. Perhaps those read electronically don’t stick as well to my mind?
Miklos Banffy: They Were Counted (transl. Katalin Bánffy-Jelen & Patrick Thursfield)
The last book in translation but one of the most memorable of the whole year. It took me a while to get going with it. I had a number of false starts, i.e. I’d pick it up, put it down after a few pages and then not read it for a couple of weeks, by which point I had forgotten all the complicated names. But if you give it your full attention, it is the beginning of a wonderful historical saga that gives you a real insight into a certain place and time.
Ariana Harwicz: Die, My Love (transl. Sarah Moses & Carolina Orloff)
Short and punchy, knocking you out with its breathless verve and barely concealed fury, this story of a woman feeling completely out-of-place in her life and suffering from some kind of trauma or depression will leave you reeling.
My favourite translated crime fiction read of the year, it has almost slapstick situations, a lot of black comedy but also a sad inner core about a dying man losing all his illusions about the people around him.
Another example of broad farce interspersed with real depth and tragedy, with surreal flights of fancy.
Ricarda Huch: The Last Summer (transl. Jamie Bulloch)
I loved the naive ideology of the privileged vs. the uncompromising voices of the oppressed who are resorting to violence – an endless debate even nowadays.
Seven favourites out of the 36 books in translation that I read over the course of 2017 (a total of 130 books read so far). So less than a third in translation (although this number would go up to about 60, so nearly half, if I added the books in other languages). What is a bit shameful is that my reading is so Eurocentric, although this might have something to do with my #EU27Project, which I have been engaged in somewhat haphazardly this year. My only consolation is that I seem to have done a better job of it and been slightly more prepared than those negotiating Brexit…
However, in 2018, I hope that my translated fiction horizons will be broadened by my subscription to the Asymptote Book Club, about which many of you will have heard me chirruping, tweeting and even shouting! The very first title is still a top secret and I will keep my mouth firmly zipped up, but I will give you small clue: it is not European.
A good quartet [or a good book] is like a good conversation among friends interacting to each other’s ideas. (Stan Getz)
This was filmed a few days ago, so in the meantime I can report that I have finished reading the Miklos Banffy book – and by now am so fully immersed in that world that I have to procure myself and read the whole trilogy. Outstanding chronicle of a certain place and time!
The others I mention below (with a lot of stuttering and pausing – maybe next time I should prepare a script) are: Ragnar Jonasson, Oliver Bottini, Thomas Willmann and the Murder on Christmas Eve anthology. You can find my full reviews of two of these on Crime Fiction Lover: Whiteout and Christmas mysteries.
I’m not signing off for the year yet, and over the coming weeks will be presenting my Top Reading Choices for 2017 and beyond. Oh, and I borrowed my younger s son’s inverted strawberry hat again – quite seasonal with the snowfall we’ve had pretty much all day here!
I skipped last month, so am coming back to it this November, but WWW Wednesday is actually a weekly meme hosted by Sam at Taking on a World of Words. It’s open for anyone to join in and is a great way to share what you’ve been reading! All you have to do is answer three questions and share a link to your blog in the comments section of Sam’s blog.
Miklós Bánffy: They Were Counted – yes, still going… To be honest, I only started reading it properly in November, as I let it slide after the first page or two in September. But I am enjoying the descriptions of the sumptuous parties and large families (with far too many names). For #EU27Project.
Kazuo Ishiguro: The Unconsoled – Rather enjoyed this one to begin with. A famous concert pianist arrives in a new town and promptly has everybody demanding things of him – it has all of that surreal quality of a dream (or a Kafka or Murakami Haruki story). But it just goes on for far too long. I am about halfway through and really wondering if I can be bothered to finish.
Greer Hendricks & Sarah Pekkanen: The Wife Between Us – unsolicited ARC of a book to be published by Macmillan in Feb 2018. I just received it last Thursday and had no intention of reading it yet, but then I had a shouting match civil altercation with my ex on the phone and was in the mood for some psychological drama where the husband is to blame for everything. I read it in two big gulps (helped by the fact that I was sick on Friday) and it’s what I would call ‘popcorn fiction’: very moreish, pleasing in the moment… but it doesn’t satiate you in the long run. Still, I can admire pacing, structure and twists even if I am not enamoured with the writing. The sleek New York lifestyle is a bit too far removed from my concerns.
Murder on Christmas Eve – anthology of previously published mysteries with a Christmassy twist, with well-known authors ranging from Margery Allingham, G.K. Chesterton and Michael Innes to more modern ones like Ian Rankin and Val McDermid. Full review to follow on CFL, but let me say here: I’m never quite sure who the target market is for these kind of books, as avid crime readers tend to prefer more in-depth mysteries, while the uplifting Christmassy story readers will be put off by the murders. Still, I suppose they make a handy gift if you don’t want to put too much thought into what someone likes to read. [In case anyone is asking, I would much prefer the new translation of The Odyssey by Emily Wilson, which is due to come out in hardback just before Christmas.]
I’ll be moving on to two Alpine countries next, because it is that time of year when my thoughts turn to skiing and snow. Besides, it was high time I read in French again.
Thomas Willmann: Das finstere Tal (Dark Valley)– it was filmed in Austria and it sounds very Austrian to me, although it is set in Bavaria, I suspect, and the author is a German Piefke (Austrian derogatory term for Germans). For #GermanLitMonth too.
Max Lobe: La Trinité bantoue (The Bantu Trilogy)- the author was born in Cameroon and settled in Switzerland (Geneva) at the age of eighteen. This book describes the life of a young man Mwana who tries to find work in a country somewhere in central Europe, where his white cousins are trying to chase out the black sheep (allusion to a disturbing election campaign poster in Switzerland). When he tries to return home to Bantu-land, he realises his mother doesn’t recognise him anymore. I think this story of displacement (at either end) is perfect for me. Lobe hasn’t had his novels translated into English yet, but you can read a story of his in Words Without Borders.
I am so busy with my two new jobs that I haven’t had time to write any reviews, so I have taken what is laughingly known as the ‘easy way out’ by filming myself talking about some books I have recently read and ones I am currently reading. 5 crime novels, one Israeli apartment block in Tel Aviv, an Argentinian in France and a sweeping Hungarian family saga. Pretty much par for the course…
[I should stop apologising for my awkwardness while filming – static camera and a very movable person do not mix well.]