‘They Were Divided’ by Miklós Bánffy (Review)

IMG_5314How time flies when you’re busy with reading and reviewing – although I always have good intentions, sometimes I just never seem to get around to all the books I planned to read…  The reason for this musing is the discovery that it’s been about a year since finishing They Were Found Wanting, the second of Miklós Bánffy’s Transylvanian Trilogy of novels about pre-WW1 Hungary, meaning that it’s high time I got on with the final part of the series.  Still, better late than never, right?

*****
They Were Divided (translated by Patrick Thursfield and Katalin Bánffy-Jelen, review copy courtesy of Arcadia Books) picks the story up a year or so after the end of the previous book.  On a rare visit to the opera, Balint Abady has an unexpected encounter with his former lover Adrienne Uzdy (née Miloth), one which leaves both emotionally drained.  Despite Adrienne’s insistence on their separation, you sense that it won’t be long before the two get together again.  Once this occurs, there’s great joy, of course but also a palpable sense of inevitability about their chances of happiness (or lack thereof); theirs is a relationship with little chance of a peaceful conclusion.

In fact, this feeling of impending doom pervades the novel as a whole.  Abady’s mother, the Countess Roza, has finally been overtaken by old age, and out in the country, Laszlo Gyeroffy’s descent into drunkenness and destitution continues apace.  These personal tragedies are nothing, of course, compared to the disaster waiting to unfold in the wider world.  The clock is ticking, and as the ineffectual politicians in Budapest continue with their metaphorical fiddling, the Great War comes ever closer…

They Were Divided is another fascinating and compelling read (I certainly wish I’d found time for it earlier).  While it’s the shortest of the three books, and perhaps not quite up to the standard of the first two, it’s still an excellent end to the trilogy.  In this final installment, Bánffy wraps up the loose ends of his tale, revisiting most of our old friends and showing where the foolishness of the past decade has taken them.

Where They Were Counted started with a tale of two men, there’s no mistaking the fact that They Were Divided focuses solely on Balint.  Part of the novel looks at his tortured personal life, in which he must fight to overcome Adrienne’s hesitation:

“Adrienne had then made her conditions: their affair must cease, and she would not even meet him socially unless he got married and so erected a barrier between them.  He had found he could not comply and so they had not seen each other again.”
p.3 (Arcadia Books, 2010)

In the wake of the meeting at the opera, both find themselves unable to continue avoiding each other, and they soon relent, snatching moments of happiness where they can while hoping that they will be able to live together one day (free of the social impediment of Adrienne’s mad husband).  This constant worry only adds to the intensity of their love, even if it prevents them from having the home, and the child, they crave.

Meanwhile, Abady’s political life is no less complex.  The Austro-Hungarian Empire is a crumbling, decaying power, and war, both in the Balkans and across the continent, is almost inevitable – yet in Hungary:

“And so it went on.  Parallel to every event of world importance was some manifestation of purely parochial interest in Budapest; and when the Agadir incident was closed and the revolt in Albania came to a temporary halt, then other sinister happenings disturbed the peace of Europe, many of them close to the borders of Hungary, matters so dangerous and so close to home that one would have thought someone in Budapest would have noticed.” (p.159)

Balint is a helpless spectator as his country behaves like a child in a world where great men are required.  Budapest is witness to petty party politics while the world burns – it’s good to see nothing’s changed over the past century…

They Were Divided is a joy to read, a detailed story with a wide, varied cast of characters.  I’ve mentioned Anthony Trollope before in my Bánffy posts, and it’s still an apt comparison.  With the opulence of the ball scenes, and men and women courting quietly in majestic country homes, you’d be forgiven for imagining yourself back in 19th-century England.  There’s also more than a touch of Trollopian humour, perhaps the best example of which comes at a meeting for a new anti-duelling league.  Upstairs, the bigwigs drink to a new, civilised manner of dealing with complaints – downstairs, however, there are men demanding satisfaction…

Bánffy’s work is often darker, though, and has a much more modernist feel.  Yes, there are touches of light, but death is a constant presence, waiting quietly in the shadows.  It’s the end of the world as they know it, and nobody feels fine:

“Balint fancied for a moment that these dying leaves were conscious of their beauty as they prepared themselves for the death they knew would follow.
The garden was so peaceful that it was hard to believe that anywhere in the world there could exist hatred or war or destruction.  It was as if such beauty must exist everywhere and as if peace must be universal.”
(p.212)

War and Peace?  Absolutely.  Tolstoy’s another writer I’ve referred to in the previous reviews, and there are touches of his style here too.   Abady’s work to promote co-operative movements, and the contrast between the cities and the country are reminiscent of Levin’s part of Anna Karenina.  There’ll be no happy ending for Balint, though…

In fairness, the final part of the trilogy isn’t perfect.  As mentioned, Laszlo’s story rather peters out in They Were Divided – while it was an integral part of the first two novels, it’s really an afterthought here.  Another issue is the over-emphasis on politics at times, which (while understandable) can become a little tedious.  Also, I became a little impatient with the frequent displays of Balint’s and Adrienne’s love against the backdrop of Transylvanian beauty.  They always seemed to be kissing or hugging overlooking lakes and forest, with a sunrise or sunset in the background, and I began to find it a little kitschy and overkill towards the end…

Still, overall I enjoyed it immensely, and as a trilogy (which should be read a little more quickly than I managed…), it’s a superb read, and a reminder that peace should never be taken as a given.  The Transylvanian Trilogy is a series of books for fans of those big Victorian novels, especially if you thought they were a bit light at times.  This is literature with a tinge of darkness, novels where even a good character and the best intentions aren’t enough to save you from the disaster just waiting to unfold…

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12 thoughts on “‘They Were Divided’ by Miklós Bánffy (Review)

  1. I’d wondered if you’d finished the trilogy, so I’m happy to see that (regardless of how long it took) you did. The last volume is quite dark; you can sense the impending doom descending on Europe (it was written in the late 1930’s), an even worse dissolution than that of Balint’s beloved Austro-Hungarian empire. I don’t know if it’s so much Laszlo’s story that peters out as it is Laszlo himself. But I agree about the kitschy romantic aspects; frequently I felt that such descriptions by Bánffy took a perilous nose-dive towards the saccharine; usually, though, with a single word or two, he’d pull back out of the dive – just. And yes, the trilogy feels like a great 19th century novel – inhabited by a premonitory 20th century anxiety, and overall by a sense that, given the right mixture of indifference, neglect and self-absorption, it’s not that difficult for a people to make an entire world disappear.

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    1. Scott – The kitsch element is there throughout the trilogy, but it becomes more prominent in this last part, probably because there’s less going on elsewhere to counterbalance it. He does manage to rein it in enough, though, and it is a wonderful achievement when looked at as a trilogy, a work which in the 19th-century would probably have ended at least a little more cheerfully…

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  2. I have this on my shelves. I *so* want to read it, but it’s big – and I’m struggling to get through really big books at the moment. But everyone who’s read it seems to rate it – maybe I should get ‘ill’ for a week and take to my bed…. 🙂

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  3. You’ve got to have Hungarian blood (but then who hasn’t?) to be reading Hungarian books even if only in translation… 🙂

    I’ve been hesitating about reading this trilogy on and off for a good while now – like every time I go to a Budapest bookshop – and I thought maybe your reviews will help me decide. But in the end, I’m no more convinced than when I was looking at the volumes in the bookshops. It’s not like I’ve got anything against long books, it’s just… well, could I care less about the Hungarian elite and their world of the time?(H’m. Maybe I should read the trilogy after all; might open my mind a bit.)

    While I make up my mind about this, can I recommend you a totally different type of book? People of the Puszta by Gyula Illyés. His was a very different Hungary but a very real one nevertheless. But I suppose I should forewarn you – it’s an amazing read but it’s not a novel. 🙂

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    1. Arwen – No, not that I’m aware of – just keen to read good books no matter where they come from 😉 I think I’ve stressed in the three reviews that there are many similarities with Victorian literature, especially Trollope in parts, and that will give you an idea as to how much you’re likely to enjoy it.

      Oh, and thanks for the tip 🙂

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