The first volume of Miklós Bánffy’s Transylvanian Trilogy opens as the protagonist, Count Balint Abady, is carried “peacefully and gently” in his carriage to a sumptuous ball. Having recently returned from diplomatic service to his native Transylvania and luxuriating in the memories evoked by the landscape, Balint is not concerned with making good time:
Soon Balint’s old fiacre, moving slowly, was overtaken by all sorts of other vehicles, some driving so fast that he could only occasionally recognize a face or two before they too were swallowed up in the dust.
Our first portrait of our hero is of him being passed by, slightly out of sync with and nostalgic for a world speeding toward oblivion. One could also read Balint’s glacial pace as a self-reflexive statement, a reminder for us to settle in for the extended pleasures of the three-part epic about to unfurl.
The trilogy, published last year in two volumes by Everyman’s Library and translated by Patrick Thursfield and Katalin Bánffy-Jelen, is a political novel, a melodrama, and a masterful social comedy. Written by the aristocrat, painter, and statesman Miklós Bánffy, the volumes were originally published between 1934 and 1940, just before Hungary was about to be torn apart by yet another world war.
Then lying in the southeastern portion of Hungary (and now a part of Romania), Transylvania had for centuries been “a highway whose path was trodden by countless nomads who came that way and then passed on.” Its rulers maintained a fierce independent streak whether as a semi-autonomous vassal state under the Ottomans or as part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which explains Abady’s sensitivity to the perception that Transylvania is “just one of a string of otherwise insignificant provinces.” (One Budapest woman asks him, “Lots of bears where you come from, aren’t there?”) It is worth noting that another great chronicle of the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s implosion, Joseph Roth’s The Radetzky March, concerns a family with origins in a similarly peripheral territory — Slovenia.
The central love story concerns Count Abady and the “strange, independent” Adrienne Miloth, a striking beauty married to a chillingly refined monster, Pal Uzdy. (Uzdy — insane, sadistic, and a crack shot — wouldn’t be my first choice of a man to cuckold, but then certain Transylvanian counts are known to have eccentric tastes.) Brutalized as she is by her domineering husband, it takes the entire first volume for Adrienne to respond to Abady’s cautious advances with anything less than revulsion. The further two volumes track the lovers’ frustrated efforts to wed and give Abady a much-desired heir.
The secondary protagonist, Laszlo Gyeroffy, Abady’s cousin, is an orphaned musician (he and Abady are conspicuously fatherless). As Abady muddles his way through Hungarian politics and peasant intrigues, Laszlo first becomes an elotancos, or “leading dancer and organizer” of all the balls in Budapest, a combination of bandleader, socialite, and perfect wedding guest. Letting his musical talent go to waste, he becomes known for his reckless gambling and drinking, two habits which set him on a debauched decline even as a succession of smitten and rich women attempt to save him.
Bánffy portrays the nobility with Dickensian verve. One family is marked by their “aggressive belligerent noses, noses like sharp beaks; eagle beaks like Crookface, falcon beaks like Ambrus; all the birds of prey were represented, from buzzards and peregrines down to shrikes.” He likens Aunt Lizinka, an octogenarian regular on the Transylvanian party circuit with a limitless desire to spread poisonous gossip, to a “dirt volcano whose daily eruptions splattered all within reach.” And Ernest Szent-Gyorgi (Neszti), the “beau ideal of the fin de siècle man,” expresses himself almost solely through his “extra organ of communication,” a monocle:
He wore the rimless eye-glass attached to an almost invisible silken thread, and when he put it up to his eye he could express an infinite variety of opinion merely by varying the gesture: comic surprise, irony, increased interest or incipient boredom, appreciation of a woman’s beauty or reprimand for a man’s presumption…His timing was inimitable and it was widely recognized that Neszti’s monocle was as much the symbol of his sway as was the scepter of kings.
These and other perfectly drawn caricatures, including an Austrian lothario nicknamed Nitwit, a rich Croatian known as the Black Cockatoo, and a lisping chauvinist who resembles an “enraged hamster” when dueling with sabers, are predictably present at social gatherings to liven things up.
The trilogy’s love affairs, dances, and shooting parties unfold during the years leading up to WWI, when, as Hugh Thomas writes in his introduction, “European civilization committed suicide.” (The volumes, They Were Counted, They Were Found Wanting, and They Were Divided, get their portentous titles from the Old Testament episode in which a feasting King Belshazzar receives some dire messages written on his wall.)
When the novel begins in 1904, the domestic political situation is in turmoil, as indeed it will be until the outbreak of war. A coalition of doggedly nationalist opposition groups has essentially shut down the government. Enter Abady, elected as an independent candidate to the Hungarian Parliament and hailing from one of the region’s oldest aristocratic families. His diffidence and deeply felt sense of noblesse oblige causes his fellow aristocrats to feel a “latent hostility” towards him. Abady resists “the idea of being tied to a party line and obliged to follow a party whip,” which allows him to float among the various factions, gaining confidences or creating distrust along the way, all the while staying true to the European political novel tradition of the protagonist being the least interesting and most naïve character. (Abady doesn’t realize that his reelection to Parliament resulted from the bribes of his mother’s crooked estate manager, who wants nothing more than to see the young lord spend more time in Budapest so as to leave him in larcenous peace.)
Abady strives towards the sublime but finds himself mired in the ridiculous: dysfunctional legislative scenes, buffoonish pranks, the collapse of his well-intentioned efforts to establish a co-operative on his mountain holdings, officious wrangling over duels that are themselves absurdly anticlimactic. He is disgusted by the crass political maneuverings he encounters in Budapest and the corrupt practices in his home province, which he sees as his duty as a nobleman to correct. His political speeches go largely ignored, and the wary Romanians in his mountainous forest district listen politely but resolve to wait the “strange lord” out until he returns to his Denestornya estate or Budapest.
There’s an extraordinary episode in which Abady tries to intervene on behalf of a group of Romanian peasants under the thumb of an unscrupulous moneylender. Like most of his attempts to intervene, he fails, and the peasants take it upon themselves to breach the offender’s citadel and mete out an older, and brutal, form of justice. Abady reads about the attack from the serene Italian village of Portofino, where “it was hard to believe in the bitter winter up in the mountains, the all-enveloping snow, silent men striding forth in a blizzard, in cruel murder and mysterious comings and goings in the all-embracing darkness.”
Despite Abady’s sporadic headlong rushes into local and national politics, he generally lacks the sustaining energy to be more than a spectator. And spectate he does. If it’s impolite to stare, then he and his countrymen are the rudest people on earth. One Hungarian woman compares Transylvanians to “birds of prey, hawks, always gazing into the far distance, to the horizon, and never noticing what lies at their feet, what is close at hand.” Abady constantly proves her right, prone as he is to “staring into the face of destiny, the inexorable destiny that would in time overwhelm his beloved country.” The trilogy ends as Abady, traveling to a front line regimen at the outbreak of the First World War, looks back on his beloved land from up high:
All his life lay before him, his whole past, everything…a deep bitterness came over him as he stood there alone, high above the world he had known and which was now doomed to perish…The whole world beyond the horizon seemed to be in flames.”
What he has been dreading has finally come into view.
This might not be the thing one wants to hear before embarking on a 1,500 page quest, but the trilogy is marked by a narrative desultoriness that applies to both its human and political dramas. The novels are in a some ways about widespread distraction and inaction in the face of an impending catastrophe. The second installment, for example, concludes with the following recapitulation: “And so ended an era in which nothing whatever had been achieved.”
Comedy plays a large part in this narrative chronicle of distraction; indeed, the trilogy is a work of social comedy about the perils of the comic. Bánffy has a conflicting relationship with comedy. He clearly admires the “true Transylvanian sense of the absurd” most memorably displayed during a scene in which a crusading Frenchman visits Kolozsvar (Cluj-Napoca) to establish a Transylvanian Branch of his Anti-Dueling League. One of the hosts, an ex-officer known for his love of dueling, has no idea what their honorary guest is promoting and promptly becomes enraged upon hearing his favorite pastime derided as “pure barbarism.” The absurdity continues when a dispute breaks out that can only be settled with, yes, a duel, which is carried out in the same hall at which the anti-dueling event took place. One of the combatants, nose broken and head bandaged, gamely appears at the train station to see off the Frenchman, who is told that the poor man fell down the stairs. “What bad luck, Highness, what bad luck!”
These and other sketches of Transylvanians gone wild demonstrate a benign ridiculousness, but Bánffy also sees the corrosive effects of comedy. (Tellingly, one of the novel’s villains, Pal Uzdy, occasionally bursts out in strange, meaningless laughter.) When a newly-appointed Prefect is pelted with eggs in Parliament, Abady laughs along with the others before becoming overcome with sadness: “He thought only of the fact that an innocent man had been humiliated, and that it was callous and distasteful that everyone should think the whole affair a tremendous joke and nothing more.”
His Hungarian colleagues think most everything is a tremendous joke, a quality directly related to their failure to take the gathering international storm seriously:
The sad truth was that all of them found anything that did not concern their own country fit only for mockery and laughter. To them such matters were as remote from reality as if they had been happening on Mars; and therefore fit only for schoolboy puns and witty riposte.
Abady mistrusts his countrymen’s love of the comic as a form of irresponsibility. Late in the novel, he enjoys himself when his friends stage a drunken mock-trial of a bottle of brandy for the liquor’s numerous crimes, but senses that such silliness is indicative of a larger political folly and dangerous myopia. And thus, towards the end of the novel, Bánffy delivers a terse judgment as unequivocal as the one written on the wall at Belshazzar’s feast: “Everyone was guilty, all the upper strata of Hungarian society.”
Like many recovering English majors before me, I have a longstanding infatuation with heavy Russian novels. So on one level, a new edition of Dead Souls seems like a no-brainer: an excuse to return to a story that has endured for nearly two centuries.
Nikolai Gogol’s masterpiece centers on a con man named Chichikov who is literally buying dead souls — or more accurately, serfs who have died but are still counted on official tax rolls. His journey sweeps through a swath of 19th-century Russian life, as he glides from landowner to landowner, trying to charm and flatter them in an effort to buy as many deceased serfs as possible. The book is smart and funny; it deftly unpacks the social structure of 19th-century Russian life. It says something profound about the dehumanizing effects of buying and selling everything. And it’s the first of the great Russian novels — predating War and Peace, Crime and Punishment, and all the rest of those weighty tomes that pretentious undergraduates lug around to coffee houses. And that gives it mystique.
But as I sat down to read Donald Rayfield’s new translation of the book, I felt a sensation I didn’t expect — guilt. I got to thinking about my reading over the past few months, as I’ve hopped from The Radetzky March to Jude the Obscure to Demons to Chekhov’s plays. All of them brilliant, and all of them properly vetted by the relevant authorities. And I realized I don’t want to get in the habit of “checklist reading” — paging through an old book for no other reason than to say I’ve read it. Ultimately, we live in a consumer society, and it is really easy to let the habits of consumption, the habits of a collector, seep into everything. Even our reading choices.
As Dwight Macdonald pointed out decades ago in his (now ironically canonical) essay “Masscult and Midcult,” “The chief negative aspect is that so far our Renaissance, unlike the original one, has been passive, a matter of consuming rather than creating, a catching up on our reading on a continental scale… We have, in short, become skilled at consuming High Culture when it has been stamped by the proper authorities.” And that’s why I can’t manage to love the classics without reservation. I am afraid that it is far too easy to read them passively — to get so caught up in their mystique that the words don’t matter. And I fear it would be very easy to get stuck in the books of the past, and miss out on newer ones that might relate more directly to the world as I experience the rest of the day.
For example, David Shields’s Reality Hunger, while nowhere near as brilliant as Dead Souls, made a profound impact on how I think about contemporary media. Shields’s book-length essay, which came out about two years ago, is downright dismissive of the traditional novel, announcing, “To write only according to the rules laid down by masterpieces signifies that one is not a master but a pupil.” But, more importantly, it backs up its iconoclasm with a fragmentary style that genuinely captures something about the way people read today. A literary collage that collects fragments (mostly) taken from preexisting works by other writers and then weaves them into a single “manifesto,” it is a genuinely unique work, one that captures something very real about our — or at least my — current reading habits.
Engaging with Reality Hunger’s bits of text made me more attuned to the way much of my reading — on Twitter, or just surfing online — consists of gliding between small bursts of words. Instead of presenting a clean, straightforward argument, Shields makes his case for collage-style writing through accumulation. His fragments build and build, until the reader is able to piece together the argument is his or her own mind. I do the same thing online every day. I read tweets and status updates and blog posts one after another, and eventually, I piece them together in my head to form a coherent view of the world. Shields’s book finally made me aware of something I had done unconsciously for years. This is what literature is supposed to do — call our attention to the way society or technology or history has shaped us.
Reading matters because of its relationship to thinking. What I love most about books is the way they force the reader to get involved. Unlike other leisure activities, a reader needs to actually participate in the experience. You don’t just turn a book on and enjoy it — you need to actively engage with the material, not only sorting out the words, but imagining what they describe. The scenes, the characters, the voices: all of it needs to be created inside the reader’s mind. In that way, reading itself is an imaginative act.
I’ve always seen a minor parallel between a reader and a concert musician — a pianist for example — just in the sense that both are taking notations written by someone else and bringing them to life. In both cases, the work of art as it exists on paper is mediated by someone else. A reader may follow the cues of the author, she may give every word her full attention, her emotions may stir in exactly the way they were intended to — but the images and voice she creates in her mind are hers. But they are not only hers — they are a collaboration between her and the writer. Alone among the arts, reading/writing involves mingling the thoughts of the artist and the audience. In a way, reading is itself a performance.
When a critic like B.R. Myers sniffs at contemporary writing by declaring, “Every new book we read in our brief and busy lives means that a classic is left unread,” I immediately worry that an entire reading life spent rehashing books approved by the proper authorities risks turning a reader (like me) into a perpetual student, someone who treats literature as a way to check off titles on an imaginary syllabus. Someone passive. I worry those images in my head will be subsumed by what I think they’re supposed to be; what a well-known Gogol critic like Vladimir Nabokov thinks they should look like. I worry Dead Souls belongs to so many people, it might never belong to me the way a book really need to. I worry my performance as a reader will borrow to heavy on the performances of others.
And yet I want Gogol’s novel in my head. It remains a profoundly inventive book, with a narrator who comments on the story as it goes along, even to the point of upbraiding the audience:
I apologize. It would seem that a phrase picked up on the streets has slipped from our hero’s lips. What can one do? That’s the situation a writer in Russia finds himself in. Though, if a street word finds its way into a book, it’s not the writer’s fault, it’s the readers’, above all readers in high society: they’re the last people you will hear a decent Russian word from…
Harold Bloom has used the term “canonical strangeness,” and it is precisely an inherent weirdness that makes Dead Souls so hard to give up. Think of a symphony, where a certain movement may repeat in a slightly different key — the subtle repetitions built into Gogol’s text help build the absurdity, the humor, and the emotional force of his tale. It isn’t very realistic — life is not so well constructed — but that’s okay. It gives us an opportunity — if only an opportunity — to stand outside our regular way of looking at the world, and perhaps notice something we have been taking for granted.
The strangeness of Dead Souls, its alien subject matter and its realistic-but-not-lifelike narrative structure actually aid a reader’s performance precisely because, when taken on their own terms, they draw attention away from the process of reading the book. They demand so much energy to really follow, to navigate on their own terms, that the reader’s performance becomes, if not unconscious, at least less self-conscious. As soon as I realized that, my guilt about spending so much time immersed in old books began to melt away.
The way to avoid passive reading is to pay attention to what is on the page and engage it as best you can. This matters because reading offers us something quite rare — a quiet, solitary activity that allows us to clear a little space in our minds. This feels especially true in the context of my own daily habits, which involve spending an extraordinary amount of time online, a decidedly noisy, un-solitary environment that encourages the reader to respond — through retweeting, commenting, or “liking” — as opposed to reflecting.
Reality Hunger sticks with me because it made me more sensitive to the noisy media landscape I inhabit almost continuously. The book forced me to read actively by calling attention to just how I was looking at text. Its fragments made the fragments in my head all too obvious. Dead Souls does the opposite. It is quiet and strange and in some respects inaccessible; it uses a plot that doesn’t dwell too much on the rambling pointlessness of daily life; it is set in a past I don’t understand as much as I pretend to. It is the opposite of the tailored, easy-to-digest world of social media. With the right attitude, the right approach, its contrast with today’s fragmentary reading environment can be every bit as valuable as Shields’s effort to engage it.
The key is to take both together — to avoid getting trapped only reading classics, like Macdonald’s “catch-up” reader, or only reading fragments or bits of text online. The point is not to set up a dichotomy between old and new — and certainly not between “good” and “bad” approaches to writing or reading. What both Shields, with his contempt for traditional narratives, and Myers, in his contempt for everything else, both miss is that each kind of text — those grounded in the technology of the present and those insulated from it — is equally valuable, because it offers the reader a chance to perform (to think) in very different ways. Both matter because a good performer — good reader — is one with a lot of range, and the only way to develop that range is to perform as many different kinds of stories as possible.
In conversation, I’m fond of telling people that the difference between a work of art and a mere product is that art ultimately aspires to contemplation, while a product aspires only to consumption. I suppose my anxiety about turning the classics into a checklist stems from my realization that “art” exists only through collaboration between the artist/creator/writer and an audience; that it’s not the work that should aspire to contemplation, but myself. And that, as a reader, that means I need to be willing to work hard. To approach the performance of reading with every bit as much seriousness and effort as I expect the writer to approach the performance of writing. Art can’t exist without an audience to take it seriously.
The wonder of a book like Dead Souls comes from its silence, the way it offers us a calm place to think. But that place is only as valuable as the reader makes it. A calm place to think is only worthwhile if the reader seizes the opportunity to do some thinking. Perhaps it’s not really guilt I fell about the classics but trepidation — because at the end of the day the classics need to earned. So now, it’s up to me to put in the effort to earn them.
Brian, one of my more well read and more ebullient friends, sent me this email emoting about one of the more underappreciated writers of the 20th century, Joseph Roth. Roth’s reputation and body of work were recently addressed in a New Yorker piece by Joan Acocella. Here’s Brian’s reaction:took the advice of the New Yorker and started reading Joseph Roth’s collection of short stories and am totally overwhelmed. read “Stationmaster Fallermayer” from the collection on your next break. amazing. i just ordered Radetzsky March from amazon (along with seamus heaney’s translation of Beowulf) –j. roth is one of those writers that was meant to write as we are all meant to breathe and move and sleep — his prose is beautiful: perfect constructions and his sentences convey much human truth — one of those guys who writes a line and immediately we ‘know’ it as we have felt it a million times but have never been able to articulate it the way he does… i look forward to pillaging his oeuvre…. He makes it sound pretty great. Unfortunately I didn’t get to read “Stationmaster Fallermayer” during my break at work yesterday, but I certainly intend to soon.