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Friday, June 28, 2013

In praise of fat books: The Transylvanian Trilogy

Posted By on 06.28.13 at 03:50 PM

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  • Random House
When my editor left the review copies of the new edition of Miklós Bánffy's Transylvanian Trilogy on my desk during my first week working here, I assumed it was some sort of joke or hazing ritual. ("Let's give the new writer the most bizarre and obscure-looking title from the unwanted books cabinet and see what she does!") Within a week, I was so deeply engrossed in Volume 1 that I was texting people things like, "Oh, major shit's going down in Transylvania now!"

That is really the beauty of really, really fat novels. They look intimidating, like they'll do serious damage if you drop them on your foot (even in the paperback editions), and they're not really the optimal size for reading on the el, particularly if you're on a crowded train and have to stand, but once you get into them, you never want to let them go.

While a shorter book is like a brief vacation to another world, with a fat book, you're moving in and settling down for a few weeks or months in real-life time or a few years or even a couple of generations in book time. You get to know the characters and the particular concerns and rituals of their world extremely well. Questions about who is going to marry whom are always of interest, but with a long book, you find yourself worrying about the legal and social implications of changing the method of running the family farm.

So. Bánffy and his Transylvanian Trilogy, which appears next week in America for the first time ever. The translation comes from a British edition from 2000, a collaboration between Bánffy's daughter Katalin Bánffy-Jellin and Patrick Thursfield. (For more about the books' history, check out the entry on the wonderful Neglected Books Page.)

The first book of the trilogy, They Were Counted, opens in the autumn of 1904. Our hero, the well-intentioned but naive Count Balint Abady, has returned home to Transylvania, then a region of Hungary, after several years abroad in the diplomatic corps. He is on his way to a party and through the window of his carriage, he recognizes many of the other characters whose lives you'll be following for the next 1,200 pages: his best friend and cousin, Laszlo Gyeroffy, a musician terminally at war with his own worst impulses; Adrienne Miloth, a beautiful woman trapped in an unhappy marriage; Dodo Gyalakuthy, an heiress looking for a husband; and various rakes and gossips whose various schemes and random nasty remarks will inadvertently have dramatic effects on the lives of the major characters. It's like watching the opening credits of a TV show that interweaves lots of plotlines.

Bánffy titled the three books in the trilogy, which he called The Writing on the Wall, after the prophecy in the Biblical book of Daniel: They Were Counted, They Were Found Wanting, and They Were Divided. By the time he wrote the books, in the 1930s, Transylvania's fate had unfolded in a not-very-good way post World War I, and Bánffy, who had served as a minister in the government before resigning due to philosophical differences, believed that worse was probably still to come. (And it did: the Nazis and the Soviets.) The world of the trilogy is truly lost; even the names of the towns and cities Bánffy mentions are gone, changed when Transylvania became part of Romania after the breakdown of the Austro-Hungarian empire.

History looms through these books. (The whole reading experience is, actually, a lot like watching Mad Men, where you know the history, but the characters are completely oblivious.) Every time Bánffy shifts to a scene in Parliament (Abady is a member), you, the reader, know that the Transylvanians are about to make another concession that will lead, in the end, to their ultimate doom. And yet the characters are all so distracted by parties and love affairs and gambling debts that they can't see what's going on in front of them. Even Abady, so well-intentioned and upright, can't see that he's being fleeced by his own steward.

But then you get distracted. Will Abady get together with Adrienne? Will Laszlo kick his gambling habit? That is the beauty of books like these: reading is such an immersive experience, you're part of that world, too, with all its wonderful and bizarre standards and traditions. They're difficult to read slowly, too, because you're so eager to find out what happens next. (And that is truly the test of a good story.)

And it also makes you wonder: what sort of changes are looming over us that we are currently ignoring?

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