Full of grace- John McGahern, Amongst Women

John McGahern (1934-2006), Amongst Women. Faber and Faber paperback. First published 1990, when it was shortlisted for the Booker Prize; it won the Irish Times/Aer Lingus literary award in 1991

Michael Moran, the protagonist of John McGahern’s fine novel Amongst Women, is not an endearing character – on the contrary, he’s a bully and a tyrant in his own household and community. To his three daughters, two sons and second wife, Rose, he’s an emotionally stunted, self-pitying husk of a man. Yet McGahern is able to make us do what all the best novels do, and that is to see and understand this unlovable, tragic figure, and appreciate why his family for the most part love him with such unlikely devotion.

There’s very little plot; instead we get, in just under 190 pages, an epic, unshowy but brilliantly realised portrait of Moran’s character, and an insight into why he’s so bitter, angry and disappointed. This is apparent from the opening paragraph:

As he weakened, Moran became afraid of his daughters. This once powerful man was so implanted in their lives that they had never really left Great Meadow, in spite of jobs and marriages and children and houses of their own in Dublin and London. Now they could not let him slip away.

This opening takes place chronologically near the end of the novel’s action. What follows is a sequence of vivid flashbacks which cumulatively explain the dynamics of this family drama. First Moran’s daughters instigate a revival of Monaghan Day, the saint’s festival in the local town of Mohill (in Co. Leitrim), when he entertained with whiskey and acrid nostalgia his former subordinate, McQuaid, from their ‘column’ in the guerrilla column that fought in the bitter war of independence in Ireland in the 1920s. The girls hope that this will snap their father out of his morbid depression (‘Who cares?’ has become his increasingly frequent complaint as he’s aged). Again McGahern’s unobtrusive, scalpel-sharp prose illustrates the import of this:

McGahern Amongst Women coverThey clung so tenaciously to the idea [of Monaghan Day] that Rose felt she couldn’t stand in their way. Moran was not to be told. They wanted it to come as a sudden surprise – jolt. Against all reason they felt it could turn his slow decline around like a Lourdes’ miracle. Forgotten was the tearful nail-biting exercise Monaghan Day had always been for the whole house; with distance it had become large, heroic, blood-mystical, something from which the impossible could be snatched.

As their father’s life nears its end the daughters grow closer to him and each other:

Apart, they could be breathtakingly sharp on the others’ shortcomings but together their individual selves gathered into something very close to a single presence.

Despite his Lear-like patriarchal tyranny, the girls (more than the two boys) are drawn irresistibly back into the father’s sphere of complicated influence:

Within the house the outside world was shut out. There was only Moran, their beloved father; within his shadow and the walls of his house they felt that they would never die; and each time they came to Great Meadow they grew again into the wholeness of being the unique and separate Morans.

What slowly becomes apparent is that Moran’s problem arises from that common inability of the soldier to adapt himself to life after the war. As a guerrilla commander Moran felt he received the respect and devotion he deserved. When the war ended he was irreparably disappointed; on the one occasion he speaks of his wartime experiences to his family he complains:

“What did we get for it? A country, if you’d believe them. Some of our own johnnies in the top jobs instead of a few Englishmen. More than half my own family work in England. What was it all for? The whole thing was a cod.”

He was unable to rise through the ranks and make a career in the army after the Truce because of his irascible, intransigent nature, his truculent incapacity for ‘getting on with people’. In a sense, then, the novel is an allegory of the state of Ireland; Moran’s imperious rule in his own house can be likened to the way his country fared after the terrible divisions of the struggle against England followed by the Civil War. His deep Catholic faith mirrors that of his country; his insistence on the family gathering each night to recite the Rosary together is a scene frequently depicted in the novel as symbolic of this patriarchal, spiritual hold. The novel’s title is taken from the Ave Maria prayer of that Rosary: Hail Mary, full of grace…Blessed art thou amongst women. It’s also amongst the women of his household that Moran holds court; he proves less able to rule his sons.

I’ve said little about the two sons, Luke and Michael, both of whom (unlike their sisters) rebel against their father – Luke more steadfastly than the softer Michael – and it’s sadly apparent that despite their desire to break free of his moody tyranny, they share many of his petulant, self-justifying, misogynistic characteristics. A constant theme in Irish literature from the turn of the 20C has been that struggle to break free of what Joyce called that ‘priest-ridden’ country. Exile and silence is the life Luke (like Stephen Dedalus) chooses over being an acolyte of his baleful father(land).

This is a fine novel, one that I found painfully haunting and enriching.

Homeless in Texas: Denis Johnson, The Largesse of the Sea Maiden

Denis Johnson (1949-2017), The Largesse of the Sea Maiden. Jonathan Cape, 2018. 207 pp.

It’s evident in this posthumously published final collection of stories by Denis Johnson that he was aware of his nearing demise; there are frequent references to mutability, mortality and waning strength:

This morning I was assailed by such sadness at the velocity of life – the distance I’ve travelled from my own youth, the persistence of the old regrets, the new regrets, the ability of failure to freshen itself in novel forms – that I almost crashed the car.

Johnson LargesseA little later this narrator reveals he suffers from back trouble, a pinched nerve in his spine that incapacitates him, causing ‘a dull, sort of muffled torment, or else a shapeless, confusing pain.’ That’s the startling imagery and confident, lyrical voice so typical of Johnson, taking up where he left off in his astonishing, pyrotechnic first story collection, Jesus’ Son (1992). The best of these new stories is up there with them – and that’s among the best American short fiction of the last hundred years. Most of these new stories consist of loosely tacked-together vignettes or fragmentary anecdotes that gradually cohere, illuminating what’s gone before and foreshadowing what’s to come.

The passage I just quoted is from the first and best in the book, the title story, in which an ageing ad man called Bill Whitman, ‘just shy of 63’, reflects on his successful but not entirely satisfactory life in advertising and the people who have inhabited his spaces.

In the first vignette, guests at Bill’s dinner party swap stories about ‘the loudest sounds [they’d] ever heard’. Young Chris changes the theme to silences; the most silent thing he’d known was the moment when a land mine blew off his leg on his tour of duty in Afghanistan. Deirde asks to see it:

“No, ma’am,” Chris said. “I don’t carry land mines around on my person.”

She rides his joke and repeats her request – to see the part of his leg that’s left. “I’ll show you,” he said, “if you kiss it.” She bends to do so then starts to cry; everyone feels awkward, so someone changes the subject, and the moment passes. The vignette ends with the announcement that six months later Chris and Deirdre were married ‘by a magistrate’:

Yes, they’re husband and wife. You and I know what’s going on.

This strange, deceptively colloquial direct address buttonholes the reader and tightens the already gripping hold that assertive narrative voice has established, and it’s a device that’s repeated throughout the collection with timely grace.

Later sections of this opening story become ever more disconcerting; at another dinner party the host takes a priceless painting from the wall and throws it on the fire. A chiropractor is dressed as an elf (well, it is Hallowe’en). Bill gets a call from his first wife Ginny; they’d married ‘long ago, in our early twenties’, but ‘put a stop to it after three crazy years.’ She’s called to tell him she’s dying, and to try to forgive him the hurt he’d caused her. They talk, forty years on, ‘about the many other ways I’d stolen her right to the truth.’ Then he realises he’s not sure if he’s talking to Ginny or his second wife, Jenny, so he doesn’t know ‘which set of crimes’ he’s apologising for. It’s another supreme moment of fuddled embarrassment that Johnson carries off with aplomb.

There are many more such moments in this story and in later ones. In ‘The Starlight on Idaho’ a young man in rehab writes letters in fizzing demotic prose to the people with ‘hooks in his heart’ – most of them dysfunctional losers, like him; one of them is Satan. Near the end he reflects on his life after jail in what sounds like the lyrics to an early Tom Waits song:

Just to sketch out the last four years – broke, lost, detox, homeless in Texas, shot in the ribs by a thirty-eight, mooching off the charity of dad in Ukiah, detox again, run over (I think, I’m pretty sure, I can’t remember) then shot again, and detox right now one more time again.

The title of the story ‘Strangler Bob’ is the name of one of a weird collection of prison inmates surrounding the protagonist, an eighteen-year-old serving a sentence for stealing and crashing a car. It’s the 60s, so we’re in similar territory to Jesus’ Son. All his cellmates are as outlandish as him: addicts, murderers and psychos. Hallucinatory drugs are smuggled in and ingested. Strangler Bob tells how he had a meal with his wife ‘and then I sort of killed her a little bit.’ The heroin addiction the narrator endures later in the dark part of his life is also reminiscent of Johnson’s beaten-up junky protagonist Fuckhead in that first collection.

In ‘Triumph Over the Grave’ the narrator, presumably with the insouciance of irony, reflects how easy it is to write fiction. There are several deaths, then he’s told he too is dying:

It doesn’t matter. The world keeps turning. It’s plain to you that at the time I write this, I’m not dead. But maybe by the time you read it.

Yet in addition to the Beat/Hippy/Junky aspects, these haunting, elegiac stories are redolent of the powerful Christian faith of their author, who’d kicked his various addictions by the early 80s. That other Johnson obsession, Elvis, is the subject of the strange final tale in which conspiracy theories about the singer’s stillborn twin not having died, but lived on to replace the real, murdered Elvis, are counterpointed with other doppelganger/poltergeist stories involving the English professor narrator, who may or may not also have a ghost twin existence in his life, his talented poet student (who comes up with the murdered/haunting Elvis theories), and the Twin Towers.

Summarising them doesn’t do these stories justice. They are to be experienced rather than read. I wrote a valedictory piece on Johnson back in May last year, in which I discussed Jesus’ Son, Train Dreams and Tree of Smoke.

Men do kill women. Vita Sackville-West, All Passion Spent

Vita Sackville-West (1892-1962), All Passion Spent. Virago Modern Classics 2010; first published 1931

Henry Lyulph Holland, first Earl of Slane, had existed for so long that the public had begun to regard him as immortal. The public, as a whole, finds reassurance in longevity, and, after the necessary interlude of reaction, is disposed to recognise extreme old age as a sign of excellence.

VSW All P Spent coverSo begins, eloquently and wittily, Vita (short for Victoria) Sackville-West’s ninth novel. Lord Slane had led a life of eminence as politician (rising to Prime Minister, then in later years he sat – when it suited him – in the House of Lords) and diplomat (ultimately as Viceroy of India). When he dies aged 94 his six children and ‘their two wives and a husband bringing the number up to nine’, a ‘sufficiently formidable family gathering’ – all in their sixties – gather like ‘old black ravens’ – or vultures – to determine the fate of his widow, their mother, Lady Slane, who is 88.

There’s a sort of inverted or subverted King Lear plot; led by the domineering Herbert, the eldest, they assume that she will spend a portion of the year in each of their houses in turn; they will ‘divide mother between them’. Each of them has their own venal, selfish motives for such an arrangement. She must, they assume, ‘be allowed to break down, and then, after that was over, be stowed away,’ or ‘cleared up’, like her late husband’s desk. They privately believe their mother ‘was rather a simpleton’ with ‘no grasp on the world as it was’, therefore malleable:

Mother had no will of her own; all her life long, gracious and gentle, she had been wholly submissive – an appendage. It was assumed that she had not brain enough to be self-assertive…That she might have ideas which she kept to herself never entered into their estimate…She would be grateful to them for arranging her few remaining years.

This patronising assessment (shared by most who know or knew her) is proved inaccurate; for Lady Slane, who ‘had spent a great deal of her life listening, without making much comment’, and who ‘all her life had been accustomed to have her comings and goings and stayings arranged for her’, obediently doing what was expected of her as the trophy wife of a public male figure, amazes the vulture offspring by announcing that she has no intention of complying with their decision: she is to rent a house for herself and her equally elderly French maid Genoux in Hampstead where she will live alone. Visitors will be banned, except for her children; anyone younger she deems too trying.

They assume she ‘must be mad.’ This stereotypically passive, submissive woman, always ‘reserved in speech, withholding her opinion’, never revealing what she was thinking, had clearly fooled them all along. This was a mask she wore involuntarily. Now she is free.

Only Edith, the unmarried youngest child, ‘always flustered’ and inclined to say the wrong thing, and who the rest of the family dismiss as scatterbrained and ‘a half-wit’ (pretty much like her mother, then), has any emotional intelligence, is ‘surprisingly shrewd’, and perceives her mother’s true nature, just as she sees through the hypocrisy, greed and bullying of her siblings – except for her equally unprepossessing brother Kay, a bachelor whose collection of compasses and astrolabes was all that interested him and kept him happy.

What follows is a revealing portrait of a woman asserting her right to be herself – Vita habitually denied she was a feminist, but a believer in human rights. As a member of the bohemian, ostensibly free-thinking Bloomsbury set, and Virginia Woolf’s lover (along with Violet Trefusis and others), Vita was intent on showing how society oppressed and constrained women and their individuality, and how the institution of marriage precluded most women from expressing their true selves. Lady Slane had longed to be an artist, but marriage to Henry meant that she never once painted. She had a role to play as his decorative ‘appendage’, his obedient wife – this is the only life for which women like her were ‘formed, dressed, bedizened, educated…safeguarded, kept in the dark, hinted at, segregated, repressed, all that at a given moment they may be delivered, or may deliver their daughters over, to Minister to a Man’.

Victoria Glendinning, in an astute and intelligent Introduction, considers the weaknesses in this portrayal. Why make Lady Slane so intellectually dim, so feminine? Her argument is compelling.

The newly liberated old woman’s life in Hampstead is amusingly told, with some engagingly eccentric characters – including a long-forgotten old flame who turns up unexpectedly, reminding her of what she once glimpsed but foreswore in her radiant, unquestioning youth – and some lively, sparkling prose. It’s hard to believe that home-educated Vita saw herself, like Lady Slane, as a rather stupid and limited writer beside the glittering Virginia Woolf.

Take this, for example: Lady Slane’s landlord, the delightfully strange Mr Bucktrout, has taken a liking to her – he’s refused to rent out his house for decades, but recognises in her a kindred spirit; he’s even taken to giving her little presents, and is one of the few people she’ll allow to visit. She thinks of his small, thoughtful gestures of attentiveness, comparing them favourably with the empty manners of polite society:

Courtesy ceased to be blankly artificial, when prompted by real esteem; it became, simply, one of the decent, veiling graces; a formula by which a profounder feeling might be conveyed.

She remembers a flock of yellow and white butterflies that once accompanied her and her husband as they crossed the Persian desert together, in a passage too long to quote here, but which is a beautiful, fragile image of the life she glimpsed but was unable to enter into. As the man says who once locked eyes and souls with her in India, and then left her life:

Face it, Lady Slane. Your children, your husband, your splendour, were nothing but obstacles that kept you from yourself. They were what you chose to substitute for your real vocation. You were too young, I suppose, to know any better, but when you chose that life you sinned against the light.

Men do kill women, he concludes. Henry had ‘cheated her of her chosen life’, she reflects on another occasion, but had offered her another, an ‘ample life’, but one ‘pressed up close against her own nursery’. He’d substituted his life and interests, or their children’s, for her own. ‘It had never occurred to him that she might prefer simply to be herself.’

Vita can write (ok, maybe not sustained over every page), and needn’t have felt inadequate when compared with the better fiction of her famous lover; I’d have liked to quote more examples to support my case, and realise I’ve focused here on the novel’s themes and moral, rather than on the style. I’d be interested to know if I’m alone in admiring it – despite its unevenness. She is indeed a lesser talent, less serious, ambitious and experimental, less important in the annals of literature, perhaps, than the author of Orlando, whose protagonist is based on Vita; but there’s some fine writing in this heartfelt novel, even though it flags about halfway through.

What fell purpose: JR Ackerley, My Dog Tulip

JR Ackerley, My Dog Tulip. New York Review Books Classics, 2010. First published 1956

Last December I posted on JR Ackerley’s autobiographical semi-novel We Think the World of You, and was put off by the snobbish arrogance and petulance of the central character. The dog was ok.

My dog tulip coverMy Dog Tulip continues the story, with a change of the dog’s real name, Queenie. It tells how the narrator learns to cope with this boisterous, loving animal in a small London flat. The first book showed in graphic detail the unpleasantly confined conditions in which the German shepherd bitch had been kept for the first year or so of her life; she was rarely taken for walks, and regularly mistreated or beaten. Not surprising then that she was a handful to bring up when the narrator rescued her, with no previous experience of owning or training a dog (not that he makes much effort to train Tulip).

I’m afraid I found the same problem with this novel. The owner is cantankerous and aggressive towards anyone who has the temerity to question his methods. One of the early chapters deals in more detail than we need with the dog’s excretory habits. When Tulip defecates outside a grocery store, the narrator becomes belligerent when the grocer remonstrates with him. A passing cyclist yells at him to stop Tulip crapping on the pavement; again JR retorts with abuse.

He seems genuinely not to understand (or care) when people are dismayed with his besotted insouciance as far as Tulip’s animal behaviour is concerned. I was a dog owner myself; my dog Bronte was also ‘beautiful’, as JR frequently tells us Tulip was, and not always well behaved – but I hope I had the grace to acknowledge when she overstepped the mark of canine propriety. Ackerley insists that Tulip ‘knows where to draw the line’, but I feel that it’s his line, and it’s a pretty flexible one as far as Tulip’s misbehaviour goes.

He also tells us in doting detail how he tries to ‘marry’ Tulip to a male dog. Mostly he avoids such cringe-making anthropomorphism, but that’s more than twee. He’s trying to encourage her to mate and have puppies. Leave it at that. Spare us the gynaecological detail. Only a dog’s owner is interested.

When Tulip does whelp, our narrator’s first thought is to drown the female puppies, on the grounds that he ‘had gleaned that bitches were more difficult to get rid of than dogs’. He also intends to ‘liquidate’ (his word) these bitch puppies without Tulip’s knowledge. His excuse is that he’d read that animals ‘cannot count’. He waits for a call of nature to distract her, but she seems to detect his ‘fell purpose’ in his eyes – his ‘guilty conscience’ – and ‘let fly from both orifices simultaneously’ over his Chinese carpet. Good for her. He had it coming. And he decides to give the puppies away. This he does, but soon gets impatient and pays little heed to the likelihood of their new owners being fit for purpose.

He’s also not averse to corporal punishment, often hitting Tulip, and her new puppies:

 

They were charming whimsical little creatures, they were also positively maddening, and exasperated me to such an extent that I sometimes gave them a cuff for disobedience and made them squeak, which was both an unkind and useless thing to do, for they could not know what obedience was.

More to the point, they wouldn’t know why they were being struck.

Ok, so it’s 1948, and people didn’t clean up after their dogs as we do today, and expectations of their behaviour were different. Mrs TD tells me than when she was a little girl her mother’s dog Sweep was allowed to roam the area freely all day; he only came back in the evening when he was hungry.

There are some touching moments that show the mutual devotion of Tulip and her flatmate (‘owner’ doesn’t seem appropriate), and I’m glad he was able to enjoy her loving company for over 16 years (two more than my Bronte). But I fail to understand how this book has been praised so highly by the likes of EM Forster – a friendly correspondent of Ackerley’s.

The Introduction is by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, a dog behaviour expert – but surely not one on literature, for she gushes that the story is ‘so delicate, so sensitive, so clearly understood, and so purely and delightfully composed as to rival an Elizabethan sonnet.’ Really. Take another look at the brief extracts I’ve quoted above. Ackerley is no Philip Sidney.

For a less negative view of the book I’d recommend John Self’s post at Asylum. I usually find his taste impeccable, but we disagree on Tulip.

An animated film of the book by Paul and Sandra Fierlinger was released in 2009.

 

 

 

 

Miklós Bánffy, The Transylvanian Trilogy: final post

Miklós Bánffy’s The Transylvanian Trilogy gets better in vols. 2 and 3. In my previous two posts I suggested that vol. 1 was over-populated with minor characters who clogged the narrative, contributing little except unmemorable names and attributes. The next two volumes introduce quite a few new characters, but the cast-list stabilises a little, and the players become more identifiable and their significance clearer.

Banffy cover

My two Everyman’s Library volumes of the Trilogy

I said last time I’d try to be more positive in this final post on the trilogy. The plot certainly gathers momentum, and I found myself racing through the last volume as the thwarted affair between Abady and Adrienne becomes ever more passionate but meets more and more obstacles. I don’t intend spoiling what happens, but would urge you to persevere to the end to find out – it’s a powerful dénouement for these lovers and for Transylvanian society.

I also said I’d say more about the secondary central male character in this rather too androcentric trilogy, Laszlo Gyeroffy. His erotic-romantic progress is more disastrous than Abady’s, largely as a consequence of the grudge he bears against the Hungarian aristocratic social world he was born into but from which he’s been ostracised. After the scandalous breakup of his parents’ marriage when his mother ran off with another man, his father reacted badly and killed himself and his mother disappeared. Society considers him tainted, and he’s treated like a pariah.

Vol. 1 ended with his descent into addiction: gambling and alcohol (there’s a titanic amount of drinking and drunkenness in the trilogy). This leads to his losing Klara, the love of his life. He’d spiralled deeper into a decline after this, and despite the attempts of the beautiful Fanny Beredy, one of the few resourceful and spirited independent women we meet in the story, to redeem him, he’s so full of loathing for life and himself and his largely self-induced exile from society that he spurns not just her but several subsequent (beautiful of course) young women who try to raise him from the gutter.

He’s sold his estate and most of the family heirlooms he’d managed to retain far too cheaply, having lost interest in everything. He also spurns the attempts of his family, including Abady’s, to rescue him from his descent into hell. His decline is sad to witness, and not entirely his fault; he’s a victim of that ‘dramatist Fate’ mentioned in vol. 1 as much as he is of his own self-destructive nature. This theme is raised more overtly with the decline of another young aristocrat, Gazsi, whose sad end causes Abady to ponder (without much philosophical profundity or originality) whether it’s human nature or lived experience that influences our fates.

The rather disturbingly sexist presentation of women I noted as present at times in vol. 1 is less apparent in the remaining volumes, but it’s still there. In the final volume, for example, a shopkeeper’s young daughter, just thirteen or so, secretly ministers to Laszlo’s obsessive need for alcohol in defiance of her father’s beatings, seeing in this shadow of a man the ‘fairy prince’ he seems to her when he tells her stories of his dazzling former life at the peak of Budapest social life. For a couple more years her love for him grows. There’s never any suggestion of a sexual relationship, for Laszlo is too far gone in self-pity to notice her; but this doesn’t alter the element of exploitation in his treatment of the besotted girl.

There’s more, too, of the over-sexualised presentation of women. Several scenes stand out in which Adrienne is involved. I pointed out the furtive gaze on her of Abady in vol. 1 when she’d abandoned herself to the physical thrill of ice skating; in these later volumes there are even more sexually explicit scenes in which her voluptuous sensuality is lingered over in a manner that can only be described as soft porn. One is when she arrives at a ‘bal des têtes’ dressed in a shimmering gold dress with ‘the lowest possible décolletage’; she looks ‘like some legendary goddess’. When she and Abady have sex later he’s seen literally bowing down in reverence to her beauty as if she were a Hindu goddess.

It’s not the sumptuous moment of erotically charged mutual worship that maybe I’ve made it sound like: the other men at the ball are shown drooling over her with ‘red-hot desire’, while Abady congratulates himself on his good luck. Far from showing an empowered Adrienne, this simply reinforces the secondary role women are forced to play in this society: her only ‘armour’, as the narrator describes Adrienne’s metallic gown in this scene, and her manner when she’s flirting at another time to disguise her true feelings for Abady, is her sexual attractiveness. She might as well have no intelligence or other qualities – and Bánffy only hints at their existence. His interest resides in Abady.

Meanwhile the political disaster of WWI looms ever nearer, while the Hungarian politicians in their ‘shifting political groups’, changing like a weather-vane in the wind, continue to look only inwards to the petty feuds and squabbles in their own country. Near the end, when the Archduke Ferdinand is assassinated and war seems ever more inevitable, there’s a moment when the narrator muses that with ‘skilful diplomacy’ it could still have been averted – but of course the reckless Hungarians indulge in quite the opposite, and carnage follows. Their lemming-like charge into it is referred to in the narrative as a ‘curse that had fallen on Hungary’.

The ‘cold cynicism’ of politicians like Slawata, who tries to lure Abady into his schemes, is reflected in the hopeless addiction of this doomed generation of Austro-Hungarian aristocrats for an antiquated and destructively perverse form of ‘code of honour’, which I touched on in the first of these posts. Its most extreme manifestation is in duels, several of which take place in the final two volumes, and all of them absurd, or ‘stupid, stupid’, as Abady puts it when he too is involved after a ludicrous exchange with a drunken, corrupt lawyer-politician. (I’m reminded of Conrad’s more acerbic view of this theme in ‘The Duel’ [in A Set of Six, 1908], in which the participants engage in decades of vicious duelling, of ‘homicidal austerity’, for reasons neither of them can remember.)

I had to skip many of the lengthy political scenes in this trilogy, which went into far too much detail, involving arcane aspects of Habsburg, Balkan and other european political chicanery, than I could endure. But the elegiac treatment of this fatally doomed world of aristocratic misfits, scoundrels and smouldering Byronic heroes is compellingly done, for the most part, and the constant, looming awareness of the slaughter that will change that world forever is handled with chilling aplomb by Bánffy.

 

 

 

 

 

Miklós Bánffy, The Transylvanian Trilogy: post 2, in which I look at vol. 1, ‘They Were Counted’

 

FR Leavis says of Anna Karenina, quoting Matthew Arnold, that Tolstoy’s novel has ‘many characters…too many’ – but dismisses this as a misreading. He does the same with James’s contention that this novel lacks ‘composition’ and is ‘defiant of economy and architecture’. Miklós Bánffy’s Transylvanian Trilogy has an elegantly composed structure (more on that later), but perhaps falls short of the kind of greatness Leavis argues is found in Anna Karenina. This is largely because of its defiance of economy and ‘composition’ – it is too long, has too many superfluous characters (I mentioned last time my need to keep a record of names to try to reduce the confusion caused by the huge cast; I counted 23 different names in just two pages of Pt 1 ch. 2), too many digressions and superfluous descriptive passages.

Banffy cover

My two Everyman’s Library volumes of the Trilogy

The Trilogy is, nevertheless, almost a great sequence of novels. It’s difficult in the space of this second post on it here to substantiate such a claim, and to give a sense of its overall quality, its (mostly) coherent and subtly controlled narrative – or the defects noted above.

In this post I shall concentrate on vol. 1 of the Trilogy. In the previous post I gave an outline and introduction.

Balint Abady is the protagonist, heir to a vast estate of forests and farmland in Transylvania, in 1904 when the Trilogy opens a region of Hungary (but since the Treaty of Trianon of 1920 part of Romania). The region had a long history of fierce ‘national consciousness’ (Hugh Thomas, quoting Banffy in his Introduction to vol. 1), showing hostility to the Habsburgs and Germany, and, in this Trilogy, towards the Hungarians (an animosity I witnessed in the 1970s when I visited Ceauşescu’s communist state; I even stayed in Cluj, which is the nearest city to the Abady castle of Denestornya at Kolozsvar).

This causes the dissent and arrogantly parochial factionalism that the scenes set in the Hungarian parliament so witheringly portray; the politicians wrangle and orate, oblivious while the empire around them implodes. Abady is Bánffy’s mouthpiece and alter ego, frequently shown despairing at their ‘narrow-minded, prejudiced, dogmatic talk’, which ‘got on his nerves’ (Pt 1 ch. 2), their politically myopic stupidity, their over-fondness for histrionic gestures and violence in the parliamentary chamber, and for their ‘usual rabble-rousing speeches full of slogans’ (Pt 3 ch. 1). He’s shown to be ‘disgusted by the insincerity and triviality of it all’ (Pt 4, ch. 3). A page later there’s this impassioned narrative comment on such divisive, xenophobic scenes:

Such was the general political naivety…that they at once assumed that they were the victims of a conspiracy. They saw enemies everywhere, not realizing that all nations were governed by their own interests and that the skill with which these were grasped and developed was the true basis of a nation’s peace and prosperity. From this distrust of anyone who did not agree with them sprang the divisions within their own ranks…

Coat of arms of the Austro-Hungarian Empire

Coat of arms of the Austro-Hungarian empire in 1915: public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The ethnic and regional factions in this parliament preclude any kind of rational debate or consensus politics of the kind Abady advocates, and the ‘kaiserliche und königliche’ dual monarchy is simply despised and dismissed, rather than understood and dealt with diplomatically – Bánffy the politician-diplomat, like Abady, tried and failed to hold these factions together while striving to save his doomed, beloved homeland.

Abady is an interestingly flawed character, however; he’s too innocent and politically naïve to succeed in such a quest. He can’t even manage a rapprochement between the Romanian ethnic peasants of his own estates and villages with their Hungarian overlords. Instead he’s distrusted or exploited by them, and even by the Romanian lawyer Timisan, with whom Abady forms a kind of friendship, but who proves as unreliable in aiding his quest for compromise and progress as the rest.

He’s also not immune from the corruption of this state. He’s elected then re-elected to his constituency of Lelbanya through the habitual use of bribes of the small electorate; he suspects the election was rigged, but acquiesces. He’s only too easily duped by the wily Azbej, the steward of his mother’s estates, and the others whose equally self-interested duplicity is more than a match for his callow rectitude.

His flaws are a feature of his tortured love life, too. He falls deeply in love with Adrienne, who’s married to a sadistic madman who enjoys toying with them. One of my main problems with this Trilogy is with Banffy’s portrayal of women and sex. Abady has had numerous mistresses and conquests in his younger days, most recently with a pretty married aristocrat on a neighbouring estate. The women desired by the men in the trilogy are always beautiful and more or less sensual; we get little sense of their characters or emotional complexity.

Adrienne is more fully rounded in her portrayal than the others, but we know little about her beyond her role in Abady’s relentless campaign to have sex with her. He’s vaguely aware that her reluctance is caused by her being raped by her brutal husband, which has understandably traumatised her, but this doesn’t prevent him from trying initially to use poetic language about the purity of ‘animal nature’ to win her over. She’s too smart to fall for this transparent approach, calling the mating instinct he’s invoked a ‘baited trap, a swindle.’ Instead of showing empathy for her vulnerable state (she’d married Uzdy to get away from a cloying home, only to find herself a different and worse kind of captive, despised by him and his cruel family) and understanding the causes of her sexual prurience, and helping her overcome them with tenderness and emotional maturity, he instead is shown concluding ‘he must feel his way carefully’. She’s his prey, like the animals and birds these male aristocrats love slaughtering in the name of sport.

For weeks and months Abady tries to exercise decency and constraint, despite the voices in him that laugh at his ‘scruples and self-searching’, and which accuse him of behaving ‘more like a timid schoolboy than a grown man of the world.’ So one day when he and Adrienne are lying on cushions on the floor, embracing and kissing, and she speaks of the right of women to have freedom to do with their bodies and thoughts what they liked, despite what society considered moral, he sees this as ‘the moment for which he had been waiting’, when he should ‘press for more.’

He starts his ‘attack’ and tries to force her into having sex, but she springs free, appalled and accusatory. His response is very like that of the abject schoolboy he’d admonished himself as being earlier, but his humility comes too late, his apology is disingenuous and his integrity, to my mind, shattered.

As vol. 1 progresses Adrienne finally overcomes her aversion to sex and they become lovers, but this nasty scene taints the otherwise conventional and romantic-erotic scenes between them that follow.

There’s something too lascivious in the male gaze of the two main romantic heroes, Abady and his cousin Laszlo Gyeroffy (as when Laszlo looks at the ‘voluptuous’ Fanny Beredy, the ‘curves of her body’ barely hidden by her clinging gown – Pt 2 ch. 3), among other sexually predatory men in the Trilogy. Descriptions of men are far more varied and less stereotypically sexual. There’s a scene in which Adrienne is shown ice-skating, and Abady watches her, unseen, transfixed. At first the description is lyrical and rather beautiful, but it becomes more troublesome. Adrienne is compared, in Abady’s focalisation, to ‘a young maenad caught in a magic wintery bacchanalia, a prey to every madness and abandon, drunk with unrestrained desire and ready for whatever the night might bring’. This says more about his lust than her true self. Yes, she’s abandoned to the sensual pleasure of the skating, but the desire is surely all his; she’s objectified. And doesn’t know he’s watching her; it’s voyeurism.

Other women characters are also too often commodified like this and likened to panthers or goddesses or their bodies rhapsodically described, especially when they wear revealing ball gowns. I don’t want to overstate this tendency in the novel; Bánffy is careful to show Abady coming to realise that his attempted assault on Adrienne is no better than her husband’s habitual treatment of her. The way in which the lovely Fanny Beredy – the women are always implausibly sexy and beautiful – uses her sexual allure to distract the heartbroken Laszlo into a passionate affair with her is done more convincingly and subtly than the heavy-handed and chauvinistic campaigns of Abady and most of the other menfolk in these pages. There are also some sympathetically drawn strong and spirited women in the novel, like the independent Sara Bogdan Lazar – but even she falls for the dubiously Byronic and doomed Laszlo.

At one point Laszlo witnesses a distrurbing scene where a butler is about to rape a terrified housemaid; her subsequent pregnancy and disgrace indicate Bánffy’s moral sense, but even so his treatment of these two central male characters and their sexual attitudes isn’t entirely satisfactory.

Already I’ve said too much for one post, and have barely touched the surface of this flawed novel. I’m also aware I’ve been largely critical. The final section of vol. 1 does much to mitigate the unsavoury features I’ve noted above. I’d like to consider the more positive virtues of the Trilogy when I turn to the final two volumes. And I haven’t said enough about some of the fine writing, especially the descriptions of landscapes, and nature in vol. 1; I hope to rectify all this next time.