Monthly Archives: June 2014

6% done with They Were Found Wanting

Where the first book ends with Adrienne standing at the window enveloped by the white netting as she contemplates Balint, Dodo stands at her own window with drunken Laszlo below and she sets her curtains on fire. And he was only there by chance unaware that she is madly in love with him. Hard not to empathize with Laszlo, even as much as he screws up.

They Were Counted: Read from May 23 to June 29, 2014

Imagine an entire nation overflowing with people who completely and totally misunderstand everyone else around them. No matter what you say it will be interpreted in the worst possible way and absolutely counter to what you really meant. On top of that, add in the fact that should you try to be serious about something, should you try to get a point across to a large group or attempt to ‘better’ a situation that seems out of control or corrupt, you are immediately teased, poked fun of, laughed at, and not taken the slightest bit seriously.

Now do all that in Hungarian, a language nobody outside of Hungary can hope to comprehend, and put that nation in the middle of a geographical tinderbox of ethnic diversity, mistrust, and at the crossroads of division where east meets west, old meets new, and more powerful neighbors squeeze in tighter ever year. Only then can we hope to understand the sadly comedic history of Hungary and why she always seemed to pick the wrong side of a war to fight on.

The title of this book – and the whole series which is called ‘The Writing on the Wall’ outside of Hungary – gives us our most important key to understanding what we are about to read and experience in this novel. The Writing on the Wall is from the Book of Daniel in the Bible and has become an expression for being able to see how events are going to unfold before they happen. Yet what we tend to forget from the story in the Bible is when the writing on the wall appeared to King Belshazzar it was unreadable. King Belshazzar had to call in an interpreter to make sense of the words “Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin”. So even though the writing was right there on the wall for everyone to see, nobody knew what the heck it meant.

And that’s the sad joke Bánffy is all too painfully aware of when he wrote this beautiful and tragically overlooked masterpiece.

The novel begins in 1904, the year the Hungarian Parliament building was completed by an architect who went blind before finishing the project. Over the coming years that take place in this the first book of three everyone in that building goes figuratively blind. The political situation in Hungary is a mess, factions who favor their alliance with Austria fight with those who want nothing to do with Austria, and factions within those groups fight with each other.

One would wonder if perhaps this was Austria’s plan all along: to divide and conquer. However, the Hungarians are far more adept at dividing and conquering themselves than the Austrians could ever hope for.

It’s important to take a quick step back and say that this novel is first and foremost a political one even though it does not seem so. Miklós Bánffy has created a work of art in an attempt to explain what went wrong in Hungary – or might even systemically be the problem with Hungary for all of her troubled history – during the years leading up to WW1. Each character, though wholly original, fleshed out, and rarely cliched, does serve a larger role that explores the many facets of Hungarian culture at that time in history. And what is genius here, what makes this novel a masterpiece of fiction that can only be rivaled by War and Peace, is that Miklós Bánffy never forces the issue. He lets these characters live and breathe and surprise us and while they may not rise to the level of psychological realism that Tolstoy found in his great novels, Bánffy has a stronger grasp of ALL the people of his country, ALL of Hungary, and especially his province of Transylvania.

Tolstoy’s one weakness was that he never could really write a character from a lower class than from himself. Tolstoy, try as he might, pray as he might, work as hard in the fields as he might, was never able to get inside the mind of a peasant. And we should be lucky he wasn’t able to either, because had he never longed to be a hard working, simple, plain, struggling human being, we never would have got the great works of art he left behind. His art was his struggle to be a better, more humble person.

Miklós Bánffy, unlike Tolstoy, did understand people of a different class than his – especially the poor. He understood without even thinking about it how the most senior politician thought and behaved, how the nobility behaved, how young women behave, and how peasants behave.

In one scene we get a series of events between the lady of the house, her butler, a young serving girl, and one of our main characters, a socialite named Laszlo. Over the course of this particular chapter we learn (through some clues from earlier in the book) that the lady of the house has put all her household trust in her butler. That butler, we learn, abuses the staff and forces the young maids who work under him to have sex with him. These young women get pregnant by him, and he forces them out into the street by blaming a third party. This young woman, we learn, cannot go home because of her situation but also because of the trust that had been placed in her by her family to find work. She is shamed not only because she is pregnant out of wedlock, but because she is no longer even employed. And the blame goes to our main character, Laszlo, who had only used her as an intermediary to deliver a message to the women he loves who is the daughter of the lady of the house.

Now all this might seem a bit complicated and even a bit dramatic, but what Bánffy is doing is constantly giving us a close look at his society, at the culture of his beloved country. These are the people he loves and he loves them all, good and bad of them. The fact he understands them AND can write so well about them is a gift that has been left to us but that has nearly been forgotten.

Miklós Bánffy is an interesting historical figure. He, like Tolstoy, was nobility. In fact the Bánffy’s are some of the most ancient and were one of the most powerful families in all of Hungary and Transylvania. He was a politician who was involved in many of the most important moments in history and he was an artist.

After WW1 Bánffy retired (somewhat) from politics and focused mainly on his writing and this is when he wrote these novels. He was looking back to a time when his countrymen had been so preoccupied with their own silly affairs, with money, power, self-satisfaction, glory, that they missed all the warning signs that the world around them was going to hell. And his novel is also a reaction to what he saw going on around him as he started writing with the rise of Hitler and his country once again choosing the wrong side of another world war.

He writes, “The feast had been prepared so knowingly that it seemed to Laszlo that everyone present ate and drank more voraciously than usual and chatted with more hectic vivacity, as if they were driven to enjoy themselves while there was still time.”

Yet all around there are hints of decay and neglect or unsettling surprises. A fish that normally is served with bones is somehow served without bones in it, dirty towels lay on the floor where others had used them to dry off, a servant is far more muscular than expected when his arm is grasped. Yet nobody wants to say anything about all this. Nobody wants to be the person who points out any irregularities because they will be mocked. The few who do speak up are washed up old drunks who fall over and urinate themselves while crying for old Hungary.

One character, a successful and respected gambler, almost completely communicates with his monocle. When he makes up his mind about some affair, when he has decided on how things will be settled and seen, he imperceptibly twitches his eye to allow the monocle to drop from his eye as a sign that affairs are over and that ‘that is that, gentlemen!’. By choosing to impair his vision, he judges how things will be seen.

How Bánffy manages to pull this off is quite a feat and makes reading this novel such a pleasure. His best talent is in handling all the different characters. In the scene with the maid I described above, we do not get the point of view of only one character or an omniscient narrator, but rather Bánffy allows the characters to orbit each other and when one comes close to the other we immediately yet effortlessly switch points of view. We go from the lady of the house and what she is thinking, to the butler, to one of the upper maids, to the poor maid who is kicked out and then on to Laszlo, with whom the chapter began.

Time, too, does not always flow in one direction.

In another scene we learn that one character has been engaged to the former lover of another. We then jump back a week to tell how this was arranged, then go forward to a party where we meet up with the character who has been spurned by this news but now from the point of view of the other woman who then tells us how all this was put together a few days before.

The effect of all this jumping about is that Bánffy builds a world in which life is happening all the time, not just when we are reading that particular page.

Our other main character, Baliant (who is a near stand in for Bánffy), is trying to better the lives of the people who live on his family’s land (sounds like Tolstoy, no?). Yet every time he goes back into the mountains to meet with these people he is thwarted by events that have been going on while he was far away in Budapest. Just because the noble land owner is away does not mean life suddenly stops and Bánffy is constantly using the back and forth of time and the orbiting motion of the intersecting characters to give us a greater sense of a larger world, a world in conflict as well as of beauty.

But is this novel nostalgic?

Nostalgia can be a killer because it is a dishonest emotion that colors reality and takes us out of real events and real people’s loves. Nostalgia is false because it never happened and it can cheat a reader of learning something important about the world we live in and about who we are as human beings. Nostalgia is a longing for a return to a time that never existed. The world he writes about most certainly did exist, and so much of it was rotten.

This is not a nostalgic novel.

Bánffy paints Hungary with all the colors of nature, he lets us listen to all the sounds of the horses and the birds, “Outside a nightingale sang in almost crazed ecstasy”, and even smells – one scene describes a poor peasant boy standing in a room filled with the smell of sawdust as the child eats a ripe apple. Color is his most used descriptor, be it the cushions in a room or in Parliament, the blues of the distant, floating mountains, or even “the purple darkness of desire”.

All this might seem overly nostalgic, too, however, let’s not forget that to this very day we can go see the uniform Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria was assassinated in and see his red bloodstain still on his uniform. It’s still there 100 years later.

And like that assassination which took place in the very empire Bánffy is writing about, the past he writes about is not something anyone would be nostalgic for. Bánffy, though he loves his nation, knew that he and his countrymen did not see or interpret the writing on the wall. He is not nostalgic to return to a time where so many suffered, where just off stage men like Gavrilo Princip were starving and angry and ready to kill to make a change in their lives.

Bánffy was all to aware of the suffering of that time, and though he would have loved to have remained a gentle noble with all his lands – the Nazi’s destroyed his family castle because Bánffy attempted to get Hungary to switch sides in WW2 and join the Allies – he was well aware of the pain of all the people of his country and he is not nostalgic for any such thing.

Bánffy has written a warning for all of us to be more aware of the people around us, the cultures we must learn to get along with, the people in our lives whose lives we effect for good and for bad, sometimes without even realizing it or knowing they are also influencing us, even behind our backs. He, like Daniel in the Bible, has translated the writing on the wall and this novel is his interpretation of what was written for Hungary right before WW1.

I must add that I believe this novel to be one of the greatest works of literature ever created. This novel, for me, stands next to War and Peace, Moby Dick, and Ulysses and it deserves to be read by every person alive. Yet like the literal Writing on the Wall, few people have seen it or will ever know about it.

And perhaps that’s the way it should be. Most people are plenty happy going on with their lives and not concerning themselves with the greater problems of the world because to be one of the few who can read the writing on the wall means you are probably still powerless to do anything about it.

Bánffy paid for not reading the writing on the wall when, in his 70’s, he watched the Nazi’s tear down his family home.

They Were Counted: Additional Notes on the Text

  • the year is 1904, (the year the Hungarian Parliament building was completed – the architect went blind before the building was completed).
  • First Count Balint Abady is passed by all the eager and speeding nobility while he is content to take his time.
  • Everything seems a bit crumbling at the slightest edges. The towels are dirty, there are cups laying about.
  • The castle was just built over a Roman Fort, could only withstand the most minor seige, and is ornate beyond any original function, oriental even.
  • ‘Unter Larven die einzig fuhlende Brust’ in all these grubs just one faithful heart.
  • everyone is splintered off into ever smaller and fiercer factions
  • The old woman too short by a head does not grow taller just by changing chairs.
  • A fish without bones, a nation in appearance only, no structure underneath.
  • the music stopped as if cut by scissors.
  • Uncle Dani: ‘You are a m-m-monumental f-f-fraud!’ he later gets nostalgic at the books as he recalls his ruined life, throws up and passes out on the floor.
  • They all barely fit in the diving room, the band nearly trips over the guests.
  • Valse Macabre is the false death. A sad song nobody wants to hear.
  • distance and nearness did not exist
  • Adrienne believes everything is a lie, is deception. She compares the soft Hill with its reality of just bring made of clay and fit only for grazing sheep
  • not all memories can be wished back
  • he is a romantic just living for now and not worried about tomorrow
  • what was the use of a few commonplace words in the sober light of day?
  • the interruption of the dancers all crashing about is wonderful
  • the library is filed with books from when transylvania had been cultivated, but cultivated by books written by foreigners
  • anyone who tries to do what he can’t do is mad – said the old actor
    the mathematician is too proud to ever invent the plane, especially since the Wright Brothers already did anyway. And the old count just sees this as a toy and the actor as another way for men to kill each other.
  • The old horse found its way back to the safety of the barn – it can’t handle freedom or even fun
  • the servants run the show, they are not afraid of anyone who pays them.
  • Laszlo considered his law school days carefree and now music school as hard work
  • His father never finished building that country house
  • forget school, go hunting instead!
  • the best Hungarian soldier can only speak broken Hungarian because he was always with German regiments
  • an endless hunting story that’s always interrupted
  • Kronos and Psyche clock… A titan and cupid?
  • Count Leopold Berchtold
  • both of them worry that they are not part of the people around them, they are second class citizens somehow
  • after all what foreigner understood Hungarian?
  • All dresses in different clothes, either old hunting clothes or English style, some not even matching
  • in War and Peace the hunt seems like it can stay almost any time and on any whim, here they wear numbers on their clothes to coordinate everything
  • “the old soldier began to get angry, and the angrier he became so the thick smoke from his guns curled around him like the symbol of his wrath.” 21%
  • sit him between two pretty girls, give him some wine and soon he’ll be happy again.
  • he combines the shooting of birds with a marriage possibility with the annexation of the Balkans.
  • Beautiful description of the mountains. He uses color a lot to emphasize setting, either in nature or in local dress. Balint seems more nature and Laszlo is more social. Funny that Balint is the politician
  • he doesn’t speak Romanian and has been curt with the people working for him so he’s an outsider on his own property
  • The Kalotaszeg people and their buffaloes wrapped up in blankets remind me of wild babushkas
  • The little orthodox church’s murals show the devils swallowing up sinners, all Hungarian, while all the saved are Romanian
  • The sick boy ask wrapped up outside the cold is an ominous image. Like some dying Hungarian sphinx, but next after crossing the rickety bridge, they come upon the waterfall which he describes as having an unquenchable will to live.
  • look up Istvan Keglevich (old politician) never mind, he challenged a younger man to a duel, thrust once, the young man stepped back and speared Keglevich
  • He thinks of Adrienne, decides instead on a cocotte, remembers being taught by an experienced woman the moves of love, can’t remember her name, then checks his pockets to make sure he hasn’t forgotten anything. That’s how this whole book is written, intertwined yet still leisurely.
  • It’s always the unexpected here, he quickly turns hey hand over and kisses get palm, he walks home in dancing shoes that make little shapes in the fresh snow. Then there is the drifting narrator, usually focused but always willing to jump to another character and get their story and feelings. Absolutely beautiful.
  • He made a firm commitment to Adrienne and left no doubt and did not hide his feelings from her. He’ll have to do the same politicaly soon.
  • punctuation even plays a role. Uzdy, already described as cold to his wife, is said to like to arrive unannounced to his other properties because “it kept everyone on their toes!”. The very next sentence is Adrienne’s body relaxing at learning he isn’t home
  • They live in the old servants Quarters (now conveyed) of their home.
  • He uses the word atavistic when describing the fear Adrienne goes through when having sex with Pali Uzdy “recurrence in an organism of a trait or character typical of an ancestral form and usually due to genetic recombination”. Old families and new, marriage of convenience, like the empire
  • I love how we’re always going back and reliving scenes previous through another characters eyes. Now we get Adrienne recalling AB and view be looked at the ball when he said he loved her. His shiny mustache, his hair a little longer than other young men, how it glowed in the candlelight. Good blonde hair, lighter mustache, steel gray eyes, thin young man’s face, straight nose. We get a romantic impression and a fuller picture.
  • We are shown that her sisters can’t see her face in the candlelight and that she is surrounded by her lace pillows – she’s not sick and hiding – then we get Balint Abady’s impressionist image surrounded by shimmering candlelight and a soft glow around him, too.
  • “He had thought that Adrienne was different, sincere, true, and straight, not to be played with like other married women he had known. ” HA!
  • When Abady chooses Dodo at the ball when he thinks Adrienne had played him, she thinks he came to her because of a man named Farkas who had arranged it and she gave him a grateful glance. He had nothing to do with it and probably wondered what they glance was all about. Miscommunication of relationships.
  • Egon Wickwitz is the young officer with financial issues and lots of money he owes to Dinora.
  • Uncle Ambrus is the older guy who wins at cards against young men all the time but acts like it’s just dumb luck and everyone is happy about losing because he’s good etiquette about it
  • After Akos Miloth made everyone dance and is all out of breath, he sits down and the chapter ends with him saying “Do you remember, dear Aniko, how in our day…” leaving us hanging with that nostalgia after an old man had come to life and lead everyone in dancing like he used to. Brilliant.
  • I love that the musician Jaji Pongracz knows the intimate details of each of his listeners love lives and gwzrs to then at certain points in the song to let then know he’s playing this part for them. Remarkable that a musician had done this.
  • old drunk Dani Kendy had once been rich and was welcome at the court of Empress Eugenie at Biarritz. “le comte Candi (Count Candy)”
  • Why does Pityu Kendy start yelling “God dammit” and toss the goblet over? Dani even gets riled up when AB Gets mad. Were they thinking of lost family glory because of the music, is Pityu angry with Dani, how pathetic the old drunk is now who has to be carted odd lest he throw up again from standing up too fast.
  • Major Bogacsy is supposed to be looking after the welfare of Hungarian orphans but really only cares about duels and disputes of honor Kolozsvar. He tries to look like a lion with all his facial hair but instead looks like a tomcat who stole a sausage.
  • His mother’s “friend”, one of the knitters Mrs Baczo, knows secret ways around the house even Balint don’t know of. Also, the servants run things, she makes sure his mother does not know of duel.
  • When asked to make peace before the duel, etiquette demanded both men remain silent, even when asked a third time. All a charade. And the whole thing was a farce ending with little more than paper cuts and the doctors claimed they were in imminent danger of dying.
  • Is Pali Uzdy crazy or is he somehow threatening Balint first by firing off the gun in the club and then saying if he was to really be mad at someone he’d just shoot them and pats AB on the shoulder. He can’t be that dumb
  • Dr Aurel Timisan, a Romanian who speaks excellent Hungarian. He wants Romanians to have the same rights as Hungarians. Apparently ethnic Romanians living in Hungary must be subjected to Hungary even though the two nations are allies – mistrustful allies. Could be based on Vasile Lucaciu
  • Paprika chicken and fried dumplings!
  • It’s funny that nobody seems to know why anyone is doing anything, everything is a misunderstanding and so everyone just acts pog their own interests by saying everything is on shambles and their rent should be reduced. such as the carpenter.
  • Of course the poor farmers are suspicious of a phrase like “God helps those who help themselves!” AB had said this just as a bit of rhetoric but this seems suspicious – is he helping himself at their expense? They are always being cheated so why trust him? They want a tangible promise instead.

  • Funny how they bought his election, lie to him that they did buy it, he wants to make genuine improvements that nobody wants even though they helped him get elected.
  • “People at the top don’t realize, when they make even a quite simple order, that all of the burden falls on those on the lowest rung of the ladder.” said the notary, Daniel Kovacs
  • Banffy’s understanding of how politics really works – at all levels – is impressive. Very intelligent person.
  • He describes the building as smelling like sawdust and then we get the image of a small child sitting in the floor and eating an apple. The mix of smell and visual is wonderful
  • After he tried to have sex with her they go on the walk to the cemetery ‘Hazsongard’, which had no meaning in Hungarian, though might be German for where hares are found ‘Hasengarten’.
  • Love the image of her husband standing in front of the fire like a Devil. and so menacing he is every time
  • Does her lack of sexuality mirror the Empire, she looks great but it impotent and unable to love?
  • Playing cards and all that money like it’s a toy, not real, and it’s all theater, even when you are at the bottom of the pecking order.
  • I love the guy with the monocle
  • Dominus vobiscum, “the Lord will be with you”, saying ‘banco’, gambling, is the most lordly thing a gentleman can do. What can be more lordly then saying banco?
  • The men gather together and gamble bit the women pick insipid spinsters so they won’t have any competition for their game.
  • The order of the golden fleece is a special group of nobles who along with the king are the most important. They have special rights and even confer for things such as of they should go to war.
  • Walls painted pale gray, sofas with sugar pink cushions, divans with poison green brocade and lemon yellow and black cushions. Fanny’s red gold hair like a flame, the use of word poison seems to foreshadow disaster? The table lit so that the black walls and black ceiling were not visible and so they were like an isolated island with darkness around them. He sits with his face to the world but his back to ‘untold terrors’
  • “The feast had been prepared so knowingly that it seemed to Laszlo that everyone present ate and drank more voraciously than usual and chatted with more hectic vivacity, as if they were driven to enjoy themselves while there was still time.”
  • When they look into the shop window and she says the chintz covers are like the one she has in her own room, he believes she is remembering the room as it was when they first kissed. “These allusions were made in a sort of code, which only they could understand, and to anyone else the phrases would seem ordinary and without special meaning.”
  • But you better get the code right, and a lot of people don’t.
  • Klara makes all her plans while in her schoolgirl bed. She’s still a child.
  • István Tisza supports the dual monarchy of Austria and Hungary. He was prime minister twice (and is at the time of this book but he’s about to lose). All of these books pretty much take place in the years when he was not prime minister.
  • Tivadar Mihalyi spoke in the House for minorities in Hungary but nobody seems very interested. Ethnic division will eventually be a problem. The Croatians will be the biggest problem.
  • “His black and white suit in contrast to the red of the benches” (of the House). Laszlo sits on poison green cushions and Balint sits on blood red benches.
  • The world is falling apart but they only have their noses up their own asses in Hungary.
  • Princess Agnes Kollonich still uses a perfect horse drawn carriage (equipage) because anyone with money can buy a car but only people who know how to do it can manage a perfect two horse carriage. Also why hurry?
  • du haut en bas (“from on high to low”). So much effort to climb the social ladder and Klara has ruined the princesses chance.
  • Unlike the gentleman with the monocle who played cards and spoke volumes just by dropping his monocle from his eye, his effortlesness is juxtaposed with view hard Agnes tries and thus fails. They tease her, get her Hungarian name wrong, day that bears only live where she came from. Bear = social outcast and crass
  • He uses the language of warfare here: (Agnes) “swept out of the room like a battleship in full sail”, (Klara) “[stuck] to her guns”. Previously the clip clop of the horse was like a hammer nailing shut a coffin.
  • I love that we don’t have to be told that everyone knows what is going on. Agnes and her father have heard all the gossip because that’s the way it is in society. I also like how I feel a little indignant about the accusation her Aunt makes when she says Laszlo is really in love with the singer Fanny. We invite he isn’t but the gossip days so, and the gossip is not from spite but jealously at his luck to be with such a crowd.
  • It’s amazing anything ever for done in Hungary because they are all at balls and tie races and society dinners. No time to actually take care of their own country and all the problems brewing there (minorities).
  • A Hungarian Jukker is a light Carriage
  • Everyone favorite horse is ‘Patience’, but Klara won’t say who she is betting on. Patience is the sure thing; and that’s what she had been counting on with Laszlo and jet coming of age. But now… she can’t be patient, she had to fight and she’ll lose because she is naive.
  • She makes him promise to never gamble again, then she gives him money to bet on a horse, he makes a bet and chooses 9 because it’s a lucky number in cards.
  • “Politicians with party ties would shy away from him if he ever tried to discuss seriously what they had really thought.” Nothing changes. “A man who tried to see every side of a problem, who bent over backwards to take a fair and equitable view, was a suspect animal in the world of politics.”
  • Géza Fejérváry real general and was prime minister from 1905 to 1906. Stephan Burián von Rajecz was actually finance minister, too. Wikipedia has great pictures of them both
  • The colors of history, even to this day you can see the blood red on the uniform of Franz Ferdinand. Everything is colorful.
  • The minorities are struggling, the press plays up the importance of society ladies in the national struggle, they all tow the party line with no originality, a blonde bites into a strawberry with get snow white teeth as she compliments the press. Sad.
  • The poor maidservant holding Klara’s dress as she’s kicked out having gotten pregnant by the Butler. So much goes on behind the scenes.
  • Need to look up how much 1000 crowns is worth in Hungary in 1904/05 : As Laszlo gave that poor girl a 1000K note, I was curious to figure out how much money that would be in today’s terms: turns out it’s actually about $1000 with about the same spending power. I used the 1905 edition of the “Austria-Hungary:Including Dalmatia and Bosnia; Handbook for Travellers” and looked at what it cost for a meal and basic fare lists at 3-8K: about the same as a fast food meal today. on page xvii in the introduction.
  • He had a momentary epiphany when he thinks about how hard it must be to be poor then gets in his hired carriage that waits for him all day and later drinks an entire bottle of champagne to make himself happy.
  • How unfair that the girl loses everything and he wins 10000 crowns playing cards.
  • Balint had walked home in the fresh snow in dancing shoes when he kissed Adrienne’s palm, Laszlo walks home in thin, splitting evening shoes s broken man.
  • Ch 5, a week later is the party where we learn Klara has been engaged to another of Fanny’s lovers. He then jumps back a few days to tell how this was arranged, jump back to the party where we meet up with Laszlo but with Fanny as the narrator’s focus, then we jump back to learn how he learned of the engagement to the idiot, dull Warday.
  • “nothing is more difficult than to write what one does not know how to say “
  • this back and forth of time works in even more minute detail when, for example, Fanny notices the artificial flower arrangement and we get some info on how the owners never refreshed them and they were all dusty because they were only kept on semi darkness on the hall, then we see Laszlo’s reaction to these flowers and he noticed they were fake and he makes a bitter comment about them. Always back and forth.
  • “the purple darkness of desire”
  • He can really write a woman character. Fanny is a marvel and I doubt a woman could have written her better.
  • His description of the Abady castle is quite beautiful and must be based on the Bamffy family castle.
  • “Outside a nightingale sang in almost crazed ecstasy.” This after the description of the castle, the problems with Azbej, arrival in a rainstorm, then a beautiful morning. Peace – chaos – troubled cleansing – peace again. This is the pattern.
  • Mountains are described as floating and distances vapor into the air, borders of distance uncertain, only clear what is close at hand. The castle is permanent; the horizon blurred and faint. “… the distances did not seem real and stable and fixed.”
  • The old castle gateway was too small for the large 18th century castle and when Count Denes Abady tried to widen it, it weakened and had to be torn down. The old can’t keep up with the new and is destroyed.
  • It’s telling that when he was a kid playing cowboys and Indians he would be the Indian shooting arrows at the hated paleface. I also like the memory of his learning to ride and always falling off or on a horse that kept stopping short.
  • The oldest tree, a poplar, had a great side branch fall in a storm but it still “covered in sticky buds about to burst into leaf.” Hard to kill the past.
  • The further he goes on into the park the more primal and overgrown it gets until he’s nearly in a swamp. He looked for bit couldn’t find the ford because it had washed away
  • Adrienne keeps appearing like a ghost

  • Picture is of a Kirgiz cap that Miklos Absolon, Pal Uzdy’s uncle (his mother’s brother) wears when we meet him during by by political turmoil.
  • I love that his mother knows that when Balint had been younger he used to ford the river to meet Dinora and that’s why Balint had been thinking of Dinora in his walk. We learn from him he had used this ford on the ‘darkest of moonless nights’ but not all the detail, we only learn what he thinks. I like this was kept a secret from us and we learn it from the person whom it was supposed to be kept most secret.
  • We get to see Adrienne’s and Balint’s recent past through the eyes of the ‘upper-servant network’ : the skating at midnight, the inappropriate dancing, walks in the cemetery, sitting on the floor in the dark like a gypsy. Yet the rich don’t realize they are being watched and judged by their own servants. And the servants have quite interesting lives in this book, too.
  • Wonderful touch about his clothes having been smeared with white limewash powder when he climbed into Dinora’s window.
  • Mureș River is the river he watched as he led good horse and a man in town clothes seen in silhouette walked wearily along too
  • Andras Jopal, the crazy teacher who tried to build an airplane is the weary man! Minya Gal, the old man had since died. And the crazy inventor apologizes and then leaves without, again, hearing out what Balint might suggest. He gets the violin, however.
  • The old, poor, decrepit revolutionary knight Balazs Borcsey believes the emperor Franz Joseph should be removed from power because he had hung fellow revolutionaries and not shot them. Might have saved some trouble, too
  • “It only needs a word from your lordship. ” is what all the petitioners say and probably believe being easy. Good insight from Banffy.
  • He wondered if maybe Dinora in her white dress was sitting on the patio behind the foliage up above the road when he rode past to see Adrienne’s parents instead. Lovely image of her just out of sight
  • Balint notices that the butler, Uzdy’s butler, had such powerful muscles under his livery
  • Up to this point everyone has preferred English this and English that, but Uzdy prefers American fast horses (trotters) and even his mother, Clemence Absolon, is dressed simply in a gray dress with white collar almost like a puritan (and about as approachable)
  • Balint’s and Clemence’s conversation was not interesting to either to them but they kept it up anyway.
  • The Uzdy house has a totally unexpected wing with bars on the lower windows and in a totally different style than the rest of the house. Like insanity making its presence known
  • Tanagra figurine are beautiful Greek figures that were made in a very rural part of Greece and not in the center of Greek world. Artistic oddity.
  • Like the time in the cemetery they both walk up a steep path, this time through a forest that sits an old abandoned fortress, Almas fortress.
  • Uzdy is mad and dangerous. He’s got to be jealous with all his wife’s lovers in his own home. He takes them clay shooting and is mad with energy, and did he give Balint a mocking glance? What’s being communicated here? Everyone speaks their own language
  • Just as Prince Andrei in War and Peace looks out the window while the young Natasha is heard overhead and he admires the natural beauty of everything and is at peace, Balint’s view is half blocked by the mad addition and the landscape has “a vapoury, ghostly iridescence that seemed fraught with forebodings of a tragic destiny.”
  • Watching the light proceed behind each bared window as Uzdy goes to rape his own wife. Chilling. Like a secret religious procession of torture.
  • It’s now the 18th of June, but 1905 and Géza Fejérváry is elected prime minister of the kingdom of Hungary. Uzdy raping his own wife and the Hungarian Constitutional Crisis of 1903–1907 where emperor Franz-Joseph puts those he wants in power are thematically related.
  • “They, too, were largely composed of university profrssors for in Kolozsvar, as almost everywhere else, the seat of learning also the seat of political strife.”
  • We learned earlier that even tossing out one political slogan of rhetoric can cause all sorts of problems and misunderstandings, so who knows the problems they will arise as Dr. Korosi does nothing but speak in these terms Rio rile up the youthful anger. Nothing will be solved like this.
  • Lajos Kossuth : “Father of Hungarian Democracy, Hungarian Statesman, Freedom Fighter”
  • They talk about how the Russians are finished after losing to the Japanese… so much they were wrong about all in the name of nationalism
  • man can not know : “mann kann ja nicht wissen” from German
  • From political turmoil spilling out onto the street where Janko Cseresznyes (Cherrytree) who had worked with Azbej to get Balint elected whips up the crowd we next get Baron Egon Wickwitz in the carriage and we learn how he’s still spiraling out of financial control. We waltz about orbiting everyone at different times.
  • Darabont means bodyguard or lackey in the transylvania region (only)
  • Miklos Absolon says he had brilliant adventures in Asia, specifically Tibet, but because he never wrote them down to publish his stories then nobody believed his stories of adventure.
  • Lizinka Sarmasaghy : I don’t remember her. She is Balint’s aunt apparently. She makes him go with her to meet his cousin Tamas Laczok, a railway engineer, who tells Lizinka that he would never help her because she gossips about him.
  • “The only thing that gives us any moral right to the fortunes that we inherit is a sence of duty.”
  • Ahnenstolz = pride of one’s origin, pride of one’s ancestors.
  • But herein lies the cultural issue : why should they get to continue getting to run the affairs of the people of the classes under them. Why should who your dead father be make any difference. And besides, what real consequences await someone who does not have a sence of duty to their inheritance? It’s an unfair system that Balint defends and is cause of ethnic trouble and division. People want to control their own destiny, not let a distant dead relative do it for them.
  • “Somehow conversation did not come easy to them; for both of them were thinking of other things.”
  • Members of the same family are of different religions, the servants are also divided. Fracturing.
  • “en froid” is ‘cold’ in French. Her mother in law refuses to speak to God because God let her husband go mad and die.
  • Banffy has a gift for not only describing a scene but then narrowing in on just a few details that also frame the whole image : the small child holding the apple surrounded by the scent of sawdust, or Adrienne’s face framed by dark curls, her eyes glowing like gems, all barely visible in the darkness and seeming to float in space as her entire body, unattainable to Balint, is hidden by the bedcovers.
  • Part 5 began at his beautiful family castle and ends at the mad Uzdy estate. At his home “Outside a nightingale sang in almost crazed ecstasy”, at her estate “Baliant’s mind was filled with disturbing erotic fantasies.”
  • Part 6, “… thousands upon thousands of silent men in dark shabby clothes, moving relentlessly in rows of eight which took up the entire street. It was quiet Ave peaceful and inexpressibly sinister…”
  • loc 9005, my God that’s beautiful. Image search Margit Rakpart
  • While Fanny, the city, the whole world was alive with passion, Laszlo is depressed and distant. He is the unaffected class of the well to do too wrapped up in himself to worry or care beyond his nose.
  • The rowdiness of the men in society, their tempers and vulgarity, it does speak to why the political parties act so childish with their tantrums and throwing eggs and such. We get a keen insight into a ruling class with its head so far up its own ass that it is blind to any important national issue or even what their servants do behind their backs in their own Estates. This was the end result of gentleman rule : ignorance , decadence, silliness, apathy, and it all caused so many terrible problems that ended with the causing of ww1.
  • “No. I can’t say I truly love you.” This whole affair is interesting. Laszlo is always pretty successful when he is detached, at cards and with Fanny. And she really falls for this desperate man who is totally adrift, she gives up her most prized possession, that which defines her all to pay gambling debts for hin. It’s all a waste and none of them are really good people in behavior but are good in a way, too. Decadence.
  • The town of Banffy-Hunyad is the town Huedin.
  • Mr Simo, the notary, is a fraud. So much goes on behind the back of the ‘gentlefolk’, they’ve lost all control.
  • Zsukuczo is the old peasant who leads Balint into the forest along a path on he seemed to know in the thick forest, but Balint did not shoot the doe and her fawns. How Zsukuczo knew this was the spot, who knows, probably a trick, but the chanting was a nice touch. The peasants are far more knowledgeable than their masters.
  • The peasant girls who serve him poached food and then the one who sleeps with him, quite a forest fantasy. I wonder how common this sort of thing was? I love the image of just her bare arms reaching out from the tent to embrace him from behind and pull him back into her.
  • La noptye = night. They will ‘solve’ their problems on ‘one night’, meaning violence.
  • So much goes on that Balint knows nothing about. He, like Laszlo, is in a way detached, but unlike Laszlo, he does care, he’s just ignorant. He does love where Laszlo does not.
  • They send along a man named Cselmnyik, Tiny, and Turturika, Little Dove, because he’s big. Intimidate the man whose help they need?
  • They think Balint is capable of doing anything, even getting their debts cleared at a lower payment, but he can’t and neither side really understands the other as usual.

  • Picture is of Portofino, Italy where Balint and his mother go for her health. Meanwhile it is snowing back home and the peasants have murdered the money lender.
  • Pantyilimon is the name he kept overhearing his first night on the mountain. The peasants hate this moneylender because of the huge amount of interest owed back. Balint meets him but can’t make an agreement. He has no idea what he’s getting into. There is no way to know a foreign culture even one in your own backyard. This is indicative of the whole region at the time (and even today)
  • Timisan, the Romanian lawyer, has unique insight. The armed medieval Knights who battled in glory when they took over Hungary and established their noble estates are no different than the middle class and the banks exploiting the peasants. Is murder better than forced poverty? All perspective and Balint is always naive and ignorant.
  • Audi alteram partem (or audiatur et altera pars) is a Latin phrase that means “hear the other side too”, or “hear the alternative party too”.
  • Balint learning Romanian to understand them better
  • Banffy does such a good job of explaining all the complications in politics, especially local provincial politics. He surly knows how corruption works in the real world.
  • He starts the section off by telling us about how they poison wolves, then we get ‘la noptye’ and the men who trudge through the snow to kill Pantyilimon. That then leafs seamlessly into the officers questioning the boy (always orbiting in then back out) and then ends ‘Nothing was ever discovered.’
  • I like how he paints the men quietly waiting in the snow, resting on their staffs like shepherds (wolves, who are the wolves) until the prison works on the guard dogs. Then when questioned they are all silent still, ‘It was snowing. I was at home, asleep.’
  • The peasants struggle in winter while the rich play in warm Italy.
  • Adrienne and her sister, Judith, who was blocked from Wickwitz, talk and talk but she does not know for sure if Judith has forgiven or forgotten the ordeal. Nobody can communicate.
  • Wickwitz (nitwit) has only himself to blame for his money trouble whereas the peasants have everyone else to blame. I do like that no family wants him near their daughters.
  • They had to flee Parliament because the soldiers took it over by royal decree. Sad.
  • The orbits come closer as Laszlo discovers Wickwitz’s financial secret with a loan officer and sees what scoundrel he too has become by being owned by a woman. Bit melodramatic by running out of the man’s office, however.
  • I didn’t realize Wickwitz was not Hungarian but is Austrian and since Laszlo is Hungarian then this duel is seen as the oppressive regime trying to force the hands of the prison nobility, too. More ethnic tension and a good example of how complicated life gets.
  • The duel we saw at the beginning was a farce, but this was serious.
  • Ch 7 It is wonderfully absurd how Balint is sneaking in and out of Adrienne’s room every night just to talk to her
  • “… A storm in a teacup it might be, but a tempest to those who lived in a teacup. ‘
  • The lawyers do get everything. Azbej knew a winning loser when he met Laszlo and now he pretty much owns the property.
  • When we finally get to read one of these letters (and to a larger degree hear what has been mostly summarized for us) Adrienne’s letter to Balint is all the more poignant and pathetic. There is no great answer here, just words that don’t express what she feels because she doesn’t know what she feels really.
  • József Kristóffy wiki article, suffrage for Hungary
  • Laszlo done in Budapest.
  • The suit on the bed like the corpse of the life he once had.
  • Italy is not so great now.
  • Ch 10
  • Sándor Wekerle prime minister starting 8 April 1906
  • Mr Simo is the bad notary in the mountains and Daniel Kovacs is the good one who helped Balint with his plans in the mountains
  • Adrienne is very much like Hungary and Balint’s ‘Love In Action’ book is probably something similar that Banffy might have written in real life.
  • Funny that Balint calls in ‘Beauty In Action’ for Adrienne when she, in fact, never really moves.
  • “Four weeks together… why should you care what comes after that? “
  • The first place they go after making love is a church, Santa Maria dei Miracoli, Venice
  • that lone boat far out with a lifeguard on it to rescue anyone who swims too far out and get a caught in overpowering currents in a dark sea.
  • Festa del Redentore is the Venetian festival started in honor of the end of a terrible plague in 1576
  • Chioggia, Italy, Provence of Venice
  • Wow, that final image of Adrienne standing at the window as the white netting billows around her and covers her nakedness. Haunting image like a ghost. Like memory.
  • ‘shroud ‘ is the last word. A Death word.

91% done with They Were Counted

He starts the section off by telling us about how they poison wolves, then we get ‘la noptye’ and the men who trudge through the snow to kill Pantyilimon. That then leafs seamlessly into the officers questioning the boy (always orbiting in then back out) and then ends ‘Nothing was ever discovered.’

I like how he paints the men quietly waiting in the snow, resting on their staffs like shepherds.

The Mottled Lizard: Read from June 12 to 25, 2014

While this book, the sequel to The Flame Trees of Thika, is not as focused or carries the same mystical newness of discovery as in the first book, it is, in a way, an even better book because of what it attempts to do: define what Africa is as a real place where real people live.

Much of the first half of the book deals with different forms of magic, be it Elspeth’s attempts to perform conjuring tricks from mail-order magic kits from England, or the black-magic used by the Kikuyu to punish someone who is guilty. More subtly is the magic of life and death, and death plays a much larger role in this book than in the first. In fact so much of surviving in Africa meant coming to terms with how fleeting life can be.

When Tilly’s cousin, Hillary, visits them his last act is to photograph the arch of the back of their pet cat. And while this may seem rather silly, it is a lasting image for the transitory nature of life, the need to always be in the moment before death (and death is quite savage here) finds you.

Huxley also goes to great lengths to draw the dividing line between who the Europeans are and who the Africans are. Not that she tries to segregate them, but to show how both ways of life are valid – in fact in Africa the European way of life is rather silly since the Africans know better than a bunch of foreigners about how to survive.

One of the differences she points out is, “Since routine is simply a means of controlling time, Europeans are better at it, and therefore accomplish more in a day, a month, or a year. They pay in monotony. Africans control time less efficiently, but enjoy it more: they pay in stagnation.” Yet even with all of Robin and Tilly’s (mostly Tilly’s) industry, they are by the end of the novel almost having to start all over again. They are always poor, their plans always fail, death is ever-present, yet they are not the typical European’s, they learned from the Kikuyu and the enjoy life much more.

Another point of difference she tries to explain is how the two cultures are equally sophisticated, but in very different ways. A fundamental difference in culture, she explains, is in the difference with how the Europeans play games but the Kikuyu do not. A European understands rules (rule of law) and plays within those rules (innocent until proven guilty) but the Kikuyu do not play games or sports and as that relates to law, they know if someone is guilty and that a “conviction” will eventually come – as long as they are sure there won’t be any black magic or the accused isn’t in good with the family – they can just blame someone else and just blackmail the “guilty”. This may seem harsh or primitive, but it’s just another way to get along.

Yet we too have our magic and superstitions. Robin tells the story of a general who dies of a stroke and on the next day of the platoon inspection a white cat comes along and an officer, quick on his feet, says the spirit of the dead general was now in the cat. The troops salute the cat. And while we don’t believe in magic and shape shifting, the idea is still there in tradition. We recognize that there is a trick, not real magic, but we intuit it all the same. We are more “primitive” than we admit and can be just as quick to throw skepticism out the window as the Kikuyu.

The book is filled with these examples of what first appear to be very different cultures but she eventually manages to show how similar they really are depending on your point of view. Late in the book Alan and Tilly argue about Alexander The Great where Tilly believes he was just a mass murderer but Alan believes he is like the wildfire and drought, he clears out the old and weak to make room for the new and strong. Both opinions are right depending on where you place your moral emphasis.

And as the book goes I got the feeling we were going further and further back in time, back to when Africa may have been mythical Eden. The family move further away from Thika which has become more built up, she describes the safari they go on, and finally the great fire and purging of the land as if we were at the beginning of creation.

In all this is a remarkable book and between the two books I felt as if she was giving us a step-by-step guide to understanding Africa as an actual place peopled with actual human beings, not savages or slaves. And she is a middle figure of history. She feels the rush of excitement of killing an animal on the hunt while at the same time feeling guilty in that thrill and understanding all this killing for sport will eventually lead to collapse. She is the prototype for the environmentalists and conversationalists to come a few decades later. She is writing about a very brief but very important moment in history, a powerful but fleeting time when there was so much change made up of an inertia that could not not be stopped.

Africa is a much different place today, for better and for worse. This book, and the previous, are invaluable to understanding the very soul of the continent as well as what drove white people to settle there and try to make a better life for themselves. For a brief moment Africa was like America where people from all over the world came, but because they could never live with each other, because they didn’t learn the lessons Elspeth learns, the outcome was much different and much sadder.

page 245 of 334 of The Mottled Lizard

We get a picture of how these settlers took on land, dealt with the banks, sold property, made plans, and moved about so freely but also a little oppressed by all this land and wildness. I like how families had to prove they owned £500 worth of goods and loaded up the ox wagon and drove it past the loan officer but every family used the same stuff. Everyone here ‘cheats’ .

78% done with They Were Counted

Banffy has a gift for not only describing a scene but then narrowing in on just a few details that also frame the whole image : the small child holding the apple surrounded by the scent of sawdust, or Adrienne’s face framed by dark curls, her eyes glowing like gems, all barely visible in the darkness and seeming to float in space as her entire body, unattainable to Balint, is hidden by the bedcovers.

The Open Boat: Read Jun 21, 2014

“The water was cold.”

There’s a wonderful scene in Joseph Conrad’s ‘Victory’ where Heyst and Lena are in the jungle on their island and are looking for their former servant, Wang. When they come to a barrier of fallen trees and branches they notice spear points protruding from the tangle. Slowly the face of Wang appears as the spears retract into the jungle, but Wang is holding a gun, Heyst’s gun. No understanding can be made between Heyst and Wang and Wang slips back into the dark jungle and the spear points slowly emerge once more from the jungle.

What does that scene have to do with this story by Crane? Nature’s indifference to man, even in the face of crisis.

Crane writes “A high cold star on a winter’s night is the word he feels that she says to him”, but what does this mean? Who is “she”? How is a cold star also a word? This is a very unusual sentence but it almost perfectly explains how indifferent nature is, how impossible it is to find meaning in the universe, how far away the light is (metaphorically and literally), how lonely and insignificant we are in the totality of the universe, how nature isn’t actually telling us anything but rather we are just observing something totally indifferent to us and trying our best to interpret it. This is the sort of sentence Joseph Conrad would have written, and it’s why it reminded me of the scene in ‘Victory’ which makes a very similar point.

And nature is brutal, too. As Werner Herzog says in the film “Grizzly Man”, “And what haunts me, is that in all the faces of all the bears that Treadwell ever filmed, I discover no kinship, no understanding, no mercy. I see only the overwhelming indifference of nature.”

Crane also explores this brutality with the shark that swims below the boat, always circling, and always ever seen by just one of the men at a time – though they are all aware of its presence. But Crane also recognizes that even this brutality is beautiful, just as Treadwell in ‘Grizzly Man’ saw beauty in the bears. Crane describes what we can see of the shark as “a gleaming trail of phosphorescence, like a blue flame”, and earlier he paints the color of the ocean as “changed from slate to emerald-green, streaked with amber lights, and the foam was like tumbling snow”.

Finally there is a similarity with Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” in that we get in both stories characters that question the point of all this suffering. Tolstoy writes, “‘Why these sufferings?’ And the voice answered, ‘For no reason — they just are so.'” and here Crane writes “Was I brought here merely to have my nose dragged away as I was about to nibble the sacred cheese of life?”

But unlike Herzog and Conrad, Crane and Tolstoy seem to be somewhat more optimistic. Ivan Ilyich comes to find peace in the end and Billie, the corespondent, believes that after his terrible ordeal that he has a better understanding of life and death, he feels he can interpret the voice of an indifferent nature (a high cold star) to those of us still living and looking for meaning but who cannot yet comprehend universal indifference. And what we can find is some comfort among each other that way.

This is a remarkable story, beautifully written, frightening in its theme, and dramatic start to finish.

69% done with They Were Counted

I love that his mother knows that when Balint had been younger he used to ford the river to meet Dinora and that’s why Balint had been thinking of Dinora in his walk. We learn from him he had used this ford on the ‘darkest of moonless nights’ but not all the detail, we only learn what he thinks. I like this was kept a secret from us and we learn it from the person whom it was supposed to be kept most secret.

page 168 of 334 of The Mottled Lizard

This book is far more nuanced in the difference is culture and of change (the officer transforming from a meek husband to a centurion, or if death all around. She strips away the magic to reveal the real. These books are a step by step process for understanding the African mind.

She focuses a lot on magic, her’s and theirs and the differences and similarities between the two.

60% done with The Painted Bird

After the prayers don’t work he has a metamorphosis of sorts after watching the half skinned rabbit twitch and squeal and run around. He’s pulling his own flesh off, in a sense, to become less human, to become a deaths-head like he saw on the German officer’s uniform. That’s why the death’s-head moth is brought up – not a butterfly transformation, but a dirty moth with a skull on it.

He’s mute = numb.

page 111 of 334 of The Mottled Lizard

“Since routine is simply a means of controlling time, Europeans are better at it, and therefore accomplish more in a day, a month, or a year. They pay in monotony. Africans control time less efficiently, but enjoy it more: they pay in stagnation.”

“My cook was a cannibal, and I’m never quite sure whether I’ve converted him, or he’s converted me; we have some rather odd meals.”

And poor Tilly from the 1st book.

63% done with They Were Counted

He ha a momentary epiphany when he thinks about how hard it must be to be poor then gets in his hired carriage that waits for him all day and later drinks an entire bottle of champagne.

Balint had walked home in the fresh snow in dancing shoes when he kissed Adrienne’s palm, Laszlo walks home in thin, splitting evening shows, a broken husk with no hope for love. I love how he contrasts these images.

60% done with They Were Counted

Walls painted pale gray, sofas with sugar pink cushions, divans with poison green brocade and lemon yellow and black cushions. Fanny’s red gold hair like a flame, the use of word poison seems to foreshadow disaster? The table lit so that the black walls were not visible and so they were like an isolated island with darkness around them. He sits with his face to the world but his back to ‘untold terrors’

52% done with They Were Counted

Banffy’s understanding of how politics really works – at all levels – is impressive. Very intelligent person.

He describes the building as smelling like sawdust and then we get the image of a small child sitting in the floor and eating an apple. The mix of smell and visual is wonderful.

Does Adrienne’s lack of sexuality mirror the Empire, she looks great but is impotent; unable to love?

Her husband = devil

The Secret Sharer: Read Jun 11, 2014

Conrad’s unusual style very much lends itself to this sort of mysterious tale where we aren’t sure if we inhabit a world of ghosts or our own. At times I kept thinking to myself Poe would have recognized this story since so much of the tension is happening in the captain’s mind.

Unlike a lot of Conrad, however, The Secret Sharer is not trying to be obtuse in how it handles its theme – identity in this case (though that’s always Conrad’s theme). Nostromo, Heart of Darkness, and especially Lord Jim are dense, almost opaque works that behave like a fitted sheet too small for the bed; you can get three corners figured out, but never a fourth and around and around you go. And while Conrad never lets slip if Leggatt is physical or phantom, that concern is not front and center to the plot because he is more interested in how our unnamed captain deals with this mystery man.

In a way it’s sort of a clunky plot device, but Conrad handles it well enough and makes Leggatt illusive enough so that he doesn’t need to try and explain him too much. He is, for the most part, exactly like our narrator (even in appearance), but represents an alter personality. Where Leggatt would easily kill a man for not doing his duty, our narrator is more of a rules and regulations man – a man of little experience.

There’s a wonderful image near the beginning where a scorpion gets into a bottle of ink and drowns. This fascinating image could mean that all the written rules and regulations will mean nothing when a person truly needs to act, or it could mean laws and papers only get in the way of how men should (and must) behave. There can always be deception in the act of writing, but actions speak louder than words, even those written down. In fact the other captain, Captain Archbold, admits he’ll claim Leggatt committed suicide to avoid any nasty consequences and perhaps ruin his own career over it.

The other ideas of coming of age, of a young man learning to take command and setting aside his own doubts is clear enough here, however, we should realize that our captain is unnamed and that he must become like someone else, Leggatt. Our captain was, in many ways, not good enough to lead, he was chosen over other candidates more qualified (probably) and so he must assume a role, he must not remain himself if he wants to succeed. There is no hint that the strength lay within him the whole time, he had to assume a new identity.

This is an unsettling thought because what Conrad seems to be saying is that in order to succeed we cannot rely on our true nature, we have to become something else. The mate, for example, is always described as having this interesting beard, almost like a lions mane, but isn’t he also hiding behind a persona? Isn’t he also frightened as they sail so close to the island? Couldn’t he have struck our captain, taken command, and steered the ship to safety himself? But he didn’t and he betrayed to us his true nature.

So as usual Conrad is not so simple as we first think, far more is going on here and what we assume to be one thing is actually something else.

Three Men in a Boat: Read from May 31 to June 10, 2014

“The person is smart. People are dumb, panicky, dangerous animals, and you know it!” – Agent K, Men In Black

But let’s face it, we’re all, at one time or another, selfish, dangerous idiots. When we drive too fast on the highway we shake our head at all the idiots driving too slow as we pass them and then shake our fists at the lunatics passing us in turn. We give ourselves up to every degree of cognitive dissonance when we say, for example, we believe in nuclear energy … but not in my backyard (remember Carlin’s NIMBY?); let some other idiots deal with the mess. When we lose it’s because someone else cheated but when we win it’s because of our skill. Our children are perfect saints; your kids are spoiled brats incapable of even rudimentary biological functions. We might think everyone should pass a test to vote in an election, except us, of course, because we are reasonably informed and capable of rational decisions in all weighty matters.

We’re idiots, every one, and this book makes the case for it.

There’s a scene near the end of the book where they come upon the dead body of a woman whom, we learn, has killed herself because she has no prospects in life and cannot hope to provide for her child. All her friends and family have turned her out (why exactly we do not know) and so she drowns herself in the very same river our three idiot heroes drift along with not a care in the world. The scene serves as a stark reminder of our own callousness, even if we have no idea we are being cruel. Shūsaku Endō, in his novel Silence tells us “Sin, he reflected, is not what it is usually thought to be; it is not to steal and tell lies. Sin is for one man to walk brutally over the life of another and to be quite oblivious of the wounds he has left behind.”

The climax of the novel (if you could call it a climax in the traditional sense), is the literal shattering of a lie, in this case a trophy fish hanging on the wall that everyone claims was their miraculous catch. In the end we learn it wasn’t even a fish at all, just a piece of plaster art.

Yet the novel, funny as it is (and it’s very funny) is not just trying to make a point that lying is bad, either. Lying is good, too. Lying is good because it makes a story better, it makes life more enjoyable, more fun. If I told you I caught one fish that would not be an interesting story, however, if I say I caught 20 fish, and each one I battled with for over an hour upon a stormy sea, and they were all Sturgeons, then that’s a story. Even if you know I’m lying, it really only matters how well I tell the story. Without a good story life would be boring, there would probably be no real art, no comedy, no fun.

So how do we reconcile the two: lying vs. fun?

Well, we can’t really, at least not when we think about too much. We have to pick our battles, we have to be our own, as Einstein theorized, relativistic observer upon which everything else orbits. If we start looking at our lives through another person’s eyes then we might see what total idiots we are, see how callous we are, how rude and hostile, too. But how can we possibly go through life self analyzing ourselves through other people’s perception of us? We might as well toss ourselves in the nearest river!

The whole argument reminds me of what our parents always told us when we were eating dinner and hand’t finished, “There are starving children in Africa; don’t you know how lucky you are!”

Well of course I don’t know how lucky I am because I’ve never been a starving African child. How could I ever hope to relate! How could that child possible relate the other way back to me living in a world where we have so much food in the refrigerator that it blocks our view of more food in the back that we forget it’s there and it all goes bad. We have so much food it blocks our view of our food! It’s absurd all the way around.

Now I’m not suggesting the author had all this immediately in mind when he wrote this wonderful book, however, it does answer why the book feels so contemporary because even though it’s over a hundred years old, it speaks to that part of human nature that will never change, a selfishness we can’t really help and an absurdity in all of modern life.

48% done with They Were Counted

So much of what happens in Hungary is all based on misconception of what was said, such as the duel, and even Baliant’s throwaway remark, “God helps those who help themselves!”. The locals think he is trying to help himself – to their stuff.

“People at the top don’t realize, when they make even a quite simple order, that all of the burden falls in those on the lowest rung of the ladder.”

Banffy was quite a man

69% done with Three Men in a Boat

This whole book is based upon the notion similar to the one we have these days when driving a car and we think anyone going faster than us is a maniac and anyone going slower than us is an idiot.

The books also makes the case against modernity – specifically the scene with the steam launches. They don’t want fancy new technology coming around and mucking things up, they want a slow, leisurely life. I like it.

50% done with Three Men in a Boat

On one level you could assume the three of them are each dense, rich idiots who wander about in a cloud of money and hapless indifference to any other human on the planet. On the other hand, you could say they are quite clever and they might be the one’s pulling the wool over your eyes. I mean they “actually” live this way and get away with it. Nobody ever really calls them out. They’re singing the comic tune alright

30% done with They Were Counted

He can buy an election (well, have one bought behind his back) but when he sees the woman he loves skating with two strangers alone on a dark, frozen pond he can’t even bring himself to go over to her.

I liked the touch where Countess Miloth thought Balint came down because he was interested in one of her daughters while he only wanted news of Adrienne. Societal politics meets social politics like bad ice skaters.

34% done with Three Men in a Boat

Oversleeping, tombstones, overdressed girls in boats, hedge maze antics, the future value of the common objects of today …

The meandering quality is quite artful because since the book is a comic diversion from “literature”, the book itself constantly diverges from the plot to go wandering after stories that have nothing to do with the book. Such is the aim of a good holiday, is it not?

Enjoy yourself!