Monday, January 7, 2013

Miklós Bánffy: To the Moon

Miklós Bánffy

The Moon

French conceptual artist Sophie Calle once passed a night in a bed installed at the top of the Eiffel Tower, inviting members of the public to tell her bedtime stories to keep her awake. Asked later how she managed to convince authorities to let her spend a night in a bed at the top of the Eiffel Tower, she replied, awestruck by her own good fortune, “I asked for the moon and I got it.”

I felt a bit like Sophie Calle upon discovering recently some news about Miklós Bánffy’s “Transylvania Trilogy” – They Were Counted, They Were Found Wanting, and They Were Divided. Long-time readers of this blog may know that my enthusiasm for this set of novels is the reason I began book-blogging in the first place. Unfortunately, the books have not been particularly easy to find, and I’ve heard from several readers that the cost of used copies – especially the first volume – is often prohibitive (at least for print editions; the books are now available for Kindle download).

Arcadia Books, the British publisher originally responsible for putting out the trilogy, re-released new trade paperback versions of the books in Great Britain in early 2010, but these new editions quickly seemed to become nearly as expensive and difficult to find as the originals. But Gary Pulsifer of Arcadia had also launched a campaign to generate publisher interest outside of Britain, and, in an effort to further that cause, I followed up some correspondence with him by writing to the agency handling international rights to the books, expressing my hope of one day seeing them in hardcover, perhaps in a well-known collection such as Everyman’s Library.

I’m not about to claim credit, but I’m nonetheless delighted to announce that I seem to have received the moon: Bánffy’s Transylvania Trilogy will in fact be published by Everyman’s Library this coming July. The books will come in a standard Everyman’s Library hardcover edition in two volumes (with the shorter second and third books of the trilogy bound together).

In the unlikely event that I did have something to do with this excellent news about the Bánffy trilogy, I'll keep up my baying at the moon by offering up a few more works/authors I’d to see published or re-published in English translation. Some have been available in English before and are now out of print, some I’ve found only in French (listed below with their French titles), and my interest in others has been piqued by suggestions from various book bloggers and reviewers.

The Dying Lion and Milolo, by Miklós Bánffy - Hungarian
Grande Sertão Veredas, by João Guimarães Rosa - Portuguese
Amrikanli: Un automne à San Francisco, by Sonallah Ibrahim – Arabic
Astronautilia : Hvezdoplavba, by Jan Křesadlo – Greek & Czech
Gravelarks, by Jan Křesadlo - Czech
La fôret des renards pendus, by Arto Paasilinna (and others – so few have appeared in English) - Finnish
L’Art de la joie, by Goliarda Sapienza - Italian
Congo, by David Reybrouck - Dutch
A World Without Maps, by Abdul Rahman Munif & Jabra Ibrahim Jabra – Arabic
Portrait of Lozana, the Lusty Andalusian Woman, by Francisco Delicado - Spanish
The Peasants, by Wladyslaw Reymont - Polish
Monday Starts on Saturday, by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky (the “unauthorized” translation by Leonid Renen) - Russian
Perrudja, by Hans Henny Jahnn - German
La Petite Pièce Hexagonale, and Parfum de Glace, by Yoko Ogawa (though some of Ogawa’s works are available in English, these two – my favorites of the several I’ve read in French – are not) - Japanese
Tales of Spring Rain, by Uyeda Akinari (the companion volume to Akinari’s wonderful 18th century collection of Japanese gothic stories, Tales of Moonlight and Rain) - Japanese
Ri Koran watakushi no hansei (Half of My Life as Ri Koran), by Yoshiko Otaka a.k.a. Ri Koran a.k.a. Li Xiangjian a.k.a. Yoshiko Yamaguchi a.k.a. Shirley Yamaguchi - Japanese

Other authors un- or under-translated into English:

Joseph Kessel - French
Manuel Mujica Láinez – Spanish
Ramón Gómez de la Serna – Spanish
Panaït Istrati* – French
Julio Ramón Ribeyro* – Spanish
Angel Ganivet* – Spanish
Albert Londres - French
Max Mohr - German
Serge Filippini - French
Albert Cossery - French
Simon Vestdijk - Dutch
Eduard von Keyserling - German
Sergio Pitol – Spanish
Carlos Drummond de Andrade – Portuguese

There are certainly hundreds and even thousands more. I’d be most interested in others’ suggestions, so please offer up your own nominees in the comments.

*Translator John Penuel has been addressing the works of these three writers; some of his translations have been published in print editions and/or are available for Kindle download.


  1. These books sound vaguely related to some other books I have been thinking about lately. How irritating. They are so long.

    Should I just throw up my hands - Musil, Roth, Bánffy, just read 'em all?

    Who do you think Bánffy is like - in his prose or interests or what have you? Maybe that question is no good. Maybe he is not like anyone. Or not like anyone I have heard of.

    1. Tom - I sympathize but am unable to throw up my hands; they now hold four books - totaling over 4,700 pages - that I'm "planning" to read in 2013 (everything else may have to wait until 2014).

      What a challenge you've presented! To provide even a minimally authoritative response I'd have to possess your expertise in 19th and 20th century literature - and why you'd trust an answer from someone who hasn't yet read Balzac, for example, is beyond me.

      Nor have I read Musil. Between Roth and Bánffy I easily prefer the latter. Of course, one has to be careful about trumpeting the works one cherishes - some book are not for some people - and so I'll say that this is certainly in part a matter of personal taste.

      Who is Bánffy like? "No one" is the right answer, of course, Among other works I've read that address the fate of a nation or depict a crumbling empire, de Lampedusa's The Leopard comes to mind. Tolstoy, in combining a vast panorama with deep empathy and a strong moral vision (albeit minus Tolstoy's religiosity and aversion to sex). Stendhal. Thomas Mann's Buddenbrooks in its depiction of a society walking backwards into the future. My cute, pet characterization of the trilogy is that it's maybe the best 19th century novel of the 20th century, since it calls to mind those sprawling 19th works more than it does its contemporaries (but is still unmistakably 20th century).

      A few things that stand out for me in Bánffy: the breadth and depth of his empathy; the consistent exceptional limpidity of his writing (hats off to the translators); Bánffy's diplomat's perspective - I've never read another novel with a more fascinating treatment of legislative processes; a splendid sense of how to organize and present events, perhaps from Bánffy's long involvement in theater and in orchestrating political pageantry; a long view of history, especially given that the work - though set between 1904 & 1914 - deals nonetheless with the transition from an almost feudal society to the convulsions of the 20th century.

      This last aspect is linked to the starring role played by Transylvania itself, which also sets the work apart for me. I'm not sure there was a real parallel elsewhere in Europe. There's a rhapsodic element in Bánffy's writing about his unusual homeland that gives his realist narrative a romanticism bordering on exoticism (or maybe the other way around)

      Anyway, this comment is becoming longer than a post. Read what you like, and I hope what you'll like is Bánffy. I would love to read what you'd have to say about him, whether favorable or otherwise.

  2. I have They Were Counted for some time now. I should take a look.

    I'd add the 2nd and 3rd volumes of The Aesthetics of Resistance by Peter Weiss and the seven novellas of Guimarães Rosa in Corpo de baile.

    1. Rise - thanks for the recommendations. I'm off to look up volume one of Weiss now.

  3. I've had my eyes on Banffy's books but they are indeed long.
    The list is interesting and once more I'm glad I read different languages as I have many of the titles on my shelves.
    I suppose instead of not writing about them because they are not translated, i should really start doing the opposite. I think editors are more attentive than we think.

    1. You may be right, Caroline (about editors). And though the Bánffy trilogy is indeed long, I have only fond memories of the time I spent reading them. Besides, once you get past the first book, the second is shorter, and the third shorter than the second.

  4. Wow, I am glad I asked. Your response would make a nice Part II to your original post.

    I guess I'll just have to get the book and see for myself.

  5. But what's the trilogy about?

    1. Miguel: After having responded at interminable length to Amateur Reader's challenging question, I'm tempted to just go with cartoonist Lynda Barry's sample of a brief (but "too fakey") book report:

      "It is a mordant criticism of man and morals, and I really liked the part where the house burned down."

      Instead, here's my interminable original post on Bánffy (or just click on the "BÁNFFY Miklós" label to the right):ÁNFFY%20Miklós

  6. Since I didn't get to my Spanish translations of Bánffy last year, Scott, I've been thinking about him a lot lately. However, this news about a new edition in English is wonderful. Rise has agreed to cohost a group read of the Guimarães Rosa with me sometime this year (he's already read it, but I haven't other than the beginning), by the way, but Miguel said that book's hard to find for him even in Portuguese in Portugal. Weird, no? Of course, I found a copy in Portuguese at my local foreign language bookshop no problem...but for something like $55 or $65! My Spanish version only cost $20-$25 as I recall. Underrepresented in English: Juan Benet, Miguel Delibes, and Juan Marsé from Spain (I believe the few translations that are available by them in English are almost all out of print). Döblin's Berlin Alexanderplatz needs a new translation also.

    1. Richard - good suggestions, and since I was able to obtain a copy of the Guimarães Rosa in French, count me in for the group read.

      I may have suggested this before, but I'd urge you to try the Bánffy in English, since it's a Weidenfeld-award-winning translation and a great example of one that violates a lot of translation "rules" I see touted here and there. Plus the story of how it came to be translated is something of a minor miracle of chance.

  7. It is really neat how you made some an effort to get the trilogy re — released and it happened. Perhaps it did have something to do with your efforts.

    This is such an intriguing list of books. In our digital age hopefully translations will come out soon! Of course if they do it would mean more books on my list of things to read!

    1. Thanks, Brian - I doubt that my efforts had an impact, but as I don't know, I'll keep making them for whatever else I'd like to see published/re-published. As Sophie Calle allegedly added about her Eiffel Tower trick, "You'd be amazed what you can get just by asking."

  8. Followed you over to this site from your comments on Trevor's blog, and the first thing I see is a reference to Bannfy's trilogy. My gosh, I LOVED reading them (Kindle format) and you are the first person I've come across who has read them. Wow.

    On books that should be available in translation, I would recommend almost anything Editorial Anagrama publishes. For serious literature in Spanish, they've got a lock on much of what is unusual and exciting. The main problem is that their pricing is insanely high. Here in Mexico each of their books cost almost a week's minimum wage salary.


    1. lascosas - Many thanks for the visit and for the recommendation, which makes me again regret that I don't read Spanish (I'm going to have to correct that one of these days). I'm delighted to find someone else who's read Bánffy.

      Do you have a blog? I loved your "Best of 2012" list in the comment you left at Trevor's site.

  9. Sorry, no blog. I try to review what I read on Amazon US but I'm way behind.

  10. Believe it or not I completely started Banffy's trilogy without knowing about your posts (coincidental because of my focus as I've been on certain areas; ignorance because...well, I can't help that). And I love what I've read so far. Will be a while before I post on it but I'm so glad to see your comments on it, and hope that your influence does carry over into the baying at the moon list!

    For what it's worth, some ebook versions are currently easily (and relatively cheaply, I think) available on the trilogy. Looking forward to reading more of this!

    1. Dwight - I greatly look forward to reading whatever you may write about the trilogy. Keep me posted!

    2. Will do, but it will be a while before I finish it, but I'm enjoying the slow ride...err, read!

  11. A book is the BOOK which will book each heart with a different feeling during reading. No e-books could replace the thoughts attached since history. I agree with the long tales that are lengthened with each one but there are also several others which simply could make us silent…daring not to go further.
    I am too eager to know what’s the trilogy is about ?
    Offline Translator

  12. Good news.I even e-mailed the publisher about the one volume that is so much pricier than the others. Never got a response. I'll wait for the EVERYMAN edition.

    1. Do you know if it's going to be the same translation?

    2. Guy - yes, it will be the same translation.

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