Vanishing worlds

I couldn’t sleep last night. It was warm, and my head was full of things I had to do or deal with. I couldn’t stop thinking.

I turned the light back on sometime after midnight and picked up the book I’d been reading, They Were Counted, by Miklos Banffy. I read the final 80 pages and then turned off the light, and slept.

They Were Counted is a type of book I’m drawn too. I have fascination for the history and the literature of Europe pre-WW1 – what they like to call the fine de siecle era.

It was an interesting time in history, and in arts, but the fascination mainly comes from knowing what was to come. It’s like peering in on a society on the precipice of tragedy, ignorant of what was about to happen. Generally there’s a vague feeling in this literature, an oblivious optimism whilst being on the verge of decadence.

It’s like reading a murder mystery knowing that so and so is about to be done in. You know what’s about to happen, but the characters – and the victim – go about their daily lives leading up to it in absolute and innocent oblivion. As a bystander there’s a sense of foreboding the characters haven’t cottoned onto. You look in on this as if from another world, unable to influence events or shout a warning. What’s to happen is pre-ordained, because it’s history. You can only watch on as it unfolds, recognising the causal events that no-one in the book can see.

I’ve read a lot of literature from this era. One of my favourites was The Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil. Another in the Austro-Hungarian empire, Stefan Zweig, wrote much in this era too. In fact the Austro-Hungarian empire features much in this literature. It seemed in many ways to epitomise the era. The empire was old and tottery, grandiose still and with ideas now above it’s station, but fatally corrupt and arcane. The times are changing, and they don’t know it.

They Were Counted resides within the Austro-Hungarian empire, and in fact deals substantially with the politics of the time from a Hungarian perspective. The restlessness of the times is evident in the stateless Rumanians, and in the Hungarians quest for true independence.

It’s set in 1905, and centres around the Hungarian nobility, and one particular noble, Balint, who is good and honest and hard working. He possesses some of the old fashioned notions of nobility, of doing the right thing for the people who depend on him, the peasants who live off his land. He doesn’t know it, but this is changing too. Nothing will be the same again.

That’s all in the future, but you know it even if they don’t. There are two further books in this series, and presumably they deal more with this leading into the calamity of WW1 (were the Austro-Hungarian empire is destroyed, and the map of Europe changed).

This is a good and easy read. The characters are rich and real, the history fascinating, the writing excellent, and the narrative compelling. This was a real world. People lived and thought like that. It’s a world vanished.

I have no book to read now. It’s Christmas, and I would love to find a lazy $100 and go out and buy some books for my own pleasure. It used to be that I would spend hours in a good bookshop just browsing, and would often exit with a bagful of them. I thought nothing of spending one or two hundred dollars at a time. These days I don’t even go into bookshops. It’s a waste of time, and nothing more than a tease in my circumstances. I miss it.

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