Sunday, April 17, 2011

Recent Reading

I'm reading two boring novels.

The first is They Were Counted by Miklós Bánffy. You've never heard of it for the same reason there are two baffling accent marks in the author's name – it's Hungarian. Hungarian is a strange tongue in the Finnish-Estonian language group, which is not related to romance languages or Germanic languages. If you hear white people speaking and you have no idea what language it is, they might be Hungarians.

The story is set in Transylvania in 1905. It shows life in the last days of the Austro-Hungarian empire. There are lots of counts, balls, servants; many vapid people, and a few deep people.

First I must give my opinion that the title is one of the worst ever for a novel. War and Peace, Crime and Punishment, Pride and Prejudice, The Man Who Laughed – these are splendid titles that promise both drama and food for thought. But They Were Counted? What's that about, math class?

Worse, the book is the first of a trilogy that has two names, The Writing On the Wall and The Transylvanian Trilogy. Since Bram Stoker's Dracula, Transylvania has come to mean the silliness of Halloween. It's a section of Central Europe that Americans cannot take seriously. The other two books are called They Were Found Wanting and They Were Divided. The titles seem to promise a story about a people who get screwed by history. It all sounds deterministic, but we'll see.

I'm reading this as part of research for a novel I'm planning set in the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

I just finished page 87. Here is what happened in the plot in 87 pages: The hero, Balint Abády, is in love with a young married woman. He tries to kiss her on page 87, she gets angry, and he thinks he has lost her forever. The rest of it is filled with a ball in which a vast array of characters, from the nobility to barefoot servants, are introduced.

I'm holding out hope that the novel will get more interesting. Sometimes old-fashioned novels start out boring but pick up once the plot gets going.

The second novel I am reading is Tom Jones by Henry Fielding. We're told this novel is brilliant, one of the greatest ever. Both V.S. Pritchett and Somerset Maugham loved it. Pritchett called it the ancestor of all British novels. If he's right, that might explain why I prefer French and Russian novels; it's in the genetics.

I've read about 200 pages. This novel was written before people knew how to write novels. The dictum "show, don't tell" was unknown. Fielding writes his story as if he were telling an after-dinner anecdote to his friends. He'll digress for a chapter on some matter that has nothing to do with the story, then sum up in a paragraph what should have been dramatized at length. It's all done in windy 18th-century prose, replete with semi-colons, parenthetic phrases, dollops of latin and assurances to the good reader. Few of these sentences could fit into a Tweet; some might find this a blessed relief from modern manners.

I can't read more than a chapter a day, and I'm having a hard time forcing myself to read even that much. I'll let you know in a future post if it gets better.