Noble Balint stands as a rich, compelling character, sometimes randy, sometimes as prim as C-3P0, sometimes open-minded and ahead of his time, occasionally a schnook. At his most ridiculous, he dashes away from Budapest as his country faces a constitutional crisis so that he can mope about Adrienne and pen a treatise actually titled Beauty in Action. He's reflected in They Were Counted by his cousin László, also an idealist but one turning to rot. A minor nobleman, László lives for the newest, most challenging music—that would be Strauss's and his own—but, like Balint, falls in love with an unavailable woman. In this case it's Klara, daughter of a princess, and poor László is far from the prime match Klara's parents prefer. After some mooning about, László finds a way to distinguish himself in society—through high-stakes gambling with the stuffed shirts at the most stylish casino in Budapest. From there, he becomes a hit, although he's quickly thrown into hock. Complications ensue, as you might expect.

They Were Counted numbers some 620 pages. (It's followed by a second volume collecting the final two novels, the titles of which suggest mounting desperation: They Were Found Wanting and They Were Divided.) Other than an arduous first chapter—like some proto-Altman film, it details most of the cast as they ride in carriages that Balint sees en route to a palace ball—and the occasional lovesick longueur, the book is a marvel of lively storytelling. It's one that a sympathetic reader will by turns surge through and get lost in. The balls, the parties, the trysts! The matters of honor, the country on the precipice, the feeling—one familiar to us today—that the center won't hold but that nothing can be done, so everyone may as well keep dancing and loving anyway.

Details

They Were Counted
By Miklós Bánffy
Translated by Patrick Thursfield and Katalin Bánffy-Jelen
Volume One of the Transylvanian Trilogy
Everyman's Library, 696 pp., $30

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Now, on to They Were Found Wanting. Has there ever been a better title for a sequel? If Bánffy, who died destitute and out of print, had been writing in Hollywood, the second one would be called They Were Counted the Next Summer.

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