The Lost World Lurking On A Lower Shelf – A Transylvanian Trilogy At Bestsellers: Budapest Bookstores (Part Two)

Forints (Hungary’s currency) started flying from my wallet the moment I began perusing the shelves and stacks at Bestsellers. I scooped up a copy of Sandor Marai’s Embers, a book I would come to dearly love. I have read this same copy twice. There were also a couple of books on Budapest and Hungary by British authors that I had never seen anywhere else and thus had to purchase. One was by Bob Dent, who moved to Budapest a few decades ago. He wrote a fusion of journalism, travel and history. His Every Statue Tells A Story on the statues, sculptures and monuments of Budapest has become one of my most beloved books. This was the first of multiple purchases through the years of Dent’s books at Bestsellers.

Another memorable find was A Country Full of Aliens by Colin Swatridge, a tale of what he learned about modern Hungarian life, culture and idiosyncrasies while teaching in Hungary. Swatridge’s perspective was so revealing that I have recommended it multiple times to anyone hoping to gain a better understanding of the country. Many of the cultural nuances Swatridge discusses at length in the book I would later discover to be spot on. The store was also where I first found and fell in love with Bradt Travel Guides, which along with the Rough Guide series, I have found to be the most indispensable guidebooks. Bradt has without a doubt the most extensive guidebook coverage of Eastern European nations. Guidebooks specifically dedicated to overlooked places from Belarus to Bosnia, Macedonia to Montenegro and a personal favorite, a guide dedicated to travel in Transylvania. These were the type of hard to find, but easy to read and highly informative books that soon made Bestsellers one of my all-time favorite bookstores.

The Transylvania Trilogy by Miklos Banffy

The Transylvania Trilogy by Miklos Banffy (Credit: Arcadia Press reissue covers)

Cracking Open A Whole New World – Fictional Non-Fictions
My most evocative memory of Bestsellers has nothing to do with leather armchairs or the smell of freshly unpacked books or the arrival of a new daily edition of the International Herald Tribune, though I must admit that each of these added immeasurably to my experience. The atmospherics on offer at Bestsellers have always been aesthetically pleasing, but they were no match for a serendipitous discovery I made on a lower set of shelves that held the English translations of Hungarian literature. This was where I found a set of books that I now believe had been waiting on me my entire life. Bestsellers was the first place I ever came across Miklos Banffy’s Transylvania Trilogy. The mention of Transylvania in the title made me pull out the books and begin browsing their contents.

I was intrigued by their austere titles, They Were Counted, They Were Found Wanting and They Were Divided. These titles were direct to the point of tragic. They had a predictive quality that spoke of stormy relationships in a lost world. The kind of lost world that could be recreated by an author who knew it intimately. Banffy was Hungarian, but he was also a Transylvanian and above all else, a humanist. The books may have been fiction, but from the back blurbs they sounded just as historical as any history book. Their sizable proportions did nothing to hinder my interest. What I would later discover was that the Transylvania Trilogy was a sort of Hungarian version War and Peace with Remembrance of Things Past thrown in for good measure

They Were Found Wanting – The Power Of Less Than Happy Ending
I knew next to nothing about Banffy, but this attracted rather than repelled me. The titles were the initial hint that there was romance in these books that would not end well, but how many romances ever do end well. Happy endings are for Hollywood movies and Harlequin romances, not novels born from the dark forests and epic mountain landscapes of Transylvania. I felt an intense urge to read all three books cover to cover as soon as I picked them up. And that is what I would do, but not right away. I surprised myself by waiting to purchase the Transylvania Trilogy. I did not want to lug the entire set around with me for a couple of weeks. Instead, I would wait until I got back home, then order them online.

Banffy’s books followed me all the way back home to Montana. Over several months I read the trilogy ever so slowly. And my first impression of this trio of volumes would turn out to be true, here was a lost world of romance and aristocracy, a Hungarian Kingdom that no longer existed except for each time I cracked open the trilogy. This was the beginning of a journey into pre-World War I Transylvania that would eventually drive me to go there and chase down the ghosts of an unrecoverable past. A past that I was able to glimpse in all its shimmering, shattered glory. A past that first came to me on a lower shelf at Bestsellers. That has kept me coming back to Bestsellers more times than I can possibly count.

Return Engagements – Shelf Life
The reasons I keep returning to Bestseller are twofold. The first is obvious, the great books on offer. Ones that I am unlikely to find anywhere else, shelved together side by side in neat rows. The sections on Eastern European affairs and associated nations is unparalleled. The second reason I return, is in the hopes of finding a lost world lurking on some lower shelf. Each time I revisit Bestsellers, one of my first stops is the section of English translations of Hungarian literature. I always pick up the same editions, with the same covers of the Transylvania Trilogy.

Then I begin to thumb through one of the volumes. I want to go back to that initial visit. A time when I knew nothing more than the word Transylvania, with its connotations of clifftop castles, a deathly aristocratic count by the name of Dracula and dreadful discoveries to come. This stereotype led me to select The Transylvania Trilogy. I have never regretted for a moment that impulse. And it would not have happened without that remarkable bookstore which made it all possible.

Click here for: Objects Of Intense Desire – Entering The Comfort Zone (Budapest Bookstores Part One)

7 thoughts on “The Lost World Lurking On A Lower Shelf – A Transylvanian Trilogy At Bestsellers: Budapest Bookstores (Part Two)

  1. I read the Banffy trilogy a couple of years back. It was astonishing, compulsive, and a real eye-opener. There will be a piece somewhere on my blog if you’re interested.

  2. Great post. I am glad to see that there are other people who -like me- enjoy so much hearing the voices from a lost world – voices pertaining to an unrecoverable past as you beautifully put it.

    The Transylvanian Trilogy is indeed captivating. If you liked it so much, I am pretty sure that you would also enjoy another monumental book from an even more forgotten Hungarian author: “The Happy Generation” from Ferenc Körmendi. I can only recommend it to you – I also had the impression that it had been waiting for me!

    “The Happy Generation” somehow supplements the Banffy trilogy: while Banffy’s characters belong mostly to the provincial landowner aristocracy, in Körmendi’s novel you will come across the values, illusions and concerns of the Budapest bourgeoisie during the first third of the 20th century. I wrote a short review on Goodreads a couple of years ago (https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/9404686-the-happy-generation) – it is in Spanish though, as I had read the superb 1951 Spanish translation. I see that an English translation was published in 2005, so I guess it is still easily available.

    Körmendi was apparently a rather successful author in the ’30s (including outside Hungary) but he has not enjoyed a “second life” as Márai has. My curiosity for this long-forgotten book started from a couple of mentions in Victor Klemperer’s diary. Klemperer was a linguist but the Nazis had removed him from his job at Dresden university. In his diary, he often mentions the books he reads, some of them aloud to his wife, also an intellectual – and this is one of them.

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