Originally published in 1934, this vast, grand novel – the first in a trilogy – portrays the blind folly of the Hungarian aristocracy carousing their way towards destruction in the decade before the First World War. Its title is derived – as are those of the later two books – from the Old Testament story of Belshazzar, the Babylonian king killed after a great feast at which he and his followers blithely worshipped the gods of gold and silver. Belshazzar, of course, was terrified by the writing that appeared on the wall: ‘The Lord hath counted thy kingdom… Thou art weighed in the balance and art found wanting… Thy kingdom is divided.’ Here it is the menace of modernity and the outside world, rather than God, that puts the good times at risk.
They Were Counted begins with a panoramic scene of a world in motion, in which we get a first glimpse of many of the novel’s characters. Count Balint Abady is being driven slowly on a lonely road in a hired fiacre to a ball at the Transylvanian ‘country place’ of