Miklós Bánffy - a stunning historical epic set in the lost world of the Hungarian aristocracy just before World War I. it combines a Proustian nostalgia for the past, insight into a collapsing empire reminiscent of the work of Joseph Roth, and the drama and epic sweep of Tolstoy
Miklós Bánffy, The Transylvanian Trilogy, Volume I: They Were Counted, Everyman's Library, 2013.
The celebrated TRANSYLVANIAN TRILOGY by Count Miklós Bánffy is a stunning historical epic set in the lost world of the Hungarian aristocracy just before World War I. Written in the 1930s and first discovered by the English-speaking world after the fall of communism in Hungary, Bánffy’s novels were translated in the late 1990s to critical acclaim and now appear for the first time in hardcover.
They Were Counted, the first novel in the trilogy, introduces us to a decadent, frivolous, and corrupt society unwittingly bent on its own destruction during the last years of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Bánffy’s lush depiction of an opulent lost paradise focuses on two upper-class cousins who couldn’t be more different: Count Balint Abády, a liberal politician who compassionately defends his homeland’s downtrodden Romanian peasants, and his dissipated cousin László, whose life is a whirl of parties, balls, hunting, and gambling. They Were Counted launches a story that brims with intrigues, love affairs, duels, murder, comedy, and tragedy, set against the rugged and ravishing scenery of Transylvania. Along with the other two novels in the trilogy—They Were Found Wanting and They Were Divided—it combines a Proustian nostalgia for the past, insight into a collapsing empire reminiscent of the work of Joseph Roth, and the drama and epic sweep of Tolstoy.
"A genuine case of a rediscovered classic. The force of Bánffy’s enthusiasm produces an effect rather like that of the best Trollope novels, but coming from a past world that now seems excitingly exotic." –Times Literary Supplement
"Bánffy’s masterpiece resembles Proust’s, [yet] he writes with all the psychological acumen of Dostoevsky." –The London Magazine"As good as any fiction I have ever read. . . . Like Anna Karenina and War and Peace rolled into one. Love, sec, town, country, money, power, beauty, and the pathos a society which cannot prevent its own destruction." –Charles Moore, The Daily Telegraph"So enjoyable, so irresistible, it is the author’s keen political intelligence and refusal to indulge in self-deception which give it unusual distinction. It’s a novel that, read at the gallop for sheer enjoyment, is likely to carry you along. But many will want to return to it for a second, slower reading to savour its subtleties and relish the author’s intelligence." –The Scotsman"Fascinating. He writes about his quirky border lairds and squires and the high misty forest ridges and valleys of Transylvania with something of the ache that Czeslaw Milosz brings to the contemplation of this lost Eden." –The Guardian
Excerpt:Excerpted from the Introduction
This great collection of three novels gives a fine picture of the life of the old Transylvania in the last days of the Habsburg Empire of Austria-Hungary before the disaster of 1914, when European civilization committed suicide. It was written after terrible events had darkened the life of postwar Hungary and Romania, but they would become darker. Had Bánffy written after the catastrophes of the 1940s, the tone of the book would surely have been even more sad.
Miklós Bánffy was a Hungarian, from one of the great families which had ruled Hungary for a thousand years. The name Ba´nff y probably derives from Denis, the viceroy (Ban) of Croatia in the thirteenth century: ‘Ban fi’ indicated ‘son of the Ban’. Miklós Bánffy was related to all the aristocrats of the region. His wealth derived from great forests in Transylvania, a province which played an essential part in Hungary’s history, but which was handed over unceremoniously to Romania in 1920 in consequence of the Treaty of Trianon, one of the five main treaties at the end of the First World War. Bánffy’s family palace in the city of Cluj-Napoca (Kolozsva´r to Hungarians) survives even now in the twenty-first century as a reminder of how elegantly these aristocrats of the old days of the Habsburg Empire lived. Another palace of the family is to be seen in Pest.
The Hungarians had always controlled Transylvania in the past, but they were by 1920 in a slight minority in the region as a whole in comparison with the Romanians, many of whom, as the Hungarians pointed out, were recent immigrants there. Thus the Grands Cinq who were the British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, the Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour (‘the most extraordinary objet d’art our century has produced’, according to Keynes), the French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau, the Italian Prime Minister Vittorio Orlando, and President Woodrow Wilson, the main peacemakers at Paris,
saw no reason to allow the region to remain as it had been.
The troubles of his country, Bánffy thought, had begun with the defeat by the Turks at Mohács in 1526 . The last King of Hungary, Louis II, was killed with most of his court. That tragic defeat divided the land into three: in the conquered territory, all Hungarian political life came to an end, and the land was thereafter ruled by Turkish pashas; the nobles fled to the north, the west or eastwards to Transylvania; the poor people and the serfs mostly stayed where they were. The west and north came under Habsburg rule (Archduke Ferdinand of Austria, brother of Emperor Charles V, was elected King) and
that part of the land kept the name and constitution of the Kingdom of Hungary. It soon became much the same as the other provinces of the Habsburg monarchy. Like the Czechs, the Tyroleans and the German Austrians, the Hungarians had the power to raise taxes and make laws, but all important decisions regarding war and peace were made by the Emperor.
In contrast, the third part, Transylvania, developed what Bánffy called ‘a living form of national consciousness’, different from anywhere else. Its leading families did not support the Habsburgs in the Thirty Years’War, and they even seem to have backed the Turks at the time of the siege of Vienna in 1683, continuing to do so in spite of the Christian liberation of Budapest in 1686 . Transylvanian princes such as John Zápolya II, Sigismund Báthory, Stephen Bocskay, George Rákóczi and above all Bethlen Gábor made the territory virtually independent. The Transylvanian hostility towards the Habsburgs and the Germans was thus deep-rooted. Of course, Transylvanians supported the Hungarian nationalist movement of the midnineteenth century which, after the rebellions of 1848 , led to the ‘compromise’ of 1867 , establishing the kaiserlich und königlich Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary.
Bánffy, who acquired both Romanian and Hungarian nationality in the 1920s, had been a diplomat and, in 1914, a soldier. He was a man of innumerable talents. A member of parliament from 1901 to 1904 and again from 1910 to 1918, he had also been a painter – he painted an excellent self-portrait – and, after leaving the Theresianum in Vienna (where in the novel his hero Ba´lint had lodged with his doomed cousin László ), he was for a time a pupil of the well-known painter of Budapest, Bertalan Székely. He had enjoyed some success as a writer of plays and short stories. He had also studied law in Kolozsvár.
In these first years of the century, Bánffy seems primarily to have lived the happy life of an aristocrat of the old regime which is described so well in the Transylvanian trilogy: dancing in great houses, gambling and drinking in well-appointed clubs, reading in vast libraries ‘lined with wooden bookcases almost to the ceiling, all curved and convoluted with elaborate carved and gilded decorations and divided by twisted columns of different precious woods’; racing at great courses, taking part in magnificent battues in lovely valleys, sitting in the family box at the theatre; and riding in beautiful woods. ‘The ball soon got under way, and the opening csardas was followed by a series of waltzes. Just as Laji Pongracz, the popular bandleader, swung his musicians into the new favourite, the ‘‘Luxembourg Waltz’’, there was a new arrival . . .’. The sentences tell us everything about that lost world. And, ‘so the music went on. Song followed song.’ Perhaps Bánffy like László Gyeröffy in the novel would have worn a saffron yellow carnation on such occasions as these. How I regret not being able to go the Mardi Gras ball in the Assembly Rooms at the Casino in Kolozsvár. ‘Some men’, we hear in They Were Counted, ‘still wore, for this occasion, the mulberry-coloured tailcoats and grey trousers that had been the fashion in the 1830s . . . It was also the tradition that even the oldest ladies turned out for Mardi Gras, dressed as if for an imperial reception, and wearing all the family jewels they could find a place for . . .’
We hear, too, of such charming places as Countess Beredy’s residence in Buda, ‘an exquisite small palace built during the reign of the Empress Maria Theresa’:
After mounting a rather narrow stairway the guests had to pass through a long gallery that overlooked the courtyard to reach a superb drawing-room whose windows opened over the fortifications of the old town . . . The principal [guest] was old Count Karoly Szelepcsenyi, an ex-minister, privy counsellor and friend of the Emperor . . . He possessed numerous decorations of which the most sought-after was the Order of the Golden Fleece . . . [which] must be worn at all times . . . Fanny’s dinner parties were perfect in every respect . . . Every knife and fork and spoon was as heavy as a small cudgel and each piece was different from the others, all of them masterpieces . . . Fanny had made her husband buy [them] for her for a sum so huge that even he had blenched when it was mentioned to him . . . [They were] supposed to have been made for the Pompadour . . .
Sometimes Baálint would also be seen in Gerbeaud’s café in Kolozsvár which is well described in They Were Divided:
Of course Gerbeaud’s was very crowded. Every table was occupied and every chair taken, and in front of the long counter customers were standing two or three deep. Finally they found a place just beside the door, Countess Roza with her back to the wall and Balint on her right . . . Countess Roza did not mind at all. Smiling with good humour she sat there patiently until at last her coffee topped with whipped cream was brought her. Then, slowly stirring it, she watched the mob flow to and fro as the throng of society women almost fell over each other as they fought their way in and out . . . A tall young woman dressed in rust-colured linen appeared in the doorway. It was Adrienne.
Bálint, like Bánffy, is a high-minded landed proprietor. The poverty of the Romanian peasants in his district becomes a cause for him, and he takes Romanian lessons so that he can cope with the language of the sufferers. Bánffy did apparently have at least one duel, as Bálint does, over a trivial matter, but both certainly were deeply involved in politics. The early years of the century were full of positive signs. For example in 1906 a universal suffrage bill was brought before the Hungarian parliament, threatening to break the preponderance of the Magyars and giving the possibility of a toehold to the Romanians. Then there were good poets such as Andrew Ady, popular and politically engaged. However, until 1914, Hungary remained essentially a feudal state ruled by a Magyar aristocracy of which Bánffy-Bálint was an outstanding member. There are some excellent descriptions of parliamentary life in the trilogy, including the scene in They Were Divided where the Prime Minister, Count Tisza, is shouted down after saying: ‘Imust ask the honourable Members to abandon the course they have adopted, a course which is bringing our country to ruin.’
A few years ago a friend sent me three very large paperback novels – a trilogy about Hungary before the first world war – which he said I should read.
The Writing on the Wall, as the books are known (better than "the Transylvanian Trilogy", the inadequate English alternative), did not look promising. Their covers were relatively austere and their author was a dead Hungarian aristocrat of whom I then knew nothing. They sat ignored until, by chance, I took the first of them to Spain one summer and, having nothing else to read, opened it.
Since then their author, Miklós Bánffy, has never been far from my mind. The elegiac wisdom of his writing makes him one of those people whose life you wish could have ended in something other than calamity. His three great novels, which are really one and should be read as such, are significant and addictive works. Word of their excellence is spread largely by private recommendation. I know no one who, having begun them, has not charged through to the end.
The three books – They Were Counted, They Were Found Wanting and They Were Divided – are at one level a sort of Austro-Hungarian Trollope, with sleigh rides in place of fox hunts and the Budapest parliament instead of the House of Commons. So far, so dull, you might think – except that Bánffy was a great storyteller (his factual account, in his book The Phoenix Land, of the 1916 coronation of the last Hungarian monarch is spellbinding), and wrote as a member of a class and the citizen of a country that had both been brought to ruin.
Bánffy published his books in Hungarian between 1934 and 1940. By then, the pre-first world war aristocratic tradition he describes was dead; or at least the political part of it, for the trappings lingered on – not least at Bánffy's own great family castle of Bonchida, by then in Romania and destined to be partly destroyed by the Germans in 1944.
Bánffy died in 1950, his papers burned, his books out of print. One of the connected delights of this trilogy is that his daughter was one of the joint translators, and Bonchida (thinly disguised as Denestornya in the novels) is being brought back from a roofless ruin.
That will not return to us the Hungary of which it was once a part, and only a third of which remained in Hungarian hands after the 1920 Treaty of Trianon (an ill-deserved robbery). As Bánffy describes, some of this disaster was his fellow citizens' fault – the product of their incestuous politics, their semi-subservience to the emperor in Vienna, and above all the closed nature of Hungarian society, which did not know how to deal with the continent beyond its borders. That remains true today: there is something mysterious about Hungary, and not only because of its isolated language.
If I have made these sound sour books, or purely political ones, then I have misled you. More than anything, they are human, and beautiful, and descriptive, and rooted in a land and its natural environment that are both gone forever and less far away than we might think. "The radiant afternoon sunlight of early September was so brilliant that it still seemed like summer," the trilogy begins. This summer I urge you to read on ... - Julian Glover
Miklós Bánffy, The Transylvanian Trilogy, Volumes II & III: They Were Found Wanting, They Were Divided, Everyman's Library, 2013.
Excerpt:Excerpted from Volume II, Part I, Chapter I
One day in the autumn of 1906 the Budapest Parliament was unusually well attended. In fact the Chamber was packed, with not an empty seat to be seen. On the front benches, the government was there in full force. It was, of course, an important day for that morning the Budget was to be presented and everyone knew that, for the first time since 1903, it was bound to be passed and, more important still, passed by a massive majority. For the previous three years the country’s finances had been ordered by ‘indemnities’ – unconstitutional decrees, which had mockingly become known in pig Latin as ‘exlex’ for the sake of the rhyme, and which had had a disastrous effect on the economy.
At last, and this had been the great achievement of the Coalition government, the nation had put its house in order.
Pal Hoitsy, the Speaker, ascended the podium, his handsome grey head and well-trimmed imperial looking well against the oak panelling behind the platform. In stilted words he commented on the importance of this blessed situation in which confidence had been restored ben the nation and the King, the Emperor Franz-Josef in Vienna.
A few meagre ‘hurrahs’ came from a handful of enthusiastic members, though the rest of the House remained silent, stony- faced and stern. None of the political groups – not even the minorities party whose leader, the Serbian Mihaly Polit, was to propose acceptance of the Budget – gave the smallest sign of believing the Speaker’s words. The reason was that that morning, September 22nd, an article had appeared in the Viennese news- paper Fremdenblatt baldly stating that this much-vaunted harmony was nothing more than a cynical and dishonest political fiction.
The article concentrated on the resolution which had been drafted on the previous day by the legal committee of the Minis- try of Justice and which, so everyone had been led to believe, would be incorporated into law at today’s session.
It was a delicate and disagreeable situation.
The difficulties had started two days before when a member of the People’s Party had proposed that the recently resigned government of General Fejervary should be impeached. The new government, much though it would have liked to do so, could not now avoid a debate on the proposal (as it had done the previous July when similar propositions had been put forward by the towns and counties at the time of the great debate on the Address), especially as the proposer was a member of Rakovsky’s intimate circle. Naturally the government suspected that the latter was behind this latest move and it was believed too that the whole manoeuvre had been plotted in Ferenc Kossuth’s camp of treachery and was intended to breed such confusion and doubt that the newly achieved harmony of the Coalition would be endangered. This was indeed a direct attack just where the new administration was most vulnerable. Everyone now professed to know that one of the conditions of the recent transfer of power had been that no harm should come to members of the previous government. The leaders of the Coalition had accepted this condition since their object was to restore good relations between the nation and the ruler and the government of General Fejervary had been appointed by the King. That this agreement had been made was not, until now, public knowledge and indeed had been expressly denied during the summer when Laszlo Voros, Minister of the Economy in Fejervary’s so-called ‘Bodyguard’ government, had first announced the existence of the Pactum, the settlement of differences between the royal nominees and the elected representatives. These denials had then been in somewhat vague terms, but now the matter had been brought out into the open. The new government’s problem was how openly to face the situation provoked by the People’s Party representative, offer a solution that would content the opposition, and at the same time keep their word to the King.
Everyone’s face was saved by the intervention of Ferenc Kossuth, who boldly risked his reputation in the discussion in the committee when he declared that no Pactum existed since secret agreements of that sort were unconstitutional. This was a dangerous statement to make since everyone knew that for the King to have made the new appointments, agreement must have been reached on specific points such as this; but it sounded well and so dignity had been maintained by oratory. As a result it was planned that the House would reject the impeachment proposal and instead give its approval to an official statement which branded Fejervary and his cabinet as ‘disloyal counsellors of the King and nation’ and delivered them to the ‘scornful judgement of history’. It was further decided that this official statement should be everywhere displayed on posters.
The formula was a good one and all the committee members had left the meeting satisfied in their own ways; the radicals because the hated ‘Bodyguard’ government would be publicly degraded, and the new cabinet because they were no longer faced with a constitutional obligation to initiate an impeachment which would be most embarrassing to them.
But now, when everyone had breathed a sigh of relief and thought that the difficulties had been solved, the bomb had been exploded in the leading article of the Fremdenblatt, which was known to be the semi-official mouthpiece of the Court in Vienna. Here it was declared that, ‘according to well-informed sources in Budapest’, the previous day’s committee decision would not be presented in its agreed form since it was unthinkable that those who enjoyed the ruler’s confidence should be put publicly in the pillory. It was further declared, and this was said to have come from someone ‘close to Fejervary’, that the former Minister-President would himself speak at the next session of the House of Lords and that he would then explain the full details of the Pactum.
No more. No less.
There was an atmosphere of gloom in the Chamber. The weather outside was grim and autumnal and little light filtered down through the glass-covered ceiling. The lamps were lit that illuminated the galleries on the first floor and the seats reserved for the press, and these too added to the lack-lustre effect for, although here and there faint reflection could be caught from all the panels of imitation marble and the gilding on the capitals, there were great areas of shadow which made the vast hall seem even darker than it was. Even the painted plaster statues could hardly be seen. Only the Speaker’s silvery hair shone on the platform.
Out of bored good manners the members remained seated in their places; but everyone was preoccupied with their own thoughts and they hardly heard the Speaker’s rolling phrases. In many parts of the Chamber five or six heads were bent towards each other as little groups discussed in whispers the new turn of events revealed by the Fremdenblatt and the menace that lurked between the lines of the article. Only Minister-President Wekerle leaned back calmly in his chair, his handsome face, which was so reminiscent of that of an ancient Roman emperor, turned attentively in the direction of the Speaker. As the architect of the Budget which was everywhere acclaimed he was, no doubt, contemplating the triumph of its acceptance; but his manner was that of a man who has weathered many a storm and whose nerves were firmly under control.
How the world has changed, thought Balint Abady who, as an independent, sat high up in the seats opposite the Speaker. What storms would have raged here a year and a half ago! How every- one would have jumped about shouting impromptu phrases, raging against the accursed influence of Vienna and the sinister ‘Camarilla’ that ruled the Court. Then even the Speaker would have made some reference to the ‘illegal interference by a foreign newspaper!’ Perhaps they saw things more clearly now that they knew more of what is really going on . . . perhaps at last they were beginning to learn.
With these thoughts in his head he listened to what the Speaker was saying.
As the speech was coming to an end someone from the seats of the 1848 Party came over and sat beside him. It was Dr Zsigmond Boros, the lawyer who was Member for Marosvasarhely. Dr Boros’s political career had started well. After his election in 1904 he had become one of the chief spokesmen for the extreme left and when the Coalition government was formed he had been appointed an Under-Secretary of State under Kossuth. After two months of office, however, he had suddenly resigned without giving any reason. Gossip had it that his legal practice was involved in some shady dealings, though no one knew anything specific about the matter. Nevertheless, he found himself cold-shouldered by many of his fellow members for, in those days, while any amount of political chicanery would be tolerated, people were puritanically strict about personal honesty. Boros had only occasionally been seen in the House since his resignation from office and it had been assumed that he had been busy putting his affairs in order. Two days before the present session he had reappeared. Abady had noticed that since his return he had held little conferences with one group or another, obviously explaining something and then moving on to talk to other people. Now he had come to Abady and sat down next to him. He must have some special reason, thought Balint.
Transylvania - that Hungarian/Romanian region of high mountains, mist-shrouded forests and ruined castles all too frequently associated with Count Dracula - may one day, if the world proves just, be even better known for another, less fictionally embellished Count: Miklós Bánffy, the author of Erdélyi Történet - The Transylvania Trilogy, also known as The Writing on the Wall.
These three volumes - They Were Counted, They Were Found Wanting, and They Were Divided – offer one of those increasingly rare experiences in a reader’s life: the opportunity to encounter a true masterpiece of 20th century literature still largely unfamiliar to much of the literary world. With a sense of respectful awe and that curiously pleasurable melancholy with which one comes to the end of a greatly affecting, singular work, I’ve just finished the trilogy, which for me also offered the even more rare and private experience of finding a work so resonant as to enter a select personal literary pantheon: those books through which I feel (egotistically, yet irrepressibly) that the author seems to be speaking to me personally, and towards which I involuntarily adopt a strangely fierce, almost proprietary defensiveness. I found The Writing on the Wall to be an enthralling, compelling work, providing the same liberating sense of being opened by a work of literature as I experienced in finishing, for example, Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment or Stendhal’s The Charterhouse of Parma, or more germanely, two other works in the pantheon, Guiseppe di Lampedusa’s The Leopard and Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks, that movingly depict, with intimate and sure authority, the decline of nobility in a changing world. I realize that this kind of wantonly promiscuous praise is liable to invite accusations of indiscriminately making an all too hasty rush towards the wildest and most irresponsible of claims. But in the case of Bánffy I’m willing to take that risk. This is literature on a grand scale - as engaging, stimulating and enjoyable as anything I’ve read, yet unusual enough for me to feel curiously protective of it.
The Writing on the Wall provides pleasures and illuminations in abundance: sensitive and deep psychological insight; engagement with grand existential and moral questions; glimpses into unfamiliar cultures and landscapes; rapturous depictions of the natural world; history on both a grand scale and in the smaller structures of everyday life; an energetic, daring and contemplative curiosity that ranges into the smallest corners of experience; and assured and confident story-telling, sharply intelligent, limpid and lucid, slyly humorous, romantic without being sentimental, generously humanistic without being pedantic, omniscient yet invitingly intimate. The action spans the ten years leading up to the beginning of World War I and the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian empire, principally oscillating between the Transylvanian city of Koloszvar (today’s Romanian city of Cluj Napoca) and Budapest, with side excursions to other cities and towns of Hungary and to Vienna, Venice, the Swiss Alps, and into the wild mountain ranges of Transylvania. With exceptional clarity and a seamless narrative structure, Bánffy depicts in great detail the intertwining lives of Transylvania’s leading families amid their manor houses and estates, their clubs and apartments in the capital, and their forest holdings in the mountains. His view of the culture of Transylvania’s nobility at the beginning of the 20th century is both a panoramic and penetrating portrait of this unusual region, set apart like an island from the rest of Hungary, crisscrossed by mountain wildernesses, stark plains and primitive forests, populated by the Magyar descendents of Tartars and Mongols, by Romanians and gypsies and Jews, situated at the crossroads of European history between the Ottoman empire and the Balkans to the east and south, Russia to the north and Germany to the west; between the aspiration for autonomy versus an uneasy dependence upon the Dual Monarchy ruled by Vienna; and between centuries of tradition and the exigencies of a changing, modern world.
The story - as encompassing, as a work concerned with the fate of a nation, as any I can think of - primarily focuses on the young legislator Count Balint Abady (modeled after Bánffy himself, apparently), his growing political sensibility and concern over Transylvania’s fate, his reformist efforts to establish forestry cooperatives to aid oppressed minorities in the mountains, and the chaotic arc of the grande passion he feels for the Countess Adrienne Miloth. Alternate chapters trace the struggles of Laszlo Gyeroffy, Abady’s talented but dissolute, tragic cousin. On a larger scale, the characters in The Writing on the Wall – its title and those of the individual volumes taken from the admonitory tale of the feast of Belshazzar in the Book of Daniel – are pulled along, often in a state of denial, by the tumultuous political events hurtling Hungary towards the First World War. Bánffy is particularly good at not allowing the reader to lose track of his extensive cast of characters; many of the key ones are cleverly presented in the opening pages of the They Were Counted, in which Abady, returning to Transylvania after a long absence, introduces us to them as they pass by him in their carriages along the road towards a grand party at a countryside estate.
The world depicted by Bánffy often seems stranded in the 19th century, or at times even earlier, as though feudalism had only just ended. Intensely evocative, atmospheric scenes of finely-dressed nobility idling away at hunting parties, glamorous balls and dinners, escapades in the countryside and nights at the casinos present an idyll of leisure punctuated by dramatic family conflicts, duels and passionate love affairs, political intrigues and nefarious business dealings (awash throughout, it seems, in alcohol and alcoholism). But The Writing on the Wall is unmistakably 20th century: a description of characters adrift in a gondola on the dark surface of the lagoon at Venice, isolated in infinite, blackest night like a vanishing point in a vast nothingness, could almost fit in an existentialist novel. And to pass off The Writing on the Wall as some sort of outstanding period piece, a softly-brushed canvas like something painted by Watteau, would fail to recognize the probing intelligence behind the portrait and neglect the devastating criticisms Bánffy levels at the dissipation and frivolity that helped lead his country towards ruin. As indelible a picture as it is of a fading culture, it’s also a substantive political novel that takes on the key figures of the Austro-Hungarian empire’s decline as well as those ordinary persons who failed to live up to their responsibilities to the country and to one another. While maintaining a compassionate and forgiving understanding of human frailty, Bánffy remonstrates against the idleness; the easy escape into trivial pursuits; the insularity, nationalism, and sloganism; the toxic partisan righteousness; and the indulgence, among leaders and ordinary persons alike, in senseless, age-old hatreds – all those failures to heed the writing on the wall that warned Hungary of its impending splintering and Transylvania of its abandonment. That said, Bánffy hardly comes across as a firebrand; his narrative voice and his central character possess a sagaciousness and equanimity that seem nearly Daoist, especially in the sublime descriptions of Balint Abady’s journeys through the bewitching landscapes of Transylvania and his “sense of wonder and enchantment” at its limitless plains and high mountains, dense forests and lush meadows, where nature serves as a balance and restorative to the harsh vicissitudes of the human world.
As well as any writer I’ve encountered, Bánffy richly delves into history great and small. One gets a broad education in the late history of the Austro-Hungarian empire as well as a wealth of revealing historical details (such as the tossed-off observation in the third volume that the Adaby family’s Denestornya castle, well into the first decade of the 20th century, still has neither electricity nor indoor plumbing). At the same time, Bánffy remains acutely conscious of the universal aspects of those forces and conflicts that help to shape history, lending The Writing on the Wall a freshness and contemporary relevance. The insularity, chauvinism, vying for short-term personal gain, blind party loyalty and legislative obstructionism displayed in The Writing on the Wall pose the same threats today as they did in the period Bánffy describes, just as the courage to challenge these forces meets with the same resistance. The novels also offer memorable glimpses into the complex mechanisms of legislative politics and the nuances of political machinations and manipulations. Like his character Balint Abady, Milkós Bánffy served as a legislator in the Hungarian parliament (and even makes a Hitchcock-like cameo appearance among a group of political reformers gathered around Abady in a scene in the third volume).
Though the novels’ focus rests squarely on the culture of Transylvanian nobility (presumably it was for this reason that the novel disappeared under long decades of communist rule), Bánffy levels his gaze across class strata, challenging the fortunate to question their responsibilities to the nation at large, its poor, its minority populations, and all those oppressed or abandoned. Some of the most forceful scenes in The Writing on the Wall involve the poorest and most vulnerable members of society: mountain peasants forced into crushing debt and servitude by usurious lawyers and notaries; a young servant, pregnant by her exploitative employer, forced into the streets; a young Jewish girl decimated when a fierce adolescent crush is obliterated by the death of its object; and throughout the novel, one character after another subjected to all manner of impediments to fulfilling their hopes and aspirations. Bánffy treats each with nuanced psychological insight and compassion, extending even to one of the novel’s most despicable characters, whose descent into madness is treated in detail and with a respect for a humanistic view of pathology such as one finds in one of Freud’s remarkable case studies.
While Balint Abady conservatively defends the traditions and institutions that have evolved over Hungary’s long history, he is also a reformer determined to effect change and to remind the leaders of the nation to uphold the most generous possible interpretation of noblesse oblige, such as affirmed in a letter from Abady’s father that Abady’s mother pulls from her desk and reads aloud to Balint and his cousin Laszlo:
I know that I am placing a great burden on you when I command you to deal with everything personally. You must realize that our agents, and our tenants, see only what is to their own advantage of what is to yours. I expect more than this from you. The patriarchal relationship that has existed for centuries between the landowner and the people of this village did not end when the serfs were liberated. You must still take the lead, help people, take care of them, especially all those who are not as privileged as you in matters of fortune and education. Think of them as your children, the village people and the people who serve you in the house. You must be severe, but above all you must be just and understanding. This is your duty in life.
In large part, the narrative follows Balint and Laszlo’s respective responses to this charge, as well as questions what the charge can mean in the modern world.
One reason I found The Writing on the Wall so absorbing is certainly due to the unfamiliarity of the world it depicts. While at times it seems as recognizable as something out of any number of great 19th century novels, more often than not it struck me as so alien as to be as invented and as vastly conceived as August Tappan Wright’s Islandia. Reading the trilogy, I thought repeatedly of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s observation concerning Transylvania in Between the Woods and the Water (the book that indirectly led me to discover Miklós Bánffy in the first place) that the region’s geography seemed to approximate most closely such fictional creations as Ruritania in Anthony Hope’s The Prisoner of Zenda or the fantastical lands one finds in Hergé’s Tintin books. Bánffy’s Transylvania possesses this exotic quality, I think, not only because The Writing on the Wall provides such a broad and deep depiction of a region scarcely known to much of the world beyond its superficial contemporary reputation for ruined castles harboring black-caped vampires, but also because the world he describes has been all but erased, in more than one sense, from the face of the Earth. The culture that Bánffy so painstakingly recreates disappeared into the fire and blood of not one but two world wars. A glance at the completion date noted on the last page of They Were Divided – May, 1940 – is enough to suggest that Bánffy wrote with not only the events leading towards World War I in mind but almost certainly with alarm at the growing warning signs around Europe during the 1930’s. In fact, the Bánffy family castle at Bonţida – the model for Balint Abady’s own Denestornya – would soon enough be almost completely destroyed by the Nazis as retribution for Miklós Bánffy’s efforts to persuade Romania to side with the Allies (readers impressed by the striking descriptions of Denestornya may be pleased to know that the Bánffy castle is currently undergoing restoration). Beyond this, many of the very names of the places Bánffy mentions are gone, elided by shifting borders and languages and by expedient decisions in distant capitals. I envy the reader who can find an excellent map of Transylvania from the early part of the 20th century so that he or she can follow the novel’s action from place to place. Those without a background in Romanian and Hungarian and who hope to do this by turning to a contemporary map will most likely find the task as difficult as I did.
I found very little in The Writing on the Wall that grated or struck me as a weakness. While one can argue that the work employs some familiar literary conventions, it is so singular, such a compelling and unusual work, that one can overlook them. Or rather, rarely in my reading have I come across a writer so fully aware of the conventions he employs and so confident in his use of them to tell the story he wishes to tell. Occasionally I found myself wincing at some canard of male chauvinism (for example, at one point the narrator suggests off-handedly that women are destined to have a nursing instinct), but these occur rarely, vastly overshadowed by Bánffy’s deliberate and careful attention to the intimate and public lives of his female characters. Not since Henry James have I encountered a male author of the period who makes such a committed and concentrated effort to explore the inner lives of his female characters. While the love scenes between Balint and Adrienne at times drift towards the romance novel end of the descriptive spectrum, Bánffy somehow always manages to pull them back from the brink. He’s also refreshingly open and free of any trace of Puritanism in his treatment of sexuality, including in a scene in which Balint Abady offers – to God, no less - a convincing defense of adultery.
About halfway through reading the first volume of The Writing on the Wall, I realized, with some surprise, that I was enjoying it as much as I’ve enjoyed anything I’ve ever read. I’m happy to say that this sense continued through to the final page of the final volume. I have no hesitation in recommending The Writing on the Wall with the greatest of enthusiasm. While I’m fiercely delighted to welcome its three volumes into my personal pantheon of favored books, I’m also confident that, beyond whatever personal tastes may bias me, it’s a work that richly deserves and will one day receive wide recognition as among the quiet, powerful glories of 20th century literature.The first (and only) English translation of Bánffy’s trilogy began appearing in 1999; when the third volume came out in 2002, it was awarded the prestigious Oxford-Weidenfeld prize for the translation by the late Patrick Thursfield and by Miklós Bánffy’s granddaughter, Katalin Bánffy-Jelen. The story of the translation itself, presented by Thursfield at the beginning of They Were Counted, makes for fascinating reading. Patrick Leigh Fermor, appropriately enough, has also provided a short preface. To my initial dismay I learned that the books, with the exception of the 2nd volume, are difficult to find and often extraordinarily expensive, and so made use of the good fortune of my access to a first class library and checked them out there. However, I rejoiced at the serendipity of discovering, soon thereafter, that the three volumes are being reissued this very month by Arcadia Books and are already becoming available in the UK. - seraillon.blogspot.com/
The first volume of Miklós Bánffy’s Transylvanian Trilogy opens as the protagonist, Count Balint Abady, is carried “peacefully and gently” in his carriage to a sumptuous ball. Having recently returned from diplomatic service to his native Transylvania and luxuriating in the memories evoked by the landscape, Balint is not concerned with making good time:
Soon Balint’s old fiacre, moving slowly, was overtaken by all sorts of other vehicles, some driving so fast that he could only occasionally recognize a face or two before they too were swallowed up in the dust.
Our first portrait of our hero is of him being passed by, slightly out of sync with and nostalgic for a world speeding toward oblivion. One could also read Balint’s glacial pace as a self-reflexive statement, a reminder for us to settle in for the extended pleasures of the three-part epic about to unfurl.
The trilogy, published last year in two volumes by Everyman’s Library and translated by Patrick Thursfield and Katalin Bánffy-Jelen, is a political novel, a melodrama, and a masterful social comedy. Written by the aristocrat, painter, and statesman Miklós Bánffy, the volumes were originally published between 1934 and 1940, just before Hungary was about to be torn apart by yet another world war.
Then lying in the southeastern portion of Hungary (and now a part of Romania), Transylvania had for centuries been “a highway whose path was trodden by countless nomads who came that way and then passed on.” Its rulers maintained a fierce independent streak whether as a semi-autonomous vassal state under the Ottomans or as part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which explains Abady’s sensitivity to the perception that Transylvania is “just one of a string of otherwise insignificant provinces.” (One Budapest woman asks him, “Lots of bears where you come from, aren’t there?”) It is worth noting that another great chronicle of the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s implosion, Joseph Roth’s The Radetzky March, concerns a family with origins in a similarly peripheral territory — Slovenia.
The central love story concerns Count Abady and the “strange, independent” Adrienne Miloth, a striking beauty married to a chillingly refined monster, Pal Uzdy. (Uzdy — insane, sadistic, and a crack shot — wouldn’t be my first choice of a man to cuckold, but then certain Transylvanian counts are known to have eccentric tastes.) Brutalized as she is by her domineering husband, it takes the entire first volume for Adrienne to respond to Abady’s cautious advances with anything less than revulsion. The further two volumes track the lovers’ frustrated efforts to wed and give Abady a much-desired heir.
The secondary protagonist, Laszlo Gyeroffy, Abady’s cousin, is an orphaned musician (he and Abady are conspicuously fatherless). As Abady muddles his way through Hungarian politics and peasant intrigues, Laszlo first becomes an elotancos, or “leading dancer and organizer” of all the balls in Budapest, a combination of bandleader, socialite, and perfect wedding guest. Letting his musical talent go to waste, he becomes known for his reckless gambling and drinking, two habits which set him on a debauched decline even as a succession of smitten and rich women attempt to save him.
Bánffy portrays the nobility with Dickensian verve. One family is marked by their “aggressive belligerent noses, noses like sharp beaks; eagle beaks like Crookface, falcon beaks like Ambrus; all the birds of prey were represented, from buzzards and peregrines down to shrikes.” He likens Aunt Lizinka, an octogenarian regular on the Transylvanian party circuit with a limitless desire to spread poisonous gossip, to a “dirt volcano whose daily eruptions splattered all within reach.” And Ernest Szent-Gyorgi (Neszti), the “beau ideal of the fin de siècle man,” expresses himself almost solely through his “extra organ of communication,” a monocle:
He wore the rimless eye-glass attached to an almost invisible silken thread, and when he put it up to his eye he could express an infinite variety of opinion merely by varying the gesture: comic surprise, irony, increased interest or incipient boredom, appreciation of a woman’s beauty or reprimand for a man’s presumption…His timing was inimitable and it was widely recognized that Neszti’s monocle was as much the symbol of his sway as was the scepter of kings.
These and other perfectly drawn caricatures, including an Austrian lothario nicknamed Nitwit, a rich Croatian known as the Black Cockatoo, and a lisping chauvinist who resembles an “enraged hamster” when dueling with sabers, are predictably present at social gatherings to liven things up.
The trilogy’s love affairs, dances, and shooting parties unfold during the years leading up to WWI, when, as Hugh Thomas writes in his introduction, “European civilization committed suicide.” (The volumes, They Were Counted, They Were Found Wanting, and They Were Divided, get their portentous titles from the Old Testament episode in which a feasting King Belshazzar receives some dire messages written on his wall.)
When the novel begins in 1904, the domestic political situation is in turmoil, as indeed it will be until the outbreak of war. A coalition of doggedly nationalist opposition groups has essentially shut down the government. Enter Abady, elected as an independent candidate to the Hungarian Parliament and hailing from one of the region’s oldest aristocratic families. His diffidence and deeply felt sense of noblesse oblige causes his fellow aristocrats to feel a “latent hostility” towards him. Abady resists “the idea of being tied to a party line and obliged to follow a party whip,” which allows him to float among the various factions, gaining confidences or creating distrust along the way, all the while staying true to the European political novel tradition of the protagonist being the least interesting and most naïve character. (Abady doesn’t realize that his reelection to Parliament resulted from the bribes of his mother’s crooked estate manager, who wants nothing more than to see the young lord spend more time in Budapest so as to leave him in larcenous peace.)
Abady strives towards the sublime but finds himself mired in the ridiculous: dysfunctional legislative scenes, buffoonish pranks, the collapse of his well-intentioned efforts to establish a co-operative on his mountain holdings, officious wrangling over duels that are themselves absurdly anticlimactic. He is disgusted by the crass political maneuverings he encounters in Budapest and the corrupt practices in his home province, which he sees as his duty as a nobleman to correct. His political speeches go largely ignored, and the wary Romanians in his mountainous forest district listen politely but resolve to wait the “strange lord” out until he returns to his Denestornya estate or Budapest.
There’s an extraordinary episode in which Abady tries to intervene on behalf of a group of Romanian peasants under the thumb of an unscrupulous moneylender. Like most of his attempts to intervene, he fails, and the peasants take it upon themselves to breach the offender’s citadel and mete out an older, and brutal, form of justice. Abady reads about the attack from the serene Italian village of Portofino, where “it was hard to believe in the bitter winter up in the mountains, the all-enveloping snow, silent men striding forth in a blizzard, in cruel murder and mysterious comings and goings in the all-embracing darkness.”
Despite Abady’s sporadic headlong rushes into local and national politics, he generally lacks the sustaining energy to be more than a spectator. And spectate he does. If it’s impolite to stare, then he and his countrymen are the rudest people on earth. One Hungarian woman compares Transylvanians to “birds of prey, hawks, always gazing into the far distance, to the horizon, and never noticing what lies at their feet, what is close at hand.” Abady constantly proves her right, prone as he is to “staring into the face of destiny, the inexorable destiny that would in time overwhelm his beloved country.” The trilogy ends as Abady, traveling to a front line regimen at the outbreak of the First World War, looks back on his beloved land from up high:
All his life lay before him, his whole past, everything…a deep bitterness came over him as he stood there alone, high above the world he had known and which was now doomed to perish…The whole world beyond the horizon seemed to be in flames.”
What he has been dreading has finally come into view.
This might not be the thing one wants to hear before embarking on a 1,500 page quest, but the trilogy is marked by a narrative desultoriness that applies to both its human and political dramas. The novels are in a some ways about widespread distraction and inaction in the face of an impending catastrophe. The second installment, for example, concludes with the following recapitulation: “And so ended an era in which nothing whatever had been achieved.”
Comedy plays a large part in this narrative chronicle of distraction; indeed, the trilogy is a work of social comedy about the perils of the comic. Bánffy has a conflicting relationship with comedy. He clearly admires the “true Transylvanian sense of the absurd” most memorably displayed during a scene in which a crusading Frenchman visits Kolozsvar (Cluj-Napoca) to establish a Transylvanian Branch of his Anti-Dueling League. One of the hosts, an ex-officer known for his love of dueling, has no idea what their honorary guest is promoting and promptly becomes enraged upon hearing his favorite pastime derided as “pure barbarism.” The absurdity continues when a dispute breaks out that can only be settled with, yes, a duel, which is carried out in the same hall at which the anti-dueling event took place. One of the combatants, nose broken and head bandaged, gamely appears at the train station to see off the Frenchman, who is told that the poor man fell down the stairs. “What bad luck, Highness, what bad luck!”
These and other sketches of Transylvanians gone wild demonstrate a benign ridiculousness, but Bánffy also sees the corrosive effects of comedy. (Tellingly, one of the novel’s villains, Pal Uzdy, occasionally bursts out in strange, meaningless laughter.) When a newly-appointed Prefect is pelted with eggs in Parliament, Abady laughs along with the others before becoming overcome with sadness: “He thought only of the fact that an innocent man had been humiliated, and that it was callous and distasteful that everyone should think the whole affair a tremendous joke and nothing more.”
His Hungarian colleagues think most everything is a tremendous joke, a quality directly related to their failure to take the gathering international storm seriously:
The sad truth was that all of them found anything that did not concern their own country fit only for mockery and laughter. To them such matters were as remote from reality as if they had been happening on Mars; and therefore fit only for schoolboy puns and witty riposte.
Abady mistrusts his countrymen’s love of the comic as a form of irresponsibility. Late in the novel, he enjoys himself when his friends stage a drunken mock-trial of a bottle of brandy for the liquor’s numerous crimes, but senses that such silliness is indicative of a larger political folly and dangerous myopia. And thus, towards the end of the novel, Bánffy delivers a terse judgment as unequivocal as the one written on the wall at Belshazzar’s feast: “Everyone was guilty, all the upper strata of Hungarian society.” - Matt Seidel