Hungary’s Tolstoy

Miklós Bánffy's Transylvanian Trilogy is full of exceptional richness, character and colour

Jonathan Gaisman

It is surprising how little-known is the fact that, as a result of the Treaty of Trianon concluded in 1920, Hungary was docked more than two-thirds of its previous territory. This was its punishment for having been a junior partner to the junior partner of the Kaiser’s defeated Germany. The Hungarian foreign minister who tried to mitigate this dismemberment, and the most moderate, versatile and enlightened of the generation of aristocrats that watched their country become drawn into the catastrophe of the Great War, was Count Miklós Bánffy. As well as a politician, he was a man of the theatre and playwright, director of the Budapest opera and a champion of Bartók, the organiser of the last Habsburg coronation, a portrait-painter and caricaturist, a liberal landowner and a passionate lover of Transylvania, where his family had had estates for 500 years. So much did he love the region, formerly an integral part of Hungary, that when Transylvania was incorporated within the newly-enlarged Romania he adopted the citizenship of that country so that he could continue to occupy his castle near Koloszvár (renamed Cluj-Napoca).

Largely retired from public life, he withdrew to what had become Bonçida, and through the 1930s — his mind drawn back to a past which, like that in France and England, had grown in retrospective enchantment by virtue of what followed it, and amid the gathering of fresh horrors in Europe — he wrote the three volumes which weighed and judged the actions and neglect of his countrymen in the decade before 1914: They Were Counted; They Were Found Wanting; and They Were Divided, together originally known as A Transylvanian Tale, now as The Transylvanian Trilogy.

This is a novel of exceptional richness and colour, character and colour. A sensualist who delighted equally in the freshness of nature and the artifice of the drawing-room, Bánffy possessed the humanity and sensibility which enabled him to create a huge, variegated cast, to many of whose fates and interior lives the reader becomes permanently committed. One does not forget nor cease to suffer, for example, over one character’s loss of the girl who loves him through self-contempt expressed in a destructive addiction; or the hero’s powerless fury in hearing a nocturnal approach to his lover’s bedroom, which are the footsteps of her appalling, violent husband; or a proposal of marriage which is both expected and fitting yet does not occur, an episode of Chekhovian pathos.

The best fiction opens a separate chamber in the mind, of whose existence we were hitherto ignorant. This book, championed by such as Patrick Leigh-Fermor, Jan Morris and Hugh Thomas, has even been compared with Tolstoy, perhaps because it is conceived on the grandest scale, mixing private emotion and the public stage, interspersing real characters among the fictional ones. If there are moments which summon up the greatest of the Russian novels — not least the opening sequence, in which we meet many of the principal characters driving towards a house-party in their carriages under the deceptive September sun — it has in truth its own flavour, and the chances are that it will tell you about a part of the world and the manners of its inhabitants of which you never knew, though the more familiar (and quite different) novels of Joseph Roth have portrayed the other half of the Austro-Hungarian juggernaut during the same period. Politics, parties, country pursuits, love affairs and quarrels have their own interest (the plot and numerous sub-plots generally bowl along), but all are subservient to Bánffy’s tragic purpose, which is to depict the frivolousness, venality and self-absorption of the Hungarian ruling class, and its responsibility for what was to come. Nonetheless, the book contains a deeply comical streak — that particular brand of caustic mockery which constitutes much of the national sense of humour — and the author excels at sustained, deadpan absurdity, for instance in relating a meeting of the Anti-Duelling League whose proceedings are interrupted by a trivial argument (over English pronunciation) that culminates inevitably in a duel.

Bonçida, depicted under the name Denestornya in the book, is one of its heroes. To visit it now, even making allowance for its malicious and near-total destruction by the Nazis in 1944, is to experience a little of the relative disappointment which those who revel in the poetic imagination of Homer feel when visiting the sites of Mycenae or Pylos, but to observe it through the eyes of the author — whose descriptions of house, estate, forest and mountains are simultaneously exalted and full of crystalline detail — is to share Bánffy’s profound love of home. The farewell which its owner bids to his house before joining his regiment, and his threnody as he contemplates the nurseries which would have been filled by the heirs of his body, now never to be born, become the reader’s shared experience of mourning.

The book has its imperfections. Although in general the author’s treatment of his female characters is intuitive and sympathetic, some may find the heroine exasperating and her final choice unconvincing. The depiction of the relationship between her and the male protagonist feels as if it has both the advantages and defects of fiction drawn closely from private experience, and the plot here undergoes one or two clumsy gear-changes. One has the sense that the third (and shortest) volume was concluded in somewhat of a hurry, the Second World War having by now begun, and that its end is dictated by an overall aesthetic necessity: a book about Hungary which ends in 1914 is unlikely to have a happy outcome. There is also an occasional rustic simplicity in the prose style and imagery which may disappoint those who value sophistication and polish above all. But actually, these are quibbles: the book will touch any sensitive reader, and it will be loved by all who enjoy a great 19th-century novel, which is in substance what the trilogy is. If you’ve not yet read Bánffy, you are to be envied.

Originally a great success in the 1930s, the novel was almost unknown in Hungary during the communist era, but was eventually championed by István Nemeskurty (“essential reading for all Hungarians who wanted to understand the history and character of their own country”). The first volume was reissued in 1982, but the trilogy was only republished in its totality in 1993. The 1999-2001 English translation, by the author’s daughter and Patrick Thursfield, is exemplary.

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