They Were Counted, They Were Found Wanting & They Were Divided,
Miklós Bánffy, Arcadia Books, 596, 470 & 336pp, all £9.99 (paperback)
Miklós Bánffy (1873-1950) was a distinguished aristocrat from the now lost Hungarian province of Transylvania. His estates around Cluj- Napoca in present day Romania were gradually ruined over the course of the twentieth century and he bore witness to the terminal decline of his ancestral heritage and the cultural milieu in which his family had flourished for four hundred years. While playing a significant role in the politics of post-imperial Hungary, he was also its most important novelist. The Transylvanian Trilogy is an extraordinary roman-fleuve in three large volumes that is one of the masterpieces of European literature – comparable, in its way, to the works of Marcel Proust, Joseph Roth and Robert Musil.
Miklós Bánffy’s outstanding trilogy charts the downfall of the Austro- Hungarian empire through the fates of two aristocratic cousins – one a responsible landowner and politician and the other a dissolute gambler and drunk. Banffy began writing his masterpiece in his early fifties when, disillusioned with politics, he turned to literature to describe the events leading up to the outbreak of World War One and the disintegration of the Austro-Hungarian empire. As foreign secretary he had signed the peace treaty with the USA and obtained Hungary’s admission to the League of Nations; he was also responsible for organising the last Habsburg coronation, that of King Karl in 1916. The novels were published in rapid succession during the 1930s, before the outbreak of World War Two, and were subsequently ignored under the communist regime until republication in 1982.
Bánffy was not only a landowner, diplomat, politician and writer of amazing vision and depth, but a man who immersed himself in the cultural life of Budapest. He was, for example, intendant of the Budapest opera house, where he fought a successful battle for the works of Bela Bartok to be performed, and he married one of the leading actresses of the day. Count Bánffy divided his time between a townhouse in Budapest and the family seat in Bonchida, which became known as the Transylvanian Versailles. The castle was burned and looted by the retreating Germans in 1945, and is now being restored under the auspices of the Transylvanian Trust and with the patronage of HRH The Prince of Wales.
Arcadia Books republished the entire trilogy, translated by Katalin Bánffy-Jelen (Countess Bánffy) and Patrick Thursfield, in January 2011. Volume III won the Weidenfeld Translation Prize. The Phoenix Land, the Bánffy memoirs, will be re-issued by Arcadia in June 2011. For further information, see the facebook group: ‘Miklos Banffy, author of the Transylvanian Trilogy’. What follows is an essay by Patrick Leigh Fermor, written at Chatsworth, that introduces this wonderful novel.
Foreword (They Were Counted)
I first drifted into the geographical background of this remarkable book in the spring and summer of 1934 when I was nineteen, half-way through an enormous trudge from Holland to Turkey. Like many travellers, I fell in love with Budapest and the Hungarians, and by the time I got to the old principality of Transylvania, mostly on a borrowed horse, I was even deeper in.
With one interregnum, Hungary and Transylvania, which is three times the size of Wales, had been ruled by the Magyars for a thousand years. After the Great War, in which Hungary was a loser, the peace treaty took Transylvania away from the Hungarian crown and allotted it to the Romanians, who formed most of the population. The whole question was one of hot controversy, which I have tried to sort out and explain in a book called Between the Woods and the Water largely to get things clear in my own mind; and, thank heavens, there is no need to go over it again in a short foreword like this. The old Hungarian landowners felt stranded and ill-used by history; nobody likes having a new nationality forced on them, still less, losing estates by expropriation. This, of course, is what happened to the descendants of the old feudal landowners of Transylvania.
By a fluke, and through friends I had made in Budapest and on the Great Hungarian Plain, I found myself wandering from castle to castle in what had been left of these age-old fiefs.
Hardly a trace of this distress was detectable to a stranger. In my case, the chief thing to survive is the memory of unlimited kindness. Though enormously reduced, remnants of these old estates did still exist, and, at moments it almost seemed as though nothing had changed. Charm and douceur de vivre was still afloat among the faded décor and the still undiminished libraries, and, out of doors, everything conspired to delight. Islanded in the rustic Romanian multitude, different in race and religious practice – the Hungarians were Catholics or Calvinists, the Romanians Orthodox or Uniat – and, with the phantoms of their lost ascendency still about them, the prevailing atmosphere conjured up the tumbling demesnes of the Anglo-Irish in Waterford or Galway with all their sadness and their magic. Homesick for the past, seeing nothing but their own congeners on the neighbouring estates and the few peasants who worked there, they lived in a backward-looking, a genealogical, almost a Confucian dream, and many sentences ended in a sigh.
It was in the heart of Transylvania – in the old princely capital then called Kolozsvár (now Cluj-Napoca) that I first came across the name of Bánffy. It was impossible not to. Their palace was the most splendid in the city, just as Bonczhida was the pride of the country and both of them triumphs of the baroque style. Ever since the arrival of the Magyars ten centuries ago, the family had been foremost among the magnates who conducted Hungarian and Transylvanian affairs, and their portraits, with their slung dolmans, brocade tunics, jewelled scimitars and fur kalpaks with plumes like escapes of steam – hung on many walls.
For five years of the 1890s, before any of the disasters had smitten, a cousin of Count Miklós Bánffy had led the government of the Austro-Hungarian empire. The period immediately after, from 1905, is the book’s setting. The grand world he describes was Edwardian Mitteleuropa. The men, however myopic, threw away their spectacles and fixed in monocles. They were the fashionable swells of Spy and late Du Maurier cartoons, and their wives and favourites must have sat for Boldini and Helleu. Life in the capital was a sequence of parties, balls and race-meetings, and, in the country, of grandes battues where the guns were all Purdeys. Gossip, cigar-smoke and Anglophilia floated in the air; there were cliques where Monet, d’Annunzio and Rilke were appraised; hundreds of acres of forest were nightly lost at chemin de fer; at daybreak lovers stole away from tousled four-posters through secret doors, and duels were fought, as they still were when I
was there. The part played by politics suggests Trollope or Disraeli. The plains beyond flicker with mirages and wild horses, ragged processions of storks migrate across the sky; and even if the woods are full of bears, wolves, caverns, waterfalls, buffalos and wild lilac – the country scenes in Transylvania, oddly enough, remind me of Hardy.
Bánffy is a born story-teller. There are plots, intrigues, a murder, political imbroglios and passionate love-affairs, and though this particular counterpoint of town and country may sound like the stock-in-trade of melodrama, with a fleeting dash of Anthony Hope; it is nothing of the kind. But it is, beyond question, dramatic. Patrick Thursfield and Kathy Bánffy- Jelen have dealt brilliantly with the enormous text; and the author’s life and thoughtful cast of mind emerges with growing clarity. The prejudices and the follies of his characters are arranged in proper perspective and only half-censoriously, for humour and a sense of the absurd, come to the rescue. His patriotic feelings are totally free of chauvinism, just as his instinctive promptings of tribal responsibility have not a trace of vanity. They urge him towards what he thought was right, and always with effect. (He was Minister of Foreign Affairs at a critical period in the 1920s.) If a hint of melancholy touches the pages here and there, perhaps this was inevitable in a time full of omens, recounted by such a deeply civilised man.
Chatsworth, Boxing Day, 1998