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.”