They Were Forgotten: Bánffy’s Transylvanian Tale

In trying to resurrect the Reading Self (my own), I’ve pulled together various book lists, based on current chatter in the lit world. One book that’s come up frequently is Miklós Bánffy’s three-volume epic of pre-World War I Hungary. The work has been well-known in Hungary for decades, though politics prevented any new editions there until 1982. It was only translated into English in 1999, and has been gaining admirers since.

When you see something like this you worry that you’re seeing a minor work that’s most notable just for its novelty. You hope for something truly vital and unexpected, like Halldór Laxness’ Independent People — but you rather suspect otherwise.

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Bànffy’s ancestral home at Bontida ca. 1890.

But Bánffy’s story, called A Transylvanian Tale, also (and in English better) known as The Writing on the Wall, is entirely and authentically delicious, a page-turning sensual pleasure like some leash-pulling hybrid of Anna Karenina, The House of Mirth, and The Great Gatsby. Seen through the eyes of the young count Balint Abady, the nobility of Transylvania (then part of Hungary) gamble, hunt, quarrel, rape, cheat and cuckold each other, while all around, the great powers arm, and eye their neighbors and themselves. Everywhere you see a lush, almost glowing world, a world the author clearly knew and loved, but which is just as clearly headed for ruin.Bánffy underlines his point with his Biblical titles for the work’s three fat volumes: They Were Counted, They Were Found Wanting, They Were Divided, echoing the prophecy from the book of Daniel as it appeared on the wall during Belshazzar’s feast.

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Count Miklós Bánffy

Knowing something about the author sheds some light on the book. (Yes it does too, you death-of-the-author fans!). Like one of the book’s two protagonists, Bánffy was a Hungarian noble, elected to the Hungarian parliament just after the turn of the 20th century. By 1921 he’d become Hungary’s foreign minister, struggling in vain to amend the terms of the post-WWI treaty that ceded his native Transylvania to Romania.

During the Second World War, Bánffy did his best to persuade Romania to abandon the Axis and make a separate peace with the Allies. His efforts eventually succeeded, but at personal cost: as a reward for turning to the Allied side, Romania regained control of North Transylvania, which it had given back to Hungary in 1940. And as Nazi troops withdrew through Banffy’s ancestral lands, they burned and destroyed his family house in revenge for his efforts to win over Romania. It still stands in ruins. There are periodic discussions about restoring it.

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Bànffy Castle today

So — yes, the story. Like Anna Karenina, Bánffy’s story has not one but two principal protagonists, one of whom struggles upward against the world’s ills, the other of whom slowly succumbs to them. Struggling upward is young nobleman Balint Abady, earnest, idealistic, propertied, but one who, like Bánffy himself, has the eyes to see what his countrymen and -women don’t: that Hungary’s nobility is drunk, sleepy, gossipy and blind, obsessed with the minutiae of party politics while failing to grasp its substance. After reading the story, when you first look at a picture of the young Bánffy (above), it’s not hard at all to imagine him as young Abady.

About a hundred yards away on the edge of the old moat was a gaunt old lime tree under which the men were gathered … Under the tree was a round table made from an ancient mill-stone on which had been placed decanters of wine, bottles of lemonade and mineral waters and several trays of glasses.

Balint parties, observes his countrymen, stands for Parliament, concerns himself with the affairs of peasants on his family lands (yes, not at all unlike Levin from Anna Karenina). And he finds himself drawn, “inexorably” of course, toward a woman — old family friend Adrienne Miloth, now unhappily married to a crack-shot psychopath.

His counterpart is his relative, young Laszlo Gyeroffy, an accomplished musician who has never quite been accorded the social standing he feels he deserves. Fed up with brushoffs, he becomes a cold-blooded gambler, with enough of a knack for cards as to win him instant social respect. Gambling, of course, is a two-edged sword, and both its edges make themselves felt before too long. Laszlo has a love affair too, of course, with his cousin Klara. But the cards, and his complex social life as a dance-master, complicate matters.

Quickly Joska Kendy and Gaszi grabbed the old man from behind. They knew what happened when old Dani stood up suddenly with too much drink inside him so they half dragged half pushed him out through the door. Two footmen silently stepped forward, picked up the broken pieces of the shattered goblet and mopped up the wine on the floor.

There are intrigues. Adrienne’s younger sister falls for a plodding schemer named Wickwitz, whose nickname is nicely rendered into rhyming English as Nitwit. Wickwitz busily cons money from a dim countess while slowly romancing young Judith (not entirely unlike Lily Bart hitting up Gus Trenor).

Baron Wickwitz was tall and good-looking, with the wide shoulders and narrow hips of an athelete. The impression of an inverted triangle was emphasized by the line of the stiff white dress shirt and outlined by the sloping lapels of his black tailcoat. He was dressed with meticulous care, as if he were not entirely at ease in such garb. Balint did not like this, and though he could not deny that Wickwitz was a handsome man, he did not like his face either. He had sad brown eyes, a long, narrow jaw and black hair that grew low on his forehead.

There are obstacles. Klara’s step-mother intends her to marry an Italian of substance, not her dance-leading cousin Laszlo. And Adrienne’s husband, the satanic Pali Uzdy, turns out to relate to his wife primarily by means of rape. Will he suspect the growing attachment between Balint and his wife? Regardless, he casts a long, long shadow. Wickwitz does as well, beginning to flounder in snares of his own making, reaching out desperately to try to grab onto Adrienne’s younger sister Judith. Duels, challenges, elopements.

Slowly the station came to life. A locomotive could be heard shunting in the marshalling yards. Then there was a plaintive whistle and a goods train rumbled slowly by the sooty windows of the station. Some lamps were waved at the end of the platform and a market train came slowly to a halt, from which third-class passengers emerged carrying heavy loads on their shoulders.

Another reviewer describes the story’s progress as “desultory”. Perhaps a bit. Balint spends time with a failed inventor of flight, an old actor, the Parliament in Budapest, and a peasant village on the Abady lands which has fallen entirely under the sway of a ruthless moneylender named Rusz Pantyilimon. For an age that tolerates Game of Thrones, this is minimal wandering at worst.

Though 19th-century in scope and structure, the tale is 20th-century in its frank acknowledgement of the power of alcohol, gambling and sex. All three are depicted with the same vivid, luminous precision that mark the novel as a whole.

The Long and the Short

I’ve read a only third of this rediscovered epic and I couldn’t really put it down, at least not for long.

See Also

The book has been fairly widely reviewed:

Review in the Washington Post

Review in the Chicago Reader

Review on Neglected Books

Transylvanians Gone Wild (The Millions review)

The Romance of a Decaying World (Wall Street Journal review)

Review on The Guardian