The World's Best Unknown Books
04 04 2018

Parent book: Miklós Bánffy - The Transylvanian Trilogy

Time to salute the Tolstoy of Transylvania

Charles Moore (The Daily Telegraph)

5:14PM GMT 11 Jan 2010

This sequence of books began publication in 1934, so I have been rather slow to get round to it. The trilogy was first published in English between 1999 and 2001, so even in this country it is not new. But perhaps because of the smallness of the publishers, or perhaps because people here know little and care less about Transylvania (unless vampires are involved), these books are not well known. But their reputation has been spreading by word of mouth, so much so that it can be hard to find the volumes because they are often reprinting.

This growing acclaim is deserved. Bánffy’s trilogy is just about as good as any fiction I have ever read. I think of it this week because of snow. If you flick through the book, you will see that the author almost always places events in their weather and season. The hero, Balint, has estates in Transylvania which he is constantly attempting to manage on better and more enlightened lines. He is also in love with Adrienne, who is married to a sinister, possibly sadistic and increasingly insane man.

Balint visits his estates and tries to range as far as possible into their remote forests to stamp out local corruption, usually making an unintentional mess of things as he does so. The author walks with him, as it were, observing nature intently, and relating it to Balint’s private thoughts. In the depth of winter, Balint climbs down to a hidden waterfall which still bursts forth despite the frost: “Even when in the air it was degrees below zero steam would mingle with the spray to form icicles which hung from every bough and every overhanging rock, so that the fall itself was framed with great pillars of ice.” To Balint, “Adrienne’s image was conjured up by the beauty and restless movement of uncontrolled nature”.

Part of the point, the better for not being directly stated, is that Adrienne, at this time, is frigid, loving Balint, but fearful of all physical contact. The waterfall in winter naturally impresses itself on his mind. In late July, Balint climbs a mountainside which is shimmering with forest life, and sees “a little bird, smaller than a quail, with a strange swooping flight. It rose in the air, and then dropped again, and Balint saw that it was a young snipe, barely more than a fledgling and still very awkward. For a moment Balint watched the little bird’s efforts as twice more it flew up and then came to earth again, cowering in the grass as if too tired to try again.” The party passes quickly onward “so as not to frighten, or tire further, the little snipe in its first efforts to fly”. Once again – and once again without clunking overemphasis – the image of fragile new life relates to the couple’s love.

Count Miklós Bánffy, who wrote these novels, was a public man. He was the Hungarian foreign minister just after the First World War. Like Balint, he was a Hungarian who owned vast estates in Transylvania, where, in numerical, though not financial terms, Romanians predominated. His position, therefore, was rather like that of a benevolent Protestant landowner in Ireland before Partition. He loved the wider nation, indeed Empire (Austro-Hungarian), of which he was a part, but also his unusual little bit of it, though many of the inhabitants viewed him with suspicion.

Such an insider/outsider vantage point is a good one from which to view the politics of a great civilisation, especially of a civilisation in crisis. The titles of each book in the trilogy – for example, They Were Found Wanting – are taken from the writing on the wall that appeared, according to the Book of Daniel, at Belshazzar’s feast. The books are set in the years running up to 1914. They are full of love for the way of life destroyed by the First World War, but without illusion about its deficiencies.

One of the best scenes is the duel between László, Balint’s best friend and cousin, a handsome, hopeless, drunken man, and his rival in love. It is as good as Pushkin at describing the fear, the pointlessness, the idea of honour. It is also precise about the rules of duelling and how they were interpreted and disputed. The author fully inhabits the world he describes, without being enslaved by its values.

He has a good comic touch too. He is writing about a culture which worships England without knowing it very well. One young fellow is thrilled because he has managed to buy a pink English hunting coat (of “a marvellous material as hard and stiff as zinc”), but is then mortified that hunting etiquette (also derived from England) means that he cannot wear it at a meet of harriers. So, though everyone else is in black and white evening dress, he wears it to a ball, where his old breeches and boots smell so bad that the ladies will not go near him.

These novels are not well served by a puff on their covers which says they are “swashbuckling”. They aren’t remotely. Although they are very funny, they are deeply serious. They are like Anna Karenina and War and Peace rolled into one. Love, sex, town, country, money, power, beauty, and the pathos of a society which cannot prevent its own destruction – all are here. 6-2-2013