Count Miklos Banffy’s Transylvanian Trilogy is a long novel about the follies, beauties and shortcomings of Hungarian society in the decade leading up to the First World War. He wrote it during the 1930s, when the disastrous outcomes of that war were still developing. Nostalgia may have been an active ingredient of this project, but Banffy’s purpose was to record rather than gild what had been lost. One of his conscious motivations was to help future Hungarians understand their past.
Since he was not writing for a twenty-first-century English-speaking audience, we may perhaps be forgiven some haziness about facts he takes for granted and which colour everything he writes – for instance, that Hungary was on the losing side in the First World War; and that before the Empire which it uncomfortably shared with Austria fell apart, Hungary was about three times its current size. Transylvania, the setting of much of the narrative, was then under Hungarian rule, although most of its people were ethnic Romanians.
The titles of the three volumes, borrowed from the fiery words written on Belshazzar’s palace wall, give immediate warning that this is a story of loss: They Were Counted, They Were Found Wanting, They Were Divided. The trilogy was a success when it first came out, but since its viewpoint is aristocratic it sank from view during the Communist era and has only recently resurfaced. I came across it when the first volume appeared in English and the others were still being translated. Very far as my family ever was from castles in Transylvania or grand balls in Budapest, something in the tone of the writing, the buoyant voice tinged with wistfulness, drew me in. It is a voice from just before 1914, an era which has special resonance for me.
My father was the third of seven children of a Somerset parson. According to his sister, he was already seen as ‘a bit difficult’ before he sailed off to Gallip
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