‘The Transylvanian Trilogy,’ by Miklós Bánffy


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December 10, 2013

Neglected masterpieces aren’t all that unusual (no reading public is perfect), but one that runs to almost 1,500 pages would seem hard to lose sight of. Starting in 1934, Count Miklós Bánffy strapping “Transylvanian Trilogy” was published one book at a time in Hungary, with “great success,” according to Hugh Thomas in his introduction to this handsome two-volume edition. But by the time the third and last book came out in 1940, World War II had broken out, and it couldn’t have been easy to generate interest in fiction set during the run-up to the earlier world war.

A few years later, with Hungary under communist rule, few writers were likelier to be ignored than a nobleman from a family of soldier-diplomats whose income had derived from vast forests in Transylvania, a region that had been something of a poor relation within Hungary (not unlike Hungary itself in the Austro-Hungarian Empire) and now found itself subsumed into Romania. But thanks to the labors of two translators, one of whom is Bánffy’s daughter, “The Transylvania Trilogy” has overleaped barriers of class, language and geopolitical complexity to take its belated place among the great works of 20th-century literature.

In some ways, it’s an old-fashioned novel, with an omniscient narrator and few traces of the modernism spreading through America and Europe — and especially Vienna, the Austro-Hungarian imperial capital — while it was being written. On the other hand, Bánffy took advantage of the new freedom allowed in the treatment of sex and seems to have been well-versed in contemporary psychology. His chief asset, though, is a range that lets him depict nature in luscious detail (early in the Transylvanian spring, “the snows had recently melted on the hillsides and now all the south-facing meadows and slopes looked as if they had just been washed”); evoke a grand party; do justice to parliamentary maneuvering; and maintain control of multiple plots and dozens of characters, including a minor one who makes only a few appearances before performing a great service without taking the reader by surprise. This is a novel written with a 19th-century confidence in layer-cake storytelling, and a 20th-century recognition of sex as a pivotal human motive.

Bánffy’s hero is Count Balint Abady, a wealthy bachelor but not a playboy. Indeed, he embraces the doctrine of noblesse oblige. When a profligate cousin scoffs at the family’s “pride of race,” Balint gives him a thoughtful reply: “Nobody is unselfish. Nobody ever was. But [the Hungarian nobility has] learnt to recognize what is for the public good and to fit it to their own advantage, too. This instinct has been bred into us. . . . It’s not by chance that until now almost every great national leader has sprung from this rank of society, for leaders must know how to lead. Leadership is our responsibility and we should not lightly avoid it until such time as all our people develop some sense of social responsibility themselves.”

Balint doesn’t just mouth these precepts; he lives by them. With some reluctance (he believes he has no gift for politics), he runs for and wins a seat in parliament. But most of his civic energy goes into setting up cooperative forests on which peasants can work to overcome their atomistic poverty. His altruism infuriates vested interests, including regional foresters who exploited the old arrangements, and above all the odious, unctuous Azbej, manager of the Abady estate, who has skimmed off a small fortune over the years and wants to keep at it.

The trilogy’s most enthralling plot line, however, centers on a love affair. Balint is deeply in love with Adrienne Miloth, who unfortunately is already married. She loves him in return, but formidable obstacles lie ahead. Divorce and remarriage are theoretically possible, but Balint’s widowed mother, Countess Roza, won’t hear of this — although Protestants, the Abadys don’t stoop to that sort of thing. Adrienne’s husband comes from a family riddled with insanity. Although he turns a blind eye to his wife’s comings and goings (and may even take kinky pleasure in the thought of her committing adultery), his brutal approach to sex has effectively ruined it for her. As Adrienne and Balint spend more time together, she longs for his touch only to suffer a panic attack whenever he tries to apply it. Candidly but not pruriently, Bánffy shows the couple’s protracted efforts to negotiate these straits.

The third book of the trilogy, “They Were Divided,” proves something of a letdown, as Balint gets more and more enmeshed in Hungary’s baroque politics. The publisher has provided a chronology of relevant historical events, but only the most patient readers will take the trouble to flip back to this. At the same time, the trilogy almost loses sight of its most mesmerizing character, the scheming hypocrite Azbej, who has found a seemingly foolproof way to drive a wedge between Balint and his mother: He keeps on retainer the two maiden ladies who serve as companions to Countess Roza in the remote family castle; they spy for him, pass on gossip about Balint, play upon the countess’s imperious nature — and Balint himself can’t figure out why he and his mother are increasingly at odds.

It’s a fruitful theme — the ability of cunning servants to amass power behind the master’s back — and Bánffy highlights it so skillfully in the first two books that the reader comes to expect a dramatic showdown in the third. The showdown comes, but offstage and in cursory fashion. Otherwise, “The Transylvanian Trilogy” is a superlative work of art.

According to Thomas, Bánffy Castle was sacked by Russian soldiers at the end of World War II, and Miklós Bánffy “died impoverished and forgotten in 1950.” Now, more than 60 years later, his great novel has been rescued from oblivion, ready to be enjoyed by anyone hungry for brilliant and impassioned storytelling on a grand scale.

Drabelle is a contributing editor to Book World.

THE TRANSYLVANIAN TRILOGY

By Miklós Bánffy

Translated from the Hungarian by Patrick Thursfield and Katalin Bánffy-Jelen

Volume I: “They Were Counted”

Everyman’s Library. 624 pp. $30

Volume II: “They Were Found Wanting” and “They Were Divided”

Everyman’s Library. 830 pp. $30

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