Although it’s double-stuffed with counts and balls, with duels and scandal and exquisitely described hunting parties, with idealists debating affairs of state and gambling rakes caught in dumb, doomed love, Miklós Bánffy’s sweeping Transylvanian Trilogy stands among the great novels of the 20th rather than 19th century. First published in Hungarian in the 1930s, then forgotten, and only translated into English in the late 1990s by Patrick Thursfield and Bánffy’s daughter Katalin Bánffy-Jelen, Bánffy’s pained and urgent masterwork (collected in a typically handsome Everyman’s edition this summer) recalls nothing less than Tolstoy and Trollope.
Like those towering works it is indebted to, Bánffy’s trilogy brings us urgent news from a world long lost: aristocratic life in the Hungarian hinterlands of the Hapsburg Empire on the eve of the first World War. It is unique, though, in its perspective. Bánffy wrote of a Hungary and a Transylvania already gone, one this boundlessly gifted and wealthy lordling had loved and fought to save—but, much like the beauties chased by his story’s heroes, Balint Abady and Count László Gyeröffy, the old ways of living were hard to hold on to. The tragedies of the trilogy are perhaps all the more pungent today, when we know that aristocracies like the one he mourns—and depicts with both tender beauty and crackling satire—were hardly, as Balint insists, dedicated to the care and protection of the peasantry.
Before his triumph as its most exhaustive eulogist, Bánffy served the dual empire of Austria-Hungary as an ambassador, a member of Parliament, and the director of the Hungarian State Theatres. If lover had also been some position of state, his résumé would almost perfectly reflect the interests of his trilogy—here is a nation’s business shaped into enduring, even crowd-pleasing drama.
The trilogy’s stellar first volume, They Were Counted, concerns a Hungarian gentry going about its fashionable business in the first decade of the 20th century, concerned with provincial matters and fighting off any true military alliance with their Austrian compatriots. Their hearts are in Budapest, the regional capital, and in rural Transylvania rather than Vienna, where the empire’s true power lies—and where decisions are being made that will upend every aspect of their lives.
Balint, like Bánffy himself, is heir to a dynastic family. He’s been bred to believe his breeding truly distinguishes him, that the folks toiling on his traditional lands truly are better off with his guidance. Bánffy, writing after Europe crumbled, is less certain of this than Balint is, and the author contrives to have Balint’s election to the dithering Hungarian parliament a matter of rote vote-buying. Balint himself never finds out; instead, he swans off to Budapest, accomplishing little, attending soirees, and falling in love with Adrienne, the wife of a brutish swell.
Ineffective but well-meaning, Balint is forever attempting to better the lot of the poor, or to reach out to the hell-raising representatives of the empire’s powerless Romanian minority, but at every turn he is thwarted. Every non-noble he meets, it seems, has some scheme to take advantage of him or his family’s wealth, or some pressing reason not to participate in Balint’s book-learned help-the-poor initiatives.
Bánffy, wonderfully, demonstrates that in many cases this is as it must be for many of these regular folks to survive, especially as a new class swells up between the rich and the poor, the lawyers, merchants, and moneylenders who have developed a taste for wealth themselves. Balint recognizes and attempts to understand the many threats to the existence of his milieu: the angry proletariat, the usurious businessmen, the nationalistic foolishness of the gentry, the scheming of the emperor, the military dreams of neighboring nations. But, much like the politicians we know today, he never gets anything done about any of it. Perhaps the most tragic thing about him is his trust in the justice of the system that made him. All this complexity is conveyed in clear, dashing prose that varies from the conversational to the luminous. A few too many characters feel their hearts “miss a beat,” but with this much emotional ravishment, that’s a forgivable lapse of taste.
When not having a go at improving the lot of the miserable, Balint pursues Adrienne, a fascinating creature who detests not just her husband but also the very idea of sex. One great benefit of Bánffy writing so late in the history of courtly life is that he is allowed a greater frankness than his predecessors. There’s nothing ambiguous about when his characters are getting laid, and certainly this is the first novel in world history to feature much ado about visiting cards and exposed ankles just pages away from the downright Updikean phrase “the golden moss that covered her mound of Venus.” (He’s better at gowns, waistcoats, carriages, and violin recitals than ladyparts.) More striking is the revelation that Adrienne’s husband’s lovemaking technique is as rough and punishing as rape—and that the scoundrel’s cruel way with her has left her horrified of intimacy, which complicates Balint’s pursuit of her.
Noble Balint stands as a rich, compelling character, sometimes randy, sometimes as prim as C-3P0, sometimes open-minded and ahead of his time, occasionally a schnook. At his most ridiculous, he dashes away from Budapest as his country faces a constitutional crisis so that he can mope about Adrienne and pen a treatise actually titled Beauty in Action. He’s reflected in They Were Counted by his cousin László, also an idealist but one turning to rot. A minor nobleman, László lives for the newest, most challenging music—that would be Strauss’s and his own—but, like Balint, falls in love with an unavailable woman. In this case it’s Klara, daughter of a princess, and poor László is far from the prime match Klara’s parents prefer. After some mooning about, László finds a way to distinguish himself in society—through high-stakes gambling with the stuffed shirts at the most stylish casino in Budapest. From there, he becomes a hit, although he’s quickly thrown into hock. Complications ensue, as you might expect.
They Were Counted numbers some 620 pages. (It’s followed by a second volume collecting the final two novels, the titles of which suggest mounting desperation: They Were Found Wanting and They Were Divided.) Other than an arduous first chapter—like some proto-Altman film, it details most of the cast as they ride in carriages that Balint sees en route to a palace ball—and the occasional lovesick longueur, the book is a marvel of lively storytelling. It’s one that a sympathetic reader will by turns surge through and get lost in. The balls, the parties, the trysts! The matters of honor, the country on the precipice, the feeling—one familiar to us today—that the center won’t hold but that nothing can be done, so everyone may as well keep dancing and loving anyway.
Now, on to They Were Found Wanting. Has there ever been a better title for a sequel? If Bánffy, who died destitute and out of print, had been writing in Hollywood, the second one would be called They Were Counted the Next Summer.