Excerpted from the Introduction
This great collection of three novels gives a fine picture of the life of the old Transylvania in the last days of the Habsburg Empire of Austria-Hungary before the disaster of 1914, when European civilization committed suicide. It was written after terrible events had darkened the life of postwar Hungary and Romania, but they would become darker. Had Bánffy written after the catastrophes of the 1940s, the tone of the book would surely have been even more sad.
Miklós Bánffy was a Hungarian, from one of the great families which had ruled Hungary for a thousand years. The name Ba´nff y probably derives from Denis, the viceroy (Ban) of Croatia in the thirteenth century: ‘Ban fi’ indicated ‘son of the Ban’. Miklós Bánffy was related to all the aristocrats of the region. His wealth derived from great forests in Transylvania, a province which played an essential part in Hungary’s history, but which was handed over unceremoniously to Romania in 1920 in consequence of the Treaty of Trianon, one of the five main treaties at the end of the First World War. Bánffy’s family palace in the city of Cluj-Napoca (Kolozsva´r to Hungarians) survives even now in the twenty-first century as a reminder of how elegantly these aristocrats of the old days of the Habsburg Empire lived. Another palace of the family is to be seen in Pest.
The Hungarians had always controlled Transylvania in the past, but they were by 1920 in a slight minority in the region as a whole in comparison with the Romanians, many of whom, as the Hungarians pointed out, were recent immigrants there. Thus the Grands Cinq who were the British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, the Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour (‘the most extraordinary objet d’art our century has produced’, according to Keynes), the French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau, the Italian Prime Minister Vittorio Orlando, and President Woodrow Wilson, the main peacemakers at Paris,
saw no reason to allow the region to remain as it had been.
The troubles of his country, Bánffy thought, had begun with the defeat by the Turks at Mohács in 1526 . The last King of Hungary, Louis II, was killed with most of his court. That tragic defeat divided the land into three: in the conquered territory, all Hungarian political life came to an end, and the land was thereafter ruled by Turkish pashas; the nobles fled to the north, the west or eastwards to Transylvania; the poor people and the serfs mostly stayed where they were. The west and north came under Habsburg rule (Archduke Ferdinand of Austria, brother of Emperor Charles V, was elected King) and
that part of the land kept the name and constitution of the Kingdom of Hungary. It soon became much the same as the other provinces of the Habsburg monarchy. Like the Czechs, the Tyroleans and the German Austrians, the Hungarians had the power to raise taxes and make laws, but all important decisions regarding war and peace were made by the Emperor.
In contrast, the third part, Transylvania, developed what Bánffy called ‘a living form of national consciousness’, different from anywhere else. Its leading families did not support the Habsburgs in the Thirty Years’War, and they even seem to have backed the Turks at the time of the siege of Vienna in 1683, continuing to do so in spite of the Christian liberation of Budapest in 1686 . Transylvanian princes such as John Zápolya II, Sigismund Báthory, Stephen Bocskay, George Rákóczi and above all Bethlen Gábor made the territory virtually independent. The Transylvanian hostility towards the Habsburgs and the Germans was thus deep-rooted. Of course, Transylvanians supported the Hungarian nationalist movement of the midnineteenth century which, after the rebellions of 1848 , led to the ‘compromise’ of 1867 , establishing the kaiserlich und königlich Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary.
Bánffy, who acquired both Romanian and Hungarian nationality in the 1920s, had been a diplomat and, in 1914, a soldier. He was a man of innumerable talents. A member of parliament from 1901 to 1904 and again from 1910 to 1918, he had also been a painter – he painted an excellent self-portrait – and, after leaving the Theresianum in Vienna (where in the novel his hero Ba´lint had lodged with his doomed cousin László ), he was for a time a pupil of the well-known painter of Budapest, Bertalan Székely. He had enjoyed some success as a writer of plays and short stories. He had also studied law in Kolozsvár.
In these first years of the century, Bánffy seems primarily to have lived the happy life of an aristocrat of the old regime which is described so well in the Transylvanian trilogy: dancing in great houses, gambling and drinking in well-appointed clubs, reading in vast libraries ‘lined with wooden bookcases almost to the ceiling, all curved and convoluted with elaborate carved and gilded decorations and divided by twisted columns of different precious woods’; racing at great courses, taking part in magnificent battues in lovely valleys, sitting in the family box at the theatre; and riding in beautiful woods. ‘The ball soon got under way, and the opening csardas was followed by a series of waltzes. Just as Laji Pongracz, the popular bandleader, swung his musicians into the new favourite, the ‘‘Luxembourg Waltz’’, there was a new arrival . . .’. The sentences tell us everything about that lost world. And, ‘so the music went on. Song followed song.’ Perhaps Bánffy like László Gyeröffy in the novel would have worn a saffron yellow carnation on such occasions as these. How I regret not being able to go the Mardi Gras ball in the Assembly Rooms at the Casino in Kolozsvár. ‘Some men’, we hear in They Were Counted, ‘still wore, for this occasion, the mulberry-coloured tailcoats and grey trousers that had been the fashion in the 1830s . . . It was also the tradition that even the oldest ladies turned out for Mardi Gras, dressed as if for an imperial reception, and wearing all the family jewels they could find a place for . . .’
We hear, too, of such charming places as Countess Beredy’s residence in Buda, ‘an exquisite small palace built during the reign of the Empress Maria Theresa’:
After mounting a rather narrow stairway the guests had to pass through a long gallery that overlooked the courtyard to reach a superb drawing-room whose windows opened over the fortifications of the old town . . . The principal [guest] was old Count Karoly Szelepcsenyi, an ex-minister, privy counsellor and friend of the Emperor . . . He possessed numerous decorations of which the most sought-after was the Order of the Golden Fleece . . . [which] must be worn at all times . . . Fanny’s dinner parties were perfect in every respect . . . Every knife and fork and spoon was as heavy as a small cudgel and each piece was different from the others, all of them masterpieces . . . Fanny had made her husband buy [them] for her for a sum so huge that even he had blenched when it was mentioned to him . . . [They were] supposed to have been made for the Pompadour . . .
Sometimes Baálint would also be seen in Gerbeaud’s café in Kolozsvár which is well described in They Were Divided:
Of course Gerbeaud’s was very crowded. Every table was occupied and every chair taken, and in front of the long counter customers were standing two or three deep. Finally they found a place just beside the door, Countess Roza with her back to the wall and Balint on her right . . . Countess Roza did not mind at all. Smiling with good humour she sat there patiently until at last her coffee topped with whipped cream was brought her. Then, slowly stirring it, she watched the mob flow to and fro as the throng of society women almost fell over each other as they fought their way in and out . . . A tall young woman dressed in rust-colured linen appeared in the doorway. It was Adrienne.
Bálint, like Bánffy, is a high-minded landed proprietor. The poverty of the Romanian peasants in his district becomes a cause for him, and he takes Romanian lessons so that he can cope with the language of the sufferers. Bánffy did apparently have at least one duel, as Bálint does, over a trivial matter, but both certainly were deeply involved in politics. The early years of the century were full of positive signs. For example in 1906 a universal suffrage bill was brought before the Hungarian parliament, threatening to break the preponderance of the Magyars and giving the possibility of a toehold to the Romanians. Then there were good poets such as Andrew Ady, popular and politically engaged. However, until 1914, Hungary remained essentially a feudal state ruled by a Magyar aristocracy of which Bánffy-Bálint was an outstanding member. There are some excellent descriptions of parliamentary life in the trilogy, including the scene in They Were Divided where the Prime Minister, Count Tisza, is shouted down after saying: ‘Imust ask the honourable Members to abandon the course they have adopted, a course which is bringing our country to ruin.’
Copyright © 2013 by Hugh Thomas. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.