Master of the Revels

Benjamin Markovits

Count Miklós Bánffy’s Transylvanian Trilogy describes a period of history the author knew at first hand: the decade of Hungarian life before the Great War and the end of the Habsburg Empire. Bánffy played a part in national affairs at the time, and his three novels, written twenty years on, look back with nostalgia, but also with bitterness. It’s clear that the good times contained the seeds of their own end, that a society obsessed with balls and duels and hunts was stepping blindly towards its own dissolution.

The translator’s introduction to the trilogy is itself touched by the romance of the novels:

My acquaintance with the works of Miklós Bánffy started one day some years ago when I was motoring from my home in Tangier to Rabat. My fellow passenger was a Hungarian friend, Kathy Bánffy-Jelen . . . who was going to Rabat to sign some papers that confirmed her ownership of the copyright to her father’s works . . . Kathy then revealed that several years before she had begun an English translation, but that it had not prospered and she had never finished it. I picked up the scent at once and was soon in full pursuit. Could I read what she had written? . . . A few days later there arrived a tattered brown parcel, containing a huge pile of faded typescript in single spacing on flimsy paper. The different chapters were held together with rusty paperclips and the appearance of it all was, to say the least, uninviting. Several pages seemed to have been mauled by cats, as I later found to have been the case.

Patrick Thursfield was instantly ‘caught up by the sweep of the story’, and this English edition is the result. The first book, especially, reads like a discovery in the attic, with the strangeness natural to translation, and the careless misprints of a hasty edit.

The story opens, as all neglected manuscripts should, on a late summer day: the dusty Sunday races at Vasarhely, a reception at Count Laczok’s country place, ‘followed in the evening by a dinner and a dance’. There we meet most of the main players, including Balint Abady, our hero: ‘when he took off the wide-brimmed felt hat that had become the fashion throughout Europe after the Boer War, the sunlight caught reddish glints in his wavy hair and made his blue eyes seem even lighter in colour. His features had a faintly oriental cast, with a high forehead, wide cheekbones and unexpectedly slanting eyes.’ There are no reddish glints in the blurred black and white author’s photo at the front of the novel, though Bánffy’s high forehead, broad cheeks and slanted eyes suggest his younger protagonist. Both Balint and his author were educated at the Theresianum in Vienna, and both pursued diplomatic careers before taking up politics, serving as independent MPs in Budapest. Balint’s maiden speech borrows heavily from Bánffy’s own first address to Parliament. And, like Bánffy, Balint falls hopelessly in love with a woman who proves to be socially unacceptable.

Bánffy fell for an actress – an unsuitable match for a gentleman – whom he was able to marry only after his father’s death; Kathy Bánffy-Jelen is their daughter. Balint is in love with a woman named Adrienne whom he had first met when she came out in the spring of 1898:

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