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:

He was a senior student then and passionately involved with his first real love affair, with the pretty little Countess Dinora Abonyi. For Balint this was the first adventure that really mattered. He had pursued Dinora for months, and after the sparkling hopes and torturing jealousy of the chase, what a glorious fulfilment! And this was when he had first seen Adrienne, just when all his desires, all his senses, were engaged elsewhere.

But he has no ties when they meet again at Laczok’s ball: ‘a moment passed before he was sure, because her distinctive flaring hair, her most recognisable characteristic, was concealed in a turban, which in turn was swathed in a voluminous dust-wrap which covered her neck and shoulders in thick coils, and a fine veil caught under the chin. It had to be her, with her fine slightly aquiline nose and chiselled lips.’ Unfortunately, she is now married.

Balint’s thwarted passions are counterpointed, initially, by the successes of his cousin, Laszlo Gyeroffy. Laszlo is a brilliant musician, studying in Budapest, equally adept at the oboe, clarinet and piano, at ‘modern’ composition and ‘intoxicating gypsy music’. He is an entertainer who uses music to compensate for his troubling past: ‘Laszlo had lost both his parents when he was three. His mother, beautiful and talented, a painter and sculptress, bolted with another man, and shortly afterwards Count Gyeroffy was found dead in his woods, shot by his own gun.’ Balint hates to see his cousin’s clowning, and asks him at a supper party to ‘play us something of your own’. Laszlo finally agrees:

Suddenly he was no longer a clown but a figure whose demeanour and presence sent a wave of surprise among the guests. A frown furrowed his wide clear brow which was surrounded by thick wavy brown hair, features that more strongly than ever recalled his Tartar ancestry, and his mouth was set in a hard line, severe and implacable – a straight, calm and elegant figure that would not have been out of place on the stage of a famous concert hall.

He lives up to Macaulay’s description of the Byronic hero: ‘a man proud, moody, cynical, with defiance on his brow, and misery in his heart, a scorner of his kind, implacable in revenge, yet capable of deep and strong affection’. Bánffy is the kind of writer Byron himself might have enjoyed: ‘Men of the world, who know the world like men,/Scott, Rogers, Moore, and all the better brothers,/Who think of something else besides the pen.’ Bánffy thinks of a great many other things, which the novels reveal through the interests of the characters: the racial history of Transylvania, co-operative solutions to rural poverty in the mountains, modern methods of forestry and the social obligations of the nobility; the compromises of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the fatal self-obsession of the Budapest Parliament, the in-fighting of the political parties, the need for peaceful intervention in the Balkans; the social politics of the hunt, the latest fashions in dress and in shooting, the Hungarian predilection for all things French and English; the management of balls and suppers, the hierarchy of the participants, the honour involved in being elotancos, or master of the revels. The novels describe different kinds of gambling and gambler, techniques in breeding and breaking horses, even fledgling developments in aeronautics with the struggles and triumphs of the Lilienthals and Wrights. Bánffy includes a long argument in favour of the Empire adopting a base-12 numerical system – the brainchild of a dangerous obsessive, Pal Uzdy, Adrienne’s husband and the obstacle standing in the way of Balint’s happiness.

After Count Laczok’s ball, Balint and Adrienne withdraw into their own lives, but Balint, increasingly smitten, eventually wins her affection:

Balint’s love was no mere schwärmerei, no little girl’s crush, brought on by propinquity and moonshine. In his words rang the deep sincerity of a real emotion not the light cajolery of mere flirtation. He wanted her . . . and there would be no bargaining.

With an aching heart Adrienne realised that she had not only listened to everything that Balint had had to say, but that she had also accepted it.

As a character Balint doesn’t prosper: for much of the book he is merely a sensible point of view imposed on the novel’s political and personal confusion. Autobiographical heroes are often like this – everyone sees himself as Everyman in his own head. Bánffy occasionally lends his protagonist naivety, but Balint rarely manages to break free of his author’s views and purposes.

Luckily for us, Laszlo compensates for his cousin’s failings with his own heartbreaking charm. Beautiful, proud, sensitive, painfully hesitant, he finally kisses his cousin and childhood sweetheart Klara after a hunting party, a kiss that ‘could have lasted for ever for she seemed to promise herself to him with the last drop of strength in her’. Laszlo is changed by the experience: ‘gone for ever was the feeling of inferiority that had subdued and depressed him for so many years. Klara’s kiss had absolved him from all previous misery.’ But his misery will return. High from his luck in love, he takes a turn in the casino’s gaming rooms – the centre of masculine social life – and earns a reputation as a cool-headed gambler. This, combined with his musical gifts, earns him his appointment as elotancos – the professional beau of every ball given in Budapest. His lonely days in a student garret seem to be behind him; there will be no more slaving over musical scores. Laszlo becomes the toast of the town, confident that Klara’s family will accept him as an honourable match – so long as his gambling and drinking don’t get out of hand.

Bánffy offers an array of exquisite gentlemen, faultless in dress, manner and honour, who provide object-lessons to younger men who can never quite live up to their example. Neszti Szent-Gyorgyi, for instance, who bails Laszlo out after a terrible night at the tables – Laszlo’s now loose reputation having already cost him Klara’s love – is the ‘beau-ideal of the Fin-de-Siècle man of the world’:

In India he had hunted tiger and in the Sudan he had stalked lions. He rode to hounds in England, Ireland and France as well as in his own country. He kept a steam yacht on the Riviera and his racehorses were famous all over Europe. Many beautiful women had been in love with him and given themselves to him, but none had been able to tie him down, though he had fought duels to defend their honour, considering this just another form of sport that was an essential part of the turmoil and confusion of life.

A trust in good taste is characteristic of the novel’s strain of romanticism; taste as applied equally to fashion, manners and experience, as if the materials of life could be tailored to the perfect cut. And because it’s in good taste to be indifferent to chance, the gambler is a king among gentlemen. The gambling man is ‘the same if he wins, the same indifference, the same calm, no smiles, no bragging, no sign of pleasure, no unnecessary exclamations . . . only those ritual, liturgical phrases: “Je donne . . . Non . . . Faites vos jeux . . . Les cartes passent.”’

Another, contradictory belief is also at work in the novels: a belief that our lives depend entirely on a succession of moments, of chances. Laszlo and Klara spend a day at the races, where she makes it clear that she will marry him only if he gives up gambling. Curiously, she makes her demand after she has asked Laszlo to place a bet on her behalf. The horse he picks is a loser, and Laszlo ‘constantly returns to the superstitious thought that the horse on which he had staked Klara’s ten crowns as a symbol of their ultimate victory had come nowhere. It was a bad omen!’ Worse still, Klara sees her lover discussing the bet with a woman who has her eye on him. (All the women have their eye on Laszlo.) ‘In Klara’s heart something tightened and all her doubts flooded back . . . In an instant the girl had chased her fears away, but the radiant sense of joy which had until then filled her whole being had fled, never to return.’ Laszlo dies years later, drunk and penniless – the only thing he hasn’t sold to buy brandy is the fine suit he wore on that day at the races, the losing ticket still in its pocket. There had been other opportunities for redemption,though fewer than one might suppose. A pretty heiress, Dodo, falls in love with him, but Laszlo, the failed gambler, never takes his chances when they come.

The beginning of the Transylvanian Trilogy has many of the qualities of books we read in childhood: it has the same trust in human perfectibility, the core of a classic like The Count of Monte Cristo, while believing that what counts is circumstance, not character. Philip Larkin, in ‘A Study of Reading Habits’, describes turning away from grown-up books because, in the end, they offer only the inevitable failures: ‘the dude who lets the girl down . . . seems far too familiar.’ Bánffy’s trilogy becomes more grown-up as it progresses. Having missed his chance with Dodo, Laszlo suffers increasingly from a disabling self-knowledge – he realises that he is the dude who lets the girls down. And when Adrienne’s husband, a paragon of ‘icy perfectionism’, goes mad and dies, Balint discovers that Adrienne’s resistance to his advances has more to do with her personality than with the circumstances of her marriage – she is determined to make a misery of her life.

Bánffy published the first book in the trilogy in 1934, the last in 1940 – the novels were written in, and describe, years in which war cast its shadow. Political and legal questions begin to replace the play of personalities as the story develops. ‘In the great world outside Hungary events were taking place that would change all their lives: the uprising in Russia, the dispute over Crete, Kaiser Wilhelm’s ill-timed visit to Tangier, the revelation of Germany’s plans to expand its Navy – but such matters were of no importance to the members of the Hungarian Parliament.’ Eventually, however, the gossip from the casino is drowned out by the coming war. The political worries grow increasingly familiar: ‘there was something very sinister going on in the Balkans.’ And the debates acquire a modern ring. ‘You must admit,’ Balint argues with a Romanian lawyer, ‘that the country in which you live has a right to demand that you learn its language.’ Other political questions mature less well. The translators have cut out some of the Parliamentary wrangling, but the leftovers have become stale. Not surprisingly, the political small talk proves to be less fun than the balls and duels and love affairs. Bánffy is better at the lesser tragedies, becoming increasingly grandiloquent in his descriptions of love and war as 1914 approaches:

Now this land would perish, and with it that deluded generation that had given importance only to theories, phrases and formulae, that had ignored all reality, that had chased like children after the fata morgana of mirage and illusion, that had turned away from everything on which their strength was based, that denied the vital importance of power and self-criticism and national unity.

One virtue alone remained: the will to fight.
And that too would prove in vain.