Last night I finished the Banffy trilogy. I’m heartbroken. Finishing a wonderful book that you love is a mild form of bereavement. I’ve had a cold for the last couple of days so I’ve spent a lot of time staring glazed-eyed at various films and old episodes of ER. I left off reading Banffy until I was beginning to feel better, because I thought it would be a shame to waste it on a slow brain.
It’s not really a trilogy so much as a thick book divided in three – although he puts in some recaps towards the beginning of each volume the whole works together much better than the individual parts. The first part is undoubtedly the best, but all three are brilliant. The ending, where all the characters are marching off to the First World War, is completely devastating. Banffy’s anger comes through very strongly – not anger at the war, but anger at the shortsightedness of the Hungarians and Transylvanians for their failure to see what was happening. This anger lends the whole book(s) an equivocal edge, especially in the hunting and ballroom scenes – on the one hand, there’s a mournfulness for the loss of this glittering, fairy-tale world, and on the other there’s a bitter condemnation of the small-mindedness which brought catastrophe and split Hungary in half. Reading the Molnar history of Hungary before the Banffy was good as it really brought home the fact that Transylvania, which a modern English mind thinks of as being Romanian vampire country, was Hungarian for such a long time.
Transylvania was complicated anyway by having a Romanian majority under the control of a Hungarian aristocracy. Becoming part of Romania therefore does seem more sensible. Banffy was working towards the promotion of Transylvania as a semi-autonomous Hungarian region, but after WWI, as everyone knows, the maps were redrawn according to pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey principles which had nothing to do with what the inhabitants of the various regions actually wanted.
Anyway, reading the descriptions of the balls got me thinking about the expression ‘rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic.’ (It also got me almost weeping, especially that last costume ball with Balint and Adrienne…) But that’s not quite right. The people on the Titanic knew the boat was going down when they started proverbially rearranging the furniture, and it can be argued that when you’re going to drown, who cares how you spend your last moments? I don’t think you can condemn people knowingly about to die for a bit of deckchair-rearranging. You can, however, condemn people for rearranging deckchairs when you’re speeding towards an iceberg, before it’s hit. This is what the Transylvanians are doing in Banffy: dancing away while the iceberg approaches, refusing to look outside of the ship’s ballroom.
I’m going to stop this analogy before it gets out of hand.
As Michael Henderson writes in this brilliant review in the Torygraph (which I really wouldn’t link to for any other reason, as it pains me) you could put together an interesting reading list of fin de siecle Europe books: Proust, Robert Musil’s A Man Without Qualities, Roth’s The Radetsky March, Zweig’s Beware of Pity, and Banffy. I’d put Banffy at the head of that list, before even Proust. A la recherche (as you may have noticed from the Hungarian names, I can’t do accents) is about a lot of things, but it’s so deeply embedded in the head of Marcel that it lacks the sweep, the rush, of reading Banffy. It’s focus is more on thought and art: Banffy’s is on action, emotion, nature. As Henderson says, A Man Without Qualities is too cerebral, lacking the emotional pull of Banffy and the others, and is bloody hard going too, although worth reading as it’s quite remarkable – the literary equivalent of having someone throw a bucket of water in your face, I think. Roth and Zweig are both fantastic, and those two novels are on my list of all-time favourites, but neither has quite the heft of the Banffy.
I wonder what other books I could put on that reading list. Banffy could also be compared to Naguib Mahfouz’s The Cairo Trilogy, but that I think would have to be another list, another post. Plus Banffy I think is better. He should be sitting alongside the great classics in every list and bookshelf in the world.