The Great Hungarian Novel: A 20th-Century Classic

By Thursfield, Patrick | Contemporary Review, July 1995 | Go to article overview

The Great Hungarian Novel: A 20th-Century Classic


Thursfield, Patrick, Contemporary Review


Miklos Banffy's trilogy, The Writing on the Wall, which tells the story of Hungary in the last years of peace before the Great War of 1914, was published in Hungarian between 1934 and 1940 and, as it has not previously been translated into any other language, is unfortunately unknown to the Western World. The first novel of the trilogy - They Were Numbered ... - was an immediate success when it was reissued in Budapest in 1982.

The powerful story is told in three books (the first of which can be read as a complete tale in itself) - They Were Numbered, They Were Found Wanting, and They Were Divided. The trilogy is a bitter condemnation of the pre-war ruling classes whose decadence, frivolity and political immaturity brought their world to destruction at the end of the 1914-1918 war.

Count Miklos Banffy (1873-1950) was an aristocrat and landowner from Transylvania who was related to most of the great families of Hungary and who played an altogether exceptional part in the political and cultural life of his day. He was a Member of Parliament from 1901 and Prefect of the county of Kolozs from 1906 to 1909. Between 1913 and 1918 he was Director of the Hungarian State Theatres, and from 1921 to 1922 Minister for Foreign Affairs. From 1923 to 1926 he was chairman of the Council of Contemporary Arts.

It was Banffy who, against fierce opposition, made it possible for Bartok's works to have their first hearing at the Budapest Opera House, and it was while he was Foreign Minister that Hungary signed a separate peace treaty with the United States. It was Banffy's influence which paved the way to Hungary's acceptance as a member of the League of Nations and, when his country was being dismembered after the Treaty of Trianon in 1920, it was he who managed to prevent the cession of Sopron to Austria. The reason why he resigned from the direction of foreign affairs was his detestation of the politics of Admiral Horthy, who ruled Hungary from 1920 to 1944.

In 1926, therefore, Banffy returned to Transylvania, which had now been ceded to Roumania, adopted dual Roumanian and Hungarian citizenship and devoted himself to working for good relations between the two ethnic populations of that troubled province and to running what remained of the great estate of Bonczhida near Kolozsvar (now renamed Cluj). Banffy, although a Hungarian was always held in high esteem by the Roumanian government. In Transylvania, between the wars, he was at the head of many literary and cultural activities and himself supported, both practically and financially, many literary and publishing projects.

At the end of the war the retreating German troops looted the great castle of Bonczhida, stripping it of furniture, pictures, porcelain and works of art. The cortege of trucks carrying away the Banffy heritage was bombed to destruction by the advancing Allies.

As well as the trilogy - which was originally given the generic title of A Transylvanian Tale - Banffy's work included five stage plays, two books of short stories, one book of memoirs and two of essays. He also drew countless illustrations for books, sketches, caricatures and designs for the theatre and opera. His sets for Aida were still in use until comparatively recently. In 1916 he was responsible for many of the arrangements and all the decorations for the wartime coronation of King Karl and Queen Zita, a sad description of which forms the first part of his book of memoirs.

The three books of the trilogy cover ten years in the life of one Count Balint Abady, like the author, a Transylvanian aristocrat, landowner and high-profile politician and, parallel to his story, the sad tale of the wasted life and degradation of Abady's first cousin, the talented but hopeless Count Laszlo Gyeroffy. Though there are many similarities between Abady's life and that of the author (not the least being the loving recreation of Bonczhida as 'Denestornya' and certain aspects of the two cousins' various love affairs) the work is not really autobiographical. …

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