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Back Catalogue #7 – Miklós Bánffy, “Erdélyi történet” / “The Transylvanian Trilogy” (1934-1940)

Back CatalogueIn one of my earliest contributions to this blog, I commented on the experience of reading exceedingly long novels, noting in passing how their sheer size can inflect our perception of literary form and the dynamics of anticipation and fulfillment on which the pleasure of narration is predicated. Whereas shorter works are subjected to a need for closure that feeds directly into our perception of the book’s literary value (nobody likes a story that stops at some point instead of ending), the reader of colossal novels slowly but inevitably enters an altered state in which such categories as overall balance, symmetry, and economy of means are devalued in favor of a “regional” appreciation of form, the way a Brucknerian or Mahlerian symphony tends to break down into zones of semi-autonomous musical activity. A 200-page novel, one could say, is the fleshed-out version of a play or a film script, adhering to the same low-fat policy of formal consistency; a gargantuan novel, on the other hand, is heir to the principle of epic poems, in which narration can be continued ad libitum, or branch off in various directions, without impairing the coherence and meaningfulness of previous chapters.

Not all of this is true of count Miklós Bánffy’s Transylvanian Trilogy (also known as The Writing on the Wall), published in three volumes between 1934 and 1940, banished by the Communist regime and virtually unknown in the West until its first English translation, short of fifteen years ago. Some of the above, however, definitely applies to this awe-inspiring chronicle of the Hungarian upper class between 1900 and 1914, during the agony of the Hapsburg empire. Compared to other similar examples of the monumental genre, from War and Peace to A Dance to the Music of Time, Bánffy’s trilogy exhibits a remarkable singleness of purpose: there is a main storyline revolving around two-three protagonists, the cast of secondary figures is comparatively small, and events are connected to a finite number of locations over a short time-span in the life of a single generation (early adulthood to early maturity).

At the same time, the discrepancy between the unity of the main arc and the intricacy of smaller unfinished stories, loose odds and ends, virtual subplots, and unexploited possibilities that cling to this central weight-bearing structure is thought-provoking. By the same token, the novel’s 2.000 pages could easily have been 4.000 or 10.000: the reader would not mind, at least not in principle. This might be what fictional world-making is all about: once a convincing setting is posited, relationships can be explored almost to no end, as it regularly happens, on a lower level, in soap operas and fan fiction. Given a sufficiently complex field of literary forces (conflicts, goals etc.), there is no way to decide when or where such a non-standard novel should end. Bánffy brilliantly solves the problem by implicitly orienting all events towards the vanishing point of World War I, but even this powerful conclusion leaves the reader impatient for more, eager to know what happened (or could have happened) to one or the other supporting character.

The open-ended perception mode that this centrifugal anti-form triggers in the reader (what I termed above an “altered state”) is akin to the casual, noncommittal, and non-judgmental attitude that goes with “cult” movies or series: after a while, one just stops caring where it all is heading to, as long as he can spend some time with his fictional friends, the characters. Such a paradox is best exemplified by one of the earliest and by far the most ridiculous TV-series of all times, Lars von Trier’s Riget, a failure by any conventional standards but a real treat once you get “hooked” and switch to cult-mode. But I digress...

The material of the Transylvanian Trilogy, divided into three volumes of six long chapters each, is suspended between two extremes: the timeless majesty of the east-Hungarian (now Rumanian) natural landscape, and the petty and sterile maneuvering of everyday parliamentary life in Budapest. In fact, about a fifth of the work consists in a painstakingly detailed chronicle of Austro-Hungarian domestic politics at its most chaotic and esoteric: the twilight of the Dual Monarchy. If you thought that the endless battle scenes in War and Peace were heavy literary fare, wait until you sink your teeth into this. For the historically informed, the effect is more majestic and pleasure-enhancing than boring (especially in the centenary year of 2014), and the supposed aridity of these parts, if taxing, provides a welcome foil to the endless string of balls, flirting, and love-making that fill most of the chapters.

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Miklós Bánffy, The Transylvanian TrilogySummarizing the plot would be pointless. Its alpha and omega are the éducation sentimentale et politique of a young Transylvanian nobleman, Bálint Abádi (a patent travesty for Bánffy himself), and his tormented relationship with Adrienne Milóth, a childhood friend, now the wife of an eccentric and violent man. A major subplot concerns the self-destruction of Bálint’s cousin, the supremely talented but fatally unhappy musician László Gyerőffi, scarred by his past as the family’s poor relation even in the blessings of requited love. A surprising feature of both plotlines (and of most of the secondary stories that exist between them, too) is the fact that characters never really make contact, never complete one another: even at the zenith of passion and friendship, they glide past each other, they never grab the hand that is reached out to them, they find no fulfillment and genuine human communication in other people, even when love is passionately bestowed upon them. If they marry, they end up fatally mismatched. As one realizes in retrospect, when meditating on the whole, beneath the dazzling pageantry of Magyar aristocratic life, described in affectionate detail, lies a barren world of blindfolded shadows that whirl about in a hell of private solitude and forlornness, like in Dante’s fifth canto, nursing their regrets, their longings, and their unfulfilled ambitions (erotic, political, cultural or otherwise). This theme is never made explicit as such, but it runs though the three books of the trilogy (really one huge book, in fact). A fitting comparison, on some levels, could be Eduard von Keyserling’s dirge for late nineteenth-century Estonian aristocracy, carrying in its bosom the bitter seeds of doom and the curse of loneliness.

Is the Transylvanian Trilogy a bona fide literary masterpiece, on top of being a fascinating document and an arresting social fresco? At any rate, it comes very close to a canonic status, owing, among other things, to the distinguished work of its Western translators. The American edition is sober, lithe and matter of fact; the French edition, the only other complete alternative to my knowledge, stands out for its linguistic refinement and verbal richness, particularly in the occasional “bravura” pieces. The Italian and German translations, very well received by a discerning minority of readers, are stuck to volume one, and no news are given of the following installments – at least not by Einaudi. Masterpiece or not (who cares, really), this is a supremely enjoyable work that lovers of the genre, tired of working their yellowed copies of Anna Karenina, are certain to wolf down with unmingled relish. When things begin to get going around page 400 and the plot fully comes into swing around page 1.300, you can be certain to experience something different. The fact that Bánffy manages to give you so much by giving you so little at a time is a testament to his talent as a storyteller.

Running the full gamut between satirical miniature and tragic sublimity, dwelling at length on the costumes and pet peeves of a lost generation of Magyar aristocrats and commoners, the Transylvanian Trilogy is a supremely satisfying tour de force, if one’s appetite is strong enough to negotiate its most challenging shoals. In the way of picturing and satirizing east-European social life both sides of the watershed between the two centuries, it somehow picks up where Prus’s The Doll left off. A welcome relic from a time when “trilogies” were about substance, not a marketing gimmick.

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