»  The New Criterion

September 2016

  The Goulash Archipelago


Published as a review of The Transylvanian Trilogy, Vol. 1: They Were Counted & The Transylvanian Trilogy, Vols. 2 & 3: They Were Found Wanting, They Were Divided by Miklós Bánffy, translated by Patrick Thursfield and Katalin Bánffy-Jelen.


I recently needed to read up on Austria-Hungary, the large and potent state that existed in central and southeastern Europe from 1867 to 1918. With the help of friends, and some internet browsing, I drew up a short booklist and worked my way through it. My list was biased towards fiction and memoir — Robert Musil, Joseph Roth, Stefan Zweig — as I knew the history in sufficient outline and wanted to get the flavor, the everyday detail of the place.

Half a dozen books into this project I thought I had been reading too much from the Austrian side. What were the Hungarians up to? Asking around, my attention was snagged, for particular reasons I'll relate in due course, by hearing of Miklós Bánffy's Transylvanian Trilogy, a big social-historical-political novel about Hungarian aristocrats in the decade before World War I. I read all three volumes right off, with both pleasure and instruction.

The Trilogy has been called "the Hungarian War and Peace," but other than by giving a clue to the length of the thing — 1,392 pages in translation — this is misleading. There is no war in the story at all until the very last pages. "The Hungarian Downton Abbey" would be closer to the mark, except that Bánffy gives us more parliamentary politics and less below-stairs intrigue among the servant classes than does Julian Fellowes' TV show. The Trilogy's overall ethos of aristocratic paternalism is very Downtonian, though. I cannot find any evidence of a TV dramatization, but there must surely be a producer in Budapest yearning to do one.

Miklós Bánffy (1873-1950) was writing about what he knew. He himself was born into the Hungarian aristocracy of Transylvania. He lived a busy and useful life, surviving both world wars. The Trilogy was first published in the Hungarian language as three books, each with a different title, between 1934 and 1940. My review is of an English translation made in the 1990s; I cannot read Hungarian.

The events of the novel, and the circumstances of its author, are set in times and places unfamiliar to most educated Americans; so before considering the Trilogy itself, I have thought it best to detour through some helpful (I hope) prefatory material of a historical, political, and — if I may be excused — personal kind about those times and places.


Austria-Hungary was a peculiar creation. Whether or not it is proper to call it a state is a matter of fine distinctions. It was certainly not an ethnostate; I wonder if there has ever in history been a political entity that was further from being an ethnostate. There were major tensions between Austrians and Hungarians; but those two ethnies combined were only 44 percent of the population. (I am working from the 1900 census numbers given in the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica.) Austrians were a minority in Austria (35 percent), and Hungarians only barely a majority in Hungary (51 percent). The rest of the population was a preposterous salad of Czechs, Slovaks, Poles, Ruthenes, Slovenes, Italians, Serbs, Croats, Romanians, Szeklers, Gypsies, Jews, Transylvanian Saxons, Greeks, Armenians, and, after 1908, Bosnians.

Both the birth and the death of Austria-Hungary were consequences of military defeat. The death was of course inflicted by the allied powers in World War I, Austria-Hungary having fought on Germany's side.

The birth had followed from Prussia's victory over what was then the Austrian Empire in the Seven Weeks War of June-August 1866. Prior to that war, Hungarian nationalism had been a growing force ever since the Austrian Empire condensed out of the old Habsburg dominions in 1804. There was actually a brief, futile war of Hungarian independence in 1848-9, leading to years of brutal repression by Austria and seething resentment by Hungarian nationalists.

(It is typical of the ethnic chaos of the region that the great figurehead Hungarian patriot of that war, the poet and revolutionary Sándor Petőfi, whose portrait has graced Hungarian banknotes, was only ambiguously an ethnic Hungarian. He was born in Hungary, but his parents were Slovaks.)

The 1866 humiliation of Austria by Prussia brought matters to a head. To preserve the tottering state, Hungary was granted considerable autonomy as a kingdom yoked to the Austrian Empire under a single monarch, the Emperor-King. The granting was formalized in the Ausgleich (Compromise) of 1867.

This imperial-and-royal arrangement, in German kaiserlich und königlich, gave Austria-Hungary the abbreviation by which speakers of German commonly refer to it: the k.u.k., pronounced "kah und kah." Musil, in The Man Without Qualities, spoofs this as "Kakania." In English it is often called the Dual Monarchy. The actual monarch for well-nigh the entire existence of the state — all but the last two years — was Franz Joseph of the house of Habsburg, a sensible and effective ruler, one of history's great reactionaries. November 21st this year marks the centenary of his death, which I hope will be noted with proper honors and respect.


And then, Transylvania, the land "across the woods" — from metropolitan Hungary, that is.

(The Hungarians clung to Latin as a public language for longer than the rest of Europe, in part because none of their neighbors could be bothered to learn Hungarian, a Uralic tongue radically different in structure and vocabulary from all the major languages of the continent. The composer Franz Liszt, a German-speaker but proud of his Hungarian ancestry, tried to master the language but gave up after encountering the word for "unshakability": tántorithatatlanság. The Hungarian parliament conducted its business in Latin until 1843.)

Transylvania was part of the Kingdom of Hungary from the foundation of that state in the tenth century through to the disastrous first battle of Mohács (1526), when Hungary's army was routed by the Ottoman Turks. Transylvania then lingered under Turkish suzerainty until recaptured by the Habsburg Monarchy after the 1683 siege of Vienna. It was recognized to be part of the Kingdom of Hungary again under the 1867 Compromise.

Hungarian rule over Transylvania ended with the Treaty of Trianon in 1920, when the region was awarded to Romania as part of the post-WW1 tidying-up of Europe. Hungarian patriots are still passionately angry about this. Here, for example, is Paul Lendvai, a sober and thoughtful commentator, in his 2003 book The Hungarians: "A single word, Trianon, sums up for all Hungarians to this day the most devastating tragedy in their history."

After the Iron Curtain disintegrated in 1989 there was serious agitation in Budapest for a war against Romania to recover the lost land, until the U.S. ambassador and others made it clear that Hungary's ambitions to join NATO and the EU would be annihilated by such action. The present-day radical-nationalist party Jobbik still has the recovery of Transylvania as one of its stated policy goals.

Thus Transylvania appears on today's maps as the northwest quarter of modern Romania, bounded on the east and south by the Carpathian Mountains.

In the modern Western imagination, Transylvania is of course associated with vampires, and with Vlad "the Impaler" Dracul, a medieval Prince of Wallachia who is supposed to have been the inspiration for Bram Stoker's Count Dracula. The first association derives from Carpathian folklore, with which Stoker was familiar. The second is tenuous; Wallachia is not, and never was, part of Transylvania.

Still, the popular connection between Transylvania and matters gothic — in the literary sense of that word: wolf-haunted forests, superstitious peasants, deep ravines, grim castles — is not altogether misguided. I myself hitch-hiked through the region in my 1964 college vacation, aged nineteen. (Thirty years previously, also aged nineteen, Patrick Leigh Fermor had traversed the same ground on horseback, as told in his memoir Between the Woods and the Water.) I met only kind hospitality from the people; but the wild, strange Transylvanian landscape — the Trilogy has some fine lyrical descriptions — left a strong impression on my mind.

At the risk of triggering a flood of angry letters from Hungarian patriots, I should say that the Treaty of Trianon made some demographic sense. The 1900 census showed Romanians as much the largest of the nationalities in Transylvania, at 56 percent. Hungarians, with the ethnically related Szeklers, were only 23 percent.

Third most numerous in that census, at 9.4 percent, were "Saxons" — descendants of German-speaking immigrants imported by Hungarian kings in the 12th and 13th centuries to help defend the kingdom's borders. The Saxons are mostly gone now. The communist Romanian dictator Nicolai Ceauşescu flagrantly sold them to the West German government at so much per head. Most of the rest left after the Cold War. (Although by no means all did so: the President of Romania at the time of writing, Klaus Iohannis, is a Transylvanian Saxon.)

I am obliged to the Saxons for making my own passage through pre-Ceauşescu Transylvania easier. Knowing neither Hungarian nor Romanian, I carried phrasebooks for both; but in even the smallest towns there was always someone who could understand my high-school German. My main problem was cartographic. The maps I carried showed only Romanian place-names (Cluj, Sibiu), but every town also had a Hungarian name (Kolozsvár, Nagyszeben) and a German one (Klausenburg, Hermannstadt). Transylvania is not a tidy place.

Readers of the Trilogy may likewise be baffled by the Transylvanian place-names in the novel, many of them real. They are given in their Hungarian forms; but modern sources often show only the Romanian. Vasarhely, the first town mentioned in the book, is Târgu Moreş in my atlas. (I may as well note here too that the translators of the Trilogy have dropped all diacritical marks from Hungarian place and personal names: Vasarhely is more properly Vásárhely.)


The Trilogy is precisely one hundred chapters of straightforward third-person narrative, progressing in time from late 1904 to the outbreak of war in the summer of 1914. That Bánffy's literary fame rests on such a traditionalist foundation is slightly odd. He was by no means hostile to modernism, at any rate in music. As director of Budapest's Royal Opera, 1912-18, he promoted and designed sets for Béla Bartók's stage works.

The book's major character, through whose eyes we see most of the action, is Balint Abady, who holds the rank of Count in the Hungarian aristocracy of Transylvania. Possessed of a university education and two years' experience in the diplomatic corps, Balint is 26 when the story opens. He has returned to Transylvania "hoping that he could perhaps make himself useful in his own country." Inspired by that hope, he has taken a seat in Hungary's parliament.

Balint is plainly the author's self-impersonation. He certainly shares Miklós Bánffy's 19th-century liberal values. Halfway through the second book Balint recalls an occasion when, as an adolescent, he had thoughtlessly expressed too much pride in his ancestry. His grandfather had reproved him:

We can be proud that our forebears honestly carried out what was expected of them, that is all. Family conceit because of such things is not only ridiculous but also dangerous to the character … This is the real meaning of noblesse oblige!

In pursuit of those values and that ideal, Balint devotes much effort to improving the lives of the peasants in his domains, establishing co-operatives and rooting out corrupt officials.

His youthful zeal does not always meet with success. As his secretary observes after one failure: "Count Balint doesn't know enough about human nature." The peasants of Transylvania's mountains and forests lived — perhaps still live — amid an ancient, dense, rooted tangle of ethnic, religious, and customary rivalries not easily penetrated by liberal idealism.

Our author, writing in his sixties, was far more worldly than the young Balint whom he draws so sympathetically. He had himself served as a member of parliament, 1900-1906; then he witnessed the catastrophe of World War I and the loss of Transylvania; then he served as Hungary's Foreign Secretary, 1921-22. He places Balint's struggles with Carpathian village tyrants in the much larger context of the slow collapse of 19th-century liberalism.

A different Hungarian author, John Lukacs, wrote in his book Budapest 1900 — an excellent background reference, by the way, for the political passages in the Trilogy — that: "The general crisis of nineteenth-century Liberalism has not yet found its general historian." Supposing Lukacs to have been correct (he was writing in 1988), we none the less have some fine detailed views of the elephant from particular angles. George Dangerfield's Strange Death of Liberal England comes to mind. Bánffy's Trilogy, although fiction, can be considered a contribution to this genre, with many useful insights.

There were two forces working against liberalism in the years before WW1: socialism and nationalism. Both were factors everywhere, though in different proportions, with socialism the stronger factor where industrialization had advanced furthest.

Britain, for example, dismissed its last Liberal government in 1922 and hailed its first Labour ministry two years later: socialism triumphant. The most vigorous nationalism in the British Isles was Ireland's, which won a victory of its own in the 1921 Treaty establishing the Free State. Seen from London, this at first looked like a win for liberalism — in fact for Liberalism: Home Rule had been a longstanding Liberal aspiration. History had other ideas, though, and an illiberal clerico-nationalism soon settled in among the Irish.

The 1867 Compromise that created Austria-Hungary was the real liberal thing: Home Rule for Hungarians. The parallels with Britain and Ireland were plain to Hungarians. If Hungary was the Ireland of the Dual Monarchy, however, Transylvania was an Ireland within that Ireland. Like the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy, Hungarian aristocrats in Transylvania held their estates in a backward, agricultural land whose people were mostly of different religion and ethnicity.

It is therefore not very surprising to find a recurring theme of Anglophilia in the Trilogy. Bánffy has some sport with this. One minor character, Isti Kalmuthy, manages via a diplomatic fluke to get himself elected to an exclusive London gentlemen's club. Carried away with this success, he shows up at Transylvania's grandest social occasion in a pink English hunting jacket, with unforeseen and hilarious consequences.

(Readers who have seen that wonderful 1985 movie The Shooting Party will recall that the Hungarian aristocracy's affection for England was not invariably reciprocated.)


Bánffy was an eyewitness to the shambolic parliamentary politics of pre-WW1 Hungary. He supplies some withering descriptions.

The underlying issues here were, first, aggressive Hungarian nationalism ("1848-ers") versus the more irenic upholders of the Compromise with Austria ("1867-ers"); and second, Austria-Hungary's national-minorities problem. That second issue contained two sub-problems, that of the Slavs and that of the Transylvanian non-Slav ethnies.

The parliament as constituted was not strongly motivated to effect solutions. The franchise was limited to just six percent of the population (in Transylvania, three percent), with no secret ballot, and Vienna of course could veto anything that displeased the Emperor-King.

The can't-we-all-get-along 1867-ers were not helped by the fact that Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the aging Franz Joseph until the unfortunate events of June 1914 in Sarajevo, was perceived to be pro-Slav and anti-Hungarian. (His wife was Czech.) He seems to have wanted to replace the Dual Monarchy with an Austro-Slavic-Hungarian triple version. One of his men, Count Slawata, chases Balint through the Trilogy in an effort to recruit our hero to the Heir's cause.

The overall impression Bánffy gives of political frivolity and futility is supported by historians. Paul Lendvai:

The practice of politics in old Hungary was very much like a comic opera with a handful of aristocrats as actors, who changed their political positions on a whim, or as their mutual personal situations determined.


The Trilogy is much more than a merely political novel. The proper business of a novelist is to show us the many varieties of human character responding to circumstances. Bánffy does not disappoint.

Balint, for example, is afflicted with romantic love. The object of his desire, Adrienne Miloth, is a rather stiff, well-brought-up young lady who "prefers a waltz to a csardas" (the vigorous folk dance of Hungary). Unfortunately she is married to a different Transylvanian aristocrat. Even more unfortunately, Adrienne's husband has conducted the intimate side of their marriage with brutish disregard for her feelings, leaving Adrienne horrified and disgusted by her own sexuality, unable at first to respond to Balint's advances.

The efforts of Balint and Adrienne to overcome these difficulties are described with a keen psychological insight that never descends into salacity. Bánffy is one of those authors — less common now than eighty years ago, it seems to me — who gives his reader the reassuring impression of being in the hands of a grown-up, a person unillusioned yet compassionate towards human weakness.

Bánffy brings these qualities to bear with fine judgment in dealing with his other major character, Laszlo Gyeroffy. A childhood friend and second cousin of Balint's, Laszlo is more sensual and self-absorbed, less the public man. He too is in love. The trajectory of his love is pinned at each end, eight and a half years apart — seventy-two chapters in the Trilogy — with fine Proustian precision, by a small blue tote ticket from a race meeting.

The fortunes of Balint, Adrienne, and Laszlo are never far from our attention. They are varied, though, with sketches of many memorable minor characters: a sinister butler, a Machiavellian estate manager, a bird-brained young flirt, a sophisticated woman of pleasure, and so on. I especially liked Balint's stolid, inarticulate cousin Gazsi Kadacsay, whom everyone assumes to have no interest in anything but horses. It turns out at last that Gazsi has been reading Schopenhauer on the sly, with inevitably dire consequences.


The Trilogy is not without faults. There are some purple passages that would not be out of place in a supermarket-bookstand bodice-ripper.

They looked into each other's eyes for a long time, seriously, not very close, almost at arm's length apart. He did not have to say more, for Adrienne knew at once what he had meant.

I believe one should be tolerant of this kind of thing in translated fiction. A different Hungarian author, Arthur Koestler, wrote ruefully in later life of having been pleased with himself for including, in his first English-language novel, a reference to the "indifferent stars." The phrase was strikingly original in Hungarian, he wrote; he had not realized that to English ears it sounds rather threadbare.

With these slight qualifications, I recommend The Transylvanian Trilogy to any reader who enjoys human drama played out on a broad social-historical canvas. Miklós Bánffy died in 1950, penniless and in exile from his Transylvanian homeland, his beloved family estates pillaged and smashed by the Red Army. His world is irrevocably gone, but his thoughts, hopes, passions, and disappointments live on yet in this fine literary masterpiece.

[Added later, not in the print version:  A friend looked up that Koestler quote in my penultimate paragraph. Koestler actually wrote "incurious stars," not "indifferent stars."

Moral of the story: When, getting weary near the end of a long article, you are tempted to rely on your memory rather than look something up in the original source, you should resist the temptation.]