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A portrait of the Hungarian aristocracy before the First World War
on 25 December 2013
This is the first volume of the Hungarian classic, the "Transylvanian Trilogy", set in the years from 1904 to 1906. Transylvania was then a province of the Hungarian part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Part One opens with Count Balint Abady, a young member of the Hungarian Parliament, going to attend a large party held at the castle of a neighbouring member of the aristocracy - it will be beautifully described later - , and for the first two chapters we are swamped by the other people who attended it. I jotted down some 35 names before I gave up as new people kept on being named - a really forbidding beginning, and only the favourable reviews written by other readers on the Amazon site kept me going. At the beginning of Part Two there is a shooting party at another castle, and more than a dozen further new names are introduced. Many of these people belong to inter-related families; but, unless the reader is willing to skim over this, he will have to work out, bit by bit, even until quite late in the novel, in what way they are connected; and even then it is not always clear: family trees would have been very welcome. In my opinion the book would have been very much better if a large number of the lesser characters which throng its pages had been eliminated.
There are many passages about Hungarian politics - for example about the difficult relationship between the Hungarian and the Austrian halves of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Since 1867 the Hungarians were supposed to be equal partners, with separate governments but, to their resentment, there is a common army which they feel is controlled by the Austrians. In Part Two we learn about the scandalous events in the Hungarian Parliament on "the 18th November" (year not given, though it is 1904), which seem to be well known to Hungarian readers, but what exactly was at stake here or later in the book will not be at all clear to readers who are not familiar with Hungarian history in general and that of Transylvania in particular. There are, for example, references to a Memorandum Trial which is not otherwise explained. (It had in fact led to the imprisonment in 1892 of a number of Romanians for having published a Memorandum demanding of national representation for their people.) Banffy, who had himself been elected to the Hungarian Parliament in 1901, makes clear that he disapproved of the policy of the Hungarian Prime Minister, Count Tisza, positively detested the rabble of the opposition which secured a majority in 1905, and was opposed to the government imposed by the Crown later that year and to the temporary suspension the Hungarian Constitution early in 1906.
We are given a picture of the life-style and etiquette (at balls, at hunting parties, at card games, at duels) of this narrow and introverted aristocratic circle, their lives punctuated by one glittering party after another, with stiff footmen in attendance, where passions have to conveyed discreetly, where talk was shallow and where gossip was rife, where passions had to be conveyed discreetly, and where the men who did not dance gambled heavily at card tables. As in other novels of the period, financial ruin threatens some of these nobles. We meet various obsequious and not-to-be trusted hangers-on. Attitudes are feudal, hierarchical and snobbish. Balint alone has something of a social conscience and cares about the Romanian peasants on his estate. The other aristocrats are scarcely conscious of them. All this while Austria-Hungary is weakened by internal tensions between the two halves of the Empire (and also between the Hungarian ruling class and the Romanian population in Transylvania); and the Hungarian parliamentarians are so caught up in these internal disputes that they pay no attention the threats to the Empire from outside.
Eventually the book will revolve principally around only a small handful of the huge cast of characters: Balint Abady (in love with the unhappily married Adrienne Uzdy, - a subtle portrait); his cousin Laszlo Gyeroffi (in love with Klara Kollonich, whose father and step-mother intend her to marry someone of a more exalted social standing).
Their love stories, with their tortuous courses full of understandings and misunderstandings, will then sail along far more readably and indeed grippingly, though they will frequently be interrupted by politics, or by lyrical descriptions of Banffy's beloved Transylvanian landscapes at the different seasons of the year, and of the exteriors and interiors of the many manors which are the settings of the events in the book. A subplot about a scoundrel of an Austrian officer, Egon Wickwitz, will merge with that of Balint and Laszlo.
The characters of these two cousins diverge more and more: Balint remaining noble, idealistic and with a strong sense of patriarchal duty, while Laszlo drifted into reckless self-destruction. The ending of this first volume of the Trilogy leaves much in the air, and some readers will want to go immediately to the second volume (They Were Found Wanting) and to the third (They Were Divided). I may do this myself eventually; but for the moment I am rather exhausted by a novel which, for all its many qualities, is rather long drawn out and presents the other difficulties to which I have already referred.