Photo by Stefan Cristian Cioata

Land of his birth

Little of the Hungarian aristocrats’ world remains, except a few crumbling buildings — and Count Bánffy’s stories

Artillery Row

Despite the name, Bánffy Castle in Transylvania is completely bereft of defensive features. The word “castle” conjures up images of battlements, towers and other warlike accoutrements from the medieval era, but in Eastern Europe, it’s something of a catch-all term for any aristocratic estate, however peaceful. Today, visitors can explore what’s left of the castle grounds in the Carpathian foothills, about 30 kilometers outside Cluj-Napoca, the largest city in Transylvania.

The Monkey and other stories, Miklós Bánffy, Blue Danube Press, 2021

The estate, once described by visitors as the Versailles of Eastern Europe, retains a certain fading grandeur. A gentle lawn rises up to meet the crumbling main building; from the right angle, it is still possible to imagine liveried servants, carriages and the odd motorcar conveying guests to dinner or a ball. A striking gothic tower tilts drunkenly to one side, held up only by a few strategically-placed wooden beams. The stables are long empty of horses but still crowned by elaborate stone cornices. The Bánffy family ghosts might deplore the condition of their estate, but they would at least be able to recognize the grounds.

The last master of this collection of ruined buildings was Count Miklós Bánffy, one of the most remarkable figures of 20th century Eastern Europe and author of The Monkey and other stories and The Remarkable Mrs. Anderson, two new English translations from Blue Danube Press. The books are charming but ultimately minor additions to the Bánffy oeuvre, worth reading mainly because of what they tell us about the transformation of Eastern Europe within Bánffy’s own lifetime.   

Bánffy was a Hungarian aristocrat from a distinguished old family, but his estate is now several hundred kilometers from the Hungarian border, and he spent the second half of his life as a Romanian citizen. The political turbulence that led to this strange state of affairs still hangs over Eastern Europe. After World War I, the defeated Austro-Hungarian Empire was carved up among successor states, stranding millions of Hungarians on the wrong side of newly-created borders. The Hungarian enclave in Transylvania is one legacy of this postwar settlement, as are surviving Hungarian communities in Ukraine, Slovakia and Serbia. 

Bánffy was at home in a world before nation-states

The most compelling parts of these new translations touch on the overlapping cultural, ethnic, linguistic and religious identities of a region that was until very recently quite diverse. Today, Eastern Europe is seen as a hotbed of atavistic nationalism, but borders that follow ethnic and linguistic boundaries are a 20th century innovation. Bánffy was very at home in a world before homogenous nation-states, and his fiction is a window into the last generation of cosmopolitan Eastern Europeans.

The Monkey and other stories is notable mostly for the author’s range and not its consistent excellence, although most of the stories are enjoyable and all are at least interesting. In the introduction to one story, Bánffy admits that he stumbled across it while cleaning out his old writing desk. Other entries hop between genres, from historical fiction about the later years of Helen of Troy to H. G. Wells-ian sci-fi. After an unusual beginning, the titular Monkey turns out to be a spy caper. 

“Write what you know” is a hoary old cliche, but in Bánffy’s case, the best stories are connected to the land of his birth. “Wolves” is a tense account of the capture of a fugitive Transylvanian rebel. “Lememame”, a taut moral drama, is told from the point of view of a Romanian stretcher-bearer in World War I. The best story from the collection, “Somewhere”, is by turns bitter, bracing and moving, a lament for the lost world of Hungarian Transylvania. Bánffy became a Romanian citizen after the war, but he was, at heart, a Hungarian, and the irreparable sense of loss in “Somewhere” is almost tangible. 

The Remarkable Mrs Anderson, Miklós Bánffy, Blue Danube Press, 2021

The Remarkable Mrs Anderson, meanwhile, is a fun but forgettable romp that follows the aftermath of a Budapest art heist during the interwar period. Readers interested in Bánffy’s best longform work should seek out The Transylvanian Trilogy, his sweeping account of Greater Hungary’s insular ruling class on the eve of World War I. Mrs Anderson, while enjoyable, is notable mainly as a showcase for the author’s easy fluency with all elements of high culture, from Renaissance art to classical music. 

Wealthy aristocrats with more time and money than good sense are often accused of dilettantism, and the breeziness of Mrs Anderson and many of these short stories imply that Bánffy was sometimes guilty of the same tendency. Skipping from sci-fi to the court of Marie Antoinette to the theft of a priceless Da Vinci is certainly suggestive of a man who favored breadth over depth. 

But this remarkable breadth of experience also informs Bánffy’s fiction. One suspects that it was this broadmindedness of spirit that enabled Bánffy to become a Romanian citizen after the wrenching dissolution of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire, which he had once served as a Member of the Hungarian Parliament. The same broadmindedness also inspired Bánffy’s last political act, a farsighted but doomed effort to simultaneously extract Hungary and Romania from the Axis alliance in World War II and pursue favorable peace terms with the Allies. The proposal was foiled by the intractable Magyar-Romanian rift over Transylvania, the land of Bánffy’s birth, the setting for his best fiction and a thorn in the side of the two countries’ relationship to this very day. 

Bánffy’s biography and range of interests are interesting counterpoints to his successors, the revolutionaries and technocrats who would supplant the old order and reshape Eastern European politics for the remainder of the 20th century. Antique dynastic and territorial loyalties gave way to an array of new ideologies, from nationalism to communism to Western-style liberalism. Vast multinational empires were subdivided, often violently, into coherent nation-states. Countries became less cosmopolitan but more equal, less heterogeneous but more cohesive, and peoples and cultures that had once mixed freely were suddenly separated by newly-hardened borders, identities and political rivalries.  

What’s left of the Bánffy estate is a reproach

None were more aware of the old order’s faults than Bánffy, whose novels and short stories are populated by feckless noblemen and well-bred n’er’do’wells. But there is something to be said for at least a few members of the prewar ruling class. Blinkered by jargon and overspecialization, today’s well-credentialed managers lack breadth and vision, whereas Bánffy’s range of interests afforded him both literary achievement and an impressive (albeit unheeded) grasp of Hungary’s tenuous geopolitical position. Meanwhile, Bánffy’s devotion to the land of his birth made him a better steward than the rapacious revolutionaries, tinpot nationalists and bloodless technocrats who have ruled Transylvania ever since. 

What’s left of the Bánffy estate is itself a reproach to its former owner’s successors. The buildings were torched by retreating German troops during World War II, a conflict gleefully entered into by shortsighted Hungarian nationalists, and then neglected by the post-war Romanian communist regime, which turned the estate into a dilapidated hospital. The Transylvanian Trust, a joint Hungarian-Romanian undertaking, has since 1999 made an effort to restore the grounds, but money is hard to come by, and concessions have to be made to the new Eastern Europe. The estate now hosts the likes of Limp Bizkit for summer concerts. 

In “Somewhere”, the reader encounters a group of stubborn Hungarian holdouts who have remained in Transylvania after World War I, their estates requisitioned by the new government, their valuables confiscated, their former titles and positions rendered meaningless. Little of their world remains except Bánffy’s stories and a few crumbling old buildings outside Cluj-Napoca, which the Hungarians still call Kolozsvár. Both are worth preserving.

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