In his column in the Daily Telegraph, former editor Charles Moore praises Miklos Banffy as ‘the Tolstoy of Transylvania’. Ardent Banffyites like yours truly are always pleased when the Hungarian novelist gets attention in the English-speaking world, which happens all too rarely. I can’t remember how on earth I stumbled upon the works of Banffy, probably through reading the Hungarian Quarterly, a publication that — covering art, literature, history, politics, science, and more — is admirably polymathic in our age where the specialist niche is worshipped.
Simply put, Miklos Banffy is a must-read. If you love Paddy Leigh Fermor’s telling of his youthful walk from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople (the third and final installation of which we still await), then Miklos Banffy will be right up your alley. Start with his Transylvanian trilogy — They Were Counted, They Were Found Wanting, and They Were Divided.
The story follows two cousins, the earnest Balint Abady and the dissolute László Gyeroffy, Hungarian aristocrats in Transylvania, and the varying paths they take in the final years of European civilization. The novels “are full of love for the way of life destroyed by the First World War,” Charles Moore points out, “but without illusion about its deficiencies.” Three volumes of nearly one-and-a-half thousand pages put together, they make for deeply, deeply rewarding reading, transporting you to the world that ended with the crack of an assassin’s bullet in Sarajevo, 1914.
After finishing his trilogy, Banffy’s autobiographical The Phoenix Land is worthwhile; some of the real events depicted shadow those in the fictional novels. As previously mentioned, it contains a description of the last Hapsburg coronation (that of Blessed Charles) and numerous amusing tales. After that, I’m afraid you will have to learn Hungarian, as I have neglected to do, as no more of this author’s oeuvre has yet been translated into English.
Blessed Emperor Charles was crowned as Apostolic King of Hungary on the 30th of December in 1916. It was the last Hapsburg coronation to this day. For those interested there are two accounts which do justice to the sacred rites. One is by that most devoted admirer of the Hapsburgs, Gordon Brook-Shepherd, in his excellent biography of Charles, The Last Hapsburg. (Brook-Shepherd also wrote excellent and quite readable biographies of the Empress Zita, of Crown Prince Otto, of Chancellor Dollfuß, and Baron Sir Rudolf von Slatin Pasha).
It was only later that I heard what had happened early that morning. When my old valet called me he announced three things: my bath had been prepared, revolution had broken out, and Count Mihály Károlyi was now Minister-President. »