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This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

Monday, June 18, 2012

Transylvanian Trilogy

There are not many books available in the English language about this part of the world – Olivia Manning’s The Balkan Trilogy is perhaps the best known - covering the period just before and then during the Second World War.
Over the course of the last ten years, however, mostly through word-of-mouth recommendations, another trilogy The Writing on the Wall, originally published in Hungary between 1934 and 1940, has come available in English (thanks to a translation by his daughter) and bids to be considered as one of the finest works of the 20th century. The first volume, unfortunately, is out of print but I have just finished the second; and the final volume They were divided will arrive shortly here at my Transylvanian mountain redoubt.
The author was Count Miklos Banffy who had a huge ancestral estate in Transylvania, but was also a politician in the Austro-Hungarian empire and after WW I he became Hungary's Foreign Minister. The central character in the trilogy is Count Balint Abady, and we follow his story through the ten years leading up to the outbreak of WW I. Abady is a voice of reason in the Austro-Hungarian government as the empire dithers and bickers its way into the dustbin of history. But politics is only one facet in this vastly entertaining trilogy. Banffy is a great storyteller, and he stuffs the novels with colourful, vibrant characters. There are frustrated, doomed lovers, dissolute aristocrats, scheming estate overseerers, gypsies, a barking mad count, and a couple of dozen other memorable characters – most living their lives just up the road from the Brasov area (where I live) in and around what is now Cluj but is identified in the book by its Hungarian name Kolozsvar. Add in duels, hunts, balls and sundry intrigues and you have 1,500 or so pages of addictive reading. Banffy wants to tell the often bitter truth about the world he knew and he wants to do it in the most vivacious way possible.The second volume is called They Were Found Wanting and one reviewer caught the mood well
This book is the saddest, most gracefully told, subtly portentous book I've read in years, and it's only the second book in the trilogy. First off, the writing is anything but bathetic. It is poetic where poetry is summoned by circumstance and, likewise, quotidian when needs be. It is altogether unbelievably exquisite in the execution. The subject matter has two mirroring themes, constantly playing off against each other, the political obliviousness of aristocratic Hungary as it hurries unwittingly towards WWI, and, more shatteringly poignant to this reader, the slow, inexorable crumbling of the doomed love between Count Balint Abady and the married Adrienne. Here, for example, is the description of Abady's enchantment with the estate woodland, his love for which is only enhanced by his love for Adrienne: "Everywhere there were only these three colours, silver, grey, and vivid green: and the more that Balint gazed around him the more improbable and ethereal did the forest seem until it was only those strands near at hand, which moved gently in the soft breeze, that seemed real while everything further off, the pale lilac shaded into violet, was like clouds of vapour in slight perpetual movement as if swaying to the rhythm of some unheard music."
After WW II, Banffy, like a character in a tragic novel, ended up reduced to a landless nobody with a meaningless title in communist Hungary. His Transylvanian home Banffy Castle at Bontida village was destroyed by retreating Germans in vengeance for his role in Romania changing sides in the second world war. He died in 1950. But the good news is that, under The Transylvanian Trust, the castle is being restored and is now a training centre for craft skills.

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