The Journey To Bontida – Transylvania Trilogy (An Invitation To A Vanished World – Part One)

The journey to Bontida and Banffy Castle began for me far away from Transylvania where both the village and castle are located. My journey began in the 6th District (Terezvaros) of Budapest inside Bestsellers bookstore. This fine establishment carries the largest inventory of English language books in the city. This includes an excellent selection of English language translations of Hungarian novels. This was where I first learned of The Writing On The Wall trilogy (Transylvania Trilogy in English) by Miklos Banffy. I spotted three large paperback books stacked side by side on shelves. Each had a rather austere and direct title. The first volume, They Were Counted, had a cover photo of a grand manor house with several people standing outside a double arched entrance. The second volume, They Were Found Wanting, showed three horse drawn carriages just outside another entrance to what looked the same manor house. The final book, They Were Divided, was a bit slimmer than the other two thick volumes. Its cover photo showed an arched exit from some type of walled courtyard or stable.

The usual celebratory blurbs for reviews written on the backsides of each volume recommended them to potential readers. My favorite of these was one from The Guardian which began by saying that the trilogy “charts this glittering spiral of decline.” Such phraseology and the fact that the books concerned Transylvania piqued my interest. This was a Transylvania of which I was unfamiliar, instead of vampires or legends of Count Dracula there was a vanished world of Hungarian aristocracy. I did not purchase any of the books right away, lugging around three volumes of a combined 1,392 pages for the rest of a trip that would take me on into Serbia and Bulgaria did not seem like a good idea at the time. I wrote down Banffy’s name and Transylvania Trilogy so I could order them when I got back home.

The Transylvania Trilogy of Miklos Banffy

The Transylvania Trilogy of Miklos Banffy

Creating A Universe All Its Own – The Magic Of Miklos Banffy
Several weeks later Banffy’s Trilogy arrived in the mail. It took me a couple of months to read all three volumes, but it was an experience so good that I plan on repeating it one day. For me the sign of a great book is that it creates a universe the reader can inhabit, a universe all its own that cannot be found anywhere else other than between that book’s pages. Banffy manages to create such a universe and keep it going across all three volumes. His writing is semi-autobiographical, reflecting personal affairs and acquaintances. It also delves deeply into the politics of Austria-Hungary, including the rise of ethnic nationalism in the lead up to the First World War. Banffy paints a vivid portrait of a fading aristocratic class that is depraved and demented, on the cusp of cataclysm. Even more impressively, Banffy brings the windswept plateaus, deep, dark forests and alpine landscapes of Transylvania to life. The fierce beauty and magical wonder of the environment are eloquently rendered.

The book’s core story revolves around an ill-fated romance between Balint Abady and the unhappily married Ady Uzdy. Surrounding the love affair is the decline and fall of a host of characters including Balint’s cousin Laszlo, Ady’s increasingly mentally ill husband Pal Uzdy and various personages who represent the decadence at the heart of aristocratic society in Transylvania during the waning days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Love, jealousy, duty, loyalty and betrayal all come into play. By the end of the third book I felt an intimacy with the characters, era and landscape that made them not so much larger than life, but a part of life. The life that was pervasive in Transylvania before it fell into perpetual decline.

Miklos Banffy - author of The Writing On The Wall Trilogy

Miklos Banffy – author of The Writing On The Wall Trilogy (Credit: Lipót Strelisky)

Resurrecting A Ruin – A World Back To Life
The books were so good that they made me want to experience this world for myself. I began to note the place names, wondering if any of them might still offer a window into the world Banffy wrote about. The logical starting point was Kolozsvar (known by its Romanian name of Cluj-Napoca today) which was mentioned many times. It was and still is today the largest city in Transylvania, the region’s commercial and cultural capital. After doing some research, I discovered that Banffy was buried in Cluj. Of greater interest, the manor house where many important scenes in the books are set was still standing in the village of Bontida, not far from Cluj. From what I could find much of it was in ruins, but was being restored. Known as Banffy Kastely, it suffered grave damage near the end of World War II.

Banffy had spearheaded a futile attempt to arrange peace with the Soviet Union to try and forestall the Red Army’s overwhelming onslaught into Hungary during 1944. Banffy was trying to pull Hungary out of their alliance with Nazi Germany, realizing that Hungary was on the edge of catastrophe. His peace overture ultimately failed. The Nazis retaliated by looting, burning and ruining much of the castle, including one of the best libraries in all of Europe. Following the overthrow of Romania’s communist dictator Nicolae Ceaucescu in 1989, the castle slowly came back into historical consciousness, helped in no small part by the publishing and translation of Banffy’s The Writing On The Wall trilogy. Efforts to make it something more than a mere ruin were being boosted by its present role as a heritage restoration field school.

Banffy Castle - a chance to chase ghosts

Banffy Castle – a chance to chase ghosts

A Chance To Chase Ghosts – Seeking Shadows & Light
All of this information had a magnetic effect upon me. I began to dream of visiting the castle, of walking in the footsteps of Banffy and his characters who seemed to exist in a timeless world of romance, passion and conflicting emotions. I felt a sense of enchantment, as though I could travel into a fantasy, albeit one that was filled more with shadow than light. Here was a chance to chase ghosts, perhaps even to catch a glimpse of one in some forgotten corner of a Transylvanian valley. Imagination began to overtake reality. Thus I planned to make the trek to Cluj via Budapest by train. From Cluj I would find my way onto Bontida, to see for myself what could be discovered of a lost world.

Click here for: Everything In Its Path – The Train To Transylvania (An Invitation To A Vanished World: Part Two)

They Who Owe Me Everything – Miklos Banffy & Leipnik: On The Distant Shores Of Exile

One of the major faults of history is that so much of it tends to consist of an endless litany of facts and details. This comes at the expense of the compelling human drama that makes the past really come to life. When it comes to Eastern Europe, the standard national histories are almost always generally bland. These contain reams of statistics in place of anecdotes and avoid human interest stories in order to focus on broad political and economic trends. To find the meat and potatoes of history (and Eastern Europe has long subsisted quite literally on meat and potatoes) I look for first person accounts from people who made or were shaped by historical events. Once in a while I stumble across not only a great story about Eastern Europe, but also one that illuminates an entire age. Such stories are rarely found in standard history books, but they can often be found in memoirs.

Miklos Banffy in 1916

The eventual author – Miklos Banffy in 1916 before he authored The Phoenix Land or The Transylvania Trilogy

A Transylvanian Renaissance Man
One of the memoirs from an Eastern European that I would highly recommend is Miklos Banffy’s The Phoenix Land. Banffy was a Transylvanian aristocrat whose life and times were influenced by many important events including the golden age of Austria-Hungary, the First World War and its chaotic aftermath, the bitter interwar period that led to the cataclysm of World War II. Banffy was an active observer and participant in many of these events. He was something of a modern Renaissance man, involved in politics as a Member of the Hungarian Parliament eventually working his way up to a short stint as the Foreign Minister. He was also Director of the Hungarian State Theaters which during the World War I. This position made him the master of ceremonies for the coronation of the last Habsburg King, Karl I in Budapest. Posthumously, Banffy gained fame for his authorship of the famous three-volume Transylvanian Trilogy (They Were CountedThey Were Found Wanting and They Were Divided) that paints an unforgettable picture of aristocratic behavior in Transylvania during the early 20th century. He also authored a wonderful memoir, The Phoenix Land, which offers a look at his career in politics especially during the aftermath of World War I, a time when Hungary lost much of its territorial integrity.

In one part of that book Banffy recounts the adventures he had in 1919 while serving as an envoy to represent the interests of the Szekely, a Hungarian speaking people who inhabit the Eastern Carpathian Mountains in Transylvania. As part of his duties, Banffy tries to make his way to Great Britain where he can speak on behalf of the Szekely to post-war peacemakers. Banffy is quintessential wandering Hungarian, set adrift from his homeland by the outcome of war, something that occurred on countless occasions to Hungarians during the 20th century. He ends up in the Netherlands searching for someone who can help him get across the channel and gain access to peacemakers in England. Banffy, a man who heretofore in life had enjoyed the privileges of wealth and power that flowed from his elite, aristocratic background is reduced to searching the very fringes of society for help. This brings him into an unforgettable meeting with a deeply disturbed Hungarian exile, a man whose personality and principles are an unsettling example of deep rooted bitterness, cynicism and recrimination. The man known as Leipnik displays a disturbing array of reactionary emotions, the same ones that would come to plague both Hungary and Europe during the interwar years.

The strand in Scheveningen as it looked at the turn of the 20th century

Better days behind them – The strand in Scheveningen as it looked at the turn of the 20th century

On The Fringes Of A Stormy Sea
As Banffy relates: I had some other sources to tap as well. One of these led me a to a man of somewhat dubious reputation but who was one of those characters that come to the surface in wartime. He was a Mr. Leipnik of Hungarian descent but long resident in England. As far as I could gather he was regarded everywhere, at home as well as abroad, as a most suspicious character…He had prophesied the downfall of the Central Powers in the newspapers of several countries and had suggested that salvation would only be found in the same system of universal brotherhood as the League of Nations…

Mr. Leipnik lived at Scheveningen in one of those enormous fashionable hotels built along the seashore. When I went to see him there it was February, and the six-storey hotel, the last before one reached the northern dunes, had a forlorn air since most of the hundreds of windows were closed and the portico boarded up. Everything that during the high season in summer would be bright with flowers and color and new paint, was shabby, grey and battered. Everywhere, including the garden, seemed abandoned and strewn with rubbish. To reach his tiny room on God knows which upper floor I had to climb up a service stair. There, at last, I found the excellent Mr. Leipnik.

He was a short man, thin and grey and wrinkled. His face was line with deep furrows, and he was as yellow as a lemon. Also, alas, just as sour!

After a few polite preliminaries, I went straight to the point. How could I get to England?
“If I knew that I’d be there myself?” was the answer.
This was not a promising start, but as I persevered it soon became clear that my visit was for nothing.

He abused the English passionately – and every other Entente nation as well – complaining bitterly that during the “they” had all been only too happy to make use of him but now, now “they” didn’t care a hoot.

After hearing this I might just as well have gone straight back to The Hague, but now he started to interest me as an example of human oddity, and so I stayed smoking innumerable cigarettes, and from time to time throwing in a word or two to keep him talking. This he did, airing countless grievances. He went on for a long time, talking without cease even when it started to get dark, walking up and down in that little room which was barely four meters from the door to the window overlooking the sea.

He abused everybody: he hated everybody. He declared that “they” all owed everything to his noble ideas and generous spirit. Karolyi and Jaszi had taken all of their ideas from him but had no idea how to realize them – and not only that but they were stupid enough now not even to seek his advice.

It was the same with Lloyd George and Clemenceau – and Salandra – and everyone else too. They had without exception battened on him and stolen his ideas and were now merrily living it up in luxurious Parisian palaces , eating and drinking and toasting each other while he, the great Leipnik, was totally excluded. Even though their success was due to his wonderful ideas, they would not give him any credit. Of course they were full of envy and without talent, an so they saw to it that he was not only squeezed out and kept away from their counsels but also condemned to live here, in the misery of this shabby cold room, staring at the bleak ocean from the unheated squalor of this dreadful hole! This was their gratitude. This, their thanks, and this was how he was treated! He went on for a long time, not exactly in these words, but endlessly repeating a theme that never changed.

There was something essentially dramatic in the way that, as the room grew darker, his shape became silhouetted against the big bay window with its greenish shimmering background of an ocean here an there covered with grey fog – that “bitter sea” of Homer – an infinity of angry waves, their crests forever revealing that eternal, useless, restless wrath as it hammered itself against the hotel’s sea walls with a rhythmic monotonous roar.

Whenever I think about Leipnik, this is how I still see him, pacing up and down, up and down, endlessly repeating his litany of illusion to the accompaniment of the ocean’s angry rhythm that seemed so symbolic of eternal hopelessness.

It was certainly an interesting experience!

Beach at Scheveningen in Stormy Weather by Van Gogh

Beach at Scheveningen in Stormy Weather by Vincent Van Gogh – Miklos Banffy’s visit with Leipnik occurred under similar skies

From Interwar To World War – Cynicism, Bitterness & Disillusionment
This was much more than an interesting personal experience. Leipnik can also be seen as a striking example of a feeling that was beginning to stir in the hearts of millions during the interwar period. Marked by a vile disillusionment with the peace process, a loathing of real and imagined foes, the attitude of Leipnik was shared – albeit to a less exaggerated degree – by hundreds of thousands of Hungarians. Leipnik is a bitter angry man who spews forth vitriol, has lost all reason, lacks self-awareness and seems to inhabit an alternate world. Could the same not be said of those purveyors of fascism during the years between the First and Second World Wars? At first, Hungary was left to vent its frustrations alone and in vain, much like Leipnik. Later Hungary discovered fellow travelers in Italy and Germany. Together they would share the dream of correcting what they believed to be outrageous historical injustices. It would not be until the late 1930’s that they were able to begin realizing their dreams of vindication by recovering the lost lands of Historic Hungary through a fatal alliance with Nazi Germany. It was this alliance which would have horrific consequences for Hungary.

The story of Leipnik, as told through the literary skill of Miklos Banffy, leaves a lasting impression on the reader. He is a tragically unforgettable character. Leipnik, like so many famous Hungarians went abroad to realize his ambitions. Tellingly he did not end up famous, only infamous. He was a complete failure, left to seethe in arrogant disillusionment. If it was not for Banffy stumbling upon him, Leipnik would be totally unknown. Their meeting was an accident of history, but the cynicism and bitterness displayed by Leipnik was no accident. These feelings were representative of an attitude that eventually helped lead Europe into another world war.

What History Did To Hungary – The Phoenix Land (A Trip Around My Bookshelf #6)

“The true use of history is not external, but internal. Not what you can do with history, but what history does to you” – Jacques Barzin

Hungarians in exile, Hungarians abroad, this has been a reoccurring theme for the past one hundred sixty years in Hungary. Whether it was because of failed revolutions (1848 and 1956), seeking better opportunities abroad (the late 19th/early 20th century & 21st century since EU membership) or fleeing radical ideologies and chaotic political upheaval (post World War I, World War II and the immediate years thereafter), on numerous occasions Hungarians have found themselves far, far away from their homeland. Despite this dislocation or perhaps because of it, they have used their creative talents to make a name for themselves. Hungarians provided much of the brain power behind the atomic bomb, the moon and mars rover, supersonic flight, jet propulsion, full length motion pictures and Microsoft Office to name just a few of their innovations. Even personalities as famous and disparate as Joseph Pulitzer and Harry Houdini were both originally from Hungary.

This seems almost too good to be true. It makes one wonder what would have occurred if all those famous Hungarians who went abroad could have stayed in their homeland, what heights might the country have attained? Hungarians are justly proud of their fellow countrymen’s accomplishments abroad. Conversely, there is rarely any discussion of Hungarians who returned to their homeland. This is something which is rarely spoken of, if ever. In today’s installment of A Trip Around My Bookshelf, we will learn about some Hungarians who returned from abroad, the near abroad of Transylvania in the first case and the trenches of World War I in the second. In both of these cases the central figure is Miklos Banffy, as both subject and recorder of changes  that would roil 20th century Hungary.

Miklos Banffy as photographed in 1912

Miklos Banffy as photographed in 1912

One Hungarian who was cut asunder from the nation and also went abroad for a time was the author Miklos Banffy (1873 – 1950). Banffy left his homeland for a short time and was something of an internal exile through no fault of his own, since Hungary lost Transylvania in the peace which followed World War I. Many people who are quite knowledgable about Hungary have never heard of Banffy, that is such a shame. Miklos Banffy was born into one of the pre-eminent aristocratic families in Transylvania, back when it was an integral part of the Kingdom of Hungary. He was an incredibly talented writer, artist and politician. He wrote one of the great works of period literature, what is known as The Transylvania Trilogy, a three volume set of novels under the stark titles, They Were Found Wanting, They Were Counted and They Were Divided. The books follow the life and times of Transylvanian aristocracy from the turn of the 20th century up to the outbreak of the First World War. We get to know not only a cast of characters whose tragic excesses, love affairs and  aristocratic traditions are the essence of great drama, but also a people who are inextricably attached to a land which seems to almost be a physical part of them. Fortunately one of Banffy’s descendants saw fit to have these books translated into English. The trilogy is now readily available for purchase in the English language sections of good Hungarian bookstores, in addition to online.

Somewhat hidden in the shadow of this towering literary achievement is Banffy’s other book, The Phoenix Land. The name metaphorically implies the proverbial phoenix rising from the ashes, just as Hungary rose from the calamity of World War I, the chaotic aftermath of revolution and counter-revolution which followed and the disastrous Treaty Of Trianon whereby Hungary lost over two-thirds of its land and population, including Transylvania. Banffy was named the foreign minister for a time following the war. He offers insight into the negotiations and political machinations that took place in order to keep the country from totally falling apart. These memoirs deal with the interwar years, as the Hungarians attempt to deal with the shocking reality of defeat, occupation and dismemberment. This is not just a memoir of a man, it is also the memoir of a national trauma. Banffy is both insider and outsider. He no longer has his country, but his country will forever have him. The same could be said of the relationship between Hungary and Transylvania, even today. The exile of over a million ethnic Hungarians is all the more painful because of the mother nation’s close proximity. Banffy and his fellow Transylvanians do not have an ocean or a continent separating them from their mother country, they only have an invisible political barrier, a border. It is a scar that all Hungarians live with. The Phoenix Land is much more an interpretation of mental rather than physical scars.

The Last Coronation - Emperor Charles, Empress Zita and Crown Prince Otto

The Last Coronation – Emperor Charles, Empress Zita and Crown Prince Otto

The only part of the book which does not deal with the interwar years may also be its best. Banffy describes with eloquence and melancholy what became the final coronation of a Habsburg monarch.  In late 1916, long time Habsburg Emperor Franz Josef died after sixty-eight years on the throne, the last forty-nine of which saw him lead the Dual Monarchy as Emperor of Austria and King of Hungary. With his death a new coronation was quickly arranged. This event would crown his great nephew Charles as the new monarch.  He would become King Charles IV (Emperor Charles I). Banffy was in charge of planning, organizing and staging the coronation which took place at the Matyas Church in Budapest on December 30, 1916.

It was at this final coronation that the coming fate of the Kingdom of Hungary was foretold by an unanticipated scene, one that is hardly known, yet symbolic of the state of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at that time. In this historic moment we find Hungarians, specifically the Knights of the Golden Spur returning from the trenches in order to be present at the coronation. The coronation ceremony itself was steeped in tradition and protocol. Soon after it begins, Charles had the Holy Crown of Hungary and St. Stephen’s robe placed upon him. He then retired along with his wife, Queen Zita, to the sacristy. Soon he was to step outside and take the royal oath. Before this though, with the church now empty, protocol took precedence. Suddenly the ghostly Knights of the Golden Spur appeared to receive accolades from the newly crowned king.  Banffy describes what happened next:

“There must have been about fifty of them, all officers coming from service in the front lines. Most of them were in iron-grey uniforms, faded, mended, with worn leather belts and blackened straps…In the forefront were men with wooden legs leaning on crutches, limping, knocking against each other, coughing and breathing heavily with the effort of movement. Through that side door and out into the glow before the altar there poured all the sad grey tragedy of war to flood the space where a few moments before all had been shine and glitter.
No one spoke. They were all utterly silent, not a word passing between them. All of them just stood there, looking straight ahead with a stare that was both eloquent and at the same time passive. Their eyes were the eyes of men who, day after day, looked death in the face.”

The King, crowned with St. Stephen’s Crown and wearing St. Stephen’s mantle, now came back into the church and ascended the throne. The first name was called out. A grey broken ruin of a man pulled himself up on two crutches. An orderly rushed to his side to prevent him falling and guided him forward. At the steps of the throne he faltered just as St. Stephen’s Sword touched his shoulder the ritual three times. Then he was lifted to his feet and, supported by his orderly, tottered away.”

The entire ceremony was a metaphor, but not for traditional imperial principles. Instead, the glittering coronation represented what the Kingdom of Hungary had been. Then suddenly the Knights of the Golden Spur appear and represent the stark reality of what the Kingdom has become: broken, feeble, on its last legs. The end is near. The future will be a different place, where nothing will ever be the same. The resplendent beauty of the empire is now transitory, fading fast. The Dual Monarchy is disintegrating at the front and the soldier’s scars, bear witness to the mortal wound that the Habsburg Empire has suffered. Reading this, it is much easier to understand what happened in the years that followed. The monarchy dissolved, Hungary’s best and brightest had been killed or irreparably wounded at the front fighting for an ideal that had been vanquished. This was foretold by those Knights of the Golden Spur who had returned to the homeland. Perhaps we should now acknowledge the ultimate Hungarian exile of the 20th century, the monarchy. It left, never to return and nothing has been the same since then. Ironically, it was returnees, the Knights of the Golden Spur and Miklos Banffy, who foretold the future and what was to come.