The Phoenix Land by Miklós Bánffy (Translated by Patrick Thursfield, Katalin Bánffy-Jelen) - review by Victor Sebestyen

Victor Sebestyen

Memoirs of a Changing Man

The Phoenix Land


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Hungarian literature, which for so long was unknown to English readers, underwent a deserved revival a couple of years ago with the success of Sindor Mirai’s novel Embers and the appearance of Miklós Bánffy’s extraordinary trilogy The Writing on the Wall. The latter is an epic story set in the last days of the Habsburg Empire. Part high adventure, part elegy for a lost civilisation, it never flagged, despite its length of half a don words or so. The great charm of the novels was their almost unbearable nostalgia for old Austria-Hungary. Suffused with lashings of Middle European melancholia, the Trilogy was saved from descending into sheer schmaltz by a wonderful sense of the ridiculous. It received rave reviews, deservedly, and the Weidenfeld Translation Prize in 2002 for the work of Patrick Thursfield and Katalin Bánffy Jelen, the author’s daughter, who together battled for years to see the book translated into English.

The same pair have lovingly saved from oblivion Bánffy’s memoirs, some of which were discovered only after his death in 1950. Readers who enjoyed the Transylvanian Trilogy will find Bánffy ‘s non-fiction a mixed bag. This book comprises two separate works of autobiography, written fifteen years apart, and never before published in English.

The first of these, From My Memories, appeared in Hungary in 1932. It is obvious that it came from the same hand as The Writing on the Wall. Count Miklós Bánffy is a scion of one of the great aristocratic dynasties that ruled Hungary for centuries until the 1930s. Related to all the vastly wealthy families of the Habsburg Empire (the Karolyis, Zichys, Andrassys, Telekis, and so on), Bánffy describes an easy way of life destroyed by the mistake, ruinous for Hungary, of entering the First World War. Unlike so many of his privileged relatives, Bánffy was not prepared to live a life of indolent luxury on his estate – in his case a large chunk of Transylvania. He was a diplomat in his youth, served in Hungary’s parliament for many years and was a major player during the last days of the Empire. He captures its death-throes with a novelist’s eye. In 1916 Bánffy organised the last coronation of a Habsburg monarch, that of the vain, ignorant, deceitful Emperor Karl, the successor to old Franz Joseph. Bánffy proudly choreographed a magnificent ceremony in Budapest, with all the pageantry befitting the occasion. For the writer in him, however, there was high farce amidst the pomp and circumstance, and material for a wonderful piece of descriptive narrative.

Bánffy is at his entertaining best again when relating his personal adventures as the war ended. When the armistice was signed he found himself in Holland on an informal diplomatic mission and was unable to go back to Hungary. Flat broke, he survived for months in The Hague as a portrait painter. A politician, linguist, artist, writer and Casanova, Bánffy had a multitude of talents, and fortunately (in that his lack of modesty produced interesting books), he did not hesitate to inform his readers of them. After his eventual return, he witnessed three revolutions in Hungary in the year 1919 – Liberal, Communist, semi-Fascist – and the dismemberment of his country under the Treaty of Trianon, in which Hungary lost two-thirds of its land and a third of its population. Bánffy records all of this with vigour, sadness and pathos.

Something had happened to him by the time he came to write the second memoir in this volume, Twenty-Five Man: he had become pompous, unrecognisable as the author of the witty Transylvanian Trilogy. This is BWs account of his two years as Foreign Minister from 1921 to 1922, when h task, admittedly difficult, was to deal with the countries that emerged from Trianon – Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, an enlarged Romania. It suffers from the same fault as so many political memoirs. Bánffy here simply records how as a minister he got everything right and his opponents were always wrong. A hero assailed from all sides by powerful enemies may add drama to a work of fiction. In a political apologia the device makes the writer appear paranoid. Also, Bánffy rewrites history. He presents himself as something of a liberal – as do many of his admirers, largely because in The Writing on the Wall he wrote a few sympathetic passages about peasant poverty He wasn’t as liberal as all that. He served a despotic head of State, Admiral Horthy, who had wiped out thousands of his opponents in acts of bloody revenge. The Istvin Bethlen government of which BA* was an important member was deeply reactionary. It passed such anti-Semitic legislation as the so-called Numerus Clausus, which stopped Jews from attending University – the beginning of a process that led a willing Hungary into the arms of the Nazis.

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