Good to see Bas Bleu featuring Blue Danube’s Mrs Anderson as one of their summer “mystery” titles.
Here » for their excellent summary (and attractively discounted price!).
“Accompanying Milla [the Mrs Anderson of the title] is the romantic but comically clueless Tibor Vida, a struggling Hungarian composer who serves as both her love interest and the Dr. Watson to her Sherlock Holmes.” Read more »
Miklós Bánffy’s story of The Remarkable Mrs Anderson is centred on a fictitious work of art, a Head of Christ by Leonardo da Vinci, stolen from the Museum of Fine Arts in Budapest. No such work exists but the basic premise is not implausible. The Museum of Fine Arts is one of the finest galleries of its kind in the world and it does possess some works by Leonardo da Vinci.
To be exact, it possesses four. Three of them are drawings (not on permanent display because of their fragility) and the fourth is a small bronze.
The earliest work is a study of horses’ legs, executed in black chalk and thought to date from the early 1480s, when Leonardo was in Milan. The artist had gone there in 1482 or 1483 to offer his services to Ludovico Sforza, known as ‘Il Moro’. Ludovico commissioned a gigantic equestrian monument to Francesco Sforza, soldier of fortune and founder of the Sforza dynasty, who had ruled Milan from 1450–66. No finished monument ever materialised. A clay model was produced but it was destroyed by French troops when they claimed Milan and took Il Moro into captivity. In Vigevano, the town southwest of Milan where Il Moro was born, in the vast Castello Visconteo Sforzesco, the Leonardiana museum has a detailed section devoted to the planning of this monument. The Budapest study drawing of horses’ legs is thought to have been prepared during the planning of that monument, perhaps drawn from life from one of the steeds in the great Sforza stables which are still to be seen in the castle at Vigevano.
Budapest’s two other Leonardo drawings are studies of warriors’ heads, one in charcoal and the other in red chalk and both probably made when Leonardo was back in his native Florence, where the city governors had commissioned a mural for Palazzo Vecchio. Once again it was a commission whose subject matter harked back to past valour, this time victory over Milan at the battle of Anghiari, which was fought in 1440. And once again the work was never completed: Leonardo had been trying to formulate a new mural-painting technique, an experiment which ended in failure. What we know of the composition of the work comes from a drawing by Rubens, now in the Louvre, of its central section, possibly derived from Leonardo’s own cartoon. The two Budapest drawings, by Leonardo’s hand, are studies for the heads of some of the combatants, hoary and partially toothless old condottieri remorselessly slugging it out.
The fourth Budapest Leonardo is a small bronze of a rearing horse and its rider, naked but for his elaborate helmet. The whole ensemble stands just over 24cm high. It was bought by the Hungarian Neoclassical sculptor István Ferenczy while he was in Rome studying under Bertel Thorvaldsen. This would have been sometime between 1818 and 1824. Anything else about the provenance of the sculpture is unknown. In fact, the true identity of its sculptor is unknown. When it was first acquired by the Museum of Fine Arts, just before WWI, it was displayed as a Leonardo. Today scholars are more cautious. There were even suggestions that it was a 19th-century copy but those fears were laid to rest in 2009, following painstaking studies in Washington. The attribution to Leonardo remains, but the little bronze may in fact be the work of one of the master’s wide circle of imitators. The debate goes on and the little horse and rider now have their very own website devoted to their story.
Je vais finir, non pas sans vous dire mon cher et bien tendre ami que je vous aime à la folie et que jamais jamais je ne puis être un moment sans vous adorer.
[I will not finish without telling you my dear and tender friend that I love you to madness and I can never never exist for a moment without adoring you.]
Thus Marie-Antoinette, Queen of France, concluded a letter to the Swedish nobleman Axel Fersen, on the 4th of January 1792. Rumours of an affair between the two were rife even in their lifetimes. Miklós Bánffy clearly believed them: the forbidden love between the queen and Fersen forms the subject of his poignantly painful short story Danse Macabre (included in Somerset Books’ collection The Monkey and other stories – details»). It is only now, thanks to research conducted by scientists at the Sorbonne and published earlier this month in Science Advances, the open-access journal of the AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science), that the full texts of Marie-Antoinette’s letters to Fersen have been revealed.
In late June 1791, after a failed attempt to flee Paris (an escape bid which Fersen had partly orchestrated), the French royal family were placed under house arrest in the Tuileries. There they remained until the late summer of 1792 and it is from there that Marie-Antoinette wrote to her tendre ami. Those letters remained in Fersen’s family until forty years ago, when they were sold to the French National Archives. Because their content is sensitive—politically as well as personally—someone went through the letters and expunged any potentially compromising sections by carefully covering them with swirls of thick black ink, rendering them completely illegible. Until now, that is.
Using a technique known as X-ray fluorescent spectroscopy, the doodled-on parts of the letters have been carefully studied. The XRF scans can detect different inks and map them according to their chemical composition, specifically for potassium, magnesium, iron, copper and zinc. Looked at with the naked eye, for example, the sentence quoted at the beginning of this piece is completely invisible, hidden by a black scrawl, but it shows up clearly in the scan when the copper map is used. Studies of the ink used to scribble over the sensitive sentences seem to show that it was Fersen himself who was the censor.
Axel Fersen, soldier, diplomat and politician, spent much of his career in France. He was the same age as Marie-Antoinette: they were both born in 1755. A sympathy grew up between them and Fersen became a member of the queen’s intimate Petit Trianon set. This perceived favouritism became the cause of widespread resentment and cruel, sniping rumour, all memorably portrayed by Bánffy in Danse Macabre. According to Fersten’s friend Barrington Beaumont, it was to calm things down at court that Fersen went to America to fight alongside George Washington, since in France it was all the rage to celebrate American republicanism. Fersen’s departure forms the climax of Bánffy’s story, just as French court ladies are fawning over Benjamin Franklin, ‘enthralled at the idea of liberty for the people. Liberté, the word was presently in vogue at court…’ It is tempting to wonder whether Bánffy had read Beaumont’s memoirs. He may also have read Fersen’s letters. A passage dating from the winter of 1788 in which Fersen speaks of all men’s minds being ‘a ferment. Nothing is talked of but a constitution…It is a mania, everybody…can talk only of progress; the lackeys in the antechambers are occupied in reading the pamphlets that come out, ten or twelve in a day…’ could have been the model for the scene in Danse Macabre where Fersen leaves the palace: ‘In the middle of the wide atrium stood a group of liveried footmen. They were reading passages from a pamphlet which one man held half hidden beneath his coat, and at almost every line they let out loud guffaws, half amused and half appalled by the author’s effrontery. “She’s the crowned whore,” the man who held the book read aloud. “And the best thing to do would be to strangle her in her bed.” ’
The Monkey and other stories by Miklós Bánffy, translated by Thomas Sneddon and including Danse Macabre is published by Somerset Books – details»)
Marie-Antoinette’s fate is well known. Axel Fersen’s death was hardly less brutal. He was torn to death by a mob in Stockholm in 1810, at at time of violent disputes over succession to the Swedish throne. He never married. Perhaps, to borrow Bánffy’s words, Marie-Antoinette had been the only woman for whom his heart had ever learned to beat.
To read more detail about the Sorbonne scientist’s discoveries and scanning technique, and about the implications of their technology not just for revealing the past’s tender secrets, see here.
The Monkey and Other Stories is a collection of short works written across virtually the full span of Bánffy’s writing career, covering the years from just after the turn of the twentieth century to almost 1950. As such, they cannot be expected to cohere as a single work, but rather highlight the ways in which Bánffy changed and developed as a writer.
These changes should not be overstated: his signature style is instantly recognisable, whether the story was written in 1910 or 1947, and his unique sensibility—an artist’s eye for place and a kind of unforced, universal empathy that imbues almost everything, from people to animals to whole landscapes, with a kind of consciousness and volition—can be seen throughout his work.
So what does change? Well, his early work is characterised by a marked ‘seriousness’, both of tone and content: in stories such as Wolves and The Emperor’s Secret he deals with war, death, betrayal, suffering and the ultimate harshness of life. It is as though the young Bánffy, scion of one of the wealthiest and most influential families in Transylvania, is trying through his fiction to vicariously explore the experience of being powerless in a cruel world, or at least to demonstrate that, as a writer, he can inhabit that reality.
For the Bánffy of later years, particularly during and after the Second World War, it is clear that tragedy and suffering (of which Bánffy had had more than his own personal share), had lost their inspirational pull. His short story The Monkey, for instance, and his novella The Remarkable Mrs Anderson—though not devoid of darker overtones—are overwhelmingly good-humoured and cheerful. There is an insistence on the wonderful richness and beauty of life, and on the necessity of enjoying it. The story Lememame is particularly interesting because of the dates of its composition. The central narrative, written in 1915, is a rather unsettling war story, set on the Eastern Front and dealing with Bánffy’s recurring themes of power and powerlessness, and whether mercy for the wicked is warranted. It fits, in other words, with much of his early work. However, it was not published until 1943, by which time Bánffy could not help adding a more avuncular ‘frame narrative’, in which he humorously recounts the circumstances of the story’s rediscovery. He admits, too, that the story needed work; that he ‘had to delouse, brush and iron it before deeming it fit to be seen in public.’ One wonders whether he might have altered the ending slightly, to better reflect his changed sensibilities…
This shift in tone is hardly unusual among writers: it neatly tracks the clichéd life story of the artist, struggling at first in an insalubrious garret, but progressing by degrees to wealth, comfort, and establishment recognition. What is interesting, in Bánffy’s case, is that his own life followed precisely the opposite trajectory.
Born into wealth, he was educated at the prestigious Vienna Theresianum, which taught the children of the Austro-Hungarian elite. Writing of his alter-ego, Bálint Abády, in the first volume of his Transylvanian Trilogy, Bánffy says:
His eight years schooling in the Theresianum had been rarefied and genteel, while life at Dénestornya was an unending bucolic dream. Later experiences at university, diplomatic training and service abroad had been similarly pleasant, showing him little more than the pretty surfaces of life. In short, we can say that to this point he had lived in an insular world of affected good manners, where human wickedness, jealousy and greed were concealed behind elegant masks. It would take a far keener, more experienced eye than he yet possessed to see through them.
That is not to say that Bánffy’s youth was without heartache: the early loss of his mother; conflict with his father over gambling debts; the pain of his love for the married Baroness Carola Szilvássy Bornemisza (the inspiration for Adrienne in the Trilogy). All the same, the horrors of World War One, then the transfer of Translyvania—and with it his home, Bonchida—to Romania in 1920, were a new kind of trauma; something experienced not merely on an individual, but on a collective, national level.
Worse was to come. By the late 1930s it was clear to Bánffy that a new war was looming. His remarkable science-fiction story The Infected Planet, written in 1939, is suffused with grim forebodings of a global cataclysm, and the final, unforgettable pages of his Transylvanian Trilogy, completed around the same time, can be read either as an indictment of the slaughter that characterised World War One, or as a premonition of fresh slaughter to come.
The Second World War lived up to Bánffy’s worst fears, and by the time it was over he was ruined and destitute, his home ransacked and burned by retreating German soldiers in revenge for his diplomatic efforts to extricate both Hungary and Romania from alliance with Nazi Germany. In 1949 he wrote to the first prime minister of communist Romania, Petru Groza: “Having lost my entire fortune and, with no pension, at the age of 76 I have in the strictest sense of the term nothing on which to live.”
It is remarkable then, that it was at this time, having been reduced from the highest echelons of society to absolute penury, that he wrote perhaps his most joyously life-affirming work, the novella The Remarkable Mrs Anderson. In a review in Helikon, Gyula Dávid describes Bánffy at this point as“a liberated master craftsman, leading his two heroes from crisis to crisis and adventure to adventure… This is no mere escapism, but a playful spirit set loose to soar above the shattered ruins of reality.”
Perhaps, after all, this should not surprise us. After all, Beethoven wrote his Second Symphony, one of his most playful and irreverent compositions, during a period of deep depression in the autumn of 1802, as he struggled to come to terms with his progressive hearing loss. Likewise, Mozart’s symphony no. 41, the ‘Jupiter’ symphony, was composed in the summer of 1788, at a time when Mozart was ill, depressed, and mired in increasingly unpayable debts. More pertinently, perhaps, Bánffy’s contemporary (and one-time reviewer) Antal Szerb wrote The Queen’s Necklace—his light-hearted, funny account of a scandal which ruined the reputation of Marie Antoinette—in 1942, just as life for him, as a Jew in Hungary, was becoming intolerable.
It may be, as Dávid suggests, that we should not view these efforts as mere escapism. Instead, they are affirmations of the power of art not merely to reflect reality but to create it anew, generating by sheer force of imagination a world conducive to creative expression.
One of the stars of The Remarkable Mrs Anderson is the narrator’s car, a “dark blue Lancia of the newer model”. It is clearly open top, variously described as two seater, blue, fast (“my poor little Lancia’s speedometer hovered between a hundred and twenty and a hundred and twenty five [kmh]”) and a relatively common model on the Italian roads (“there are plenty of Lancias of my sort here in Italy, but there can’t be more than two with Hungarian plates”).
The narrator, Tibor Vida, a successful operetta composer, single and approaching middle-age, buys it from a diplomat in Palermo while on holiday in Sicily, where he, Tibor, has gone to recover from a failed affair (“my first taste of that particular medicine from the receiving end”) and enjoy the financial rewards of his latest operetta (“Shakuntala, an international hit, with two runs in London’s West End”). And where of course he will meet the remarkable Hungarian journalist, art historian and ex-wife of Mr T.W. Anderson of Chicago – we hear no more of the latter.
The car in the picture above is a Lancia Belna Cabriolet (F234), and as a convertible Lancia it meets many of the scant criteria that Tibor provides. But this model was manufactured from 1934 to 1937, raising questions of when Miklós Bánffy intended his novella to be set. The story is not about politics – indeed the author was consciously escaping the terrible politics of his time writing in near-captivity, a class enemy in the second half of the 1940s in what had been a family house in Cluj Napoca in communist Romanian Transylvania – and no specific historic events are given. The period is inter-bellum, Italy is clearly fascist, but had been since Mussolini’s March on Rome in 1922. There are indications of the poverty of the time, also maybe – pointing to the 30s rather than 20s – of a scarcity of foreign tourists: Tibor and Mrs Anderson are “practically the only guests” in the lakeside hotel in Genzano di Roma.
So for the moment we conclude that The Remarkable Mrs Anderson may be set in the 1930s, and the Lancia may indeed be the 1934-37 Lancia Belna above. But possibly blue all over without the white sides. And a surprising choice for a sensitive and musical composer: “my little Lancia tore along with fresh, eager energy. She has no silencer to speak of, and the four stroke-engine hammered a joyous, deafening rhythm.” Maybe he was more of a composer of rollicking operettas than sensitive sonatas …
The world Miklós Bánffy inhabited as a young man is an often striking, not to say disconcerting, mix of the familiar and the unfamiliar, the archaic and the modern. Hungary in the early years of the 20th century was a place where a gentleman might drive to a pistol duel in his Mercedes motorcar, or even, conceivably, take the Budapest underground. By 1914 Budapest had, in addition to electric underground trains, an extensive electric tram network, electric street lighting, and an increasingly sophisticated telephone system. At the same time, however, in more remote parts of the kingdom, such as Bánffy’s own Transylvania, the inhabitants of many rural villages lived much as they had done for centuries, and while serfdom had been abolished, land ownership still followed largely feudal patterns, with the landed gentry holding the vast majority of territory. By the time of Bánffy’s death in 1950, however, communist governments in Hungary and Romania were attempting, with remarkable thoroughness, to annihilate that world. Understanding this region of Europe during the critical period of transition which Bánffy’s life spanned is not straightforward, and I have put together a short list of books in English which I consider the most useful. I highly recommend all of them, and have consulted several of them frequently while translating Bánffy’s work.
1: Comrade Baron, by Jaap Scholten.Comrade Baron is a fascinating account of the Transylvanian aristocracy, and in particular the hardships they faced after 1945. Bánffy himself features prominently throughout, and it introduces many of the real-life individuals who inspired the characters in his fiction. It also tells the story of Bonchida, the Bánffy family home (and the inspiration for Dénestornya in the Transylvanian Trilogy), as well as the heartbreaking story of how virtually all its priceless treasures were destroyed.
2. Budapest 1900, by John Lukacs. Written in strikingly beautiful prose, Budapest 1900 guides the reader through a city which, though utterly different in many regards, still remains strikingly familiar architecturally. Budapest at the turn of the 20th century was a vibrant, dynamic, young city; it produced, in this era, such figures as Bartók, Kodály and von Neumann, and Bánffy spent much time in the city as a young parliamentarian. Incidentally, it also provides a lucid and concise summary of the political events which perplex so many readers of Bánffy’s Trilogy.
3. Danubia, by Simon Winder.Danubia is the second book in Simon Winder’s trilogy on Central Europe (Germania, Danubia and Lotharingia) and is, in my view, the best of the three. Careful with facts but light in tone, and often extremely funny, Danubia is probably the most accessible, all-round history of Central Europe. It deals more with Austria and Bohemia than with Hungary, but for a general background to the empire within with Bánffy was born and raised, this is an excellent place to start.
4. The Will to Survive: A History of Hungary, by Bryan Cartledge. There are a number of good histories of Hungary, but most (for perfectly good reasons) focus on events in the 19th and 20th centuries. Cartledge provides the fullest account I know in English of certain historical periods, such as Transylvania’s 17th-century independence, that helped form Bánffy’s identity as both a Hungarian and a Transylvanian. It is, moreover, a tremendous work of scholarship.
5. The Vanquished, by Robert Gerwarth. The vast majority of Bánffy’s published fiction was written after 1920, and was strongly influenced by the events of the six years from 1914 to 1920. That the First World War was an appalling charnelhouse is widely appreciated—though Austria-Hungary’s horrendous losses are not always considered in the West—but the events which convulsed Central Europe during the 1918–20 period are almost unknown in the English-speaking world. Gerwath’s The Vanquishedranges across many Central and Eastern European states, but includes a clear (and searing) account of the tribulations which continued to beset Hungary even after the Armistice had been signed. Bánffy’s Trilogy, as well as short stories such as ’Somewhere’, rely for much of their emotional heft on a shared cultural understanding among Hungarians of the sheer magnitude of the disasters which, by the end of the second decade of the 20th century, had left the country on the verge of collapse. Gerwath’s is the best account in English of this critical period.
6. Between the Woods and the Water, by Patrick Leigh Fermor. The second book in Leigh Fermor’s account of a youthful trek across Europe in the mid-1930s leads him into Transylvania, and to lengthy encounters with much the sort of characters whom Bánffy describes in his fiction. Much has changed since the pre-war days, of course, and the people he meets live in greatly reduced circumstances (Bánffy tells a remarkably similar story of an encounter between a young Englishman and Transylvanian gentry trying to conceal their poverty in his short story Somewhere) but though diminished, it is still recognisably the same world, while Leigh Fermor’s writing is, as fans will know, superb throughout.
7. Patrick Leigh Fermor: Noble Encounters Between Budapest and Transylvania, by Michael O’Sullivan. Nobody in the English-speaking world knows the Hungarian and Transylvanian nobility like Michael O’Sullivan, and in this engaging, authoritative and richly illustrated book he follows Leigh Fermor’s journey from Esztergom to the Iron Gates, providing a trove of biographical detail and enlivening anecdotes about the people he encountered on his journey, as well as what befell them in the years which followed.
‘I’m staying at the Excelsior. It’s a very fine hotel, and from my top-floor perch I can survey the whole city, right out to the bay, or towards the splendid bulk of Monte Pellegrino. I had a piano brought up to my room so I can work on my newest operetta.’
So writes Tibor Vida in his diary in Chapter II of The Remarkable Mrs Anderson. As the narrative progresses, more details are given about the Excelsior. In fact, all the way from Palermo, the minutiae of Mrs Anderson’s journey with Tibor are described and savoured with the precision of a leisured person’s travelogue. One senses that Bánffy is following them in his mind, reliving scenes that he too once experienced. After all, when he wrote this novella, in 1949, he had no internet search engine or Google Street View to help him with his research. But his descriptions are spot-on. Sitting in his small room in Kolozsvár/Cluj, in the single cramped apartment which had been allotted to him in his own now-confiscated town house, he must have been relying on memory, thinking back to lost days of freedom, sunshine and youth.
His memory was an accurate one. The Excelsior is not an invented hotel; it first opened its doors in 1891 and it still exists; in fact it is recommended as a place to stay in the most recent edition of Blue Guide Sicily. It lies north of Palermo’s historic centre, in a mainly 19th-century district, and its façade sports something very like the kind of balconies that Tibor Vida describes in Chapter V, after his room is broken into: ‘But how the devil would anyone get in through my balcony? Every room has its own balcony, and while they’re pretty broad, they certainly don’t meet one another. I’d estimate a gap of at least a metre and a half between my balcony and the next one, above a three-storey drop.’ There are more details, too, to lead us to suspect that Bánffy must have known this hotel from personal experience. He talks of a ‘nearby square’ where Mrs Anderson plans to hail a taxi. Yes, Piazza Mordini: the hotel’s south elevation looks onto it. And when Mrs Anderson goes out for a stroll ‘in the neighbouring English Garden with an “unknown gentleman” ’, this garden is clearly the Giardino Inglese, which is just round the corner from the Excelsior on Via della Libertà. Nor is it improbable that Tibor should have worked on his latest operetta at the Excelsior. After all, in a nearby building in 1882, Wagner completed Parsifal (in Palazzo Ingham, now the Grand Hotel et des Palmes). As a keen music aficionado, Bánffy would have known that.
For his villain, Schönberg-Belmonte, Bánffy chooses a different hotel, the Villa Igiea (and though he spells it ‘Igea’, it is definitely the same place). ‘I’m not staying in town, you see,’ Schönberg says airily, ‘but out at the Villa Igea, above the bay. Do you know it? It’s the most expensive hotel in the area, of course, but a charming place…’ It still is expensive: several hundred euro a night. Blue Guide Sicily describes it in the following terms: ‘A beautiful Art Nouveau building in Acquasanta, 3km north of the city. Built as a sanatorium by Donna Franca Florio, it never functioned as such. With the help of Ernesto Basile she pragmatically transformed it into a luxurious hotel for her friends. Cushiony salons abound; a peaceful refuge over the years for the rich and famous, besides many crowned heads.’ Since it was originally intended to be a sanatorium, its name makes sense. Igiea is the Italian version of Hygieia, the Greek goddess of health. Ernesto Basile (1857–1932), born in Palermo, was the most famous architect of his day, a major exponent of international Modernism and Art Nouveau and influenced by the Arab-Norman style of his native city. The beautiful Donna Franca Florio had a fabled collection of Cartier jewellery and a string of pearls seven metres long. Malicious gossip alleged that her husband gave her a new bead for every infidelity. Bánffy could not have chosen a more appropriate home-from-home for ‘Uncle Schöni’.
For Bánffy’s next specific hotel reference, we have to wait until Milla and Tibor get to Padua. Here, Mrs Anderson checks into the Croce d’Oro. Bánffy surely had an actual hotel in mind but this one is more difficult to pin down. The Guide Bleu of 1928 speaks of an hôtel meublé called the ‘Savoia-Terminus (ex-Croce d’Oro), tout près de la gare’ on Corso del Popolo. The building still stands, right outside the railway station, but it is no longer a hotel. Could Mrs Anderson have stayed there? Unlikely. ‘The bells of the cathedral were tolling Mass when she left the Croce d’Oro the next morning,’ Bánffy tells us. ‘Walking a little way down Via Dante, she soon came to the shop of Egisto Ristorini.’ But both the cathedral and Via Dante are a long way from the railway station, a good twenty-minute walk. So perhaps the hotel was a different Croce d’Oro (Padua seems to have had plenty with this name), perhaps the one listed in the Blue Guide Northern Italy of 1937, where a room cost 8 lire and full board 25 lire. The Blue Guide locates it in Via Cesare Battisti, a long, narrow, ancient street with low arcades on either side. It would have taken less than half the time to walk to Via Dante from there. But though this Croce d’Oro reappears in successive editions of the Blue Guide until 1960, there is no trace of any such hotel there now. However, there is another contender, and one which feels much more likely. Standing right in the middle of town on Piazza Cavour, it once boasted of being the first hotel in the city to have a lift, electric light in all the rooms, central heating, ensuite bathrooms and a motor omnibus service to the railway station.
The building still stands (it is now a bank). But it stopped operating as a hotel in 1920, some years before the events in Mrs Anderson take place. Bánffy probably did not know this. He may have stayed there before that date, remembered it, and incorporated it into his tale.
At the end of the novella, in Budapest, another grand hotel makes its appearance. ‘I’m staying at the Ritz,’ Tibor tells us. This is not the Ritz-Carlton of today, which occupies the former headquarters of an insurance company. The Ritz that Bánffy had in mind was one of a long string of glamorous hotels on the Danube bank. It opened in 1913, run by the same company that operated the Ritz in London, and old photos reveal that the building had something of the same elephantine bulkiness. In 1945, during the Siege of Budapest, when the Soviets chased the Nazis from the city after a month and a half of bitter fighting, it suffered a direct hit and was engulfed in flames. Two years later its remains were cleared away and in 1981 a new hotel, today’s InterContinental, opened on the site.
I first read Bánffy around Christmas 2010. I had moved to Budapest two months before, then come home to Ireland for the holidays. I was still years away from reading novels in Hungarian—even buying a train ticket was a challenge—but something about the country had got under my skin, and upon returning home I bought several histories of Hungary, as well as all the translated Hungarian literature I could lay my hands on. Sitting by the stove and watching the snow pile up outside, I read Embers by Sándor Márai, Antal Szerb’s Journey by Moonlight and Bánffy’s Transylvanian Trilogy. Both Szerb and Márai are wonderful writers and I have returned to them repeatedly over the years, but it was undoubtedly Bánffy who left the most lasting impression. Why? After all, though the three men were roughly contemporaries, Szerb and Márai both wrote modern, 20th-century literature, while Bánffy’s trilogy feels 19th-century in form, and perhaps also in sensibility. The story Bánffy tells is wonderful—Bálint and Adrienne’s love affair is, for me, one of the most moving and sensitively drawn in all Western literature—but there was something else that drew me to his writing, and has done so again and again over the years: the character of the author that shines through on the page. When reading Bánffy, I have often thought of that well-known passage from an essay of George Orwell’s, in which he describes reading Charles Dickens and clearly visualising a face behind the page:
Well, in the case of Dickens I see a face that is not quite the face of Dickens’s photographs, though it resembles it. It is the face of a man of about forty, with a small beard and a high colour. He is laughing, with a touch of anger in his laughter, but no triumph, no malignity. It is the face of a man who is always fighting against something, but who fights in the open and is not frightened, the face of a man who is generously angry—in other words, of a 19th-century liberal, a free intelligence, a type hated with equal hatred by all the smelly little orthodoxies which are now contending for our souls.
Strangely, though one could never confuse Bánffy and Dickens as writers, the passage above serves remarkably well as a description of Bánffy himself. I do not mean to imply any biographical similarity—though it is true that in outlook both were broadly liberal (in the 19th-century, Gladstonian sense) and had an instinctive, untaught loathing of all injustice and oppression—but rather something still more fundamental and harder to define. What I enjoy most when I read Bánffy, and what I think Orwell enjoyed in Dickens, is simply the feeling of being in the company of an altogether likeable, admirable human being. It is a quality I sensed vaguely in translation and much more strongly in the original Hungarian, and which, above all, I have tried to reproduce in English: warm, humane, humorous and with the wry, amused tolerance of human foibles and failings which comes of having made more than a few of them oneself. Bánffy is often compared to Tolstoy, and it is true that his fiction—particularly the Trilogy—is replete with the sort of balls, hunts, duels and love affairs that readers of War and Peace and Anna Karenina will already be familiar with. At the same time, when I read Bánffy, the face I picture ‘behind the page’ is altogether different from the one I sense when reading Tolstoy. Where Tolstoy seems to sit in stern, omniscient judgement over his vast creations, Bánffy always seems to have an ironical twinkle in his eye. What is more, while Tolstoy’s fiction became steadily more moralising and didactic as he grew older, Bánffy moved in the other direction: the bleakness which sometimes predominates in his more youthful writings is increasingly replaced by joyful, rollicking stories full of humour and life—culminating in his wonderful novella The Remarkable Mrs Anderson. When I read Bánffy, the face I see is also similar to photographs of the man (and, curiously enough, Charles Dickens—the two share a striking physical resemblance, as seen in the photographs below). It is an elderly face, and shows the lines of grief and sorrow, but the smile is almost boyish. It is the smile of a man still astonished by life, still charmed by its strangeness and variety, and still free of dogma and fixed ideas. It is the face of a raconteur, full of humour, romance, pathos and surprises, and it is what makes him such an endlessly engaging writer.
‘Calamity! On the 14th of December a painting by Leonardo da Vinci—and not some careless, half-finished sketch, but a genuine masterpiece—was stolen from the Budapest Fine Arts Museum.’ So begins Miklós Bánffy’s funny, fast-paced, nostalgic novella The Remarkable Mrs Anderson.
But what painting did Bánffy have in mind? The Budapest Fine Arts Museum does possess some works by Leonardo. There is a small bronze statuette of a horse and rider, which is attributed to him, and some sketches that are certainly by his hand (studies of soldiers’ heads and horses’ legs). There is no Head of Christ, though. For that, we have to go to Milan, to the Pinacoteca di Brera, where there is a charcoal drawing that might have inspired Bánffy.
The painting stolen in The Remarkable Mrs Anderson measured 44.7 by 35.1 centimetres. The one pictured above measures 40 by 32. Was this what Bánffy had in mind? Perhaps. But the Brera only attributes it to a ‘Lombard artist’, not definitely to Leonardo. And it is a drawing on paper. Bánffy makes it clear that the picture in his story is a finished painting, in full colour, on a wooden board.
So was it something like the Salvator Mundi, perhaps, now owned by Louvre Abu Dhabi?
The Salvator Mundi is painted in oil on a walnut panel, but it is far too tall (65cm). And its full-frontal pose is nothing like the work that Bánffy had in mind, which depicts ‘the same figure who later represents Jesus in the Last Supper‘. Bánffy was thinking of something much more along the lines of the Brera image. ‘Experts surmise that the master was perfecting his technique, working from the original model and preparing for the great fresco to come.’
Leonardo painted his Last Supper on the refectory wall of the Dominican friary of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan. Christ’s side-on pose, with eyes cast down, is clear to see:
The Last Supper is also, as Bánffy knew, in poor condition: ‘badly faded,’ as he puts it. Alta Macadam, in Blue Guide Lombardy (1st ed. 2019) tells us that ‘The Last Supper is painted with a technique peculiar to Leonardo, in tempera with the addition of later oil varnishes, on a prepared surface in two layers on the plastered wall. It is therefore not a fresco. In fresco-painting, pigments are dissolved in water and then painted onto a surface primed with fresh lime plaster. If the climate is dry, true frescoes will retain their brightness for an exceptionally long time. In Leonardo’s work, errors in the preparation of the plaster, together with the dampness of the wall, have caused great damage to the painted surface, which had already considerably deteriorated by the beginning of the 16th century. The Last Supper has been restored repeatedly and was twice repainted (in oils) in the 18th century. Careful work (begun in 1978 and completed in 1999) was carried out to eliminate the false restorations of the past and to expose the original work of Leonardo as far as possible.’
Bánffy was an accomplished amateur painter himself; he would have understood about plaster and water, about oil and pigments and varnishes. It is his own beguiling fantasy, that the Fine Arts Museum in Budapest possessed a small Head of Christ, a study work in which Leonardo experimented with his own peculiar technique, not on plaster but on wood, and which yielded a result that did not fade.