Do Bánffy’s stories reflect his life?

‘In this house lived Count Miklós Bánffy de Losonc, Politician, Writer, Artist, 1873–1950’. Commemorative plaque in Reviczky utca, Budapest. The dates given are those of Bánffy’s life and death. He lived here in the 1920s, during and for a few years after his time as Foreign Minister. (Photo by Globetrotter19, creative commons.)

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. 

Thomas Sneddon

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