Bánffy’s Transylvanian Trilogy on 2013 Notable Fiction List

It’s that time of year (again) and The Washington Post has published its “Notable Fiction of 2013” list (here).  A tweet from Arcadia highlighted the fact that Miklos Bánffy’s Transylvanian Trilogy is on the list, quite a feat for a book whose first volume was published, in Hungarian, in 1934.  What is really heartening is that the English version was published by Arcadia, a leading independent publisher of translated fiction. Moreover, the translation was by the author’s daughter Katalin Bánffy-Jelen and Patrick Thursfield, appearing under the title The Writing on the Wall in 1999, 2000 and 2001.

Thursfield met the author’s daughter in the 1990s and together they worked on the translation for several years. Certainly a labour of love and dedication given that the three volumes total some 1,500 pages.  Their translation of the last volume, They Were Divided, won the prestigious Oxford Weidenfeld Translation Prize in 2002 and the translators received their award in Oxford from Umberto Eco. This is the beautiful cover of that edition.

Banffy-They Were DividedOn the website of the Oxford Weidenfeld Translation Prize I found these memorable and rousing words: Common European thought is the fruit of the immense toil of translators. Without translators, Europe would not exist; translators are more important than members of the European Parliament.’ (Milan Kundera)

For good measure, here’s my review of that prize-winning translation. It appeared in Solander in 2007.

Miklós Bánffy, They Were Divided, trans. by Patrick Thursfield and Katalin Bánffy-Jelen, Arcadia Books, 2007 (original text 1940), £12.99, pb, 326pp, 1900850516

The lost world evoked by this classic novel is an epic tale of love and bittersweet nostalgia, washed down with a liberal draught of derring-do.  The setting is Transylvania and Hungary in the decade leading up to the outbreak of the First World War, when a seemingly inexorable course of events culminated in the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and the collapse of this once great country.

Bánffy’s Transylvanian Trilogy, of which They Were Divided forms the third part (not having read the others was certainly not a drawback), was published just before the Second World War. In his foreword to this reprinted edition, Patrick Leigh Fermor describes the aristocracy as “throwing away their spectacles and fixing in monocles”.  Indeed, they were so pre-occupied with the endless round of parties, shoots, love affairs, gossip and Anglophilia, that they totally failed to notice the “writing on the wall”.

The personalities of Balint Abady, his fatally flawed cousin, László Gyeroffy, provide an extraordinary insight into a society that disappeared without trace, as well as portraying human nature in all its frailty and complexity.  In this, inevitable parallels can be drawn with Lampedusa’s The Leopard. I was fascinated by the descriptions of Denestornya, the Abady residence, and of his mother, the Countess Roza.  Definitely a European classic in a prize-winning translation. [Lucinda Byatt]


Minutes after finishing writing this post, I discovered that Patrick Thursfield died in August 2003, so this revival of interest in this brilliant translation is also a fitting tribute, keeping his work alive.  Much more about Thursfield and about the translated trilogy can be found in this wonderful blog post by Neglected Books.

One Reply to “Bánffy’s Transylvanian Trilogy on 2013 Notable Fiction List”

  1. I read your interview of Alessandro Barbero in Historical Novels Review and decided to investigate your blog. I’m glad I did, for I never imagined I’d find another Miklos Banffy fan in the blogosphere or elsewhere. I have recommended The Transylvania Trilogy to my friends without being able to explain its appeal. Perhaps there’s no explanation, except that it’s so well written (and translated). I read Banffy’s Phoenix Land too, and then I moved on to Antal Szerb and read almost everything of his. Have you read any Szerb? I wonder how Banffy’s “bittersweet nostalgia” relates to Szerb’s “neo-frivolism.”

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