Imagine an entire nation overflowing with people who completely and totally misunderstand everyone else around them. No matter what you say it will be interpreted in the worst possible way and absolutely counter to what you really meant. On top of that, add in the fact that should you try to be serious about something, should you try to get a point across to a large group or attempt to ‘better’ a situation that seems out of control or corrupt, you are immediately teased, poked fun of, laughed at, and not taken the slightest bit seriously.
Now do all that in Hungarian, a language nobody outside of Hungary can hope to comprehend, and put that nation in the middle of a geographical tinderbox of ethnic diversity, mistrust, and at the crossroads of division where east meets west, old meets new, and more powerful neighbors squeeze in tighter ever year. Only then can we hope to understand the sadly comedic history of Hungary and why she always seemed to pick the wrong side of a war to fight on.
The title of this book – and the whole series which is called ‘The Writing on the Wall’ outside of Hungary – gives us our most important key to understanding what we are about to read and experience in this novel. The Writing on the Wall is from the Book of Daniel in the Bible and has become an expression for being able to see how events are going to unfold before they happen. Yet what we tend to forget from the story in the Bible is when the writing on the wall appeared to King Belshazzar it was unreadable. King Belshazzar had to call in an interpreter to make sense of the words “Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin”. So even though the writing was right there on the wall for everyone to see, nobody knew what the heck it meant.
And that’s the sad joke Bánffy is all too painfully aware of when he wrote this beautiful and tragically overlooked masterpiece.
The novel begins in 1904, the year the Hungarian Parliament building was completed by an architect who went blind before finishing the project. Over the coming years that take place in this the first book of three everyone in that building goes figuratively blind. The political situation in Hungary is a mess, factions who favor their alliance with Austria fight with those who want nothing to do with Austria, and factions within those groups fight with each other.
One would wonder if perhaps this was Austria’s plan all along: to divide and conquer. However, the Hungarians are far more adept at dividing and conquering themselves than the Austrians could ever hope for.
It’s important to take a quick step back and say that this novel is first and foremost a political one even though it does not seem so. Miklós Bánffy has created a work of art in an attempt to explain what went wrong in Hungary – or might even systemically be the problem with Hungary for all of her troubled history – during the years leading up to WW1. Each character, though wholly original, fleshed out, and rarely cliched, does serve a larger role that explores the many facets of Hungarian culture at that time in history. And what is genius here, what makes this novel a masterpiece of fiction that can only be rivaled by War and Peace, is that Miklós Bánffy never forces the issue. He lets these characters live and breathe and surprise us and while they may not rise to the level of psychological realism that Tolstoy found in his great novels, Bánffy has a stronger grasp of ALL the people of his country, ALL of Hungary, and especially his province of Transylvania.
Tolstoy’s one weakness was that he never could really write a character from a lower class than from himself. Tolstoy, try as he might, pray as he might, work as hard in the fields as he might, was never able to get inside the mind of a peasant. And we should be lucky he wasn’t able to either, because had he never longed to be a hard working, simple, plain, struggling human being, we never would have got the great works of art he left behind. His art was his struggle to be a better, more humble person.
Miklós Bánffy, unlike Tolstoy, did understand people of a different class than his – especially the poor. He understood without even thinking about it how the most senior politician thought and behaved, how the nobility behaved, how young women behave, and how peasants behave.
In one scene we get a series of events between the lady of the house, her butler, a young serving girl, and one of our main characters, a socialite named Laszlo. Over the course of this particular chapter we learn (through some clues from earlier in the book) that the lady of the house has put all her household trust in her butler. That butler, we learn, abuses the staff and forces the young maids who work under him to have sex with him. These young women get pregnant by him, and he forces them out into the street by blaming a third party. This young woman, we learn, cannot go home because of her situation but also because of the trust that had been placed in her by her family to find work. She is shamed not only because she is pregnant out of wedlock, but because she is no longer even employed. And the blame goes to our main character, Laszlo, who had only used her as an intermediary to deliver a message to the women he loves who is the daughter of the lady of the house.
Now all this might seem a bit complicated and even a bit dramatic, but what Bánffy is doing is constantly giving us a close look at his society, at the culture of his beloved country. These are the people he loves and he loves them all, good and bad of them. The fact he understands them AND can write so well about them is a gift that has been left to us but that has nearly been forgotten.
Miklós Bánffy is an interesting historical figure. He, like Tolstoy, was nobility. In fact the Bánffy’s are some of the most ancient and were one of the most powerful families in all of Hungary and Transylvania. He was a politician who was involved in many of the most important moments in history and he was an artist.
After WW1 Bánffy retired (somewhat) from politics and focused mainly on his writing and this is when he wrote these novels. He was looking back to a time when his countrymen had been so preoccupied with their own silly affairs, with money, power, self-satisfaction, glory, that they missed all the warning signs that the world around them was going to hell. And his novel is also a reaction to what he saw going on around him as he started writing with the rise of Hitler and his country once again choosing the wrong side of another world war.
He writes, “The feast had been prepared so knowingly that it seemed to Laszlo that everyone present ate and drank more voraciously than usual and chatted with more hectic vivacity, as if they were driven to enjoy themselves while there was still time.”
Yet all around there are hints of decay and neglect or unsettling surprises. A fish that normally is served with bones is somehow served without bones in it, dirty towels lay on the floor where others had used them to dry off, a servant is far more muscular than expected when his arm is grasped. Yet nobody wants to say anything about all this. Nobody wants to be the person who points out any irregularities because they will be mocked. The few who do speak up are washed up old drunks who fall over and urinate themselves while crying for old Hungary.
One character, a successful and respected gambler, almost completely communicates with his monocle. When he makes up his mind about some affair, when he has decided on how things will be settled and seen, he imperceptibly twitches his eye to allow the monocle to drop from his eye as a sign that affairs are over and that ‘that is that, gentlemen!’. By choosing to impair his vision, he judges how things will be seen.
How Bánffy manages to pull this off is quite a feat and makes reading this novel such a pleasure. His best talent is in handling all the different characters. In the scene with the maid I described above, we do not get the point of view of only one character or an omniscient narrator, but rather Bánffy allows the characters to orbit each other and when one comes close to the other we immediately yet effortlessly switch points of view. We go from the lady of the house and what she is thinking, to the butler, to one of the upper maids, to the poor maid who is kicked out and then on to Laszlo, with whom the chapter began.
Time, too, does not always flow in one direction.
In another scene we learn that one character has been engaged to the former lover of another. We then jump back a week to tell how this was arranged, then go forward to a party where we meet up with the character who has been spurned by this news but now from the point of view of the other woman who then tells us how all this was put together a few days before.
The effect of all this jumping about is that Bánffy builds a world in which life is happening all the time, not just when we are reading that particular page.
Our other main character, Baliant (who is a near stand in for Bánffy), is trying to better the lives of the people who live on his family’s land (sounds like Tolstoy, no?). Yet every time he goes back into the mountains to meet with these people he is thwarted by events that have been going on while he was far away in Budapest. Just because the noble land owner is away does not mean life suddenly stops and Bánffy is constantly using the back and forth of time and the orbiting motion of the intersecting characters to give us a greater sense of a larger world, a world in conflict as well as of beauty.
But is this novel nostalgic?
Nostalgia can be a killer because it is a dishonest emotion that colors reality and takes us out of real events and real people’s loves. Nostalgia is false because it never happened and it can cheat a reader of learning something important about the world we live in and about who we are as human beings. Nostalgia is a longing for a return to a time that never existed. The world he writes about most certainly did exist, and so much of it was rotten.
This is not a nostalgic novel.
Bánffy paints Hungary with all the colors of nature, he lets us listen to all the sounds of the horses and the birds, “Outside a nightingale sang in almost crazed ecstasy”, and even smells – one scene describes a poor peasant boy standing in a room filled with the smell of sawdust as the child eats a ripe apple. Color is his most used descriptor, be it the cushions in a room or in Parliament, the blues of the distant, floating mountains, or even “the purple darkness of desire”.
All this might seem overly nostalgic, too, however, let’s not forget that to this very day we can go see the uniform Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria was assassinated in and see his red bloodstain still on his uniform. It’s still there 100 years later.
And like that assassination which took place in the very empire Bánffy is writing about, the past he writes about is not something anyone would be nostalgic for. Bánffy, though he loves his nation, knew that he and his countrymen did not see or interpret the writing on the wall. He is not nostalgic to return to a time where so many suffered, where just off stage men like Gavrilo Princip were starving and angry and ready to kill to make a change in their lives.
Bánffy was all to aware of the suffering of that time, and though he would have loved to have remained a gentle noble with all his lands – the Nazi’s destroyed his family castle because Bánffy attempted to get Hungary to switch sides in WW2 and join the Allies – he was well aware of the pain of all the people of his country and he is not nostalgic for any such thing.
Bánffy has written a warning for all of us to be more aware of the people around us, the cultures we must learn to get along with, the people in our lives whose lives we effect for good and for bad, sometimes without even realizing it or knowing they are also influencing us, even behind our backs. He, like Daniel in the Bible, has translated the writing on the wall and this novel is his interpretation of what was written for Hungary right before WW1.
I must add that I believe this novel to be one of the greatest works of literature ever created. This novel, for me, stands next to War and Peace, Moby Dick, and Ulysses and it deserves to be read by every person alive. Yet like the literal Writing on the Wall, few people have seen it or will ever know about it.
And perhaps that’s the way it should be. Most people are plenty happy going on with their lives and not concerning themselves with the greater problems of the world because to be one of the few who can read the writing on the wall means you are probably still powerless to do anything about it.
Bánffy paid for not reading the writing on the wall when, in his 70’s, he watched the Nazi’s tear down his family home.