Imperial sunset song

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They Were Divided

by Miklos Banffy

Arcadia Books, 326pp, 12.99

MIKLOS BANFFY (1873-1950) was a Hungarian grandee, with estates in Transylvania, the province lost to Romania after the 1914-18 war. He was a diplomat, politician and, briefly in 1921/2, Hungary's foreign minister. Before then he had been the official responsible for the coronation of Karl, the last King of Hungary, in 1916, which he described vividly in his memoirs. So he was quite a swell. When he withdrew from politics he turned to literature, and his Transylvanian trilogy, of which this novel is the last part, was published in the 1930s. It should be said that They Were Divided is complete in itself; you don't need to have read the first two books to enjoy it.

And "enjoy" is the word, for this is a novel of great events and the private lives of a huge cast of characters told with gusto and amplitude. There is sadness, for it chronicles the beginning of the end for the old Hungary, that pillar of the Hapsburg Empire. It is an elegy for Banffy's own class, though he makes it clear that they had only themselves to blame. At the very end, with war about to break out in the summer of 1914, the hero Balint - to some extent the author's self-portrait - sees "the whole class of great landowners, spoilt by an arrogance that had led them to neglect the good management of their estates, preferring to view for pompous offices of state and political advantage". There is a touch of Margaret Mitchell's lament for the Old South, Gone with the Wind, a novel that was almost exactly contemporary with Banffy's.

This novel, too, is in high Romantic vein, though, unlike Mitchell, Banffy cuts his arrogance with a lacerating irony. But though we leave his hero on the brink of war, rather than following him, as Mitchell did Scarlet and Rhett through its horrors, awareness of the war and the destruction to come hangs over the whole book, making it as nostalgic as Mitchell's re-creation of the Old South or the second rank of Jacobite novels - say, Neil Munro's and DK Broster's.

It is not only nostalgia that we are offered. There is vigour and even exuberance too. Banffy takes delight in his characters and their surroundings. He loves detail, descriptions of grand houses and the countryside. We have star-crossed lovers - Balint's adored is unattainable, a married woman with a husband consigned to a madhouse. There are quarrels and duels, a murder, crooked lawyers, political intrigues, betrayals - all the stuff of Romantic fiction. And there are also splendidly vivid pictures of rural life - of horses and dogs, poachers and squires who waste their inheritance in gambling and are then sustained only by brandy.

There is tragedy and comedy; and if a thread of melancholy runs through the book this is partly because the author is re-creating in his brilliant imagination the world that he has lost.

Some of the novel verges on melodrama. Some of it recalls the Romances of Ouida; at other times the depiction of rural life has something of the careless charm of stories of the old Anglo-Irish Protestant ascendancy - and many of the characters are indeed as futile and feckless as any landowner in County Mayo. Indeed, the Anglo-Irish comparison is valid in another way too; for, like them, Balint and his fellow Hungarian grandees are uncomfortably aware that they are living on borrowed time, and that the future belongs to the Romanian peasants they have lorded it over for so many centuries.

If it is the Romantic elements that make the novel so enjoyable, so irresistible, it is the author's keen political intelligence and refusal to indulge in self-deception which give it an unusual distinction. It's a novel that, read at the gallop for sheer enjoyment, is likely to carry you along. But many will want to return to it for a second, slower reading, to savour its subtleties and relish the author's intelligence.

The translation by Patrick Thursfield and Katalin Banffy-Jelen (the author's granddaughter) reads with admirable clarity.