Tolstoy treats the title character’s predicament – a loveless marriage to a man twenty years her senior, the affair through which she seeks love, the desire to secure a divorce without giving up custody of her child – nonjudgmentally. He likewise presents the reader, without imposing his own views, the moral outlooks of various characters—from religious stalwarts to emancipated women to Anna’s lover Vronsky, an army officer who, following his personal code of honor, wishes the injured husband would challenge him to a duel to settle matters.
But the reader has less access to the inner world of Karenina than to that of Levin, Tolstoy’s alter ego, a country nobleman who wrings his hands over the situation of the peasants and other social issues. So, while the novel provides an extraordinary mirror on the life of late-nineteenth-century Russia, it still doesn’t represent the female half of that world as well as its title would suggest. In a recent email discussion, a female Russian-Ukrainian friend of mine, a scholar of Slavic literature, concurred that the count from Yasnaya Polyana was not as in touch with his feminine side as he would have liked to believe.
This brings me to a later novel, inspired by Karenina, from the East-Central Europe of the early twentieth century. Nobleman Miklós Bánffy wrote The Transylvanian Trilogy in the 1930s, but it fell into obscurity for decades before finally being published in the original Hungarian in 1982. Thanks to an English translation by the author’s granddaughter, Katalin Bánffy-Jelen, it’s finally getting the international attention it deserves.
Like Tolstoy, Bánffy was the hereditary owner of a vast estate. He’d also served as a legislator, a director of the Budapest Opera House and National Theater, and the organizer of the coronation of the last King of Hungary, Charles IV (as Emperor of Austria-Hungary, Charles I) in Budapest in 1916, shortly after the sixty-eight-year reign of Emperor Franis Joseph ended in his death at eighty-six. The trilogy reflects the woes of this empire in decline.
Bánffy’s protagonist, Count Balint Abády, is a landowner and, much like the Levin of Anna Karenina, he struggles to introduce new agricultural methods to skeptical peasants who work his land, while also combatting schemers who have gained his widowed mother’s trust in administering their property. (I’ve only read the first book in the trilogy, They Were Counted, and he still hasn’t uncovered the full extent of the corruption.) After Abády’s election to parliament is arranged by yet more cronies, he encounters politicians in Budapest who prefer staging incidents to accomplishing anything substantial.
Many of these same Hungarian aristocrats pass their time hunting, gambling, horseracing, and attending all-night parties of excessive drink and Gypsy music in mansions with formidable libraries whose books are never read. Many of Bánffy’s female characters choose wealthy but boring husbands with no intent of remaining faithful. Count Abády becomes involved with a married woman who, like Anna Karenina, is largely a victim of circumstance. While the author’s condemnation of aristocratic decadence is clear, he also treats his adulterous heroine, Adrienne, with great sympathy. He’s more outspoken about women’s issues and sexual matters than Tolstoy. In the early twentieth century, of course, he had more freedom to do so, but he also seems to have a deeper understanding of females.
Bánffy also deals with the oppression of Transylvania’s ethnic Romanians at the hands of the Magyar nobility: a Romanian-Orthodox village church has a painting of the Last Judgment in which the damned are Hungarians with “large moustaches, boots and clothes decorated with elaborate braids” and the righteous wear “traditional Romanian belted shirts that h[a]ng to their knees.”
While Bánffy lacks the literary verve of Tolstoy, the work certainly has its moments, such as this depiction of a waterfall, which Abády admires on a trip to his family’s far-flung properties:
Nothing interrupted the fall of the water: it was like a pillar of liquid bluish-green metal in front of the glistening black of the wet rock cliffsides, and from this dark mass rose white foam-crests of spray, which in turn were transformed into large droplets white as pearls that fell into the boiling swirling mass of water in the basin at the foot of the great fall.... [Abády] was fascinated by the sight of the great surging energy and apparent will to live that was represented by all this turbulence at the heart of the silent, motionless frozen forest. ... Adrienne’s image was conjured up by the beauty and restless movement of uncontrolled nature.
A fine example of literature transporting the reader in time and space—the theme of my series “What I Read Last Summer.”
NEXT IN SERIES: “Freya Stark’s Winter in Arabia and Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: A Journey through Yugoslavia”