Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 16. Nr. August 2006

9.5. Recycling Culture. Ancient and Sacral Texts in (Post)Modern Literature and Art
Herausgeberin | Editor | Éditeur: Gabriella Hima (Budapest)

Dokumentation | Documentation | Documentation

A model of unifying innovation and reproduction - Miklós Bánffy and "Transylvanism"

Györgyi Kusztos (Károli University)


Miklós Bánffy’s life-work is a peripheral phenomenon in contemporary literary knowledge. Probably his presence in politics is better known, as he was the foreign-minister of the Bethlen government from the 4th April 1921 till December 1922. He was also eager in enlivening cultural life; when he was the intendant of the opera house, he was the first who put two masterpieces of Bartók on the stage - The Miraculous Mandarin and the Bluebeard’s Castle - having taken up the job of the costume- and stage-designer as well. But we mustn’t forget about his remarkable achievements as a belletrist. Some of his contemporaries such as Endre Ady, Frigyes Karinthy, Áron Tamási, Aladár Schöpflin, also regarded him as a great talent. And nowadays so do those literary historians who have realized that most of Bánffy’s forgotten works did not deserve their ’fate’. His articles, essays, studies, novels have been published by Transylvanian contemporary publishers such as Pallas-Akadémia, Polis and Mentor(1). In Great Britain the Weidenfeld Translation Prize 2002 was awarded to Patrick Thursfield and Katalin Bánffy-Jelen for their translation of the final volume of Miklós Bánffy’s trilogy(2). This proves the lively interest in his life’s work, not only in Transylvania but in Western Europe too.

On the other hand, Miklós Bánffy’s works are focusing our attention on one unavoidable questions in literary theories of the last decades: the notions of canon, canonization and the process of literary canonicity. Apparently, the two radically different (citing Zoltán Rohonyi’s expression)(3) ideas about the canon, the institutional and the immanent, may lead us to certain conclusions, which can be used in connection with Bánffy’s work. Here and now I am only intending to show their importance and the direction of my research. This lecture of mine does not go beyond being informative as a result of that both Bánffy’s name and the idea of transylvanism have been rather simplified in literary common knowledge. While insisting on being informative I am trying to avoid evaluation, however my choice of topic makes it obvious that I am concerned about exploring the connections in this field.

Accepting that train of thought which says: ’’(...) the story(ies) of Hungarian literature is/are the story(ies) of the Hungarian regional literature as well at all times." (Péter Szirák)(4) I have to plead about one of the main features and principles in the regional canon of the 20th century Transylvania, the idea of transylvanism, about its development and historical background.

Since 1541, when Hungary was divided into three parts, Transylvania has existed as an independent Hungarian principality. As a result, during the centuries, its individual spirit has been formed, which linked to the universal Hungarian culture, but preserved its unique features. After 1848 and 1867, when Transylvania and Hungary were united, Budapest became the cultural centre of the country, but the former Transylvanian ’branches’ continued their work, although there was a decrease in their significance. So, after the Trianon peace-treaty of the 4th June, 1920, when 103,000 square kilometres was torn from the country, that minority of two million Hungarians soon created their own forums, institutions, making an effort to maintain the continuity of a several-century-old regional tradition. As Péter Szirák puts it into words in his study entitled ’Regionalism and the post-modern canon in Hungarian literature in the twentieth century’: ’’The discourse of the Transylvanian ethnic regionalism, protecting a group, fights against a hostile bureaucracy and those manners of a mostly foreign culture. This fight had a double strategy: the process of being culturally independent, yet being smoothly woven into motherland." (pg 40) (5)

It’s enough, if we think about the ’Transylvanian Fine Guild’ (Erdély Szépmíves Céh) who published eighteen Hungarian books or the Helikon group of authors, who, irrespectively of both taste and party affiliation, wanted to form the unified Hungarian literary life. From 1928 to 1944 a journal, ’Transylvanian Helikon’ (Erdélyi Helikon) came out combining civil humanist principles and an up-to-date literary approach; the editor was Earl Miklós Bánffy, using the pen-name Miklós Kisbán who returned to Transylvania in 1926. Mostly it is thanks to him - considering the circumstances - that Transylvanian-Hungarian literature and cultural life between the two world wars started flourishing. He supported young writers and contributed to talented students’ scholarships, established a Transylvanian Fine Art Circle, got in touch with Transylvanian-Romanian and German authors.(6) His supporting achievements in culture and literature can hardly be overestimated. The value of preserving the mentality of transylvanism took shape not only in his culture-organizational tasks but also in his literary work. It is particularly noticeable in his ’Transylvanian Tale’ (Erdélyi Történet) which novel is extremely important in terms of the self-knowledge of Hungarians.

Most of the literary historians agree that Bánffy’s best short stories belong to the best Hungarian prose of the beginning of the century. The noteworthy stories among his early prosaic works can’t be linked to the ’beauty-cult’ of the turn of the century. Most of them can be typified to be brief, taciturn and to have a ’dropout’ structure. Almost without exception the main characters of these short stories are people living together with Hungarians in Transylvania such as: Gypsies (Csácsá-1904), Rusins of Máramaros (A rettentő Safranics és a kis Boglárka-1909), Romanians (Wolves ’Farkasok’-1908). To place these works of his, according to the wider literary development, makes literary historians face a hard task. These works show some similarity to expressionism - see Mihály Maszák Szegedy’s study, ’Baltazár’s feast’ (Baltazár lakomája)(7). He mentions the ’Wolves’, which describes the arrest of the second-in-command of a Romanian peasant revolt. In this work, there is a metaphorical link between the migration of the howling wolves and the movements of the people with the cheated captive.

Bánffy’s very first works and dramas aroused the interest of contemporary authors and literary men. Let’s see some appreciative words from Ady, about Bánffy’s earliest work - the ’Sun legend’ (Naplegenda) (1906, 07). "Miklós Kisbán is more than a literary gentleman. He has a ’’European" taste; he is an immersed man with a gentle soul: Luxuriant, poetic, beautiful language. (...) It is a pleasure to praise Miklós Kisbán’s book. It is a sign among the new signs."(8) The drama reveals the moment when the old world (Stone Age) is replaced by a newer one. His following dramas (for example ’Nagyúr’, ’Martinovics’) watch the man during changes of era.

Beside his dramas and shorter prosaic works we mustn’t forget about his memoirs and we definitely have to mention The Transylvanian Tale, the novel-trilogy, which is especially important because of its historical authenticity and "document-style description of the era" (István Nemeskürty)(9). As Zsigmond Móricz wrote about the trilogy: ’’There’s no doubt that it is the most imposing work of the Transylvanian literature."

However "The memoir has to be considered as the representative genre of Hungarian literature - as Gyula Dávid writes in his volume of studies, entitled "Authors, works and workshops in Transylvania" (Írók, művek, műhelyek Erdélyben). For example in 1941, the Franklin Company published a selection in 10 volumes with the title of ’The Heritage of Transylvania’ (Erdély öröksége). This selection is based on 73 Transylvania-related authors who were natives or lived there for some time between 1541 and 1848. To prove that diversity is a feature of the memoir genre, Bánffy’s life-work could be taken as evidence.(10) One of his memoirs, ’From my memories’ (Emlékeimből), tells us the events of the coronation of the last Hungarian king, Charles IV and those of the great historical changes after the first world war, in a couple of months. He also made an interesting, so-called ’experiment’, ’The Memorial of Tricky Boldizsár Deák’ (Fortéjos Deák Boldizsár Memoriáléja), which he wrote in 1931. It is a witty and funny fake-memoir which has a style reminding us of the Transylvanian memories of the 16th and 17th century.

At this time Bánffy was the dominant figure of the Hungarian society and the ’Helikon’ writers’ community. In 1945 he wrote another memoir titled "25 years" (Huszonöt év). One of its most interesting parts is the chapter which is about the Geneva conference held by the League of Nations. It was the first discussion meeting between countries after the world war in order to clarify the ’European questions’. He caricatured the participants and after his return these drawings were published in limited number of copies.

This memoir, which remained incomplete, he had been raided, his castle in Bonchida had been burnt, the park and the farm was destroyed, his art treasures and his library with its 26,000 volumes had been taken away (Oct 1944). Between 1945-49 he was living in his house in Kolozsvár as a plundered and totally ruined man. Finally, he was compelled to leave Transylvania, and he died in Budapest in 1950. He is buried in the Házsongárd Cemetery. The memoir mentioned above was allowed to be published only in 1993.

Now a few words about the idea of Transylvanism:

From the pamphlet of Károly Kós, which was printed in 1921 with the title of ’Outcrying Word’ (Kiáltó Szó), we can understand inevitably the notion and the idea of Transylvanism, according to which Transylvania has its unique values; on historical and cultural terms it is a clearly distinguishable area. One of its main features is the inspiring multiculturalism, due to the coexistence of the Transylvanian ethnic groups: Hungarian, Saxon and Romanian. So, Transylvanism, emphasizing the importance of multiculturalism is intending to preserve the Hungarian, regional national-cultural identity. We have to bear in mind that political and literary Transylvanism are linked as a notion but they mustn’t be mixed up. This programme, - citing again Péter Szirák - "is making a ‘prescriptive’ (literary) canon with a progressive aspect"(11) and this system of forming preconceptions determines the development of literature for several decades (let’s say to this day) - writes Mihály Lakatos in his work, ’The formation of the Transylvanian-Hungarian literary canon between the two world wars.’ (Az erdélyi magyar irodalmi kánon kialakulása a két világháború között)(12)

Knowing the lot of the Transylvanian minority, it’s obvious that this attitude takes sides against the separation of art, culture and society, subordinating artistic aspiration and literature to the intention of solving ethical and social problems and matters of vital national importance. This intention can be noticed not only in the case of the authors’ self-reflections or the readers’ expectation-systems but also in lyric and prosaic genres which show a tendency for stabilization. In prose, the historical parable, the sociographic so-called "folkdescription" (see the works of Károly Kós, Áron Tamási, József Nyírő) becomes dominant. In certain terms it revives single conceptions of the Enlightment (teaching morality) and Romanticism (with the so-called ‘nation-leading feature’) against the drift and the main aspiration of the era (modernism). On the other hand, in respect of the whole Hungarian-Transylvanian literature this fact didn’t result the destruction of aesthetic features of works, in spite of that conception which is represented in Orbán János Dénes’ work, ’Tea Book’ (Teáskönyv), to use the poems by Reményik as an argument.

By the 1930s, due to the assimilation acts in power politics, the conception of Transylvanism and the "Transylvanian thought" had been modified, regarding especially its interethnic aspect.

The editor of the ’Transylvanian Helikon’, the politician, the artist and last but not least the author Miklós Bánffy’s works are related in a very special way to the concept of Transylvanism. The reproduction of traditional literary genres and forms of discussion in his memoirs, dramas, longer and shorter stories are fields of experiment, fields of innovation.

© Györgyi Kusztos (Károli University)


(1) A few examples from published works:
DÁVID Gyula: Írók, művek, műhelyek Erdélyben. Pallas-Akadémia, Csíkszereda, 2003.
BÁNFFY Miklós: Emlékeimből - huszonöt év. Polis, Kolozsvár, 2001.
BÁNFFY Miklós: Bánffy Miklós összes novellái. Polis, Kolzsvár, 2004.
MAROSI Ildikó: Bánffy Miklós estéje. Kolozsvár, 2002.

(2) BÁNFFY Miklós, trans. Patrick Thursfield and Kathy Bánffy-Jelen: They Were Divided. Arcadia, 326 pp.

(3) ROHONYI Zoltán: Előszó. Kánon, kánonképződés, kanonizáció. Vázlat egy fogalmi tartomány működéséről és történeti funkcionalitásáról. In: Irodalmi kánon és kanonizáció. Ed: ROHONYI Zoltán, Osiris- Láthatatlan Kollégium, Budapest, 2001.

(4) SZIRÁK Péter:.A regionalitás és a posztmodern kánon a XX. Századi magyar irodalomban. In: Nemzetiségi magyar irodalmak az ezredvégen. Ed: GÖRÖMBEI András, Budapest, 2000.

(5) SZIRÁK pg. 40.

(6) POMOGÁTS Béla: Erdélyi gondolat - erdélyi irodalom. In: Erdélyi tükör. Budapest, Kráter Műhely Egyesület, 1995.

(7) SZEGEDY-MASZÁK Mihály: Baltazár lakomája. Protestáns szemle, 3. sz.

(8) ADY Endre: Kisbán Miklós. Budapesti Napló, 1906. ápr. 8.

(9) NEMESKÜRTY istván: A beteljesült jóslat. Szabad Tér Kiadó, Budapest, 1993, p. 829.

(10) DÁVID Gyula: Írók, művek, műhelyek Erdélyben. Pallas Akadémia, Csíkszereda, 2003. p. 102.

(11) SZIRÁK p. 40.

(12) LAKATOS Mihály: Az erdélyi magyar irodalmi kánon kialakulása a két világháború között. Korunk, 1998.

9.5. Recycling Culture. Ancient and Sacral Texts in (Post)Modern Literature and Art

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For quotation purposes:
Györgyi Kusztos (Károli University): A model of unifying innovation and reproduction - Miklós Bánffy and "Transylvanism". In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 16/2005. WWW: ../../../index.htmtrans/16Nr/09_5/kusztos16.htm

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