A Review of Michael O’Sullivan’s New Book*
In December 1933, Patrick Leigh Fermor, then 18, set out from Hook of Holland to walk to Constantinople. It was the first year of Nazi power in Germany, and the last days of the old romantic era there and in the former Habsburg realms of Mitteleuropa, an era that had not quite been swept away by the First World War. Of course, the Second World War – and, for many of the countries that Paddy travelled through, the subsequent dark years of Communism – did sweep the old order away. Since then the landscapes that Paddy tramped through, and the populations he met, have undergone the further, and not-always benign, influence of the ubiquitous automobile, instant global communications, hordes of tourists, a camera in every pocket, the spread of English as the modern lingua franca, and cheap clothing made in distant sweatshops. The old aristocratic way of life that Patrick Leigh Fermor, also known PLF to his numerous friends, saw in its dying days, and nowhere more clearly than in Hungary and Transylvania, vanished not long after his “Great Trudge”.
PLF’s first volume describing his journey – A Time of Gifts – was published in 1977. It became an instant classic among travel books. In painterly and sometimes almost absurdly lyrical language, A Time of Gifts told of his travels through the winter landscapes of the Netherlands, Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia, and took him as far as the bridge across the Danube at Esztergom on Holy Saturday 1934, at the beginning of a magical spring and summer spent in Hungary and Transylvania. We had to wait until 1986 for Between the Woods and the Water recounting those Hungarian days. The third volume of the trilogy, The Broken Road, was pulled together from Paddy’s notes by Artemis Cooper (his biographer) and Colin Thubron (a fellow travel writer) after PLF’s death in 2011 at the age of 96. It appeared in 2013.
As PLF wrote in his introduction to Between the Woods and the Water, he had set out “meaning to mix only with chance acquaintances, but almost imperceptibly by the time I got to Hungary and Transylvania I found myself having a much easier time of it than I had expected or planned: ambling along on borrowed horses, drifting from one country house to another, often staying for weeks under patient and perhaps long-suffering but always hospitable roofs”.
Sometimes in his books, PLF tells us what became of the people he met on his 1930s walk across Europe. Fritz Spengel, son of the proprietors of the almost medieval Red Ox in Heidelberg “was killed in Norway (where the first battalion of my own regiment at the time was heavily engaged) and buried at Trondheim in 1940, six years after we met”. The Jewish, Proust-reading Baron Fülöp (Pips) von Schey de Koromla left his country house in Slovakia “when things began to go wrong in Austria and Czechoslovakia”, settled at Ascona on Lake Maggiore, and died in 1957 in Normandy at the home of his daughter, Alix, who had married into the French branch of the Rothschild family. But now, for a more comprehensive view, we have Patrick Leigh Fermor: Noble Encounters between Budapest and Transylvania.
In his very enjoyable book, Michael O’Sullivan follows PLF from the moment he was standing on that Danube bridge, with a letter of introduction to the mayor of Esztergom in his pocket, to Budapest, across the Alföld (the Great Hungarian Plain) and the Bánát region, and into Transylvania. On this part of his journey PLF was the guest of the aristocracy of the land. Mr O’Sullivan tells us who PLF’s hosts were, what they did when not entertaining Paddy, what their noble antecedents were, and what became of them (and of the houses in which PLF stayed) in the years that followed. In doing this he has not only portrayed the aristocratic world that PLF encountered in 1934, but also given us, through personal and often tragic histories, poignant insights into the enormous social changes that Hungary underwent in the middle years of the twentieth century. The pictures of people and of houses, with which the book is liberally populated, give a welcome extra layer of richness to Mr O’Sullivan’s account.
Reading Patrick Leigh Fermor: Noble Encounters between Budapest and Transylvania, I was struck again by just how remarkable it was that a scruffy English teenager was able to gain such privileged access to the people he met and who hosted him on this leg of his journey. In Budapest, PLF stayed at 15 Úri utca (the “street of the Lords”) in the Vár (Castle District).
Within a decade of Leigh Fermor’s arrival, this historic place would face near obliteration. The Vár became one of the sites of the Axis’ last stand during the Siege of Budapest in 1945 and paid a heavy price for the role. When Leigh Fermor arrived in 1934 the Vár still contained the residential palaces, or palota in Hungarian, of the old noble and gentry families.
PLF’s hosts here were Tibor and Berta von Berg. “They were strapped for cash like so many post-Trianon Hungarian aristocrats.” Berta von Berg spoke excellent English which “made her the ideal guide for the young Englishman during his first encounters with Budapest society”.
It was from this hospitable house that Leigh Fermor was taken on a twelve- day social spree which gave him further connections to some of the people who passed him on to their aristocratic friends. These were the people whose country houses were dotted along his route as he made his way through the Great Hungarian Plain, the Bánát and Transylvania and progressed in the direction of Constantinople.
Not only did PLF enjoy the whirl of Budapest society, the famous Arizona nightclub, and the city’s other fleshpots during his twelve days there, he (whose formal education had ended when he was expelled from school at the age of 16) took full advantage of access to some of the finest libraries in Budapest to further his interrupted education. Extraordinary as it now seems, PLF was taken under the wing of Count Pál Peleki de Szék, “one of the most interesting and controversial of Hungary’s contemporary political figures”, three times the country’s foreign minister and twice its prime minister, though these roles are mentioned only in passing in PLF’s account in Between the Woods and the Water. Mr O’Sullivan tells us more.
The first thing he observed about the von Berg’s house was that there were books everywhere. At the Teleki palace he found himself in a scholar’s heaven. Pál Teleki was one of Budapest’s greatest bibliophiles. When times were financially tough, it was said that he would make great sacrifices to purchase books… This bibliophile passion is easily understood when we consider that his ancestor, Count Sámuel Teleki, founded in 1802 one of the greatest private libraries in Central Europe.
As well as books, the art and beautiful women of Budapest also attracted PLF. In the company of a well-connected art student – Annamária Miskolczy, “one of the Budapest beauties he met during the round of parties he attended” – he was able to visit the homes of “two of the city’s wealthiest residents, and its greatest private art collectors. The two houses contained between them some of the most important paintings held in private hands anywhere in Europe. The Hungarian aristocracy had a well-established reputation throughout Europe as serious art patrons.”
At the home of Baron Mór Lipót Herzog von Csete, Annamária and PLF saw “the greatest private collection of works by El Greco outside of the Prado”. At the villa of Baron Herzog’s brother-in-law, Baron Ferenc Hatvany, they would have stood together in front of Gustave Courbet’s L’Origine du monde (now in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris). In Between the Woods and the Water, the only Courbet that PLF mentions having seen in Budapest is of “a remarkable and untypical wrestling match” (now in the Budapest Museum of Fine Arts).
PLF’s Budapest host, Tibor von Berg, “was a military man of considerable distinction… a highly decorated veteran of the Great War in which he had been a cavalry officer”. PLF had a fascination with all things military and this surfaces frequently in his encounters on his journey. Equally interesting is the fact that Tibor von Berg had made a journey on horseback from Budapest to Constantinople in 1926. Although not mentioned in Between the Woods and the Water, it surely would have formed part of their conversations. It was Tibor von Berg who, after testing PLF’s riding skills, arranged the loan of the horse – Malek – on which PLF crossed the Great Hungarian Plain.
The houses where PLF stayed while crossing the Alföld and the Bánát are in ruins today or else have been transformed to house local institutions. Mr O’Sullivan charts their fate, accompanied by pictures then and now. One example will have to suffice here.
In 1942 János von Meran was called up and served in the Royal Hungarian Army on the Subcarpathian front. In 1944 he was taken prisoner by the Red Army. In his absence and as the front approached in late 1944, his family fled Körösladány for another property the von Merans owned in western Hungary. Two faithful retainers, a valet and a gardener, were left in charge of the house. Despite their best efforts, they were unable to prevent the building from being looted […]
On 7 October 1944, a Soviet army command took over most of the house, the rest being used as a field hospital. It was throughout this time that the library of 32,000 volumes was dispersed and disappeared. Most of the rare leather bindings were used as boot-mending material and the pages of ancient tomes as lavatory paper. The Soviets left the building on 29 October 1945. An inventory of the contents of the house taken a few months later was only half a page long. Almost everything – paintings, silver, furniture, the priceless family archive, and all decorative elements – had disappeared. A writing table used by Leigh Fermor in the library was one of the few objects to survive.
Countess von Meran and her children returned to their former home in December 1945. They were assigned three rooms in their own house by the National Aid Agency which had previously settled sixteen indigent (or perhaps politically well-connected) families in the building. Empty rooms were used as a granary. Dismantled Biedermeier doors were employed to transport agricultural produce into the building.
In June 1946, the von Merans’ house was handed over to the local Agricultural Cooperative. Then as a result of some bureaucratic whim it was taken away from them and given to the Ministry of Education. It was at this point that the von Merans were dispossessed of their remaining three rooms and told to move to a room in the former estate manager’s house.
In the summer of 1948, after an absence of four years, Count János von Meran returned from Soviet captivity in Georgia. Three years later, in 1951, his old house was given a new function as a local school – a function it still performs today.
No doubt the German and Soviet armies did most of the destruction and looting – and then locals and the new authorities pillaged what remained. Historians reliably estimate that some 90 per cent of Hungary’s moveable art objects perished or disappeared in the course of the Second World War. This includes, of course, not only the furnishings of aristocratic residences, but those of middle class homes as well.
In Mr O’ Sullivan’s pages we watch again the game of bicycle polo at Count József Károly Ferenc Mária Wenckheim’s castle, after which PLF found himself dining with a Habsburg Archduke. We visit the agriculturalist Baron Kálmán von Konopy, whom PLF felicitously describes as having “a touch of Evensong about him”; Count Jenő Teleki, a first cousin to Pál Teleki and who spoke English with a broad Scots accent; the anti-Nazi Hungarian diplomat Baron Gábor Apor de Altorja; and his brother who, as Bishop of Győr, was “a fearless protester against the persecution of Hungarian Jews” and who died “protecting a group of women who were hiding in his residence when Soviet soldiers entered and attempted to rape the women. Bishop Apor intervened but one of them turned his gun on him and shot him at close range.” Bishop Vilmos Apor was beatified by Pope John Paul II in Saint Peter’s Square on 9 November 1997.
And, of course, we meet again “István” and “Angéla”, who lived on adjacent estates just inside Transylvania proper. István – Elemér von Klobusiczky – became PLF’s closest Hungarian friend and with Angéla – Xenia Csernovits de Mácsa et Kisoroszi, a recently married “ravishing twenty-five-year-old beauty” – he had a passionate affair during his days in that part of Romania. In Chapter 6 of Between the Woods and the Water, PLF, Angéla and István make a furtive car tour through the heartlands of Transylvania that brought forth some of PLF’s most evocative writing. We now know, thanks to one of the 400 or so letters PLF wrote to Rudi Fischer (see ed. Adam Sisman, Dashing for the Post: The Letters of Patrick Leigh Fermor, London [John Murray], 2016, p.361), that this chapter is wholly fictional, or, as Mr O’Sullivan puts it, “imperfectly matched to the actual facts”. PLF only first visited those parts of Transylvania in 1982. Some have even questioned the authenticity of his affair with Xenia Csernovits.
Xenia Csernovits’ antecedents were particularly exotic. As Mr O’Sullivan puts it, ”[b]y now he [PLF] was a consummate connoisseur of the nobility and must have entered a state of genealogical fugue when he discovered his new girlfriend’s lineage”. On her father’s side Xenia could trace her ancestry to a Serbian noble who had risen up against the Turks. Through her mother she was descended from “the Dukes of Mingrelia, Lord High Stewards of Georgia, Governors of Orbeti and Kaeni and hereditary Dukes since 1184 of the dynasty of Samegrelo, an independent principality until it fell to Imperial Russia in 1803”.
“Once Hungary had become a post-war Soviet satellite state”, Mr O’Sullivan writes, “Xenia’s life was altered in a way that was unimaginable in 1934.” As a class enemy she was sent to work in the rice fields on the Great Plain. Then she was put to work in a Budapest textile factory and later became an ironer at a cooperative. In 1969, after a blazing row and years of tension, she unintentionally strangled to death the woman with whom she had been sharing “a squalid little flat”, and spent two years in prison for manslaughter. She kept in touch intermittently with PLF by letter until she died in the late 1980s.
While PLF was spending as much time as he could entwined with Xenia, he was staying with Elemér von Klobusiczky on his family estate at Guraszáda, just to the east of the Csernovits’ estate at Zám. Unlike those in Hungary, Romania’s post-Communist restitution laws have been generous and a number of aristocratic families have reclaimed their old properties – as previously described in these pages (see Gergely Szilvay, “The Restoration of the Transylvanian Hungarian Aristocrats”, Hungarian Review, Volume IX, No. 3, May 2018, pp. 74–84). The house at Guraszáda, however, remains unclaimed, and today it “stands close to collapse but not totally beyond saving if something is done within the next year or so”.
PLF’s charm was legendary. But a question that continues to niggle after reading Between the Woods and the Water is: how could a nineteen-year-old English boy, however affable he may have been, have arrived with worn hobnail boots on his feet and a rucksack on his back and infiltrate the upper echelons of Hungarian society quite as successfully as he did? As a telling part of the answer, Mr O’Sullivan points to PLF’s mother’s story, with which PLF had grown up and which he no doubt used to his advantage as he crossed the old Habsburg realms, of descent from a noble Irish family – the Viscounts Taafe, a family with deep connections to the Habsburg army and aristocracy since the time of the Battle of Vienna in 1689.
The family connection to the noble house of Taafe may have been a matter of considerable fabrication by his mother, but it went down rather well in the castles of Hungary and Transylvania, where such a lineage made him very welcome. It required a great deal more than charm and good looks to breach the ha-has of the Hungarian nobility, even in the straitened economic times in which they were living in 1934. In fact, it was just this claim to Taafe blood, according to Rudi Fischer, his Budapest mentor, which opened many castle doors to him on his journey.
Admirers of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s exuberant trilogy, some of the twentieth century’s finest travel writing, owe a debt of gratitude to Michael O’Sullivan and to the research he has undertaken that enables us to travel once again with Paddy from Budapest to Transylvania.
* Patrick Leigh Fermor: Noble Encounters Between Budapest and Transylvania, CEU Press, Budapest 2018.