I recently needed to read up on Austria-Hungary, the large and potent state that existed in central and southeastern Europe from 1867 to 1918. With the help of friends, and some internet browsing, I drew up a short booklist and worked my way through it. My list was biased towards fiction and memoir—Robert Musil, Joseph Roth, Stefan Zweig—as I knew the history in sufficient outline and wanted to get the flavor, the everyday detail of the place.

Half a dozen books into this project I thought I had been reading too much from the Austrian side. What were the Hungarians up to? Asking around, my attention was snagged, for particular reasons I’ll relate in due course, by hearing of Miklós Bánffy’s Transylvanian Trilogy, a big social-historical-political novel about Hungarian aristocrats in the decade before W ...