|József Katona||CONTENTS||József Eötvös|
THE Hungarian novel, in the strict sense of the world, was born in the Age of Reform. While the Romantic mood set the general course for this literary form for a long time, the prevailing intellectual tendencies were responsible for its social content criticism of the antiquated class-structure of Hungarian society and its cherished institutions, which were hardly adequate for modern social, economic, and political conditions.
The unprecedented material growth characterizing the Age of Reform ran parallel with the emergence of liberal political ideas which permeated the politically conscious sections of Hungarian society. Capitalistic development is commonly associated with the predominance of the middle class in the national economy, yet in Hungary, where an urban middle class was still sadly lacking in the first half of the nineteenth century, the road to reform, the prerequisite of modern production, was paradoxically paved by the privileged classes, or rather by an exclusive minority of aristocrats whose enthusiastic liberalism appeared to run counter to their natural self-interest in perpetuating their own privileges and who, unselfishly enough, were willing and able to understand broader considerations than their own class interest when thinking in terms of national economy.
The most influential political thinker and social reformer, at least in the first half of the Age of Reform, was Count István Széchenyi (1791-1860) whose father, Count Ferenc Széchényi (1754-1820), by donating his art collection to the nation, had laid the foundation of the National Museum and National Library. The perplexing personality of István Széchenyi, a thoroughly romantic character of the Romantic Age, has given rise to much speculation by his biographers about the hidden motives which impelled him to undertake a role in public life which eventually cost him his sanity and life. For nobody really expected the dashing young hero of the Napoleonic wars, the handsome captain of the Hussars, and the darling of sophisticated Viennese society whose amorous adventures and Byronic figure were accompanied by an air of refined extravagance, if not outright dandyism, to appear among the hereditary peers of the Hungarian Upper House, to deliver speeches in Hungarian, a language he had hardly known as a child (he corresponded with his father in German), and to offer an amount equivalent to one year’s income from his by no means insignificant estates towards the expenses of establishing an Academy of Sciences in Pest.
This headlong plunge into public affairs took place in the Diet which opened in Pest in 1825, and which justly earned the epithet ‘epoch-making’, heralding the beginning of the Age of Reform. Széchenyi himself with his novel ideas, became an outstanding public figure, and at the same time a decisive influence in most aspects of the social, economic, and political renewal; his ideas penetrated not only all walks of public life but literature as well.
As a young man he had literary ambitions: features of his undoubted talent rich imagination, stirring emotions, camouflaged by a touch of irony and candour, seasoned by a romantic impulsiveness were always present in his later writings, of which Credit (1830), Light (1831), and The State of Affairs (1833) led the trend in the 1830s. Influenced by his travels in Western Europe, particularly by his repeated sojourns in England, and by his reading, which included modern economic and social theory advocated by B. Franklin and the utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham, Széchenyi propagated a thorough reform of the social order. He started by analysing the reasons why financial enterprise was lagging behind the Hungary. The law of entail (ősiség)* by fettering the free disposition of family estates greatly reduced the credit-worthiness of their owners, thereby causing an acute shortage of capital for investment and improvement, that is for the modernization of the antiquated system of production, the precondition of increasing productivity for no monies were available from frozen assets that could on no account be sold or otherwise liquidated. Széchenyi’s most daring reform advocated the full emancipation of the serfs in order to provide a desirable social mobility and to increase the interest in productivity of that class of the society, numerically the most significant, the jobbágys, who by virtue of their social position had until then had little interest in production. These reforms heralded social changes of unparalleled magnitude affecting the whole of society. His efforts were hindered, natually, by the vested interest of the landowners with vast estates who, while guarding their traditional privileges jealously, were blind to the advantages of the reform outlined by Széchenyi.
Yet Széchenyi, who possessed both wealth and a time-honoured name to lend respectability to his schemes, by his unselfish approach and the magnetism of his personality, and by the spectacular results of his practical propositions, achieved a quiet social revolution. Not only did he write treatises; he initiated projects for the improvement of communications, including the introduction of steam power in shipping on the rivers Danube and Tisza, which he had rendered navigable by extensive regulation. He was also responsible for the construction of the first permanent bridge stretching triumphantly across the Danube between Pest and Buda, and for the introduction (cutting deeply into the privileges of the titled classes) of a general, common, and equal toll to be paid by all users of the Lánchíd.*
The message of this pragmatic man, who seemed to awaken an entire nation from day-dreaming and gazing into the distant past in search of glory, was epitomized by one of his most optimistic aphorisms, the closing words of Credit, a fitting slogan for the Age of Reform: ‘Many think that Hungary has been; I like to believe that she will be’ combating effectively Romantic pessimism and the spectre of nemzethalál.
With the emergence of Kossuth in the early 1840s as leader of the nation, Széchenyi’s influence seemed to decline. In vain did he raise his voice in The People of the East (1841), tormented by premonitions that the road chosen by Kossuth and his followers would lead to revolution, and revolution to catastrophe; the Radicals left his advice unheeded. The crucial issue at dispute between him and Kossuth involved the order in which the essential steps should be taken to achieve the welfare of the nation. Széchenyi advocated material progress as the first stepping-stone to independent nationhood; Kossuth argued that a free nation unhindered by foreign rule and economic exploitation would be able to reorganize her economic life instantly. Széchenyi and the moderates, however, lost ground before the appeal of Kossuth and the Radicals, whose claims were not infrequently excessive.
Széchenyi’s inability to prevent the national disaster about which he had forebodings in the 1840s caused a permanent deterioration in his mental health., He withdrew from public life he was Minister for Public Works and Transport in the first National Government in 1848 and spent the rest of his life in voluntary seclusion in a mental home near Vienna. He took his own life on Easter Sunday, 1860, having been continuously harassed by the secret police, who, not without foundation, suspected him of being the clandestine author of a German pamphlet (Ein Blick) published anonymously in London in 1859 with the assistance of exiles there, in which Széchenyi refuted with biting satire the self-congratulatory claims made on behalf of Alexander Bach, the Austrian Minister of Interior, in Rückblick, claims which were made to convince foreign public opinion and to justify Bach’s reign of terror in Hungary in the post-revolutionary years as being eminently beneficial to Hungarian society.
Kossuth, with his characteristic flamboyance, and in one of his magnanimous moments, bestowed upon his greatest political opponent the flattering epithet ‘the greatest Hungarian’, perhaps little thinking that posterity would adopt it as the most fitting description of a man whose merits deserved no smaller praise.
Széchenyi’s influence on contemporary literature could be felt in more ways than one. The young writers of the Aurora Circle accepted Széchenyi as their intellectual leader soon after breaking with Kazinczy; they were often referred to as the ‘party of Széchenyi’. Their devotion was aptly summarized by Vörösmarty: ‘I for one would also study history with István Horvát … but I would rather wish Széchenyi to be my guide in the joyful province of the future …’. In addition to his being the guide and idol of a generation of young writers, his ideas penetrated literature on the whole; writers often chose young, enthusiastic reformers as their heroes and depicted their clash with their elders, who were usually presented as conservatives to the bone and thus putting obstacles in the path of progress triumphantly cleared by their sons.
This was the subject-matter of András Fáy’s (1786-1863) The House of Bélteky (1832), traditionally regarded as the first Hungarian domestic novel of manners. To be sure, in the first third of the nineteenth century over 200 novels of a sort were published in Hungary. They were mostly adapted and re-adapted adventure stories or romances, sometimes even with efforts at some originality. Yet these authors all failed in one respect at least: they failed to hold a mirror to contemporary society. After some unsuccessful experiments with verse writing, Fáy’s attention turned to fiction. His short stories (e.g. The Strange Will, 1818) reveal his hearty humour but also his inability to construct a solid plot. His first success was achieved by his Original Fables and Aphorisms (Vienna, 1820); although they followed in the footsteps of Aesop and La Fontaine, their originality in social content is indisputable. The fables are often anecdotes with a lesson advocating social reform (e.g. ‘It would be self-deception to believe that what has been good for our fathers and forefathers will be good enough for us’).
While Széchenyi was said to have been impressed by these fables (the genre enjoying a general revival in Eastern Europe the Russian Ivan Krylov was a contemporary), Fáy’s House of Bélteky showed the influence of Széchenyi. Fáy was already forty-six years old when he set out to write his first lengthy novel, an ambitious portrayal of contemporary Hungarian society. Its plot rests on many sub-plots; the main line of the story, however, concerns the conflict, or ‘generation gap’, between father and son, Mátyás and Gyula Bélteky. The elder Bélteky is a coarse provincial squire, with small respect for education, but not entirely without good traits in his character. Yet his life-style merry hunting, noisy drinking-bouts eventually drives him to neglect his estates, and when one of those long drawn-out civil suits which the Hungarian squirearchy loved so much to hate delivers him into the hands of his unscrupulous solicitor, Leguli, his household disintegrates. Leguli moves in on them with his sister, who after the death of Mrs Bélteky, who was dearly loved by her husband but who had been upset by the goings-on in the house turns old Bélteky’s head completely, while Leguli himself has little difficulty in seducing the willing daughter of the house.
On the other hand, Bélteky junior, Gyula, influenced by his mother, has grown up to be a sensitive youth with artistic tastes who, when his unrequited love for a girl above his station nurtures his sense of futility, goes abroad. His energies are channelled into a furious desire to see and learn with a view to improving conditions at home, where backwardness, indolence, and general indifference have done so much harm. Gyula’s travels provide Fáy with ample opportunities to propagate his ideas about reform. On his return a glimpse of how his parental household has disintegrated shocks him and, under an assumed name, he decides to accept the tutorship of the only daughter of another family, the Uzays. Uzay, like young Bélteky’s father, is a clear-cut Hungarian type, if not a forerunner of the ‘superfluous man’ so familiar in Russian novels; he is sensitive to social and ethical problems, has bold ideas, but fails to act because of personal weakness and frustration. Completely alienated from society, he lets his undeniable talents lie idle like the wastelands of his country. An idyllic relationship develops between the tutor and Cili, the daughter of Uzay, disturbed only by the latter’s young second wife. When Uzay dies his widow openly expresses her disapproval of Cili’s affection for an untitled young man, and humiliates Gyula whenever she can. The unexpected turn in the story is that Gyula turns out to be in love with Uzay’s widow and not with Cili. But all ends well, for not only do Gyula and Laura, the widow, find happiness, but Cili and Gyula’s first love also find their sweethearts and the novel is concluded when Gyula, after his father’s death, inherits his estates. The reader cannot resist a gratifying feeling that young Hungary has triumphed over her former backward self.
Fáy’s narrative breaks the sequence of events not only with background stories when a new character is introduced, but also with lengthy digressions on subjects of topical interest: improvements in prison conditions, education, up-to-date farming methods, building of roads, schools, hospitals, encouraging the arts, and the like, echoing Széchenyi’s views with the best intentions, but thereby forcing wedges into the construction of the plot, which in any case requires the reader’s close attention if he is to follow it, on account of its complexity and diverging subplots. To find one’s way in this maze takes much patience and endurance, often at the price of enjoyment.
The redeeming quality of the novel, however, is to be found in the details of the two different worlds of the Bélteky and Uzay household. Fáy uses old Bélteky and his environment to illustrate the degeneration of the old way of life. If traditional life contains only conventional but often obsolete values, and if no effort is made to renew them or to reconsider moral attitudes, and, consequently, if the demands made by changing conditions are not met by reform, then society is heading for disintegration. The pattern of behaviour of old Bélteky might have been adequate in a medieval setting as that of a coarse yet brave knight; a fine fellow though he might be in his own way, he fails completely in his own world; he has the means of prosperity and action, but he is inert, indeed, a nuisance to society because of his disorganized affairs and eternal truculence. Fáy blames society for old Bélteky’s being what he is; lack of refinement is due to lack of education. In turn, Bélteky is to blame for the consequences of his attitudes: the early death of his wife and the estrangement of his children.
The portrait of young Bélteky is less convincing, though he represents all the ideals so dear to their author; at the same time, he is slightly overdrawn, too idealistic, too industrious, and with too much confidence in the future an idealized hero who will turn up in Hungarian novels only too often. As the novel champions public causes, naturally it is a world of men, all the male characters being more vividly portrayed than their female counterparts, who are on the whole bloodless, psychologically simplistic, and of little relevance. The men, on the other hand, are types rather than individuals; most of the heroes of the nineteenth century Hungarian novel are already present in Fáy’s ‘bestiary’: not only the reckless squire (old Bélteky), and the starry-eyed champion of progress (his son), but the cunning, preposterous lawyer (Leguli) and the clumsy professor (Portubay) who is at ease only among the classics, but rarely has enough tobacco to fill his pipe; these are all prototypes of many characters in, for example, Jókai’s works.
Fáy’s novel was avidly read by his contemporaries, but its merits went unrecognized by the critics, who all lost their interest in The House of Bélteky because of its loose construction. It might account for Fáy’s own reluctance to follow up his novel, which he did only at the end of his life, in the late 1850s, by which time he was largely forgotten, and his uninspired new efforts went unnoticed by press and public alike.
Other, minor, authors whose political ideas were developed by Széchenyi, although these were not so predominant in their works as they were in Fáy’s, included Ignác Nagy (1810-54), whose political satire in County Election kept Pest theatre-goers beguilded. While strongly influenced by French Romantic authors, particularly by Eugéne Sue, his easy-flowing sentences and witty and charming directness held the attention of his readers. The mocking tone of his sketches of life spared neither the nobility nor the urban middle class. His best work is the novel Hungarian Secrets published in 12 parts (1844-5). Written under the influence of Sue’s Les Mystères de Paris, Hungarian Secrets was a loosely connected series of sketches rather than a novel about a superhero, Bende, who is brave, rich, and strong. Bende sets out to protect the weak and to frustrate the wicked. His main opponent is a betyár, Jóska Sobri, a contemporary real-life outlaw, who was eventually captured and hanged. Nagy’s work was very popular, partly because of the gripping story and partly of the wealth of exciting details about Pest. Aristocratic parties, small Buda taverns, graveyards, meetings of the Society for the Protection of Animals, junk-shops, the Turkish baths of Buda, schools of dancing, evenings in the National Theatre, beggars’ and thieves’ hideouts, editorial offices of fashionable journals, nocturnal police raids, the ‘workshop’ of an abortionist, the then very novel photographer’s salon are all vividly described. It all proved Nagy’s qualities as a keen-eyed reporter, which he was by profession, and his intimate knowledge of the rapidly growing capital. His critics were puzzled by the ambiguous hints in his brilliant satire; for nobody seemed to find the clue as to whom or what he was aiming at with his poisonous darts, a fact which made both the author and his readers altogether happy, the former convincing himself that he was above party politics, the latter getting sheer enjoyment out of seeing no one spared.
Sue, for some reason, was very influential in Hungary in the 1840s: besides Nagy, Lajos Kuthy (1813-64) also fell under his spell, but with a difference, for Kuthy knew how to construct a sound plot and his descriptive power excelled in painting on a large canvas. His novel Domestic Mysteries (1846) is an excessively romantic story of two brothers. One of the Szalárdys is an ambitious, conceited, and superficial man who marries an upper-class girl only to achieve his own destruction with the willing assistance of his wife’s capricious extravagance, while the other Szalárdy is a plain man who marries according to his heart’s wishes. Their father, however, disinherits the son who has contracted such a mesalliance. It is the son of this déclassé Szalárdy who becomes the main figure in the novel, for, after the death of his honest and hard-working father, the unscrupulous uncle spares no effort to do away with his nephew (a question of inheritance again) whose avenues of escape are the occasion for all the adventures a Romantic novelist might care to invent around the capital and the countryside (which is full of local colour). Eventually all the wicked and there are many die, or are at least adequately punished, while the long suffering fugitive lives happily ever after.
Kuthy could hardly restrain his own inventiveness and the scope of his rich imagination; the breath-taking episodes of his novel therefore mar his original idea, which was to give a large-scale portrayal of society. In presenting human wickedness he equals if not surpasses his masters Eugéne Sue and Victor Hugo and again, as in the case of Nagy, we see a talented writer falling prey to popularity and imitating a fashionable trend. Still, we owe to his uneven genius some unforgettable scenes of the Lowlands and its inhabitants, described from close quarters and with a wealth of detail. Lacking restraint perhaps, but never passion, Kuthy’s style was always colourful and sometimes bombastic, yet he was able, for example, to make rural characters speak in genuine dialects. Like Fáy, he loved digressions on subjects of topical interest, his comments were often spirited, if not instructive; but unlike Fáy’s, his frequently liberal ideas were not always based on the sober thinking of a true social reformer.
A controversial figure in the generation of prose writers born around the beginning of the nineteenth century was Péter Vajda (1808-46), whose premature death prevented the full development of his talent. Son of a serf, and sent down from university before graduating as a doctor of medicine, Vajda travelled extensively in Europe and experimented in all departments of literature. He was the first to write prose-poems in Hungary, and he edited Penny Magazine, a brainchild of Széchenyi, modelled on the London Penny Magazine published by the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge for the popularization of new discoveries in the natural sciences. His humble origins were decisive for him; he felt himself to be an outsider in both society and literary life.
His short stories reflected his love of the exotic; for subject-matter he often turned to an oriental background. His orientalism, however, did not have its source in an insatiable yearning for the East such as the Romantics had, his interest in orientalism rather sprang from his passionate hatred of all kinds of class distinction and racial prejudice. As the son of a Hungarian serf he could hardly tolerate the Indian caste system (‘Vajkoontala’, 1835, a tragic love story of a Brahmin girl and a Pariah boy) or the exploitation of a Jamaican slave by his English master (Manahor the Slave, 1837). His short stories were lyrical and dryly descriptive in turns. To be sure, his preoccupation with social inequalities revealed a belated influence of the French Englightenment, particularly of Voltaire and Montesquieu. In The Most Beautiful Girl (1834), which takes place in the East in the eighth century, the characters discuss Kant or Rousseau, or refer to America. These grotesque anachronisms increase the satirical tone of the story, which is an all-out attack on social conditions in Hungary. The same may be said about his pseudo-historical novel Bende Tárcsai (1837), set in thirteenth century Hungary, with plenty of Picaresque action in it. Such bizarre use of the ‘glorious .past’, a past which only ten years earlier had been the subject of florid eulogies, was uncommon to say the least.
Vajda also wrote a considerable amount of non-fiction, vehemently attacking age-old nationalistic ideas such as the concept of the nation as an exclusive body of the nobles in other words, he was advocating the elimination of class distinction. His lyrical attachment to nature, particularly to the beloved and familiar landscapes of his country, makes his writing a forerunner of Petőfi’s descriptive poetry about the same scenery (A Journey in the Homeland, 1843). His relentless criticism of social injustice led him naturally to the path of revolution: ‘Whenever Nature brings about something new, she labours in fever and agitation; not even a wretched broken bone heals without inflammation’. He did not live to see the revolution of 1848 which was to deal the first blow to the class-structure of Hungarian society.
The sudden growth in homespun novels of manners was equalled, if not surpassed, at least in popularity, by the historical novels of Baron Miklós Jósika (1794-1865), who towered over his contemporaries like the wild peaks of his native Transylvania over the central plains of Hungary. Jósika may be regarded as the founder of the historical novel proper. True, he started his career as a poet, but he soon found the literary form most suitable to his particular talent. In an appendix attached to his widely acclaimed historical novel Abafi (1836) he summarized what he believed to be the principal characteristics of a good historical novel. He claimed that all good fiction should have a central idea which must be successfully illustrated by the work, thereby attaining a moral effect, which might be either direct or indirect. Moral effect could also be attained by describing evil things; then the natural disgust of the reader would yield a positive moral reaction. Poetic justice did not necessarily imply that good always triumphs over evil, but the writer should leave little doubt in his readers’ minds that the triumph of evil cannot be a sign of moral superiority. His third thesis stressed the need for realism. This was an unusual criterion for a Romantic novelist, and in applying it he stood out against the wilder forms of Romantic imagination, for Jósika knew full well that an improbable plot may spoil the desired effect; no educated reader is likely to believe the exciting escapades of which the novels of the French Romantic authors are so full. This third condition also implied, in the context of the historical novel, the careful study of sources, without which no self-respecting author should set out to explore the distant past. It follows that no outstanding historical personage could be the protagonist because his well-known public image would limit the possibilities of interpretation. Finally, he stressed the over-all importance of the psychological problems of character-sketching, with particular reference to what he called ‘nightmares’, but which we would now term the manifestations of the subconscious. However, Jósika’s theory of the novel was specially tailored to the needs of Hungarian readers, whom he believed to be unaccustomed to domestic novels; therefore he also argued that the writer’s first and foremost duty was to attract a large readership. As the average reader was mainly concerned with the external and superficial side of life, the author should depict primarily these features. This concession to public taste can be seen in many of his numerous novels, and it can only be regretted that the exploration of man’s inner life so conspicuously present in his theory was often abandoned in practice.
It was in a novel set in his native Transylvania that he kept most closely to his principles. Abafi, acclaimed unanimously by contemporary critics, takes place in the troubled sixteenth century, when Hungarians, Turks, and Austrians were fighting and intriguing for the possession of the Transylvanian principality. Against a background of the times of Prince Zsigmond Báthori, coloured in tints unknown to the people of less eventful ages, a young nobleman, Olivér Abafi, emerges as the hero of the novel. Abafi leads a somewhat frivolous life; he is also unruly and lawless, yet he eventually achieves the ultimate moral stature: noble self-sacrifice. The character of Abafi as he progresses to moral perfection illustrates what Jósika had in mind when he spoke of accurate character-sketching. Events and motivation are in close harmony, matched by the detailed background of the beautifully-described Transylvanian scenery ruined castles, ancient customs, shining armour, Turkish pashas, and bold intrigues at court, all adding up to an authentic historical atmosphere.
Apart from one ill-begotten experiment, Abafi was Jósika’s first novel, yet his intimate knowledge of Transylvania and its past, and his mature age (he was forty-two when he wrote Abafi) enabled him to write a novel whose qualities he was never to surpass. In technique he learnt from Sir Walter Scott, then the best influence that could reach him. They had similar dispositions and backgrounds, and achieved similar success; as the great Scotsman took the English by storm, so did the Transylvanian the Hungarian public. Each wrote about his native region first, because as Sir Walter claimed: ‘This is my own, my native land.’
The Hungarian public at once took a liking to Jósika’s novel, and he achieved his ambition: a native novelist had won the admiration of his home audience. This ambition was achieved at a cost; the pressure of public demand made him turn out novels, historical and social, in quick succession. This speed of production affected both his characters and his plots; the characters were often only perfunctorily drawn, and the development of the action was marred by the introduction of too many sensational turns of events.
Of the rest of his historical novels, The Bohemians in Hungary (1839) is undoubtedly the best. In this Jósika used a larger canvas than he had in Abafi; there are in fact three separate loosely connected sub-plots in the novel, taking the reader back into the middle of the fifteenth century, when King Matthias successfully fought off the invading Hussites, a far-reaching movement of Czech religious dissidents, who controlled besides Bohemia most of Upper Hungary. In the multitude of characters there are a few, including King Matthias, and one of the Czech leaders, Giskra, who stand out against the colourful background. Jósika intended the novel to provide a series of historical tableaux with graphic descriptions and stirring events. The chief virtue of the novel, again, was the authenticity of the historical atmosphere, the outcome of Jósika’s diligent research and his powers of description.
It is easy to trace a certain tendentiousness in Jósika’s novels if Abafi was meant to uplift the morals of the contemporary youth by the example of Olivér Abafi’s mending of his ways, then the magnificent tableaux of The Bohemians in Hungary were to set an example for national aspirations in the powerful national kingdom of Matthias.
His other novels, which are set in contemporary society, are less instructive in tone but mostly inferior to his historical novels; Jósika needed lofty aims to give of his best. These novels not infrequently raise psychological problems, like Wanton People (1837), a story of Romantic revenge. It is set partly in America, where a visiting Transylvanian nobleman seduces the wife of Motabu, a Negro, who in a fit of jealousy sets his own house on fire, thereby killing his wife. Serédi the landowner engages the Negro as his valet without knowing his real identity, and they return to Transylvania together with Serédi’s English wife whom he has met in London. Now it is Motabu’s turn to seduce his master’s wife, and the enraged Serédi, having been presented with a half-caste baby, shoots his servant dead. The luckless couple then decide to emigrate to America, but Serédi dies on the way. It is a simple, rounded plot, never lacking dramatic scenes, though sometimes wanting in plausibility. Serédi’s swiftly changing moods, ranging from fits of temper to melancholy, his sudden bursts of carnal desire, his often reserved manners and self-seeking attitudes, contain many of the elements of a highly-strung personality. His enigmatic and slightly eccentric wife also possesses the distinct features of an uncommon character, but Jósika fails to attain all the possibilities latent in his figures. His dialogues are sparkling, however, and the foreign background is vividly, if not always convincingly, depicted. The reader is left to wonder whether Jósika was trying to point to the universality of human nature, or attempting to prove the effect of changed environments by setting his story in outlandish surroundings.
The Revolution of 1848 and its subsequent failure profoundly altered Jósika’s life. Fearing the consequences of his activity in the turbulent days of the War of Independence, the celebrated novelist went into exile, living first in Brussels, and later in Dresden where he died in 1865. He was sentenced to death in absentia, yet from mid-1850s his works were again published in Hungary, at first under a pseudonym, and from 1860 under his own name. His output in this second half of his creative career was more voluminous than in the pre-revolutionary years, but his craftsmanship was declining all the time, reviving only for short periods when his personal experiences provided a secure background (e.g. A Hungarian Family During the Revolution, 1852-62). It was also these experiences that precipitated the concluding part of his best historical novel written in exile: Ferenc Rákóczi II (1852). By the time Jósika died the spectacular popularity of Jókai overshadowed his fame; he had become a celebrated author of bygone days.
It would be unjust to leave the name of József Gaál (1811-66) unmentioned when the origins of the Hungarian historical novel are being discussed. It was in fact Gaál who wrote the first historical novel, Ilona Szirmay (1836); this was published just before Jósika’s Abafi, which dwarfed its significance and with good reason. Still, Ilona Szirmay possesses a certain interest, although it cannot be compared to Abafi. Set in the early eighteenth century, it is a love story about a girl, Ilona Szirmay, who is separated from her sweetheart; the lovers are reunited after many vicissitudes. The other line of the story concerns a Romanian outlaw’s band plundering and pilfering in the Carpathian mountains. The two subplots are skilfully interwoven and the story unfolds around a thin but firm historical core. Gaál avoids excessive colouring, and presents many well-sketched minor characters, including some lively female figures, and relieves the often sentimental story with his healthy sense of humour. The influence of Scott, however, does not pass undetected.
|József Katona||CONTENTS||József Eötvös|