|Kálmán Mikszáth||CONTENTS||CHAPTER XVI The Metropolitan Experience: the Cult of Illusion|
THE period between the Settlement of 1867 and the outbreak of World War I has often been described as an age of peaceful prosperity, an era in which the modernization of Hungary was completed and when Hungary advanced uninterruptedly towards being a powerful national state with liberal tendencies and with increasing political importance within the Empire. This statement contains no more than a grain of truth; but it must be borne in mind that it was made retrospectively, after the horrors of two world wars had aroused nostalgia for the warm glow of prosperous tranquillity and solid middle-class virtues that shone unashamedly in the latter part of the nineteenth century.
The Settlement of 1867, which was designed by its chief architect, Ferenc Deák, to be a lasting solution, proved in the long run an uneasy arrangement in the artificial partnership between Austria and Hungary. Every ten years the terms of the Settlement had to be renegotiated, in order to regulate various issues arising out of the relationship of the two halves of the Empire (the proportion of commitments in the átkos közös ügyek*). The whole edifice of the Settlement seemed to be doomed to disintegration, since the Austrians felt that the Hungarians were making economic progress at their expense (a common enough lament of all colonial powers), and that the precariously maintained equilibrium was turning in the Hungarians’ favour, while the Hungarians felt that their bargaining position was not improving with the passing of time, and that the centre of gravity should be transferred from Vienna, to Budapest, to reflect the changing times. At the same time the Hungarians’ hegemony in their own country was seriously challenged by the growing consciousness of the national minorities, whose radical leaders all entertained separatist schemes. The nationality question was indeed grave, for the various minorities put together amounted to roughly half the total population of the Kingdom of the Holy Crown. (To be more precise: 54 per cent of a population of 13.2 million in 1869, which decreased slightly to 45.5 per cent of the 18.2 million inhabitants in 1910.)
It was also the age of nationalistic day-dreaming; the fiasco of national aspirations in the War of Independence had left an indelible mark on the national ego, its bitter memories haunting older and younger generations alike. After a while the majority of Hungarian intellectuals sought and found comfort in the long-term prospects opened up by the Settlement or rather entertained wild hopes of a Hungarian Empire with 30 million inhabitants as the ultimate goal. In their wishful thinking, intellectuals were prone to gloss over the unpleasant facts while exaggerating those features of the political, social, and economic life which supported their dreams. In this way, a sense of false security and well-being was gradually achieved; the foundations of the social order seemed to be solid enough, for the dangerous undercurrents were ignored. Briefly, public thinking was subject to delusion, and the man in the street felt he was living in a stable society with bright prospects for the future.
Thus, a pseudo-Victorian era descended on Hungary, nurtured not by any justifiable feelings of Augustan greatness, as such were experienced in Victorian England when the might of Pax Britannica seemed to ensure that ‘the sun would never set on the Empire’, but based on self-deceiving assumptions which were eagerly discovered in the overestimated prospects of the Settlement. True, the largely unchanging political establishment, particularly after 1867, during the long reign of Francis Joseph (1848-1916), left enough time for the stabilization of middle-class values. This period, like the reign of Queen Victoria in England, had as its main characteristics prudery, dormant imagination, and the reliability of public services. In literary life, it resulted in a respect for a rigid system of values-hence the ever-increasing number of translations of classical foreign authors, and a lack of courage to experiment in poetry. In other words, respect for authority could be clearly discerned at all levels in literature. The pseudo-Victorian literary gentlemen adhered strictly to their inflexible set of values; conservatism and academicism were the order of the day.
Luckily, not all intellectuals were content with the pursuit of worn-out ideals, with zealous imitation of past masters, and with nationalistic illusions. There arose a few poets who paved the way for a new poetic sensibility that emerged at the beginning of the twentieth century. Before they could seek new sources of inspiration, it was essential that these young writers call into question the accepted system of values. They were conspicuous for their reluctance to attribute intrinsic value to many of the ideals religiously upheld by their elders. They also understood the temporary nature of the stalemate achieved by the Settlement, and as they saw little hope in the future, were often sardonic in their views, if not downright pessimistic. The narrow range of their own lives contrasted unfavourably in their eyes with the stirring epic of the War of Independence. The present seemed to be an anecdote, a sketch only, the past was a tragedy, a monumental painting. The younger generation turned to new ideals apparently discovered in the life-style of English country gentlemen; they also adored the minute detail of emotional life described in the Russian novels; they were unable to cope with the tragic grandeur of great failures. However, in an age of prosperity only compromise and mediocrity were possible. The minor prose-writers all had ambitions to gauge the totality of human and social relations, but they did not possess either the talent or the perseverance to accomplish literary tasks on the scale they set themselves. The poets were pensive, and preferred the elegiac mood to writing odes. They did not consider themselves patriots, yet they were not genuine cosmopolitans; they lacked religious convictions, but were not militant atheists.
A cult of unremitting suffering and of enervated heroes emerged in their poetry. This was a general phenomenon of fin de siécle writing, yet this cult in Hungarian poetry appears to have been backed by real experiences, and not only by vague, subconscious yearnings.
A true representative of this generation of disillusioned poets was László Arany (1844-98), son of the great epic poet János Arany, whose talent for poetry manifested itself with singular intensity in his Hero of Mirages (1873). A bank manager by profession, Arany travelled widely in his youth and made his name originally by a collection of folk-tales, employing modern methods of folklore study, and by his essays which revealed a lucid mind, wide reading, and intimate acquaintance with the technique and best traditions of Victorian essay-writing. In one of the few poems he wrote, a sense of futility can already be discerned: ‘There are no noble aims in front of us. / We worry like a frightened herd / Startled by the slightest noise. / Tomorrow it’s semi-darkness. / We should move, but doubt restrains us, / Deeds are halted by anxiety’ (‘Meditation’, 1868). This is the dominant motif of The Hero of Mirages, a novel in verse comprising four parts. The name of its hero, Balázs Hűbele, became a byword for describing people whose initial enthusiasm, unsupported by perseverance, ends by achieving nothing.
This is precisely the story of The Hero of Mirages. Balázs is an orphan with a modest inheritance, but with a time-honoured name: his father, a colonel, was killed in the War of Independence. Balázs is not without talent, but there is nobody to steer his ambitions in the right direction. As a law student he is noted for his ‘patriotic’ drinking bouts, but when he becomes tired of his companions, that is the time to write dramas. While looking for a real life model for the traitor in his projected drama he comes across Réfalvy, who has a tarnished reputation. It soon turns out, however, that Réfalvy is a man of stature; furthermore, Balázs falls in love with his daughter, Etelke, and becomes bent on clearing the name of Etelke’s father. But while Balázs is away, chasing glory in the Italian risorgimento, Etelke marries somebody else; and on his return he feels himself to be a complete failure not only is he unlucky in love, but his ambitious plan for social reform, based on foreign models which he had studied superficially in London, becames a subject of common ridicule.
Then Balázs seeks refuge in the countryside, and meets Etelke by chance at a party. Being drunk, he begins to molest his ex-fiancée. However, no great tragedy or violent scene follows; Balázs stumbles over a chair and is put to bed. In the sober light of morning he is deeply ashamed and full of self-reproach, and contemplates suicide, but eventually accepts reality the age of chasing mirages is over.
Balázs is a complete failure, yet his recurrent loss of interest in what he believes to be significant is not due only to his character; he often seems to be a victim of circumstance or of determinism, which is a salient feature of Arany’s philosophy. To preserve his integrity and to achieve his goals appears to be beyond his grasp. Arany, like Madách, was pessimistic about the higher aims of life: ‘We never reach the ideals, / Good and Evil wage a continuous battle. / Generations rise, grow, roar and decay, / They struggle constantly, live and provide for life unceasingly, / But they cannot attain their goal with proud conscience / They descend, having reached the peak and begin to decompose after maturing.’ (Canto I.) Arany, however, was not enunciating ideas of universal applicability but depicting a sense of futility common enough in the post-revolutionary era, for the illusions haunting Hűbele were not exclusively his own; they caused frustration for a generation. While Arany saw no way out of the dilemma, he perceived the proportions the meaningless struggle of his generation was at best tragicomic, if not utterly ridiculous.
Choosing the novel in verse (a genre much favoured by Romantics like Byron or Pushkin), as a vehicle for his defiantly anti-romantic hero, Arany hit on the best form for his purpose. The novel in verse was neither an epic nor a novel; its effectiveness was accentuated by the lyrical overtones of the narrative. Furthermore it was an obvious choice because of the time-honoured traditions of narrative poetry in Hungarian literature. The narrative, in four cantos, tells a straightforward story, and Balázs is always the centre of attention, the rest of the characters appearing only to perform their specific function; as a result, the structure is carefully balanced and controlled. To achieve psychological realism in the portrait of his hero, Arany selected characteristic incidents and related them without commentary, allowing himself only a little sarcasm in the detail of the descriptions. The lyrical introduction and epilogue provide the setting and the atmosphere of the narrative; in these parts he feels free to play with the possibility of blending irony with nostalgia. Arany’s vocabulary is always carefully chosen to fit his subject; through his approach the reader is reminded of his father’s technique; but László Arany’s knowledge of the language as spoken by educated town-dwellers, with all its neologisms and slang, was greater, than that of his father, and came to him more easily; János Arany’s main aspiration had always been to incorporate rich idioms from dialects into literary language. However, Arany never managed to repeat the singular feat of his Hero of Mirages: he wrote another longer piece in verse, sadly inferior to his first major work in conception and execution alike. Having abandoned poetry completely, he nevertheless continued to write penetrating essays and criticism for Budapest Review.
The poet whose lifework linked together the népies trend of the 1840s and the more individual tone of poetry at the turn of the century was János Vajda (1827-97). Vajda employed the song-form as developed by Petőfi, but his outlook was thoroughly modern; a morbid sense of isolation and the self-torturing memories of an unhappy love-affair which pervaded his poetry made him a forerunner of the decadent poets. Although obsessed with the uncommon from an early age, including his aspiration to ‘subjugate’ the world rather than to understand it, Vajda’s early career, both poetic and public, scarcely presaged the wailings of ‘the lonely and cursed spirit’ whose later poetry expressed so little faith in human destiny.
Of lower middle-class origin, Vajda took part in the political movements prior to the War of Independence with youthful ardour, like his friend and idol, Petőfi, whom he attempted to imitate even by joining a company of travelling players. After the end to the war, he was conscripted into the Austrian Army. From 1853 until his death he worked mostly as a journalist. His early poetry was marked by népies simplicity, and his subject-matter was drawn almost exclusively from public life. The aim of these didactic poems was in accordance with the image of the ‘national poet’. His poetic devices were, however, inferior in technical skill to Petőfi’s.
His poetic renewal took place when he returned to civilian life after his ordeal in the Austrian army, and was triggered off by a fatal love-affair with a certain Gina, a somewhat vulgar woman of ravishing beauty who light-heartedly exchanged the adoration of the poet for the friendship of a rich aristocrat. The experience left an indelible mark on Vajda’s mind; his obsession with the memory of Gina became a recurrent feature of his poetry. The Gina poems of the 1850s, however, (the cycles ‘Laments’ 1854; ‘The Curse of Love’, 1855; and ‘The Memory of Gina’ 1856) bear witness to his inability to handle the intensity of his emotional torment, the sensual, wild, and desperate complexity of which was incongruous with the naïve simplicity of the folk-song style he had previously employed. His passion was not love, in the sense of longing for happiness. (The poems often conveyed a sense of carnal desire, whose embarrassing novelty was in sharp contrast with the florid and sentimental love-poetry of the petőfieskedők: ‘I desire you, yet I love you not,’ or ‘I admire your beauty only, / I do not seek your heart.’)
Scholars who prefer a psychological approach to Vajda’s poetry have often explained the self-tormenting tenacity of his emotions in terms of a deep sense of failure which can be traced to his youth; for Vajda identified even the fiasco of the War of Independence with his personal failure the failure of his ambitions, both social (attempting to compensate for his humble origin) and personal, a sense of inadequacy in his relationship with the outside world. Furthermore, no woman could love him to the extent required by his narcissism. His inability to establish contact with the outside world drove him to write poetry, in order to find a suitable medium for communication. When he is able to project his ego successfully into poems, that ego appears with features exaggerated to cosmic dimensions: it is immortal as long as world, spring, heart and love exists. The ‘inflated ego’ is fundamental to modern poetry; in Hungarian literature Ady represents it at its best. Vajda had a new sensibility essential for the renewal of traditional poetry, but lacked, however, the lyrical ingenuity which characterized Ady’s poetry.
Still, Vajda did pave the way for a complete change of poetic attitudes by his use of unusual metaphors. These metaphors were built into the poems organically; they were not mere ornaments haphazardly chosen, their function being to elucidate the meaning; consequently his imagery formed an interrelated system of signs which was easily understood by his readers. This new handling of the details of imagery also marked a clean break with the use of traditional, fully-formulated similes employed only to embellish the style. In Vajda’s case the actual comparison is left out, only the result of the process being included in the poem in contracted form (e.g. ‘raven-night’, ‘butterfly-existence’, falling leaves are ‘hair of the wilderness’). This is the first step towards symbolism which is resistant to logical analysis and restores poetry to a deeper level of consciousness: symbols evoke a strange atmosphere by the suggestions of associations and half-shades.
Vajda did not use his new poetic devices consistently; hence his poetry was often uneven-startling metaphors were often followed by the stock images of the petőfieskedők. In his best poems, however, written in the 1880s and 1890s, he managed to create pieces of great lyrical beauty. Of his Gina poems, ‘Twenty Years Later’ (1876) and ‘Thirty Years Later’ (1892) are remarkable for the sustained power of passion, and their construction and musicality. ‘Twenty Years Later’ is a succinctly expressed contrast between the dazzling height of the solitary, snow-capped peak of Mont Blanc and the softer imagery of ‘the fairy-lake of past youth’ from which a swan (Gina) emerges. In the last of the four stanzas the lonely, aloof, and icy mountain peak and the more mellow symbols of the poet’s memories are linked together in a scene of flashing light. The rising sun causes a sudden conflagration; a heart already grown cold is rekindled into remembrance. ‘Thirty Years Later’ is a sad celebration of the fleeting moment when the poet meets Gina again. With the image of a quiet, nocturnal forest after a storm, suggesting relief, Vajda ends his poem on a note of muted sorrow, not over a ‘paradise lost’, but because of a ‘paradise ungained’.
Although Vajda was a misanthrope, his mind was unceasingly occupied by issues of national interest. These later poems, far superior to his efforts in the 1840s and charged with an emotional commitment uncommon for an age with few illusions, are significant. In his self-imposed role of solitary watchman, towering above the mediocre present, he also produced some impressive poems in which he either mourns the apparently lifeless body of the nation during the era of absolutism (‘The Vigil-Keepers’, 1855), or castigates society for its appetite for material wealth and its lack of loftier principles (‘Jubilate’, 1885). He also experimented with the novel in verse, parading the same burnt-out cases of a generation noted for its disillusionment as did László Arany in his Hero of Mirages.
Vajda was a recluse because of his introverted character and his disenchantment with a mediocre age; Gyula Reviczky (1855-89) was even more of a solitary figure. He lived a life of Bohemian poverty, and his days were marked by a series of bitter experiences, starting with his rude awakening to the fact that he was the illegitimate child of the man whose historic name he had borne with such pride in childhood, and who had spent his inheritance before young Reviczky’s coming of age. At eighteen he was left on his own, a penniless nobody, and decided to make literature his career, a course which, for a poet living by occasional journalism, has never been profitable in any country or age. His disappointments with the leading literary organs, editors, and cliques made him realize that literature was held in high esteem only if it was produced by established academicians or public figures who conformed to the views of the literary arbiters of the day.
Reviczky was also disappointed by the népies trend, which by the 1880s had no impetus left, and was no more than a conservative repository of spent energies; only the less talented imitated the great poets Petőfi and Arany but without their conviction or timeliness. To be sure, Arany himself neither understood nor liked the emerging new poets. In his ‘Cosmopolitan Poetry’ (1878) he accused the younger generation of abandoning national aspirations in literature. Reviczky took up the challenge (‘To János Arany’, 1878) and deliberately declared his poetry to be general and universal, and claimed that the poetry of particular and national themes had limited appeal. Although he took up this militant attitude briefly, Reviczky was neither inclined nor prepared to fight; he realized soon enough that he was unable to change the dominant literary taste.
The tone of his poetry was set by his changing moods. ‘The world is but a mood’, he claimed (‘About Myself ), and set out to explore his own moods in his first volume, My Youth (1883). He had relatively few themes the transience of youth, the riddle of death, and the place of the poet in an indifferent, even hostile world. His reflections about these subjects, however, changed with his mood; Reviczky believed poets have to be controversial, since inspiration is derived from vague, ever-changing feelings. The result was a tormented internal dialogue: different inner voices argued in his careful iambics. As doubt was deeply rooted in his nature, these internal struggles lent a convincingly dramatic force to his lyrics.
His love-poems (e.g. First Love, 1875-83) are devoid of sensual or erotic undertones. There is a repressed desire only; the poet is grateful for the smallest signs of understanding, or any display of tenderness. Reviczky found these feelings in the outcasts of society in prostitutes. Although the cult of the ‘fallen women’ in the poetry of the fin de siécle was fashionable, there is no reason to doubt the sincerity of Reviczky’s feelings in his Perdita Songs. His poverty, his emotional crises, and his insecurity helped him to discover the world of the prostitute; there he was able to find human compassion at the bottom of society: ‘You are not being stronger than I / Our sorrow is shared / We should not abuse each other / And let’s confess: we live in sin.’ (Perdita Songs II, 1884).
He also found a sense of relief in his dreams: it was a natural defence-mechanism against the harsh realities of life. He had no illusions about his own age; and his imagination could wander freely between past and future in dreams. Death lost its meaning Reviczky’s treatment of death showed no sings of fear; he often wished for its coming as a peaceful rest, as the ultimate refuge from his unceasing anguish. Some of the poems in his second and last volume (Solitude, 1889) contain satiric comments on the stale values of the literary scene. His best known poem, ‘The Death of Pan’ (1889), was also published in this volume. Based on an anecdote in Plutarch,* in Reviczky’s interpretation the theme becomes allegorical; the ‘goat-footed’ deity who lives in the forest is defeated by the Christian God who lives in the human heart. Reviczky had no pity for the ancient sailors whose pagan celebration of life was halted in this conflict between paganism and Christianity: he was clearly on the side of the meek, for it would be a ‘sweet joy to weep’.
Reviczky also wrote prose, stories, and criticism. Of his fiction, Paternal Heritage (1884) is undoubtedly the best. It is largely autobiographical, describing the youth of a gentry hero whose only paternal heritage is a lack of will-power which makes his life miserable; he is a failure in both society and private life. It causes his ultimate downfall, although Reviczky (in the final version of the story) leaves the question of his hero’s suicide open. The style is economical, devoid of all embellishment, for the author is interested only in the character of his hero.
Reviczky’s life-work implies a clean break with the népies tradition in Hungarian poetry. He is essentially a town-dweller, for whom the country and nature have no significance whatsoever; there is no place in his poems for trees, flowers, plants or animals, even in similes. His lines evoke abstract moods, yet his poetry, fading into immateriality, is nevertheless effective because of its self-denuding sincerity and musicality.
While Reviczky was a poet of ethereal moods, his friend Jenő Komjáthy (1858-95) was primarily a conceptual poet whose esoteric verse seemed like hieroglyphics to his contemporaries. He, too, died young after a short and uneventful life. His only volume, From Darkness (1895), appeared at the time of his death. His philosophical development was characteristic of his generation; most of them were influenced by the pessimism of Schopenhauer, but in addition Komjáthy was affected by the pantheism of Spinoza, and Nietzsche’s concept of Übermensch was influential in forming his view of the poet who was above the crowd.
His poetry is permeated by a strange supernatural incoherence and an ever-present mystical excitement. Love is redemption for him-his honeymoon inspired his best known poems, the Eloa cycle, which celebrates the ecstasy of sensual pleasure; it elevates the poet to heavenly bliss. The title of the cycle is taken from Alfred de Vigny, who writes how an angel born out of the tears of Jesus gives herself to Satan to redeem him. In Komjáthy’s version the love of a pure woman brings salvation to a demoniac man. Thus happiness is redemption. The mood of the poems is always euphoric and full of light: even breathing is a sensual pleasure to the poet.
The tone of his poetry changed when he had to take up a modest teaching post in a godforsaken village in Upper Hungary. His natural inclination to rebel was confronted by unpleasant reality, and his sense of isolation brought about an estrangement from the tangible world and a frantic search for God, which, given his egocentricity, could only end in self-deification. ‘I feel as if I were God / From the beginning, infinite and free / I feel I am able to create / a new, wonderful world.’ (‘I Could Die’.)
The whole atmosphere of his poetry radiates the presence of an ever-glowing summer, relieved only by violent storms and studded with symbols of the sun-god. His sentences are often concluded with exclamation marks; passion erupts from his ego this unrestricted recklessness and defiance manifest themselves in almost every poem. When he died he was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Komjáthy was hardly noticed by his contemporaries it was the poets of the Nyugat who discovered his strange originality and his skill in versification.
While signs of a poetic revival were undoubtedly indicated by the individual tone of the poets discussed above, who mostly rejected the ideals of the népies trend, and while prose-writers particularly authors of short stories also revealed a tendency to innovate, playwrights preferred to stay on the beaten track. In the second half of the nineteenth century, no dramatist appeared who could compare with József Katona, and the dominating domestic genre remained the népszínmű. Talented playwrights of the Age of Reform either died or became inactive, with the exception of Ede Szigligeti, who was the most popular author up to and around the Settlement of 1867. As political tension eased, theatrical life also revived. New theatres were established (Buda People’s Theatre, 1861; Pest People’s Theatre, 1875; Opera House, 1884), and by the beginning of the twentieth century Budapest had become one of the theatrical capitals of Europe. The road leading to this great upsurge in theatrical life, however, was long and not without detours.
First and foremost, the népszínmű was still firmly established on the stage. As a light-hearted domestic entertainment it had no serious competition; consequently playwrights felt safe producing new pieces by the dozen. József Szigeti (1822-1902), for example, began his career as an actor, as Szigligeti had done, and then turned his attention to writing plays. His népszínműs and light comedies were almost as popular as Szigligeti’s. (The Old Infantryman and His Son the Hussar, 1855, is perhaps his most widely acclaimed népszínmű.)
The taste of theatregoers had gradually changed: interest in historical dramas and the French Romantics declined. The problems of the middle class were expected to be treated on the stage in both light and serious fashion. For a time, however, the neo-Romantic plays provided novelty. In these plays playwrights carefully avoided genuine conflicts, whether in a historical or a contemporary setting, nor did they worry unduly about psychological validity or characterization; in fact their neo-Romantic plays took place in the same make-believe world as did the népszínmű in its later stages. It is quite interesting to note that at a time when social problems were being treated in fiction with varying degrees of realism, the majority of contemporary plays gave no clue as to the society in which they were conceived. In an age when social problems were generally glossed over in public, the theatre, where confrontation with reality was carefully avoided, significantly contributed to that sense of false security prevailing in the pseudo-Victorian Hungarian society.
A prominent representative of this make-believe world was Jenő Rákosi (1842-1929), a figure who later came to stand for conservatism, nationalism, and political day-dreaming. (A Hungarian Empire with thirty million inhabitants was a feature of his wishful thinking, at a time of large-scale emigration to the New World.) His initial revolt against convention produced Aesop (1866), although the modern reader will find it hard to understand its success. As editor-in-chief of the newly-established Budapest News (1881) Rákosi became an influential public figure; his impressive rhetoric made him the leading journalist of the era. He was not without talent as a playwright; he could create lively figures and colourful dialogue, and he had a strong sense of tragedy (Andrew and Joanna, 1885). Of the other contemporary minor playwrights, perhaps Lajos Dóczy (1845-1919) should be mentioned. His Kiss (1874) was, next to Rákosi’s Aesop, the biggest theatrical hit of the time; set in an escapist world, this neo-Romantic comedy deserves credit for its lyrical mood.
Despite the neo-Romantic trend, there was one playwright, Gergely Csiky (1842-91), whose lifework, or rather whose technique, formed a link between Szigligeti and the modern dramatists who brought about the renewal of the Hungarian theatre at the beginning of the twentieth century. The son of professional people, Csiky first chose the priesthood as his career, but his interest turned to playwriting. At first he too experimented with neo-Romantic drama, but soon found the stageforms (comedy and French bourgeois drama) which fitted his particular talent best. He did not make much of tragedy and historical plays, nor did he explore human relations in depth, but he could construct a solid plot, peopled with genuine contemporary figures: lower-middle-class busybodies, déclassé noblemen, provincial civil servants, or metropolitan hoodlums. His language was not better than the average stage-language, but his knowledge of technique (he learnt much from contemporary French theatre during a study-tour in Paris) secured him large audiences. Some of his numerous plays are of more than historical interest, yet they are not often revived on the modern Hungarian stage.
His reputation was established with The Proletarians* (1880), a play about social parasites and their clever ways of obtaining money. A certain lady pretends to be the widow of a colonel, a hero of the War of Independence, when in fact she sided with the Austrians. Her secretary, a lawyer of shady reputation, pleads for charity on behalf of the heroine and her daughter (who turns out to be an adopted daughter), they should enjoy the gratitude of the nation. This sets in motion an action full of seemingly confusing turns, but Csiky knows his craft and in Act IV everything falls into place; moreover he has ample opportunity to make social criticism. Genteel Poverty (1881) is a triangle, set in the small-scale world of petty officials, with well-observed characters and comic overtones. The action accelerates, culminating in a grande scéne (according to the rules of French stagecraft) when the various threads of the plot are disentangled.
Csiky treated the gentry in the same way as did Mikszáth he observed and described them, but refrained from passing judgement on them, except for an occasional sarcastic smile. In The Stomfay Family (1882) he puts on stage the same world that Mikszáth wrote about in The Young Noszty’s Affair with Mary Tóth the ‘family empire’ is crumbling, but the pretences are kept up. This time it is not a younger member of the family who seeks a marriage of convenience, but a respectable, older member, who has been forced by family opinion to divorce his untitled wife. The exposition of the plot in Act I is brilliant: the entire family is scheming to get morsels of the remaining riches of the gravely ill Stomfay, who, out of remorse, remarries his former wife. Csiky constructs an unforgettable closing scene; the relatives are dumbfounded when informed that the priest has not visited the dying man’s room to administer the last sacraments, but to solemnize a marriage! As an unexpected development it is as effective as the arrival of the real revisor in Gogol’s Revisor.
Csiky’s treatment of the gentry in comedies is often mildly satirical; in his better pieces he makes no resort to farcical situations or overdrawn figures. The Bubbles (1884) is considered to be his best comedy about the gentry, with figures whose unrestrained desire to spend, to show off, and to keep up appearances make them ridiculous. Csiky points out that pretences, like bubbles, invariably burst at the touch of reality. Again, he is merciful to his figures; marriage provides at least a partial solution to family insolvency, according to the time-honoured traditions of comedy. Besides his original plays Csiky did numerous translations, and also wrote fiction describing the same make-believe world of the gentry that he portrayed in his plays.
In the last decades of the nineteenth century only a few lyrical poets created works of lasting value in their efforts to break away from the conventions of the népies trend; theatrical life, thriving though it may have been, sadly lacked talented playwrights able to present a new view of Hungarian society. In fiction, on the other hand, there was no lack of talent, and a multitude of young writers made their presence felt in the literary supplements of the daily and weekly newspapers, magazines, and periodicals. The leading genre was undoubtedly the short story, perhaps because the demand for it was greater than for other literary forms. The quiet revolution in the reading habits of the modern age (475 periodical publications by 1885) favoured the short story writer. The public had a definite if somewhat obsolete idea of poetry; it should be easy to understand yet it should convey elevated ideas about the country and the family, and it should be morally uplifting. These school-bookish expectations did not coincide with the experiences of contemporary poets, who began to question the accepted system of values in society or religion, and who thought only in terms of their personal relationship to the world. Poets sang about prostitutes or about their Bohemian misery, missing out the moralizing; consequently their poetry was hardly a fitting subject for Sunday afternoon reading in the living room of a middle-class family. Going to the theatre was a social occasion rather than an intellectual excursion, and the average man was quite happy to see a népszínmű; he could take the whole family to a show in which the songs and dances provided colourful, innocent entertainment, spiced with harmless nostalgia for the ‘simple life’ of the peasants.
The short story, on the other hand, was a more personal affair commercial travellers, sitting in cafés whiling away the hours between appointments, or ‘faithful’ husbands waiting for their mistresses, wanted to pass the time and a story en feuilleton which rang true to ‘real life’ served this purpose admirably. Editors realized that such reading matter was in great demand and did indeed satisfy a growing need. The authors of these stories were mostly journalists who all wanted to write a ‘great novel’, but who could never find the time to realize their literary ambitions. In between meeting pressing deadlines, they spent much time sitting in all-night cafés, and there they were able to observe life’s small tragedies as well as its ironic turns. Some of them were not only keen observers but sensitive artists who could never fully develop their potential. At the same time, they were the prototypes of the modern writer, professional, cynical (often considering themselves failures), caring little about the loftier principles of literature, principles which they thought were in any case the business of the Academy and of those established writers who, in the security of their well-paid positions, had time to brood over issues affecting the nation. The readers were also more tolerant of the short stories in newspapers; their enjoyment was not restricted by the rules about ‘lofty ideals’ in literature which they had learned in school.
Thus the short story bloomed unrestricted by moral or patriotic considerations. It is highly characteristic, however, that the gap between Literature (with a capital L) and modern writing was so wide that critics and historical surveys have until quite recently devoted little attention to the host of writers whose energies were absorbed by capturing the fleeting moments of life at the turn of the century.
One example of crying injustice is the treatment of the lifework of Arnold Vértesi (1834-1911), which consists of more than twenty novels and over fifteen hundred short stories; perhaps many more lie hidden in forgotten literary magazines. True, his works were uneven, but then so were Jókai’s; some of Jókai’s excessively Romantic novels are nearer to modern cammercial thrillers than to anything else. Yet Jókai became a national institution, and the short stories of Vértesi are hardly known. At the same time, Vértesi was a link between the Jókaiesque Romantic narrative and the modern short story of the fin de siécle: in the first period of his long creative career in the late 1850s, Vértesi wrote under Romantic influence, and then turned to Realism, which was better suited to his personality. In popularity he was a serious challenger to Jókai, although he never attempted the large-scale historical frescoes that his predecessor had excelled in.
In Vértesi’s later career the main feature of his stories was an all-pervading disillusionment, relieved only by a strong sense of compassion for his heroes who were all losers in society. Not all of his short stories were conceived in such a dark mood as those in the volume They Committed Suicide (1882), but his world was always peopled by figures who all were hopeless social misfits (e.g. a proud girl who chooses convent life because of her parents’ poverty, a painter who loses his sanity, a gentleman swindler who lives by cheating at cards, a sensual young man who leaves his fiancée for more immediate pleasures). Critics have claimed that Vértesi’s stories lacked psychological subtleties, yet these stories are solid compositions and radiate freshness even today. His themes included a wide range of subject-matter, and his colloquial style was free from sterotyped turns of phrase and platitudes, although he was a prolific author, and journalistic work imposed on him severe limitations in polishing his works. He wrote his own epitaph when, at the end of a long career, he proudly asserted his own place as a pioneer of modern fiction: ‘I have been moving along this path [i.e. of the modern writer] for a long time, I was travelling it at a time when I was its only hesitant traveller.’
While Vértesi worked as a journalist both in the capital and in provincial cities, István Petelei (1852-1910) left his native Transylvania only for his university studies. Of mixed Székely and Armenian stock, Petelei added a special colouring to the short story with his intimate knowledge of Transylvanian small towns, and their middle class, the ethnically mixed population of the villages, and with his discriminating use of dialect-words in his works. His earliest experiences derived from a love of music and a deeply religious family background. Oversensitive, with a highly-strung personality and an inquiring mind, Petelei was liable to nervous breakdowns which ultimately caused his death.
At the beginning of his career, like Tolnai, Petelei wrote satirical sketches about small-town figures in his native Marosvásárhely, earning him the wrath of the town worthies, many of whom recognized themselves in the caricatures. Petelei had an aptitude for noticing minor defects in both people and society ’Life consists of a series of minor details’, he declared. While in no sense was he a népies writer, his later short stories had a compact construction characteristic only of the Transylvanian ballads. His essay A Journey in Mezőség* (1884) is distinguished by its sociological approach, foreshadowing the method employed by the village explorers in the 1930s. Written in factual and powerful short sentences, it conveys a vivid picture of social conditions by a resourceful choice of the minimum number of words.
Petelei attached great importance to the psychological detail of his stories, in which frequently very little takes place in the outside world; much more goes on the minds of his characters. He excels in creating tragicomic situations within the narrow world of his heroes in a countryside where time seems to have come to a standstill. Of his longer stories, The Nightingale (1886) stands out: it is an account, pervaded with mild sarcasm, of the completely static life of an elderly husband and his young wife (the nightingale in the cage). Even the ‘other man’ effects no change in their monotonous life; the affair brings few thrills and a great deal of disappointment. The Blaze of the Setting Sun (1895) presents a love affair between an older man and a young girl, exquisitely drawn, which ends in a suicide of the rejected man. Petelei’s stories are often concluded with scenes of lethargy, madness, suicide, and even murder. Fate seems overwhelming in his stories; in this they resemble the novels of his great Transylvanian countryman, Kemény. But the victims of circumstance in Petelei’s works are not examples of great moral stature, and consequently the gloom of the stories is always relieved by a touch of the tragicomic. Punishment, in Petelei’s interpretation, is not meted out to serve justice in society he is hardly interested in remedying social evils punishment is a result of his determinism, which allows little freedom of choice for his characters. But in the final analysis, Petelei’s world is not overtly morbid or oppressively tragic, it is a world of resignation to fate in a peculiarly Transylvanian setting.
In spite of his Transylvanian local colour Petelei was not a regionalist writer; the same is true of Dániel Papp (1865-1900), whose short literary career was imbued with his childhood recollections of the Bácska countryside. He was almost thirty when he made his debut with short stories in Budapest journals. His early writings owed much to the anecdote as developed by Mikszáth, and were peopled with conventional figures undergoing the experience of disillusionment; later works revealed his system of defence against determinism. Resignation is replaced by irony, fatalism is challenged by the revolt of the individual, in other words anarchism. If the local colour of the Bácska figures is shed, the reader is confronted with individuals in a state of rebellion: sometimes students disregarding the school regulation, or soldiers revolting against military discipline, but most often Greek Orthodox priests and novices (Papp himself was one for a time) whose abrupt actions verge on the grotesque: sanguine monks rising suddenly and inexplicably in revolt against dogmas and duties.
Papp maintains a distance from his heroes, most of whom live in an improbable world of reminiscences. His language is colourful and evocative, with abundant use of adjectives, and his long, elaborate sentence-structures enfold a reality which is as desolate, aimless, and tedious as that depicted by his contemporaries. Papp himself is aware of the enhancing effect of the nostalgic approach. In the foreword of Fairyland in Hungary (1899) he tells an anecdote about a visiting foreign writer who, upon seeing the desolate, rainy autumn scene in Poland exclaims: ‘What mud everywhere, what mud! ... And these mad Poles call this slush their homeland!’ His only novel, The People of Rátót (1898), is conceived with this feeling of homesickness. Notwithstanding the parochialism of the Bácska town, where people live in a closely-knit society with few notions of the outside world, and without ambitions, but with a great disposition to intrigues, Papp makes their appeal much wider than that of the figures in an average provincial story. And still this is the world of Papp, the object of his unashamed, one-sided love-affair with the ‘mud’ of Bácska.
The outsider among the outsiders was Károly Lovik (1874-1915). Of middle-class parents, Lovik, after a traditional education (a law degree), became a gentleman-horsebreeder whose expert articles on equestrian sport earned him not only a reputation but also financial security. Lovik regarded himself as an amateur in literature, for whom writing was only a hobby. He moved with ease and elegance in high society because of his profession, giving full rein to his eccentric taste either as a devotee of free masonry, or, in his first novel (Dr Pogány, 1902), as a champion of the feminist movement. Yet all the time under the mask of the perfect gentleman he remained a dispassionate observer of society, about which he had very few illusions.
In his short stories Lovik preferred a light, sophisticated approach to his themes. His love of nature (particularly of animals) was reminiscent of Turgenev, and his economy in construction was achieved by intellectual discipline after the Chekhovian model. His main themes include family conflicts which take place without loud words and behind closed doors, or girls in gentry families who rebel in order to achieve emotional fulfilment. His female characters often revolt against convention, like Klári in Quibbling Greyhound (1906), who discovers little sophistication in hunting when a frightened hare is cornered by men with dogs and shotguns. The rebellious girls, however, marry conventionally and happily, and for this reason the stories all have idyllic conclusions.
Lovik also liked the bizarre: a hero of a celebrated case of crime passionnel talks unceasingly of how he murdered his wife and her lover ten years earlier (The Murderer, 1903). ‘He cannot sit quietly for two minutes without telling how he has murdered his poor wife, who, after all, was right, who would not be unfaithful to a boaster like him?’ comments the husband who introduced the celebrity to his wife after a family quarrel. Later Lovik appears to have become a nihilist and a sceptic, or more often merely indifferent, like his heroes; yet he was fascinated by passionate men, romantic revolutionaries who became disillusioned anti-heroes, burnt-out creatures who despised the world and its pedestrian struggle for goals to which they themselves no longer subscribed. In his last stories Lovik’s alienation from the world reached the point of no return: he developed a morbid interest in drop-outs of society, or mentally unbalanced figures who were often only phantoms in the night, between nightmares and delirium clinging desperately to shreds of reality. Yet Lovik died of natural causes, heart-failure at the age of fortyone, a substantial loss to modern prose.
|Kálmán Mikszáth||CONTENTS||CHAPTER XVI The Metropolitan Experience: the Cult of Illusion|