|CHAPTER XIX The Writers of the Nyugat (II)||CONTENTS||2. The Grotesque: Frigyes Karinthy|
IT is a generally accepted view in Marxist literary scholarship that Móricz is the most significant prose writer his native country has ever produced. The explanation for this unreserved praise is complex, but the main factor in the gradual formation of the view lies in the development of the Hungarian novel since the latter part of the nineteenth century, a development which was characterized by the overlong survival of Romantic illusions in Jókaiesque fiction and by the lack of a truly epic, and at the same time realistic, portrayal of Hungarian society in spite of numerous ambitious attempts at a valid representation of society as a whole. To be sure, remarkable novels, mainly about the decay of the gentry, were written not only by Mikszáth but by other authors as well. However, the long-awaited ‘realistic’ masterpiece-whatever the loosely applied term of Realism means had never been produced.
The cult of illusion, deeply embedded in the pseudo-Victorian society, produced a wealth of trends in literature, but naturally it was incompatible with the Realism that emerged in English, French, German, or Russian fiction. Hungarian authors were, more often than not, only able to create psychologically valid figures within their own class; while Tolstoy, for example, created great Russian characters out of both aristocrats and serfs, the peasants as depicted in Hungarian fiction by gentry authors were often treated with a patronizing attitude, which, while it created sympathy, produced on the whole unconvincing characters.
Class-consciousness is prominent in Móricz too, except that he looked at the peasantry with an intimate inside knowledge determined by his social origin which, in turn, was also responsible for a certain amount of prejudice working in the opposite direction. On the other hand, Jókai was the only writer before Móricz who presented an over-all vision of society, and it was a vision distorted by his romantic imagination; Móricz, therefore, is the only author who managed to satisfy Marxist expectations about Realism, with his grim depiction of the world around him, his abundance of naturalistic details, and his entirely new vision of society seen through the eyes of the peasant. This originality made both contemporary critics and later scholarship hail Móricz as the true ‘voice of the people’, who recorded the previously untold fate of the peasantry in literature in a style far removed from the népies trend of the middle of the nineteenth century with its Romantic overtones. What is surprising, however, is that Móricz became a significant figure in the Nyugat movement, a movement marked by its élitist views and its aspirations to sophisticated literature; but most of the decadent, enervated, self-centred Nyugat authors were attracted by the sharp contrast with themselves which they found in Móricz’s robust, full-blooded extroversion.
Zsigmond Móricz was born on 29 June 1879 in Tiszacsécse, a small village in the Eastern Lowlands. His father was a poor peasant, full of energy, who through his own enterprise became a small contractor; his mother was the widow of a Protestant pastor. The saga of the Móricz family was one long and hard drive for social respectability; most of the children managed to climb the social ladder. Móricz’s mother wanted him to become a Calvinist minister, but he left his theological studies for journalism. For long years he struggled as a hack writer; he was almost thirty when his first story (‘Seven Pennies’) was published in Nyugat in 1908; he became famous overnight as one of the most original short-story writers of the day. The autobiographical ‘Seven Pennies’ is a moving tale of poverty, written with dramatic simplicity, and revealing Móricz’s exceptional power of characterization. Told in a terse style with sparingly used embellishments, the story brought a feature of compassionate realism to the literary scene which was both new and effective. This unexpected success helped Móricz to overcome his inhibitions as a writer, and he became one of the most prolific Hungarian fiction writers of the present century.
His first novel, Pure Gold (1910), deals with a basic anomaly in East European peasant societies, the rigidity of the class-structure which frequently prevents the self-assertion of talents in men of humble origin. It also bears witness to the urgency and passion of Móricz’s plea on behalf of the victims of social discrimination; his over-eagerness to show the ‘real’ face of village life, however, left its imprint on both plot and construction. Still, he managed to create the prototype of a new peasant hero in Dani Turi, whose characterization is convincing enough in spite of a certain degree of exaggeration. Dani Turi is a land-hungry peasant, full of energy, cunning and boisterous (perhaps somewhat akin to Móricz’s own father, who was determined to improve his own lot at all costs). He is also reckless, a peasant Don Juan whose sexual prowess is a source of his constant drive and restlessness and the ultimate cause of his downfall. With Dani Turi the myth of unexplored primitive forces imprinted in the genetic codes of the peasants (őserő) entered Hungarian literature. The novel is not free from naturalistic excesses; Móricz’s stern and taciturn village folk are always driven by the recognition of self-interest and material ambition, and the smell of poverty has penetrated every aspect of the story, yet the unhealthy climate of the novel, the sheer brutality of its sheepskin-clad, half-civilized peasants shows Móricz’s lack of illusions about the shocking conditions in which these creatures lived in godforsaken villages.
All the other novels written in Móricz’s first period seem to prove that he knew more about human depravity than about human virtue, and set out to depict everything with a merciless, biased realism. As he was a born storyteller, he possessed an inexhaustible supply of stories and not only about the peasantry: his heroes came from all strata of society. He relied exclusively on the infallibility of his own observations, and as a consequence no metaphysical questions arose in his books. He described with a sure pen the narrow confines of provincial existence, and the world of underpaid civil servants in their overfurnished homes, their stifling boredom relieved only by crude sensuality. In Behind God’s Back (1911), he draws a compelling picture of his neurotic and lonely heroine, and her unsuccessful attempts to get away from the dull unhappiness of her life are described in exceptionally fine passages.
The young protestant pastor of The Torch (1918) proves that if someone makes an ambitious effort at loosening the social strait-jacket which is based on meanness, ignorance, and class egotism, he will soon be faced with defeat; insensitive peasants, cynical gentry, and intolerant officials gradually break his enthusiasm, and he ends up by accepting the world as it is; his compromise is fostered by his own weakness and his growing love of comfort. The profoundly idealistic Reverend Matolcsy is the ‘torch’ whose flickering flame is not enough to light the way to social or spiritual progress in the community he has chosen to serve; he burns out without obtaining his ends. The novel ends with an all-consuming fire in the village Matolcsy takes this last chance to be of service, but it is only a desperate gesture; saving the lives of a few people is a heroic act which bestows on him a kind of redemption for his earlier compromise, but also brings about his premature death. The dying Matolcsy is still arguing with God because ‘everything has come to an end, yet nothing has been resolved’.
After World War I Móricz turned to his own childhood for inspiration, and wrote a trilogy which was clearly autobiographical; it was the story of Misi Nyilas’s adolescence: Be Faithful Unto Death (1921), Teenagers (1928), and Wine in Ferment (1931), of which the first part is far the best. Be Faithful Unto Death is permeated with an unexpected lyrical warmth, and the innocence and naïvety of Misi are refreshing after the sordid affairs described in Móricz’s earlier works. Although young Misi is confronted with the inexplicable adult world often enough during his years in the boarding school of the College of Debrecen, he preserves a naïve idealism and goodness of heart. Móricz’s deep sympathy for the problems of growing up manifests itself in his depiction of Misi’s disappointments, and of experiences which helped him to restore his faith. Moreover his psychological understanding of the developing personality makes the novel a valid work, but above all it is gentleness, a quality rarely found in Móricz’s other novels, that makes it remarkable reading.
Finally it is the writer’s candour which gives true proportions to the novel; in spite of Misi’s noble mind and good intentions he inevitably comes to grief in the miniature society of the boarding school; he is falsely accused and often humiliated. Even if Móricz’s message is as didactic as the title suggests, it is not detrimental to the work’s artistic value, but only underlines the author’s unflagging loyalty to ideas which may help Misi to survive his severe identity crises, and which cause so much heart-searching in his wavering adult heroes, like the Reverend Matolcsy whose ultimate failure is caused by the loss of that youthful idealism of which Misi Nyilas is both a sad victim and a triumphant hero.
Móricz saw no reason to be cheerful about contemporary society, the class distinctions of which he always relentelessly criticized; his yearnings for better social prospects, however, led him inevitably to historical illusionism. The myth of a strong and independent Transylvania in the seventeenth century appealed to him just as much as did the ‘Golden Age of Transylvania’ to the Romantic Jókai. And indeed, the cunning princes of that mountainous region, cleverly scheming and intriguing to preserve at least an impression of independence in the shadow of the two great Empires of the Austrians and the Turks, have always exercised a special attraction over those Hungarian intellectuals who ascribed the fate of their country to the geographical misfortune of having been in the way of great powers who aspired to the total domination of Eastern Europe.
To the intelligentsia, who had seen two-thirds of historical Hungary lost after World War I, the appeal of the mirage of Transylvania and the manoeuvring between the great powers became more topical than ever. While the Transylvanism of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries had possibilities, in the twentieth century it could no longer be considered practical politics, as first German expansionism, and later Russian domination illustrated convincingly. What was saddening, though, was that this distant mirage of Transylvania also blurred the vision of even the best intellectuals, whose wisdom and pragmatism in social matters were unquestionable.
The fact that Móricz delved into Transylvanian history can probably be ascribed to the half-conscious attraction to Transylvania which was becoming noticeable in neo-népies ideology* around that time. The novels Fairy-Garden (1922), The Great Prince (1934), and The Shadow of the Sun (1935) were rewritten several times and their final versions appeared only in 1935 under the title Transylvania.
Critics agree that the colourful historic tapestry of this trilogy shows Móricz at his best. The story of the last of the Báthoris, Prince Gábor, and Gábor Bethlen, is meant as a historical lesson for the present, but it is also a powerful character representation. In Báthori Móricz has created an impulsive figure whose unbridled passions make him liable to a downfall similar to Dani Turi’s. In spite of the realistic background, Prince Báthori represents a somewhat Romantic distortion of those vital energies of which certain Móricz heroes seem to possess unlimited quantities. Bethlen, who after the assassination of Báthori dominates the second and third parts of the trilogy, stands for perseverance, common sense, integrity, and statesmanship. He is plagued with the problems of his private life, caught between wife and mistress, the former providing the security of the hearth and the pangs of conscience, the latter bold adventures and stimulation for the imagination. (The incompatibility of marriage partners was a recurrent theme in Móricz’s works; he could not solve it in his own private life.)
The main artistic value of the novel is the powerful characterization both of the figures in the foreground and of the host of supporting cast, a wide variety of types, most of them drawn with care. Móricz is successful in creating an authentic atmosphere by his discriminating use of the various layers of language; moreover, in his novels he can write excellent dialogue and compose dramatic scenes, although as a playwright he is insignificant. He fails, however, in the construction of the novel; the various threads of the story seem to diverge as the narrative approaches its conclusion. His planned fourth volume might have created a unified plot, but he never wrote it.
Another dominant theme in the second period of Móricz’s career is his social criticism of the gentry’s life-style, which had managed to survive World War I and the accompanying social upheavals. Until Daybreak (1926), a well-constructed novel, is the story of a drunken night; there is tension in the air, for the occasion is an important one a wealthy landowner is going to propose to the daughter of the house. When the sandcastle of expectations collapses because of an unforeseen circumstance the tension is released, and in the ensuing drunken revelry Móricz has an opportunity to portray with great dramatic force the devil-may-care attitude of the hosts and their guests. The same is true of The Gentleman’s Way of Having Fun (1928), a novel about a landowner, Szakhmáry, with progressive ambitions, whose private life leads him to suicide. He has a flair for the spectacular: he throws a gargantuan party, which goes on for days; on the fourth night he sets fire to his manor-house to provide amusement and better lighting for the dancers. The larger-than-life figure of Szakhmáry belongs to that category of heroes in Russian novels who light their cigars with hundred-rouble notes. This is perhaps Móricz’s best novel; the traditional technique of the anecdote is employed superbly to advance the plot; most of the background information comes from the anecdotes told by the characters, and at the same time their reactions to, and comments on, these flippant anecdotes expose their inflated pride with an irony which is poignant yet somehow pregnant with tragedy. There is no trace of the class-hatred of Móricz’s bitter peasants in this work; he knows that the self-destruction of the gentry, its inability to adapt itself to changed conditions, may eventually imply the breaking of the backbone of Hungarian society.
His criticism of the gentry is, however, merciless in Relatives (1932). Hailed by today’s critics as Móricz’s most important novel, it tells about small-town nepotism and corruption relating to the fate of Kopjáss who, after rising to higher office, becomes innocently involved in illicit transactions, through a web of suddenly emerging uncles, brothers, and cousins, and is driven ultimately to the verge of suicide. Kopjáss is a typical Móricz hero, a crossbreed between Misi Nyilas (innocent) and the Reverend Matolcsy (ambitious idealist), but without their redeeming qualities; although like them he is a victim of circumstance, he is a weak character. It is the grimmest of Móricz’s novels even the scenery seems to be always grey; there is no laughter, no warmth, no true human relations, but instead scarcely disguised selfish motives, pretensions and ugliness are everywhere.
In the last period of his crative life Móricz began once more to write short stories. His virtues good dialogue, dramatic construction, economy of description are all displayed in them to the best advantage (e.g. Barbarians, 1932). Of the rest of his novels, A Happy Man (1935) deserves special attention; it is the true-life-story of a poverty-stricken peasant, who is satisfied with his lot. Móricz used much of his original interview material, and the book is an unusual mixture of reportage, social indictment, and sociological survey, a clear effort to break with the conventional form of the novel.
In the last years of his life Móricz, handicapped by age and financial problems, seemed to decline in quality, if not in output. Yet he managed to achieve his former standards in at least one nearly flawless piece of writing: Little Orphan (1941), the story of a foundling girl told in the first person. Its child heroine, Csöre, like Misi Nyilas, has the unreserved sympathy of Móricz. Her uncompromising attitude to the world, in spite of her perpetual existential insecurity, is not an occasion for blackmailing the reader into weeping at the grim naturalism of the facts; Móricz’s genuine concern for his heroine lends the novelette lyrical beauty and authentic pathos.
Móricz’s last ambitious undertaking, a vast verbal fresco about Sándor Rózsa, the legendary outlaw of the nineteenth century, originally designed as a trilogy, remained unfinished. The first two volumes, Sándor Rózsa Spurs His Horse (1941) and Sándor Rózsa Frowns (1942), are a cross between history and fiction the story told in the second volume takes place during the War of Independence in 1848-9. Rózsa belongs to the Dani Turi class of Móricz heroes, perhaps with less apparent show of the Romantic őserő, with less masculine charm, but with the maximum dose of self-assurance and indifference to danger. Móricz enjoyed writing about the popular hero; he worked fast on the manuscript, and there is a decorative exuberance in the novel derived from folklore and embroidered with apparent gusto. While Rózsa and his fellow-outlaws speak the Szeged dialect, Móricz himself came from the Debrecen region, so no wonder authenticity sometimes suffers. The writer himself was dissatisfied with the second volume, and intended to rewrite parts of it, but died on 4 September 1942.
|CHAPTER XIX The Writers of the Nyugat (II)||CONTENTS||2. The Grotesque: Frigyes Karinthy|