4. The Lesser Prose-Writers of the ‘Nyugat’ Generation

Of the minor prose-writers around Nyugat, it was J. J. Tersánszky (1888-1969) who discovered the world of social outcasts, tramps, gypsies, and other vagabonds, in much the same way as Steinbeck wrote about the American hoboes. Tersánszky was a versatile artist; he composed music and painted besides being a prolific writer. His narrative technique is traditional; his plots are loosely but skilfully constructed, spiced with anecdotes; he is a raconteur whose stories are crammed with improbable incidents and colourful characters. The world presented by him is like a picture out of focus, mainly because of his continual departure from conventional social and moral standards. His social ‘drop-outs’ are rarely plagued by conscience; they often take the law into their own hands and always seem to outsmart the representatives of law and order. Tersánszky is never bitter about the prevailing social order; his heroes’ impish humour provides lightness and constant entertainment in his stories, for they are not miserable pariahs, like Maxim Gorki’s ‘ex-human beings’; these creatures know that the application of questionable means in the struggle for survival is necessary to avoid going under, when everything else fails. Yet Tersánszky is not without moral standards; he lacks only the hypocrisy to explain away the action and character of life’s permanent expatriates in terms of dignified social or moral ideology.

Success came to him with his first short novel Good-bye, Darling! (1917), the story of a Polish girl in war-torn Galicia, who is abused and raped by Russian, Austrian, and Hungarian officers in turn. Cut off from the protection offered by the framework of social mores, she is first an unwilling accomplice in the casual apathy towards elementary ethical principles shown by the officers of various conquering armies, who always arrive as liberators; later she becomes indifferent, is grateful for small favours, and when the officer of the retreating army bids her farewell with ‘good-bye, darling!’, she is perhaps thinking of the excitement of the next adventure.

Tersánszky’s original contribution to Hungarian fiction is, however, his Marty Cuckoo novels, or rather a cycle of long short stories of which the more significant are: The Youth of Marty Cuckoo (1923), Marty Cuckoo Among the Rioters (1934), Marty Cuckoo’s Hunting Adventure (1935), and Marty Cuckoo’s Electioneering (1937). Marty Cuckoo is the prototype of those social drop-outs whose only concern in life is to keep on living. His devil-may-care attitude saves him from unhappiness, his greatest resource is an inexhaustible supply of verbal and practical tricks, aimed at getting what little he may expect from life. No doubt this latter-day picaresque figure carries Tersánszky’s anarchistic manifesto, aimed at everything that is unduly dignified or pretentious.

Tersánszky has a novel attitude to social drop-outs; he approaches grave existential problems in a manner which seems to lack depth, yet the way in which he renders poetic justice to small-time crooks or cunning simpletons, whose plight appeals to humanity just as much as their bawdiness, depicted with robust humour, provides good entertainment, displays an optimism rarely found in writers who get entangled in the dark net of circumstances. The effects of poverty, ostracism and aimless drifting in and out of modern society had become one of the chief preoccupations of writers ever since the advent of Naturalism, and no amount of writing on the subject seemed able to satisfy the curiosity and the guilty conscience of a largely middle-class readership.

A talented chronicler of the city’s lower depths was László Cholnoky (1879-1929), brother of Viktor, himself an eternally struggling creature who escaped into an alcoholism that probably drove him to suicide. His characters, unlike Marty Cuckoo whose down-to-earth attitude keeps him in touch with reality, are fighting the phantoms of alcoholic nightmares, and drifting towards mental and physical self-destruction. His total identification with his characters lends not only artistic plausibility to these human wrecks, but shows his genuine concern, and his understanding is the source of valid psychological explanation. Fear, anguish, and demoralized instincts are the constant features of his characters, who are always speculating desperately about existential problems. He is at his best in his sympathetic descriptions of the delirious high and low states of alcoholics, with their irritability, their sense of persecution, and their unexpected hilarity which is suddenly cancelled out by the gloom of the next instant.

It was under the influence of psychoactive drugs that Géza Csáth (1887-1919), a neurologist and a gifted music critic, wrote his later stories, but the same addiction eventually drove him to suicide. Csáth possessed a brilliant mind – he was only twenty-one when his work on Puccini was published and instantly translated into German; in the first few years of his creative life he had plays successfully staged (one of them with his own incidental music), his book on neurology was favourably received by the profession, but above all, the first collection of his original short stories was published (The Magician’s Garden, 1908), and the editors of Nyugat hailed him as a significant author of the day.

What was the driving force behind this excessive intellectual agility? In one of his diary-fragments he wrote: ‘I got up early so that I should have a chance to see the world. Flowers, colours and forms aroused exceptionally strong sensations in me. I treated my patients. I enjoyed eating, drinking, milk, meat, everything.’ Csáth wanted to live a full life. Awareness of totality was the meaning of life for him. It was this desire that aroused his curiosity about drugs:

Total awareness, the bliss of God is achieved by ecstasy only. But is it true to say that the bliss of God may last for a moment only? Yes, out of charity, He gave that much only to the stupid and the meek. But those who deserve more – because they demand more – those are given a chance to rob eternity by taking a brave and noble risk. The essence of life is such an exquisite article that whole generations in the course of centuries are allotted an hour only. He who resigns himself to his share, is already, resigned to death before birth … Supposing you start smoking opium as a fully-grown adult and take good care of your physical condition, best looked after by a competent physician, you might survive for ten years. And then, aged twenty million years old (in experience), you may resign yourself to the ensuing eternal rest on the icy cushion of total annihilation. (‘Opium’, 1909.)

This greediness to experience life at all levels, at all costs, to escape from the ordinary reality of everyday life is a significant factor in his short stories. He chooses an unusual topic (e.g. the delusions of the mentally unbalanced), concentrates on this miniature segment of reality, describes it with the precision of the dissecting surgeon, makes a sure diagnosis and then, with a cold intellectual approach, attempts to penetrate the hidden, inner pattern of the phenomenon. To achieve his objective, Csáth is never didactic; he knows what to say and what to omit. His main stylistic device is the use of unadorned language. Nouns without adjectives dominate his puritanic, often short, sentences. When he employs adjectives they always qualify conditions, circumstances, or relationships. He prefers short, plain verbs, and compact structures are the chief virtue of his composition; his short stories often resemble medical case histories, yet behind the pseudo-scientific detachment there vibrates a high-frequency tension which contributes to the strange moods of the stories; ultimately their effect rests on his discipline, which keeps the narrative within its self-imposed limitations.

This technique enabled him to treat revolting subjects, like matricide, with delicacy and psychological validity (‘Matricide’). The thesis of this story is the observation that cruelty may motivate even seemingly innocent play. The conclusion is that anything worthy of excitement is connected with pain and blood. The minds of the brothers who kill their mother are perplexed by the mystery of suffering and by a desire to dominate other human beings, and to free themselves from a primary relationship. Moreover, there are sexual undertones and exhibitionism at play in their complex thought-processes which lead up to the horrible crime they commit in cold blood.

Not all Csáth’s early stories are so horrific; he also knew how to recreate the atmosphere of muted pain, as in ‘Red-Haired Esther’ in which a student happens to meet a girl who had once been a servant in his family home, the object of his latent erotic desires as a child. They fall in love, but are separated by social discrimination. The unexpected conclusion, with its pseudo-detachment, contrasts well with the narrative which is made up of childhood memories, and is dominated by the feverish dreams of the hero on his sickbed, while his mother, who has come to nurse him, gets rid of his mistress. ‘At first, I used to feel wretched as I walked home alone in the evenings. I kept on loitering in the street, expecting that Esther might turn up after all. But she has neither come, nor have I heard of her since.’ The dry factualness of Csáth about the separation of the lovers leaves the same lingering sense of futility as does the essentially Romantic cry of Chekhov’s hero: ‘Missus, where are you?’ in his justly celebrated ‘House with Mezzanine’.

The title story of his second volume (Afternoon Nap, 1911) indicates new departures towards the irrational. Csáth had crossed the dividing line between ordinary perception and a knowledge acquired while in the starless void of pain caused by his growing hunger for more drugs. To write he needed to return to everyday reality, a trip he was able to make less and less frequently. His grip on his material loosened, his voice often faltered, and in the last few years of his life he fell silent. We know from his diaries that his desire for communication began to decline: ‘It is a frightful and oppressive thought that I no longer have any inclination to write … Yet writing gives me pleasure and livelihood! … My innermost, unsettled affairs I cannot put into writing, because the idea that others would find me out as easily as I do other writers prevents me … . I must write …’ (1912). In exchange for his disintegration Csáth learned that pain is the extreme pleasure, but to give a coherent account of his final torments would have been a contradiction in terms.

Escapism from the drabness of everyday life characterized the works of Gyula Színi (1876-1932), whose creative attitude was very different from that of Csáth, or the other Nyugat writers. A widely travelled and highly educated author, Színi led an uneventful life, fighting against recurrent financial crises with nerve-racking hack work. Somewhat older than most of the Nyugat authors, he remained on the periphery of the literary scene. He has received the same treatment from posterity; he is half-forgotten at best, no modern critic has ever given an adequate account of his work, which is indeed uneven, as most of his later stories and novels suffered from his concessions to the buyer’s market.

Yet Színi’s early writings are not without merit; some of them reveal sure signs of craftsmanship; they are gracefully written, in a subdued mood with an ingenious technique and without any inclination to pass moral judgements (Trilibi and Other Stories, 1907, and Pink Snow, 1913). The characters drawn by Színi are often uncertain in their decisions and conclusions; they seem to be removed from pedestrian reality, and move in the curiously dimly-lit realm of a fairy-tale symbolic world. The obscure lighting transforms the life-like shapes and colours of his objects and his characters, who are often starving actors, unhappy lovers, or frightened children, none of whom can face the reality of their lives. In ‘The Yellow Cab’ a man enters a cab and instructs the driver to take him ‘anywhere’ – the driver symbolizes death. In ‘The Swan’ an old man searches in vain for a book which he has read and which contained the ‘meaning’ of his own life. However, not all of Színi’s strange symbols yield easily to interpretation. Színi despised psychology and those who took it seriously: ‘We do not find out the “real” man from the facts, but from the figure he dreamed himself to be.’ His contempt for psychological validity had its revenge in his novels, when he came to treat complex human relationships. A Pale Woman (1910), for example, is written with great care and craftsmanship, yet it fails to be more than a simple yarn using all the old tricks of the trade. He never realized the potential of his early symbolism; the dualism of fact and imagination became more and more a burden in his writing.

Géza Laczkó (1884-1953) was a typical example of the literary gentleman. His ambitions were divided among belles-lettres, essays, and philology. Greatly influenced by French literature, particularly Flaubert and Maupassant, he is remembered for the first part of his autobiographical trilogy The Son of Noémi (1917), in which he described the life of travelling actors (he was the natural son of an actress) with impressive knowledge and authenticity. He was a first-class philologist; his historical novel German Humbug, Turkish Dope (1918) written in a reconstructed sixteenth-century language, is a remarkable feat.

While most of the minor writers around the turn of the century and those in the Nyugat movement never managed to write a large-scale novel – although the abundance of excellent short story writers was bewildering – Gyula Török (1888-1918) in the course of his very short career did produce two exceptionally well-written novels. His themes are conventional; In the Dust (1917) treats the tragedy of Pál Kender, who breaks away from the traditional lifestyle of the gentry and chooses a profession in Budapest. When his mother calls him back to their estate to help her, he soon realizes that he no longer has the determination to return to his chosen life, and commits suicide. The theme is not new, but Török’s powerful description of the magnetic attraction of the traditional lifestyle brings home again the truth that the modernization of society was not only painful, but well-nigh impossible without drastic measures. Török’s most ambitious novel, The Emerald Ring (1918), deals with the same problem, namely the decay of the gentry, from inside, in the context of successive generations. His keen eye observes an additional problem: the middle class snobbishly apes the social attitudes of the gentry, and thus perpetuates a lifestyle that is no longer valid. The novel is strong in criticism of this snobbery; the plot is complex but well conceived, and the figures depicted represent a cross-section of Hungarian society in the second half of the nineteenth century. In spite of his talents as a novelist and his connections with the influential Nyugat, Török is largely forgotten now, perhaps because he died just when success would have brought him into the limelight with his Emerald Ring, or more likely, because he was late in producing a final statement about the decay of the gentry, which was undoubtedly the most often-treated theme in Hungarian fiction.

Sándor Hunyady (1890-1942) felt himself an outsider, being the illegitimate son of Sándor Bródy and a provincial actress who died young. He was ill at ease in all social classes, although he was readily accepted everywhere. This traumatic experience provides his deep understanding of his characters who leave the safe ground of their natural habitat with the inevitable tragic result. In a Private’s Uniform*There are two film versions: The Girl Downstairs (Hollywood, 1938, dir. by N. Taurog), and A Sunday Romance (Hungary, 1957, dir. by I. Fehér)., which makes full use of the anecdote, the traditional narrative technique, and is inspired by his youthful experiences, is perhaps the best of his short stories. It is the love-story of an innocent servant-girl fresh from the countryside and a bored journalist doing military service. He chats her up when he happens to be in his uniform which thanks to the goodwill of his superiors, he is allowed not to wear when off-duty. By chance, she finds out that the journalist is stealing love under false pretences. The girl is not a silly lovesick chambermaid; her natural intelligence shines out all the time, her loyalty is unswerving. Finding so much human dignity in a relationship which has started casually, the journalist is prepared to marry the girl and has every intention of revealing himself, but the chance discovery of his true identity leaves him uttery and justly humiliated as she walks out on him without a word.

The unbreakable class-barrier is the subject of Winter Sport (1934), the story of a typist who, sacrificing her life-savings, goes to an expensive sanatorium for treatment of her tuberculosis. Her idyll with the skiing instructor takes a tragic turn when she finds out that her condition has not improved and she has run out of money; neither of them believed that they were entitled to happiness. In both of these stories it is the delicate psychological portraiture which makes them unforgettable, even though the manner of their telling is conventional. Elsewhere Hunyady treats themes which are dangerously near to melodrama, but saves them from cheap sentimentalism by his sure pen (e.g. In the ‘Raid on the Golden Eagle’ the raiding inspector finds his own wife being a part-time prostitute). Hunyady’s characterization is always compact, and his metaphors are effortless – they come with the natural ease of the spoken word, yet always display the mark of individuality.

The oldest of the writers connected with Nyugat, Dezső Szomory (1869-1944), appeared inconspicuously on the literary scene when he was approaching forty, having lived abroad for a long time, mostly in Paris. His short stories (Divine Garden, 1910) and plays (The Grand Dame, 1910 and Georgina, Dear Child, 1912) were vehemently attacked by conservative critics for their indiscriminate use of Budapest slang. Yet it is precisely the unorthodox use of language which makes Szomory a uniquely fascinating author, in spite of his loose grammar and frequent mannerisms: his verbal torrents and long tirades are powerful and not without lyrical beauty. Szomory also appears to have the strange gift of coining wrongly-formed words which, when taken out of context, border on the ridiculous, but in their proper setting, seem not only to be indispensable, but even to make a major contribution to the atmosphere of his writing. His best work is an autobiographical novel, Parisian Novel (1929), in which his eagerness for stylistic excesses seems to have subsided. Its leitmotif is the desperate loneliness and homesickness of the expatriates, and their moods expressed by Szomory are numerous, ranging from melancholia to sulking bitterness, or from cynical self-deception to ironic self-examination. Often living in the direst poverty with plenty of time for self-torture, generations of East European painters, writers, and assorted geniuses made their obligatory pilgrimage to the ‘City of Lights’ just as their American counterparts did after World War I. It was a source of personal disappointment for most of them; the lonely crowd never met, they were hopelessly alien, rootless drifters who came to fulfil their dreams and discovered only their own sad grimaces in the cheap mirror of their shabby hotel room. Paris defeated many strangers, and Szomory was no exception, although he got a volume published in French. Written after a lapse of almost forty years, Parisian Novel is both a confession and a document, and a tribute to Szomory’s art.