1. Kassák and His Circle

ONE of the vagaries of the socialist literary tradition in Hungary, as in other East European countries including the Soviet Union, is that while scholars are at great pains to leave no stone unturned for traces of socialist ideas in conservative writers, or to use even the most insignificant writers as evidence for a continuous, ‘theoretically correct’ socialist tradition, those few significant writers who are pioneers of modern ideas inspired by their socialist creed have been disowned as heretics until quite recently, and are still regarded with suspicion.

Yet there seems to be little doubt now that what took place in Eastern Europe, and particularly in Russia, between 1905 and 1925, inspired as it was not only by a growing demand for change in the social structure, but also by the need for new and revolutionary forms in the arts, has proved a major force in shaping twentieth century tastes and attitudes in man’s eternal search for self-expression. It is of course arguable whether these new and revolutionary ideas created the need for social change, or vice versa. What seems to be certain is that the vanguard of East European artists held radical, often revolutionary, views based on the premise that revolutionary changes in society imply revolutionary changes in art forms. This brings us to the dilemma of the avant-garde; while the spectrum of experiments labelled with various ‘isms’ and conveniently classified as ‘avant-garde’ were unconventional, the theoreticians of social revolution from Lenin to Lukács were conservative in taste. The artists were individuals in revolt; the commissars were determined to regiment the masses, which included the reluctant artists. As early as 1905, Lenin demanded unconditional adherence to party discipline in matters of literature. The ideals of socialist-realism were conceived in these years; topics should be chosen to serve the supposed interest of the working class, and writers should describe them realistically, that is by employing Realism, the most conventional method of description; the theoreticians argued that the simplicity of this style was considered the best way to convey the message of socialism to the masses, whose intellectual standard was thus tacitly despised. While theoreticians were admittedly anti-élitist, writers felt a burning need to break away from traditions; all existing literary forms were deemed unsuitable to carry their revolutionary message. They also believed that the working class was the only audience capable of true appreciation of their new forms of expression. The clash of views held by artists and apparatchiks led to administrative measures; the Russian avantgarde was silenced, and dispersed. Most of the artists defected to the West in the early 1920s, where they became household names in the realm of modern art.

In Hungary, early socialist literature is of limited importance; for the writers were either ardent Social Democrats, whose aim was to popularize the ideology of the movement, or only interested in flirting temporarily with socialist ideas, till their curiosity turned to new intellectual pursuits. Moreover, they had little skill as writers. The only significant exception to this pattern was Lajos Kassák, whose stubborn individualism permanently espoused the cause of artistic experimentation within his unswerving loyalty to the working-class movement.

His circle can now be regarded as a major alternative to the Nyugat movement in the modernization of Hungarian literature. The writers who joined Kassák were far less numerous and significant than those of the Nyugat, but nevertheless, the further we are removed in time from Kassák’s works, the clearer the true perspective of his experiments becomes, as has been attested by the recent revival of interest in his artistic heritage, both in Hungary and abroad.

One of the features of any avant-garde group is its tendency to transfer forms from art to literature and vice versa, the underlying idea being the primacy of self-expression, with recourse to various media and the mixing of these media according to artistic needs. It may be regarded as a return to the concept of the Universal Man of the Renaissance; Kassák was in a sense a universal artist, equally at home in painting or poetic and narrative writing. In addition, his activities embraced editorship, and theatrical and typographical experiments, all of which he pursued with that serious regard for craftsmanship he had acquired during his days in the blacksmith’s shop. For Kassák, born on 21 March 1887 at Érsekújvár, a small town in Upper Hungary, was of genuine working-class origin. His upbringing left him a legacy of poverty and humiliation; when a young apprentice he joined the socialist movement, and as a journeyman he travelled widely in Hungary and abroad, which strengthened his convictions and also provided him with an opportunity to become acquainted with the latest trends in art and literature. It can be ascribed to his artistic integrity that the successive ‘isms’ – expressionism, futurism, cubism, constructivism, surrealism, and dadaism – all contributed to his development, yet none of them left a permanent mark on his works; moreover, his originality always transcended the horizon of his class-consciousness. Not that he was entirely free of the rhetoric of his class attachments; but he always managed to sort out his artistic priorities, giving pride of place to his instinct for self-expression.

While his early poetry displays the influence of Walt Whitman’s technique, his first volume Epic in Wagner’s Mask (1915) is already a proof of his mature art, evoking in vers libre dark and oppressive images of the catastrophic disintegration of European civilization. The volume gives the over-all impression that Kassák was waging a battle against spontaneity and endeavouring to merge class-consciousness into universal consciousness, for Kassák believed in classless art. Nevertheless, in his celebrated ‘Craftsmen’ (1915) he advocates powerfully the supremacy of working-class values, proudly asserting the achievements of workers and their international solidarity.

This poem was published in The Action*Kassák called his own brand of avant-garde activism on the mast-head of Today from vol. 4 no. 2 in early 1919. Since there existed a German expressionist magazine under the title of Die Aktion, Kassák’s movement is often wrongly taken for their Hungarian branch. (1915-16), the first of his avant-garde magazines. The successors to The Action, Today (1916-19, then: Vienna,1920-6), Document (1926-7), Work (1928-39), and the belated Creation (1947), brought Kassák’s role as an energetic organizer of modern artistic efforts into prominence. Although these periodicals were often short-lived, and all were banned by subsequent political regimes (including Today, which was suppressed by the Republic of Councils in 1919, when Béla Kun branded it as ‘a product of bourgeois decadence’), their significance extends far beyond Hungarian literature, since they were repositories of avant-garde art from all over the Continent; artists with an international reputation who made their debut in Kassák’s circle included, for example, László Moholy-Nagy (1895-1946) and Victor Vasarely (1908-1997). Kassák himself made an impact on modern art with his képarchitektúra; in particular, the strict geometrical shapes of his non-representational idiom are related to Russian Constructivism and de Stijl.

The fruits of his experiments with mixed media include képvers (pictorial verse), in which he utilized the arbitrary arrangement of various typefaces to give an extra impact to the semantic content of his sentences; he overstressed or hid certain words or parts of them and, at the same time, used typefaces in geometrical patterns to fill out the remaining space. Kassák considered that geometrical patterns included the essence of all other forms; abstract art was his speculative way of expressing the order of the future, which in turn influenced his literary activity, since geometric abstractions exclude the possibility of Romantic notions (i.e. disorder) or the partiality of emotions.

The development of Kassák towards constructivism could easily have been a reaction to the failure of his revolutionary expectations after World War I. He was bitterly disappointed with the Hungarian Republic of Councils and the narrow-mindedness of its leaders, particularly Béla Kun, who would not accept Kassák’s view that art is above class or party loyalties. In his famous Open Letter to Béla Kun in the Name of Art (1919) Kassák rejected unqualified acceptance of, and complete subordination to, party resolutions. Kassák’s defiance resulted in a lifelong feud with his comrades, and the price of his uprightness in questions of principle resulted in his being cold-shouldered after 1945, when Hungarian Communists returned to power from their Moscow emigration.

Yet he followed his comrades into emigration in Vienna, where his Singing Pyres (Vienna, 1920) was published. The volume forms a clear dividing line in his poetry, being a panegyric on the ‘revolution of mankind’, and a proof of his resolute search for new vistas for self-expression. The best example of his poetry during his exile, his most active period, is The Horse Dies and the Birds Fly Out (Vienna, 1924). This poem, of 500-odd lines, is a turning point in modern Hungarian poetry. Its genre is altogether baffling; it is not an epic in vers libre. Its topic is Kassák’s years as a journeyman, and it describes the full circle of his travels, from the time he left Angyalföld*A predominantly working-class settlement in NE. Budapest. until he returned there. Yet it is not a record of his wanderings, but a pretext for the mixing of his experiences and visions through the abundant use of surrealistic metaphors and often ‘unpoetic’ vocabulary, used to shock the reader’s senses. Words taken from working-class slang, imagery borrowed from industrial life-factories, mines or machinery-are largely responsible for the ‘irregularity’ of the poetic images in the text, and Kassák frequently replaces articulate words by onomatopoeic exclamations to increase the explosiveness of his utterance (e.g. ‘ó dzsiramári / ó lébli / ó bumbum’). His message is his ars poetica: to follow nobody, to reject nothing, and to exploit all experiences the world is capable of providing for the benefit of unrestricted self-expression.

The same features that lend novelty to his poetic texts handicap his prose. His puritanic seriousness, his non-conforming persistence in adhering to the rigid rules of his artistic and political convictions, his lack of humour and erudition, make most of his novels painfully monotonous. The anomalies of his word-formations and his aptitude for colourless and artificial style detract much from the enjoyment of his fiction, in spite of its precise construction and careful execution. Yet Kassák was able to write good prose. His monumental One Man’s Life (8 vols., 1928-39) has a claim to be the best autobiography written in Hungarian, together with Gyula Illyés’s The People of the Puszta and Sándor Márai’s Confessions of a Middle-Class Citizen. Not only was Kassák able to overcome his artistic and political dogmas; he also managed to create an atmosphere of searching honesty and moderate stylistic pretensions, which, together with his masterly grasp of material, as he describes the developmentof his social awareness, makes One Man’s Life an outstanding achievement and memorable reading.

During World War II Kassák, having lost his last magazine as a result of official suppression, became almost completely isolated, for he gradually grew alienated from all shades of the left without ever having veered towards the right, contrary to accusations of his having sold out to the ruling classes. By this time much of the avant-garde fire had gone from his lyrics, yielding to more sombre themes in human life: love, old age, and death (My Earth, My Flower. Selected Poetry, 1935). In the gloomy years of Stalinism he was silenced and ignored by officialdom. This silence was broken during the short-lived revolution of 1956, when his poem ‘The Dictator’, an epigrammatic epilogue to the Stalinist era, was published in the revolutionary press. With the gradual liberalization in the 1960s he slowly emerged as the grand old man of the Hungarian avant-garde. Public acknowledgement may have contributed to the mood of his second great period of creativity both as a painter and as writer. The strict abstract shapes and severe colours of his earlier work gave way to warmer tones and mellow curves; intimate images increased in his poetry – Kassák now showed a clear preference for homely and endearing expressions of sentiment, the over-all characteristic of his mature lyricism. The new voice disclosed the resignation of old age in rich tones, and he remembered small pleasures, occasionally with bitterness – for which he had had reason enough – but without defeatism or regret. He died on 22 July 1967.

While Kassák can be considered a genuinely original figure of the avantgarde, the same cannot be said of the other writers of his circle. Most of these joined the Communist Party later, and for that reason were compelled to go into exile. They superimposed Party discipline on their own poetical aspirations by loyally serving what they believed was in the interest of the international working-class movement. Those writers who eventually moved to the Soviet Union learned the bitter truth about their indispensability as instruments of the constant ideological warfare in the 1930s, when Stalin relentlessly decimated the ranks of the faithful without regard for their former services or nationality. Those who survived the ‘purges’ and returned to Hungary in the footsteps of the advancing Soviet army are usually called the ‘Muscovites’.

Members of Kassák’s circle included Aladár Komját (1891-1937) who, having experimented with expressionism in Today, joined the party and accepted its discipline, which earned him the respect of official Hungarian scholarship as the first Communist poet. He left Hungary in 1919 and died in exile in Paris. His poetry, written in vers libre, reveals an intense struggle to incorporate slogans and party programmes into verse (e.g. We Want Everything! Moscow, 1931). His best known piece is the spirited ‘March of the International Brigade’, written during the Spanish Civil War. Sándor Barta (1897-1938) also left Kassák’s circle for the Communist Party only to become a victim of the purges in Moscow, where he edited New Voice, the forum of the Muscovite authors. His poetry was first inspired by anarchistic revolt, later by official schematism. The same is true of his prose; after his avant-garde experiments, he had to conform with official ‘socialist realism’ when in Moscow.

After Barta’s liquidation Andor Gábor (1884-1953) became editor of New Voice. The path to Gábor’s acceptance of this position of trust, editor of a review for ‘the faithful’, was not without its twists. Far from being a convinced socialist or an experimenting avant-garde author, Gábor was a clever journalist of the pre-World War I vintage, who wrote without any notion of the stylistic revival initiated by Nyugat, as Lukács once remarked ironically. When he turned to cabaret he soon became a skilled script-writer, making the most of his undoubted satiric vein (The Dollar-Daddy, 1917), which appealed to the lower-middle-class public. The light chanson also brought him great popularity (White Cabaret Songs, 1911). His original verse, however, written in traditional forms, was marred by profuse sentimentality, a common pitfall of authors of satiric disposition. His novels, written with a sure hand, are light and highly entertaining (Dr Nobody, 1917). When he left Hungary in 1919 as a result of his participation in the revolution, he had to leave behind the grateful public of the cabarets. He gave vent to his hurt feelings, his main inspiration being now resentment, which was difficult to express in the restrained poetic forms he preferred. After his conversion to Communism while in exile, he first published vitriolic articles in Hungarian, and later worked mainly for German and Russian papers until his appointment as editor of New Voice, which came as a reward for his ultra-leftist zeal. Having returned to Hungary in 1945, he was gradually restricted to the periphery of the literary life by his former colleagues; he was allowed to edit the satirical weekly Ludas Matyi*An allusion to Fazekas’s popular hero. (1945- ) until his death, after which he was promptly canonized as a pioneer of socialist literature.

Lajos Nagy (1883-1954) considered himself a socialist, but not a ‘socialist writer’, a subtle distinction. An illegitimate child, with all the resultant bitterness that that implies, Nagy made his debut in the Social Democrat daily The People’s Voice with powerfully written stories (e.g. ‘An Afternoon in the Office of Mr Grün, Solicitor’, 1910) always taking sides with the have-nots, and with a deep-seated grudge against those who had climbed the social ladder. Following in the footsteps of the idol of his youth, Maxim Gorki, he indulged in naturalistic details of poverty, discrimination, and sexual deprivation. Although Babits appreciated his creative talent and gave him the coveted Baumgarten Prize*Named after its founder F. F. Baumgarten (1880-1927), the prize was awarded annually to needy writers who produced significant works from 1928 to 1947, when it was superseded by the state Kossuth Prize (1948- ). Babits, one of the trustees, was chiefly responsible for selecting the recipients. (1932, 1935, and 1938), Nagy was never fully accepted by the Nyugat group; all his life he was a struggling author who never belonged to any of the literary camps, either during the inter-war period or afterwards. ‘I write what I feel and think, regardless of the consequences’ was his lifelong literary creed.

Nagy was indeed a relentless chronicler of the political bigotry and social discrimination of the inter-war period, but unfortunately the need to earn a livelihood obliged him to produce short and occasional pieces for the press instead of writing major works. Yet his sketches always contained ambitious social satire, the bitterness of which was relieved by his sparkling wit. His Absurd Natural History (1921), a collection of animal stories spiced with linguistic absurdities, is the best example. In the 1920s Nagy developed a technique, influenced by simultaneism and verism, which was eminently suited to the production of a satirical view of social maladies. His devices, for example, included the description of daily occurrences in the life of the capital, in the form of diary entries: ‘Wednesday, 19 October 1929 . .. Sun rises 6.23 a.m. It sets 5.07 p.m. Worker rises 6.05 a.m. Civil servant rises 7.36 a.m. Gentleman rises 10.16 a.m. Parasite of Capitalism rises 3.40 p.m. Call-girl rises 5.07 p.m… . Bedbugs rise 10 p.m. and take a rest 7 a.m. Prostitutes report to the police 8.30 a.m… .’ (‘Timetable’, 1929.)

His successive Baumgarten Prizes secured him the much-needed financial support to enable him to write a major work. Since his special narrative technique and fact-finding zeal made him an able exponent of literary sociography, instead of writing novels and anticipating the village explorers he wrote Kiskunhalom (1934) and The Mask of a Village (1937). The first book is an account, during a twenty-four hour period from daybreak to daybreak, of daily life in a fictitiously-named, but real, village; the story is told in microscopic detail, with superb characterization, powerful descriptions and straightforward reportage. The second displays Nagy’s attraction to Freudianism; he derives the socio-economical structure of a village from the instincts of the individual: both private and public neuroses are a consequence of sexual deprivation and inadequacy. He finds in primitive village folk the same repressions, and sadistic and masochistic motives, which are usually attributed to the stress of urban civilization; this shocked public opinion, whose preconceptions about the ‘uncorrupted’, ‘simple’ village people were still intact.

Nagy’s vision did not get blurred when he visited the Soviet Union (1934) as a member of a writers’ delegation. His account clearly shows his disillusionment with the Promised Land of the Faithful. Similarly, when Hungary adopted a new course after 1945, he promptly criticized the abuses of the new regime. While Nagy’s imposing attitude in showing his moral courage in widely different social systems commands respect, his uncompromising spirit also forced him to be a permanent outsider. His autobiography is a veritable document of a conscience laden with moral obligations (Man in Revolt, 1949, Man in Flight, 1954).