2. Conservative Fiction

While conservative ideas were represented by men of Szekfű’s and Horváth’s calibre, the artistic vision and the achievement of the conservative writers of fiction and poetry compare badly with the Nyugat generation, and with the populist writers. The editor of East, Cécile Tormay (1876-1937), for example, made her reputation as a public figure with An Outlaw’s Diary (2 vols., 1921-2), in which she described with apparent disgust and aristocratic contempt the events of 1918-19. Her main thesis was that social radicalism was alien to the Hungarian character, which was basically contemplative and devoted to traditional values. As a novelist she was not without talent. She attracted critical notice with her first novel (Stonecrop, 1911); it was a work written with artistic care, although she sometimes yielded to mannerism (e.g. she seldom used sentences with subordinate clauses); her impressionistic descriptions were effective then, though they look somewhat dated now. The theme of Stonecrop is symbolic – it is the love – story of a Croatian married woman and a Hungarian railwayman from the Lowlands, showing the tragic incompatibility of people with different ethnic origins; there is little the individual can do against the basic law of nature, except to perish, as the Croatian woman does when she revolts against it.

The Old House (1914) is an ambitious undertaking – the story of three generations of a Budapest middle-class family of German extraction. Tormay’s main concern is again with that ‘mystic’ interrelationship between ethnic origin and regional characteristics which puzzled her in Stonecrop. Influenced by Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks, The Old House delves into the decay and disintegration of the Ulwing family. It is the youngest member of the family, Anna, who understands the timeless unison between the native soil and the human soul: ‘Only those families survive which have their roots in the soil. In vain drops the seed on the city’s pavement; no tree will grow out of it. Urban families are of houses which serve at best for three generations only.’ There is much nostalgia in the rolling sentences which evoke the atmosphere of a largely German Budapest of bygone days.

Tormay’s last major work was to have been a historical trilogy, her death prevented its completion (The Swan of Csallóköz, 1934, and On the Other Shore, 1934). Set in the thirteenth century, the basic idea of the novel concerns the clash between Christian and pagan values, a subject which Herczeg also utilized successfully in his Heathens. Inspired by the praiseworthy intention of lightening the general pessimism through evoking scenes of ‘old glory’, Tormay on the whole failed artistically in this lengthy novel, which was eventually completed by another writer using Tormay’s original outline and published under the main title, The Ancient Messenger (1937). While Herczeg was careful not to give an unequivocal answer to the dilemma of ‘East versus West’, Tormay blamed Christian civilization for the decline of the originally martial spirit of the Hungarians. Her composition is careful, and abounds in stylistic embellishments, including refined metaphors, nevertheless the book produces a somewhat artificial effect.

Tormay’s interest in historical novels was part of a general revival of the demand for historical fiction, with subjects invariably devoted to the national past. Conservative-Nationalist writers eagerly pampered the national ego: they were never at a loss when asked to gloss over selected topics and serve generous helpings of illusions up to their readers, whose spiritual hunger for feasting on past glories seemed insatiable. Seasoning was provided by Miklós Surányi (1882-1936), whose historical romances, padded with lengthy digressions on the social history of past centuries, contain larger-than-life figures, usually pursuing passionate love affairs. The glittering façades of the historical scenes always seem to cover deep human passions, and are never lacking in erotic detail (e.g. his novel about the romantic escapades of young Count István Széchenyi, We Are Alone, 1936).

Irén Gulácsy (1894-1945), on the other hand, looked to history to provide a lesson for the present. Her widely acclaimed novel (Black Bridegrooms, 1927) takes the reader to the early sixteenth century, the turbulent years of the Dózsa uprising and the battle of Mohács (1526) which resulted in the loss of national independence. Its timely message is that the lack of national unity leads to catastrophe; noble and heroic self-sacrifice is needed if it is to be averted. The novel is uneven; tragic scenes are often painted with overtly romantic colours – the writer lacked the strength to bridle her all too vivid imagination. Her language is highly original and metaphoric, abounding in little-known dialect words whose effect is lessened by their strangeness.

The novels of János Komáromi (1890-1937) still have an undeniable appeal and were very popular when they were published, mainly on account of the brooding atmosphere he was able to create in his descriptions of his native Upper-Tisza region. His poverty-stricken family background made him sensitive to the sufferings of others, which he always described with compassion and frequently with overflowing emotion. His main themes, besides his childhood experiences (Students of Patak, 1925, and An Old House Beside the Road, 1929), are derived from those terrible years which a generation spent in the trenches of the Russian Front and which irrevocably changed pre-war moral values. Komáromi was able to blend irony and nostalgia, and it is these qualities which make Those Beautiful K. u. K.*The abbreviation K. u. K. (or Cs. és Kir. in Hungarian) stood for the designation ‘Imperial and Royal’ (Kaiserlich und Königlich). This referred to Francis Joseph’s being both Emperor of Austria and King of Hungary, and thus the common army was called the Imperial and Royal Army. In colloquial usage. however, the expression is widely used as a midly ironic epithet for the age of the Dual Monarchy (1867-1918). Days (1927) remarkable. The novel describes the hinterland activity of the Austro-Hungarian army, with its bureaucracy, inefficiency, and peculiar esprit de corps, although Komáromi is far less satiric than Hasek was in The Good Soldier Schweik. It was the local kuruc tradition in the county of Zemplén which Komáromi used as material for his historical novels, and popular heroes, like Jakab Buga or Tamás Esze, were the main characters in his stories, which were written with Romantic exaggeration and much patriotic fire. All Komáromi’s kurucs were penniless vagabonds or outlaws whose only asset was their fierce patriotism, which was still enough to defeat the better-equipped labancs who sided with foreign rule.

The general course historical fiction might take was perhaps epitomized by the overt nationalism of Gyula Somogyvári (1895-1953), who became a best-selling author under the pen-name of Gyula diák. Somogyvári’s ideals were the Hungarian military virtues shown during World War I (e.g. The Almond Tree is In Bloom, 1933), or the power of the Hungarian soil in assimilating foreigners. (The Rhine is Obscured … , 1935), both novels drawn in harsh colours and filled with profuse sentiments. One of his greatest successes was And We Are Still Alive … , (1936), the story of the revolt in Western Hungary after World War I which saved the city of Sopron and its environs from being ceded to Austria by forcing a plebiscite.

Those conservative writers who wrote less historical fiction devoted their energies to the ‘back-to-the-soil’ theme. The heroine of Mária Szabó’s (1888-1982) first novel, Upward, (1925) inherits a passion for the land, not the idle flame of possession, but an innate love of the earth and its fruits. When she comes into possession of the family estate she devotes herself entirely to its management, and becomes bound physically and spiritually to the earth. No doubt the novel, with its battles, triumphs, and defeats circling round Ágnes’s struggle for the family seat and the resulting conflicts, is an epic representation of the lives of the Transylvanian landed gentry before World War I and the ensuing Romanian occupation. Yet some doubts linger whether the heroine’s worship of Mother Earth in Upward is as genuine as Mária Szabó’s imagination made it out to be-in her later novels, which are largely historical fiction, it was definitely her romantic imagination which gained the upper hand.

An entirely different aspect of conservative taste manifested itself in Kálmán Csathó’s (1881-1964) novels and plays, which radiate a light-hearted, witty, and somewhat sardonic spirit. The world of Csathó is peopled with mischievous old gentlemen whose lives consist of endless anecdotes, related by the author with gusto and without excesses; his optimism is scarcely touched by the events of the immediate past. His heroines are interested only in making a good match, and then in preventing their husbands from unduly serious womanizing (A Crow on the Church Clock, 1916). This is a world which preserves all the fun of the belle époque, Hungarian style. The same can be said of Csathó’s plays, which are permeated by a gay irresponsibility, and consistently lack social criticism. The best example of his craftsmanship is You Only Smoke Your Pipe, Ladányi! (1927), adapted from his novel of the same title (1916).

The demand for historical fiction created a special by-product: vie romancée (regényes életrajz),*Fictionalized biography. addressed to a wide readership, which was impressed by the omniscience of authors who seemed to eavesdrop on the conversation of the famous. Reality and illusion mingled freely in this strange genre, which always displayed the facts with theatricality. Further more, for the sake of melodramatic climax authors often overstated their case or overplayed one single emotion. The most popular author of ‘fictionalized biography’ was Zsolt Harsányi (1887-1943), who enjoyed success in many languages, including English in the late 1930s. His secret was a fast-moving and absorbing plot and an interest in psychological motives. He profited most by his keen eye for the consequences of early traumatic injuries to the ego. Having found the ‘key’ to his chosen personality, he then wrapped the plot around the emotional strain thus discovered – lulling the reader into a comfortable feeling of having effortlessly acquired the secrets of his characters. The subject of his works were men who had left their mark on history, science, or the arts, and whose rejection of conformity usually landed them in clashes with society and/or authority. His best known works in English translations are about the love affairs of Liszt (Hungarian Rhapsody, 1935), The Star Gazer (1937) about Galileo, whose life suggests than man could think independently only at the risk of his own security, and Lover of Life (1940), about the flamboyant personality of Rubens.

Although Harsányi’s works were not published in Hungary after 1945, the traditions of fictionalized biography were carried on and the genre is still popular. Perhaps the names of Sándor Dallos (1901-64) and László Passuth (1900-79) should be mentioned in this context. Of the latter’s works, Raingod Weeps Over Mexico (1939) is a colourful epic of Cortez’s Central American expedition, published in many languages, including English.