4. Entertainers of the Middle Classes

Between the two World Wars successful authors seemed to mushroom in every corner of Hungary. The secret of their appeal to a large public, both at home and abroad, was their approach to most human problems, an approach which, instead of observing them at close quarters or analysing them in detail – for both of these procedures might have been painful – simply provided large doses of painkiller for the emotional hangover of the man in the street. The man in the street had had enough: he had spent years in the trenches, and in a camp for prisoners of war in Siberia, his family life had been disrupted, he had lost his financial security and close relatives, and now he had to worry about his livelihood with the advent of the depression in 1930; consequently patriotic rhetoric or the comfort of religion did not ring true in his tired ears. All these slogans reminded him only that he was deceived, brainwashed with bankrupt ideas; the individual was let down by society, and it did not matter now who was ultimately responsible, whether it was the king, the upper classes, the social democrats, or the enemy. Yet he could not forget all those terrible experiences; he could not erase from his memory the fact that the whirlpool of history had uprooted him. In addition, the prospect of a bleak future made him susceptible to unconditional escapism. He wanted to soothe the ineradicable memory of his ordeal; he dreamed about emigrating to America, or at least starting a new life; typists dreamed about marrying their managing directors,*This stereotype, a great favourite with the Hollywood movie industry in the 1930s, was created by István Szomaházy (1864-1925) in his Tales of a Typewriter (1905). bank clerks and white collar workers dreamed about climbing the social ladder. These aspirations were not new then, nor are they obsolete now; but in Hungary (or anywhere in Eastern Europe) they were more difficult to attain than in more advanced industrial societies.

Admittedly it can be debated whether writers who supplied the panacea for the emotional starvation of the masses can be regarded as part of literature proper; nevertheless, no survey of literature would be complete from the sociological point of view without taking into account their main themes and motivations. Furthermore, some of the authors who turned their energies to unashamed entertaining were skilful craftsmen, or initially had higher aspirations. And they became well known abroad – some of them can claim works translated into more than twenty languages, and others became prolific scriptwriters to the Hollywood movie industry.

Perhaps the best borderline case between literature and entertainment is Lajos Zilahy (1891-1974), who started his career writing featherweight poetry, but soon turned to fiction and the theatre. His early novel The Love of My Great-Grandfather (1923) displays the mood of Krúdy’s novels, both in style and in conception, which is expressed in the motto: ‘The past is full of gentle beauty and kindness; the future if full of perplexing mystery. This idea may be excruciating, but one day all the future is destined to be the past.’

He became famous with Deadly Spring (1922), a passionate and tragic love-story with erotic undertones; its lyricism is, however, often marred by overflowing emotions. The potentials in the plot of Adrift*The title used here is taken from the powerful adaptation of Zilahy’s novel by Jan Kádár (1969), in a Czechoslovak-American co-production, which brings out the mythical potential of the story in full. The original title was: Something is Drifting on the Water! (1928) – the disruption of the peaceful family life of a fisherman by his gradually overwhelming passion for a mysterious woman whom he literally nets in the Danube half-drowned and successfully resuscitates – are not fully utilized; the execution is sketchy and the melodramatic inclination of the author is, regrettably, not curbed. The timeless figure of Anada,*The name is an allusion to Anadyomene (i.e. ‘rising from the sea’), an attribute of Aphrodite. with her untold secrets, is symbolic; she brings misfortune unwillingly into human existence, and the message of eroticism and death, as if to say that nobody is protected against the whims of fate.

Zilahy always attempted to capture the timeless aspects of human existence, which he manages to accomplish in his short stories. In ‘The Last of John Kovács’, for example, he effectively describes with a few bold strokes how the last memories of ordinary people, both written and preserved in the minds of their contemporaries, can disappear without trace. This grimace of Zilahy addressed to eternity is almost perfect in its execution; and the same is true of ‘The Windmill with Silver Sails’, which relates in an unembellished style how competition from better technology deprives an old miller of his livelihood. (Both stories in The Windmill with Silver Sails, 1924). The uprooting of human beings is the subject of The Soul Extinguished (1932): the immigrant in America cannot take new roots, and it is not only homesickness or the new language that hinders the conscious efforts of the self to assimilate to the new way of life. The novel shows that Zilahy is a keen observer, and little eludes his discerning mind; yet a certain theatricality, and a tendency to overplay emotions, reduce its artistic merit.

Zilahy’s mind was occupied for a long time with the havoc created by the war, undoubtedly on account of his personal experiences (he was wounded on the Eastern Front). Of the novels and plays he wrote about them, Two Prisoners (1927) is considered the best; many critics regard it as an excellent novel. It is a war novel, but there are no scenes of actual warfare in it, for the young hero is captured by the Russians early in the story; while he becomes a literal prisoner in Siberia, his wife is a metaphorical captive at home in Budapest. Péter and Miette, their blinding and agonizing lives, determined by forces beyond their control, are convincingly portrayed, and the story has an ironically tragic end that rounds off the novel in a manner which does justice to Zilahy’s gift for constructing a bold plot.

Zilahy characterizes almost exclusively by external description, yet the protrayal of Miette is excellent; it is no wonder that Zilahy’s appeal lay in his ability to draw female characters. In The Deserter (1931) he presents his most ambitious male portrait in Komlóssy who carried his message of national unity, a message which was badly needed before, during, and after the war. Komlóssy’s resentment against Austrian rule is a legacy of his rebellious student days, and when he had disobeyed the command to advance towards the enemy lines in the battle of Piave, he deserts because his supreme loyalty binds him to his men; their senseless sacrifice for a lost cause, he feels, is against the national interest. Zilahy seems to suggest, through his doomed hero, that revolution and national interest are incompatible, and the events described compose a grim and impressive sequence.

His anti-war novel The Guns Look Back (1936), about a ruthless arms-dealer who completely changes when he meets a woman of integrity, is a shallow work, with wooden figures and often incredible action, capable of sustaining the interest only of the most undiscerning reader. Yet Zilahy’s blunt pacifism, in a Central Europe armed to the teeth, was not without a timely political message. By this time he was not only a celebrated author of both novels and plays, but a public figure whose moderation and genuine concern for social reform*In 1942 in a Széchenyiesque gesture. Zilahy gave his by no means small fortune (2 million pengős) to the nation to fund the setting up of an élitist college (Kitűnőek iskolája). and national independence earned him only ill-will. Eventually he had to go into hiding from Hitler’s Hungarian supporters, and after the war he left Hungary to escape the restrictions imposed by Moscow’s Hungarian agents.

When he arrived in the United States in 1947 he had in his baggage the first draft of a family novel, designed to be monumental, in both vision and execution. The trilogy was first published in English: The Dukays (1949), The Angry Angel (1954), and Century in Scarlet (1966). The story spanned over one and a half centuries, and had hosts of characters, and numerous plots and sub-plots. It was Zilahy’s epitaph for the Hungarian aristocracy dispersed and destroyed by the new regime after the arrival of the Red Army in Hungary. The saga of the Dukay family starts with the birth of twins in Vienna in 1815 (Century in Scarlet). One of them follows the liberal tradition, the other is a conservative; the conflict of these two traditions is in a sense the story of the nineteenth century. Zilahy’s large canvas is filled with a multitude of characters; most of them are not seen in depth, but the action is always colourfully described and all the ingredients of a true historical romance are present. Indeed it is nothing but a romance, because the pace of the action is never slow enough for any analysis of his characters, and although all the essential historical facts of nineteenth-century Hungary are skilfully interwoven in the story of the Dukays, the execution does not match Zilahy’s original vision.

The second part of the Dukay story (The Dukays) was written first; consequently it has a short history of the family, and the time-span runs from the late nineteenth century to the beginning of World War II. The new generation of Dukays are chosen to represent a wide range of destinies among the upper classes in this century. The first-born son is mentally retarded, Krisztina is a secret admirer of Royalty, another son goes abroad to study, and the last one, a withdrawn boy, turns fascist. The variety of answers given by the Dukay children to life’s challenge would have given Zilahy ample opportunity to portray in depth the decay of the top layer of Hungarian society, but his love of anecdotes, romance, and gratuitous detail proved stronger than his intention. The Angry Angel brings the narrative up to date, continuing the story of Countess Zia Dukay and her commoner husband, Mihály Ursi, who is actuated above all by his die-hard class hatred of the aristocracy. This concluding volume of the trilogy suffers most from melodrama – all the clichés of anti-Nazi and anti-Communist fiction are present; and perhaps, it also suffers from its proximity to recent history.

Zilahy’s trilogy might have been a very important contribution to twentieth-century Hungarian fiction, a fitting epitaph for the disintegrated ruling class which had dominated Hungarian history for almost ten centuries; his failure to write a great family novel is a sad loss, for even if a writer possessing the same historical knowledge and boldness of vision, but with less melodramatic tendencies, would come forward to write on the same subject, none could match Zilahy’s intimate involvement as an eyewitness of the very last chapter in the decline and fall of Hungarian aristocracy; and thus the saga may remain for ever unwritten.

Another popular theme in inter-war fiction was the fate of those who left Hungary ‘to make good’. Eagerly read by millions who stayed behind and hoped one day to strike lucky, these novels had the sweet smell of success. Ferenc Körmendi (1900-72), a struggling author, struck gold when he won an international competition, organized by leading London publishers, with his Escape to Life (1932), and also became famous overnight in his own country. Escape to Life is a readable book with a good idea. By playing on the theme of ‘the old school’, ‘the boys’, having discovered that one of their class-mates has become a millionaire somewhere in South Africa, attract him back to a school reunion in Budapest. Their scheming to seize the chance of a lifetime, to make money out of their former school-fellow, is often pathetic, if not always tragicomic, and if Körmendi had had as much satiric detachment as he had psychological insight, he might have written a great novel. This was the verdict of Graham Greene when reviewing the English edition, and it still rings true today. Körmendi himself emigrated just before the war, living first in London and later in the United States, where he died. Of the rest of his novels, most of them available in English, Via Bodenbach (1932) should be mentioned. In this Körmendi experiments with the technique of monologue intérieur, and his free associations, psychological flashbacks, and complex presentation of a stream of consciousness would have made the book a unique work, if it had concluded with less theatricality.

Körmendi was the spokesman of disillusioned, unemployed Budapest middle-class young men who considered themselves failures; Jolán Földes (1903-63) turned to the lower depths of society for her theme: to the lives of those pariahs in the Parisian slums whose fate was that same squalor and sordid reality which they had left behind in their native Hungary. The Street of the Fishing Cat (1936) was also the winner of an international fiction contest (translated into twelve languages and selling over a million copies in the first six months); it is a ‘bitter-sweet’ story of a working-class family whose honest toiling won them little financial success in their new lives, and whose barely articulated emotions, subdued sobs and laughter conveyed the message of uprooted people aimlessly drifting in a strange, alien world. Földes too left Hungary and became a prolific authoress in English, and died in Paris, the scene of her first-hand experience of expatriate insecurity.

The early short stories of Mihály Földi (1894-1943) announced the presence of a talented writer, whose well-observed figures of the Budapest lower middle classes did not betray the fact that their author was barely twenty. Later, however, after much Dostoevskian soul-searching and fruitless contemplation (e.g. The Halasi-Hirsch Boy, 1926, whose hero breaks away from his Jewish background only to find himself vulnerable and rootless), Földi turned to metaphysics in an attempt to reconcile the conflicting pulls of intellect, ethics, and the impulsive urges of his soul. Most of his novels have a ‘thesis’, which, when translated into the terms of his actual fiction, seems contrived. Földi remained unable to sublimate his doubts, pessimism, and inner uncertainty into artistically plausible novels. His ambitious trilogy (Towards God’s Country, 1932; The Naked Man, 1933; and The Rebel Virgin, 1934) concerns the eternal conflict of Supreme Good and Evil in a contemporary setting; and the price is man’s soul. At best it is a document of pathological aimlessness induced by post-war social conditions, the bewildered wanderings of a creative intellect who set out to find relief in his own popular philosophy.

Földi’s main concession to commercialized taste was his increased attention to erotic detail, a concession in which he was by no means alone among contemporary authors. Yet, in a way, without these outspoken attacks on the sexual taboo, no modern writer could express himself with the frankness which readers now expect. Nevertheless, Victorian morality was very much alive in inter-war Hungary, although sexual hypocrisy had also suffered a heavy blow in the general conflagration of moral values in World War I. It was, however, well before the war that a young woman openly spoke about her erotic dreams with such unexpected frankness that her poems shocked public opinion. Yet no one today would be surprised, let alone shocked, by the poetry of Renée Erdős (1879-1956). Having unveiled the secret face of the female ego (Poems, 1902), in her later poetry she exchanged her carnal passion for religious devotion (Golden Bucket, 1910), which she cultivated with the same fervour. Her upsurge of religious ardour was inspired by her stay in Rome, and ended in conversion to Catholicism. Along with the poetry she wrote fiction, and it was rather this side of her talent which earned her popularity and steady notoriety with its luridly detailed display of emotions. Of her many novels, Cardinal Santerra (1922) brought down upon her the wrath of the Church; its hero, sworn to celibacy, successfully resists the physical temptations of the flesh, but the ascetic abstinence he practices does not prevent him from indulging in wild fantasies about a would-be mistress even while he is celebrating High Mass. Such carefully contrived perversions titillated the palate of the most jaded readers.

Finally, there were authors who wrote light entertainment in the tradition of bohemian follies, established by Jenő Heltai. They all had a flair for creating unpretentious comic situations, sparkling dialogue seasoned with the latest Budapest slang, like Gábor Vaszary (1897-1985) who is ironic even about his own sentimentality, or Rezső Török (1895-1966), author of over a hundred hilarious playlets and equally hilarious, although fewer in number, novels. Even the thriller industry produced its surprises; Jenő Rejtő (1905-43), for example, wrote bizarre adventure stories under the pseudonym P. Howard, and these are still enjoyed today by a large readership, mainly on account of their absurd ideas, black humour, and linguistic stunts.

A similar light-hearted emancipation of poetry has never taken place, perhaps because poetry is less suited to such attitudes, or perhaps because it requires a higher degree of craftsmanship than the average songster is likely to have; consequently, apart from the occasional playful moment of good poets there is little that deserves mention; authors working for the cabaret or writing the lyrics for songs wage a constant war against rhyme and rhythm, and are more than likely to lose their way among platitudes. The only exception to this general rule is the adaptation of Villon’s ballads (1937) by György Faludy (1910- ), who, influenced by Bertolt Brecht’s similar venture, successully recreates the image of a medieval vagabond; effectively clattering rhymes, a pulsating beat, and harsh colours form a combination of poetic devices which are never entirely absent from his own poetry. In addition Faludy, who now lives in Canada, has a poetic self which rarely comes through in his own poetry without a touch of over-dramatization. He left Hungary for the first time in 1938 and returned in 1946. He was imprisoned for alleged spying activities in 1950 and left Hungary for good after the revolution of 1956. His later poetry (A Keepsake Book of Red Byzantium, London, 1961) made a strong appeal to the emotions of its readers with its frequent references to his prison experiences (‘To Susanne, from Prison’, 1950), and his Collected Poetry (New York, 1980) confirmed his popularity beyond doubt.