|CHAPTER XXV The Post-War Era||CONTENTS||2. Since the Revolution of 1956|
ON 4 April 1945* the last remnant of Hungarian territory was occupied by the Red Army. The country was devastated and the capital lay in ruins. With the help of the occupying Soviet army, Moscow-trained Hungarian Communist exiles successfully filled the political vacuum. Under the strict control of the Russian-dominated Allied Control Commission, elections were held in 1945, after which a coalition government was formed. A republic was declared on 1 February 1946, and a new election held in 1947 from which the Communists, with some manipulation of the ballot, emerged as the largest single party, although still without a majority in Parliament. By early 1948 political opposition had practically been eliminated. In 1949 a series of show trials purged the Communist Party itself, leaving the ‘Muscovite’ faction in complete command. The man who brought Hungary under Communist control was Mátyás Rákosi (1892-1971), whose salami tactics* effectively achieved their objective. The subjection of literature to conformity with the policies of the Communist Party followed the pattern of political change.
But before this, in the Coalition Period (1945-48) literary life recovered with extraordinary rapidity. Publication had been severely restricted in the last, hectic years of the war, and consequently young authors and those silenced by the Fascist terror were able to come forward in this short period of a congenial intellectual climate. By 1946 a number of periodicals with distinctive profiles were in existence. First of all, Response (1946-9), the organ of the populist writers, was reestablished. Young authors whose ideals were shaped by the Nyugat, and its leader Babits, rallied round New Moon (1946-8); Forum (1946-50) represented Communist intellectuals; and Hungarians (1945-9), the first periodical launched after the war, provided initially a platform for every literary group, though it later became a mouthpiece mainly for middle-class writers.
By 1950, however, literary life had been brought under complete control. Periodicals were suppressed one by one; publishing firms were nationalized, so that only those authors whose writing was approved by the Communist Party were able to gain access to the public. This large-scale restriction of literary life produced a profound effect on Hungarian literature for years to come. Authors who were denied the facilities of publication had the choice either of leaving the country or of writing for their desk-drawer. Moreover writers were imprisoned or deported, and many promising careers were irrevocably damaged; established writers were unable to cope with the loss of their public. Many of the népi writers, for example, have never recovered completely, and others died forgotten at home or abroad. The Writers’ Union, founded in 1950, followed a ‘closed shop’ policy: non-members were considered to be ‘non-writers’.
This ruthless literary dictatorship was controlled by József Révai (1898-1959), the chief ideologue of the Moscow faction. One of the founders of the Hungarian Communist Party in 1918, Révai started his literary career in Kassák’s avant-garde periodical Today, but soon left the Today group for the Communist movement. His early discontent with avant-garde experimentation made him despise any artistic effort which did not concern itself with a direct and conventional approximation to reality. His dogmatic approach to the arts disposed him to socialist realism, the official doctrine of Communist aesthetics, first promulgated by A. A. Zhdanov in the Soviet Union. Socialist realism has never been precisely defined;* in essence, it proved to consist of harnessing the late nineteenth-century realist technique to the portrayal of exemplary characters in socialist societies (the ‘positive hero’). The theory is that since the true meaning of life is expressed in human progress towards Communism, works of art must breathe a spirit of hope and optimism, and all literary works must end on a note of optimism, allowing at least a glimpse of the rosy future. In practice this doctine has resulted in a superficial, photographic realism with stereotyped black and white characters soaked, not infrequently, in a shallow sentimentalism.
As writers were thus restricted in their depiction of human conflicts in a contemporary setting, they experienced great difficulty in maintaining either their interest or their standards. Communist critics, including Révai, were not altogether happy with the efforts of writers, terming the fruits of their labours ‘schematic’. Schematism became a byword for unsuccessful socialist realism, a term which now may be applied almost exclusively to works written, or rather published, in Hungary in the bleak years of Stalinism from 1949 to 1953. Writers tormented by the strictures of party policy chose the easy way out of their dilemma; they wrote eulogies of the party and its ‘wise leader’, Rákosi. The volume Hungarian Writers on Mátyás Rákosi (1952) is typical of the times in its unashamed flattery and overzealous adulation.
Literary life was strictly compartmentalized. The monthly Star (1947-56) became the exclusive organ* of the Writers’ Union. Young writers were provided with their own forum in 1952 (New Voice, 1952-6). In addition, a weekly journal, Literary Gazette (1950-56),* was launched, closely imitating its Soviet model, Literaturnaya Gazeta. Likewise, books were published by concerns specializing in new literary works, children’s books, classics, foreign translations, non-fiction or ideological works. After the death of Stalin the cult of personality began to decline, giving way to a general easing of tension, called in contemporary jargon ‘the thaw’,* initiated mainly through Khrushchev’s exposure of Stalin’s crimes at the Twentieth Congress of the Soviet Communist Party.
A new liberal policy, inaugurated in 1953 by Imre Nagy (1896-1958), encouraged writers to cast aside their fears and doubts and speak freely. Within certain limits they were indeed expected to express their own views. Literary Gazette, which carried much of the new writing, became an avidly-read journal; all copies were sold out on the morning of publication. Writers who had been silent returned to literary life, young poets emerged and became the undaunted spokesmen of their fellow-countrymen-briefly, literary life revived after an ice age which had seemed to last centuries. In 1955, however, Rákosi managed to oust Nagy and his liberal followers from power, and attempted to reinstate his iron rule in all walks of life. The slogan was now ‘deviation’. The fight against deviation from the official, correct party line meant a new attempt to muzzle the writers or any other critics of the regime.
Nevertheless, events could not be stopped now. Literature was in ferment, and the writers became leaders of a nation-wide reform movement, culminating in the revolution which broke out on 23 October 1956. Most of the writers who were in the vanguard of the reform movement were Communist, some of them even Moscow-trained Communists. Disillusioned with the intellectual restrictions of the Rákosi regime and seeing the general discontent in the country, these writers first exposed the crimes committed in the name of ‘the dictatorship of the proletariat’, and later, during the revolution, supported wholeheartedly the popular revolt.
First and foremost among the protesting writers was Tibor Déry (1894-1977), a lifelong Communist, although not a Muscovite. Born into an upper-middle-class family, Déry was a member of the Writers’ Directoire during the 1919 Communist revolution, which nationalized private property, including his father’s block of flats. As a result his father committed suicide; young Déry espoused the cause of socialism. His literary apprenticeship was unduly extended; he spent long years abroad experimenting with both poetry and fiction, temporarily joining Kassák’s circle and flirting with Expressionism, Dadaism, and Surrealism. Like many other young upper-middle-class rebels, he sought in the communist movement the human attachment that he was unable to find within his own class. This attitude became the key motif of his early writing; his restless heroes often break with their bourgeois background and find remedy for their insecurity in marrying a working-class or peasant girl. His guilt-ridden conscience and sense of individualism, however, always let him down, causing much soul-searching, and resulting in mediocre writing.
In 1945, with the advent of the new world, and after long years of underdevelopment, Déry believed he had found his place in society. As an act of goodwill he made an attempt to come to terms with the concept of socialist realism, and embarked on writing the great working-class novel of his country and epoch, planned as a trilogy under the title Answer, in which he tried to reconcile the official history of the working-class movement and truth. For Déry had at least one commendable quality: a passionate love of truth, which was always prominent in his works. He had already attempted to portray Hungarian society in an ambitious trilogy, The Unfinished Sentence (1934-8, published 1947), which provided irrefutable evidence of his artistic skill; yet it was his wrestling with socialist realism that helped, surprisingly, to mature his faculties. His writing became more direct in both observation and style. He chose a ‘positive hero’ from the working class, Bálint Köpe, whose life he intended to follow from childhood until 1948, drawing a bold picture of the changes that affected Hungarian society during the inter-war years. However, the publication of Part I (1950) and Part II (1952) of the novel incurred the personal wrath of Révai, the cultural dictator, and the novel was severely rebuked for infringing the rules of socialist realism. Déry was ordered to rewrite his book and correct his ‘mistakes’.
In this episode, known as the ‘Déry dispute’, literary life reached its lowest ebb; but it was also a turning point both in Déry’s career and in the mesmerised climate of Hungarian literature. Far from rewriting his novel, Déry chose themes which provided him with increased opportunities to expose the ‘malpractices of socialist legality’.* (Other writers also felt that their subjection to party control had reached breaking point and, guided by an attachment to social relevance and a sense of individual stubborness, gradually decided to co-operate with the party less and less.) Of Déry’s stories, undoubtedly Niki, The Story of a Dog (1956) went the farthest. While on the surface it is a story of how an amiable mongrel, taken up by an elderly couple who have lost their only son at Voronezh, gradually becomes part of their lives, it is also a fable about the arbitrary restrictions on human life in Stalinist Hungary. Although a story about a dog might easily degenerate into sentimentalism, in Déry’s hand it has remained a beautifully conceived story of human misery under the Rákosi regime. When Ancsa is arrested and imprisoned for some obscure ‘mistake’, Mrs Ancsa and Niki eke out the years of his absence shunned by their friends and neighbours; and when he is released the reader is suddenly forced to realize how utterly meaningless their sufferings were: ‘Were you told why you were arrested?’ ‘No,’ the engineer replied, ‘I was told nothing.’ ‘And you don’t know, either, why you were released?’ ‘No,’ the engineer replied. ‘I was not told.’* The power and impact of Niki lie in its gentle understatements, in its ability to convey the atmosphere of fear through the simple relationship of a man, a woman, and a dog. Niki was the longest piece in a series of short stories that Déry wrote in 1955. Of the others, ‘The Gay Funeral’ is a wryly comic account of a fundamentally bourgeois society existing within the confines of a Communist state; ‘Love’ is a snapshot of the return to his wife of a man imprisoned for unintelligible reasons and suddenly released. In ‘Behind the Brick Wall’, Déry draws the portrait of an apparatchik whose sense of justice is affected by a conflict between the workers’ interests and the Party’s inhuman demands on them. In ‘Encounter’* severe moral judgement is passed on another apparatchik who despises the class he originally comes from. All these writings contributed to the growing public indignation before the revolution, during which Déry proudly accepted his responsibility: ‘I am happy and proud, that, together with my fellow-writers, our profession made us the first to listen to the nation’s voice and the first to report it.’
The price Déry had to pay for exposing the Rákosi regime was nine years’ imprisonment ‘for conspiracy against the state’. Nevertheless, his revolt against the practice of those who represented his lifelong ideals gave him purpose and aim, the intensity of which released his best qualities: moral courage and an economy of style restricted to the essentials only. In 1960 he was freed, partly on account of the international outcry against his imprisonment, partly because by 1960 the post-revolutionary regime felt secure enough to exercise clemency. Déry published a short story in 1962, ‘Reckoning’, which describes the last days of a professor who decides to escape after the crushing of the revolution, but changes his mind within sight of the Austrian border. He turns back, sits down and freezes to death because he is tired. The thoughts of the professor are obviously the thoughts of Déry himself, and by this symbolical compromise Déry returned to literary life.
His last twenty years were characterized by a prolific output. Déry’s Kafkaesque novel Mr G. A. in X (1964), written in prison, presents a vision of a world where the exact opposite of conventional values is valid, witnessing his disillusionment and pessimism. The Excommunicator (1965) is an ironic pseudo-historical novel about dogmatic thinking and fanaticism a thinly veiled parable of the 1950s, although its hero, St. Ambrose, lived in the Middle Ages. The total collapse of his moral world is reflected both in Face to Face (1967), a poetic oratorio about the dangers which the future has in store for mankind, and in his autobiography No Verdict (1968). In this latter work he renounces bravely his last illusions about the possibility of artistic integrity in the service of the Party: ‘I was a bad Communist from the outset, I don’t deny that. The question only is and the answer has been sought for decades whether anyone can be a good writer and a good Communist at the same time, in the close-fitting uniform which the Party fits him into and which he only rarely gets permission to unbutton.’ With these works Déry successfully got rid of his dark thoughts. His last works indicate new departures; Imaginary Report About An American Pop Festival (1971), although sadly lacking first-hand experience of the American scene, shows Déry’s willingness to describe topical issues of the 1960s; Cher Beau-Pére (1973) is a touching portrait of an old man whose irony and wit act as a defence mechanism in the face of approaching death. The Boy With One Ear (1975) is a fictionalized adaptation of the sensational kidnapping case in which the ear of Paul Getty’s grandson was cut off, and was followed by another short novel The Murderer and I (1976), both of which display the decline of Déry’s power to treat the essential, although not of his craftsmanship.
Another leading figure of ‘the thaw’ was the playwright Gyula Háy (1900-75), who had lived in Germany for many years as a young author before settling in the Communist writers’ colony, in Moscow. Háy was thus a ‘Muscovite’, but he could never quite overcome his aversion to Zhdanovism, and always remembered with nostalgia the avant-garde revolutionary élan of the 1920s in the Weimar Republic. There he wrote his best play, which was produced by Reinhardt: God, Emperor, Peasant (1932; Moscow, 1940) about the Emperor Sigismund and John Hus. When Háy returned to Hungary in 1945 he was entirely unknown, but as one of the returning Communists he was treated as the leading playwright, although his Bridge of Life (1951), for example, showed the same faults which marred all literary products of the early 1950s. Háy’s disillusion with the new class of which he was himself a member came to light with a powerful impact in a single long article: ‘Why do I dislike Comrade Kucsera?’ published in Literary Gazette just before the revolution. ‘Comrade Kucsera’ is a brilliant and emotional exposé of the Communist apparatchik who, with his narrowmindedness, rigid dogmatism, double standards, incompetence, and bureaucratic officialdom, stands as a symbol of the driving force behind dictatorship. The contradiction between ideals and privileges, the contrast between the ordinary man’s plight and the luxury and wastefulness of the apparatchiks were among the prime factors responsible for the outbreak of the revolution.
Háy became famous overnight; he was arrested soon after the revolution and imprisoned for six years for ‘incitement against the state’. Having been released in 1960, Háy seized the first opportunity to leave Hungary: he settled in Switzerland. Of his later plays The Horse (1961) and Appassionata (1969) deserve special attention. The first is a historical comedy about why Caligula, the Roman Emperor, raised his horse to the office of a consul and why people let him do it; the second concerns an episode in the wake of the revolution of 1956. His memoirs, (Born in 1900, Hamburg, 1971), still unpublished in Hungarian, are a case history of a Central European middle-class Communist who devoted his life to the cause, only to feel betrayed when his dream came true.
Although not a ‘Muscovite’, but a home-produced Communist, Zoltán Zelk (1906-81) was one of the first poets to volunteer to praise the new regime. Originally he belonged to the fringe of Kassák’s circle and wrote expressionistic free verse. His experiences during the war (he survived forced labour in the Ukraine) made him capable of genuine devotion to the Rákosi regime. After writing sickening eulogies (A Song of Loyalty and Gratitude, 1949), Zelk, however, was soon compelled to see the light, and in a series of poems he renounced his former gullibility, becoming a brave spokesman of reform-Communism, for which he was imprisoned. In his old age, mellowed and matured, his poetry displayed an amiable fondness for the small pleasures of life.
Zelk’s career was by no means unique; other devotees, some even talented, followed the same rough road to illumination, and all paid a heavy price for their fallibility. Lajos Kónya (1914-72), for example, first a leading panegyrist of the regime, from 1953 onwards wrote poems of protest with increasing courage; his poetry became a document of an inhuman age, yet after the revolution his inspiration seems to have declined. László Benjámin (1915-1986), a promising ‘worker-poet’ at the time of his debut, became the foremost Communist poet; his romantic eloquence, and his sincere disappointment with servility, lack of courage, and political indifference that became evident in his compatriots during the war, made him eminently suitable for a Communist chastener of public life. Yet his poetry immediately before the revolution (A Single Life, 1956) was permeated by a moral crisis, which eventually forced him to fall silent for years. His poetry from the 1960s onwards is balanced; the price of his blunders included the loss of revolutionary élan, bitter self-accusations, and a certain defiance in upholding the tarnished image of socialism. Finally, among the numerous younger Communist poets Péter Kuczka (1923-1999) deserves mention for his long poem ‘Nyírség* Diary’ which heralded ‘the thaw’ with its frank exposition of living conditions in a remote part of the country. Kuczka, whose earlier verse, with its unsophisticated immediacy, had represented the worst aspects of socialist realism, later abandoned writing poetry altogether; he is now a science-fiction writer.
The leading ‘Muscovite’ writers, however, remained unmoved by popular discontent; they had learnt their lesson while living in Stalin’s Russia. Not that many of them shared their fellow-writers’ loyalty to ‘the people’. First and foremost among the conservative Communists was Béla Illés (1895-1974), who arrived in Hungary as a major of the Soviet Army in 1945. A lifelong apparatchik, Illés was secretary-general of the Proletarian Writers’ World Federation in Moscow. He left Hungary after the revolution of 1919, and while resident in Moscow wrote an ambitious trilogy of that revolution, (The Tisza Ablaze, 3 vols., Moscow, 1930-3), closely modelled on Sholokhov’s Quiet Flows the Don, which revealed him as a traditional writer whose craft was unaffected by modern narrative techniques; he followed the Romantic model as set by Jókai, heavily interspersed with anecdotes for good measure. The same can be said of its sequel: Carpathian Rhapsody (Moscow, 1941), in which the narrative takes place in Illés’s native Kárpátalja.* He planned a further trilogy about ‘the liberation’* of Hungary, which, like Déry’s Answer, remained incomplete (Conquest, Part 1: ‘Of Arms and the Man I Sing’, 1949; Part 2: The Battle for the Comedy Theatre, 1950). Illés had a reputation for telling blatantly tall tales* and he enjoyed a special place in literary life until his death.
His books were published in editions far beyond the need of the market; critics hailed him as a great socialist-realist author. Of his comrades, Sándor Gergely (1896-1966) also returned from Moscow in 1945. A largely unsuccessful author in Hungary in the 1920s, Gergely too received a prominent place in the new literary hierarchy. He wrote with a strange mixture of rough naturalism and naïvely romantic adulation for the movement, frequently in an expressionistic style. The Moscow years did him little good; living in constant terror during the purges of the 1930s, and in the incessant power struggle within the expartriate community, left deep scars on his personality, as his autobiography, full of self-vindication and personal vengefulness, testifies. His chief work is a trilogy about Dózsa, the leader of the peasants’ war in 1514 (3 vols., Moscow, 1936-45).
A second wave of ‘Muscovites’ returned to Hungary in the late 1950s, including József Lengyel (1896-1975), who was perhaps the only significant author among them. A veteran of the Communist revolution of 1919, Lengyel followed the route of other Communist exiles to Austria, Weimar Germany and then Moscow. In the land of his dreams he was soon arrested, kept in prisons, concentration camps in the Arctic Circle, and after his release under surveillance. When after eighteen long years he was released in 1953 he worked as a night-watchman of a kolkhoz until permitted to return to Hungary two years later. He began to make his mark as a writer only in the 1960s. Not that he started late; like so many writers of leftist tendencies, he had belonged to the fringe of Kassák’s circle during World War I, at which time he wrote harsh expressionistic poems and overintellectual prose.
His first novel, Visegrád Street* (Moscow, 1932), was written in Germany, and in spite of its loose construction and roughly presented material, it revealed that Lengyel knew how to write, and that his writing created a strangely evocative atmosphere. Lengyel consciously set out to write documentary fiction, for at the time he believed in the value of the documentary novel. He had started on Prenn Drifting (1958) just before he was arrested in 1937, taking its subject-matter from the revolutionary events of 1919. The novel was, however, completed only after his return to Hungary. Between his beginning and ending this novel he underwent the outstanding experience of his life: prison, which, thanks to his integrity and courage, helped him to mature as a writer. The hero of Prenn Drifting is .a deserter, who first becomes a spy and, when suspected of defection, is sentenced to death. His subsequent development is decided by the insurgent workers who storm the prison where he is awaiting execution. From a purposeless, drifting young opportunist Prenn now becomes a convinced revolutionary. Lengyel shaped his hero with enough irony to make him neither a complete rascal nor a shining symbol of the sacred revolutionary spirit.
Lengyel’s tone of writing becomes impressively authoritative when he presents the harsh and offending facts of his prison existence, and as he records with discipline the daily routine in the miserable lives of the inmates, he maintains a terse and simple style. Spell (1961) is the story of a political exile, a charcoal-burner in the Siberian forest who wins the affection of a neighbour’s dog. The scenes are built up by the accumulation of visual detail; the tightness of the writing precludes the danger of sentimentality. From Beginning To End (1963), published at the same time as Solzhenitsyn’s Ivan Denisovich, is presented without passion or anger; daily humiliations are related with a detachment which can be achieved only after the total loss of human dignity. Lack of bread, or rather of crumbs of bread, drives men to abandon all moral codes; the naked law of survival of the cleverest is the rule of the prison camp. In saying what he has to say, Lengyel has the assurance of one who knows that he has the right to say it.
Prison camps in Siberia and Auschwitz have the same identity, and when Lengyel’s attention turns to the latter (The Judge’s Chair, 1964) he describes life in a German concentration camp before the arrival of US Army in the same stark, intense, unrhetorical style as he had used when describing suffering he knew from experience. He operates with a few characters who make agonizing decisions to survive. One of the heroes is István Banicza, whose Communist faith in the possibility of changing the future is unshaken, and who eventually returns to Budapest, to bring about the utopia to which he has devoted his life. Banicza is a key figure for Lengyel, witnessing, that his own trials and tribulations were apparently not enough to shake the foundations of his firm belief in the future of socialism.
Yet Banicza is only one of the facets of Lengyel’s personality: the staunch believer who eventually has to face his creator’s doubt, who has sacrificed his entire life to the cause, bringing about very little result for mankind, and a long drawn-out ordeal for himself. The encounter between Banicza and Lengyel’s doubts takes place in Confrontation (1968?*). Banicza is now a First Counsellor of the Hungarian Embassy in Moscow, when his old friend Lassú, with whom he used to work in the movement, appears at the Embassy. Lassú is an outcast released from a Siberian camp; Banicza is an apparatchik who wishes to believe that the monstrosities committed in the name of socialism are incidental to, and not inherent in, the cause. The moral dilemma raised by the novel is this: should one compromise and serve the cause without asking questions, and accept the privileges reserved for the faithful, despite going through a private hell; or should one tell the truth whatever the consequence? Lassú, although still a believer, fears that the cause has fatally degenerated. As a conclusion to the novel, he faces new arrest and perhaps more years in Siberia, and Banicza is promoted to a post in London. Altogether, it is not an uplifting conclusion for young party cadres; Lengyel himself was over seventy when he reached it, and his message was one for which he had paid a heavy price.
|CHAPTER XXV The Post-War Era||CONTENTS||2. Since the Revolution of 1956|