|1. The early years: socialist realism at any cost||CONTENTS||3. Hungarian Literature Abroad|
Although Soviet tanks swept aside Hungary’s revolutionary government in November 1956, the Stalinist era has irrevocably ended, along with most of its side-effects for literature. The new regime at first repressed all signs of opposition, whether it came from the intellectuals or from the general population. Many writers were imprisoned, as if the authorities were belatedly and half-heartedly following Khrushchev’s advice, once given in public, that ‘the trouble in Hungary could have been successfully avoided, if a few dozen writers had been shot in time’. There was, however, an amnesty in 1960 when imprisoned writers, including Déry, Háy, and others, were released. A second, general amnesty in 1964 released all other political prisoners, and declared that no prosecution would take place from now on for ‘counter-revolutionary’ crimes, which proved to be true; there have been no major cases of repression since the mid-1960s.
The suppression of the revolution threw Hungarian literature into partial eclipse; most periodicals ceased publication during the revolution. The Writers’ Union, which was the last stronghold of intellectual opposition, was re-established in 1959. Its new, central organ Contemporary (1957- ) is now the leading belletristic periodical. The successor to New Voice, New Writing (1961- ) is also a leading forum. The weekly Life and Literature (1957- ) was the first to appear after the revolution; it carries many interesting feature articles, besides poetry and fiction. In addition there are several monthlies which are no longer provincial, like their predecessors in the 1950s. This is largely true of both The Tisza Region (Szeged) and The Lowland (Debrecen), both of which survived the revolution. Present Age (Pécs, 1957- ) was notable in the 1960s as a significant outlet for new talents. Our Days (Miskolc, 1962- ) is more traditional, while Our Life (Szombathely, 1963- ) and Source (Kecskemét, 1969- ) have a widening horizon. The latest bimonthly, World in Motion (1975- ), is the forum of the youngest writers who made their debut in the 1970s, and it carries experimental literature. Horizon (1972- ) is an ambitious undertaking: it contains a representative selection from other periodicals. Foreign literature in translation is published in Wide World (1956- ), and there is a monthly devoted entirely to book reviews and criticism (Criticism, 1963- ). The Roman Catholic Vigilia (1935- ) also features both literature and criticism.
The present wide variety of trends in Hungarian literature appeared gradually. After the revolution the essential problem facing the Party was to break the silence of writers and thereby make them implicitly recognize the legitimacy of the regime. This was brought about by no longer enforcing the dogma of socialist realism as the criterion for publication. In practice, prominent authors of the inter-war period, who had been silenced in the first over-zealous years after the Communist takeover, were allowed, indeed encouraged, to publish. Thus many authors of the first and second generation of the Nyugat, and many populist writers, returned to the literary scene. Secondly, highbrow notions of literature were partly given up; consequently thrillers and light entertainment, once frowned upon, were published in large editions. The best example of this trend has been the ‘rediscovery’ of P. Howard and the birth of the ‘socialist-thriller’. András Berkesi (1919-1997) for example, made his name with October Storm (1958), a sensational novel about the revolution, and he has produced many successful undisguised thrillers and other ‘action-packed’ novels which are published in issues of over 100,000 copies, an excessively large number in a country of ten million inhabitants.
In addition, an unprecedented variety of modern foreign fiction has become available. In the 1950s only those Western authors were printed who were either Communists or fellow-travellers (e.g. Howard Fast, Aragon, Nexø or Pablo Neruda); the rest were considered representative of ‘bourgeois decadence’ or, worse, ‘agents of imperialism’. This narrow-minded attitude to literature gradually gave way to a broader view of the term ‘realism’, to include as many authors as possible.* Even ‘controversial’ literary fashions, such as the neo-avant-garde, were eventually accepted, and today no literary trend is considered taboo.
The present tolerant policy governing literature is derived from the political slogan ‘Those who are not against us, are with us’* of first secretary János Kádár, the architect of the post-revolutionary consolidation. Literary life is under the personal supervision of György Aczél, whose appreciation of good literature extends to the limits of ideological acceptability. While his position in the power-structure is similar to Révai’s in the 1950s, he is far less authoritative, and is guided more by pragmatism than doctrine. The present age of Hungarian literature is often dubbed ‘The Age of Three T’s’, the letters standing in Hungarian for Support, Tolerance, and Prohibition.* The number of writers whose activity is supported or tolerated is on the increase, while fewer and fewer writers remain in the last category. As both the writers and the party made concessions, a compromise was eventually reached, and the long and honoured tradition of political dissent as the prime function of literature has become less prominent than in previous ages.
The most convenient term to describe this new, changed relationship between writer and state is perhaps machtgeschützte Innerlichkeit, adapted by the philosopher Lukács from Thomas Mann.* It is used here to convey that tacit agreement between writer and government whereby the writer does not overtly question the ideological bases of the system, (namely, the leading role of the party* and Hungary’s relationship to the Soviet Union), while in exchange he can freely air his personal discontent or troubles. Lukács, of course, used the term when describing the ‘pseudo-Victorian’ society of Hungary at the end of the last century, yet mutatis mutandis it eminently suits the new, cordial relations between writer and state under the watchful eye of the party. It would be wrong to see the writers’ concessions as self-imposed censorship; they are rather a necessity brought about by external unfavourable circumstances, and provide a defence of the writers’ integrity. For even in East European societies there are many excellent writers whose chief message concerns the self, and in consequence of machtgeschützte Innerlichkeit these writers enjoy a freedom approaching that of the writer in a democracy. The arrangement also assures the survival of the continuity of literary traditions until more favourable times.
When examining Hungarian poetry in the last twenty years, it has to be borne in mind that poets have little by little come to prefer the quest for self-expression to the expression of social protest, the latter being the traditional role of the ‘national poet’ as the voice of opposition according to the nineteenth century pattern. While the oldest generation of living poets included Illyés, who was regarded by many as the leading poet and whose pronouncements received wide public attention, the representative poet of the era of consolidation is Sándor Weöres (1913-1989), whose poetry was first officially ignored, and later labelled ‘individualist’ and ‘formalist’. After the publication of Well of Fire (Paris, 1964) in a pirate edition, it was no longer possible to maintain the conspiracy of silence encompassing his poetry, and in the mid-1960s he gained the recognition he had long deserved.
In spite of his belated recognition as a major poet, Weöres was far from being a late developer; by the age of fourteen he knew all the tricks of his trade. Trick is the key-word in describing his craftsmanship, since he often appears to be a magician who performs unrepeatable tricks by means of language. He employs all forms with equal ease, from complex metre and rhyme structures to free verse. He never refers directly to social or political causes, neither is he interested in relating personal experiences or describing nature. Instead, he roams freely in time and space, as a puckish spirit unfettered by earthly concerns. Furthermore, his imagination is a limitless source of poetic invention; he creates imaginary languages with startling sound and visual effects, or private myths, if he finds the wide range of mythological or anthropological references at his disposal inadequate for his poetic aim. Myths, the remnants of mankind’s prehistoric, unwritten heritage, possess a special appeal for him; he has admitted the influence of Chinese, Indian, Assyrian, Sumerian, and other literatures of the ancient Orient, and is fascinated by the primitive cults, rites, and chants of African, Polynesian, or Finno-Ugrian tradition. The primitive and the sophisticated frequently overlap in his poetry, through his bold use of association in imagery; his readers may be at a complete loss to distinguish between what is derived from his sources and what are his own creations. By making, shaping, and altering myths, Weöres is claiming his poetic rights from the common, ancient heritage of mankind.
In his early volumes (It is Cold, Pécs, 1934; Stone and Man, 1935; and In Praise of the Creation, Pécs, 1938) Weöres unwittingly fooled his critics, who took him to be a brilliant but faithful disciple of the Nyugat masters. This was true only of Weöres’s technique, for he had learnt all there was to learn from his predecessors before setting out on his own path. His innovations included the recognition that a poet and a child have much in common,* as they both explore the world with a sensitivity unadultered by the conventions of grown-up society; and that poetry is meant to be recited, and consequently rhythm and sound effects are more essential to a poem than its verbal content. With a bold disregard for rationality he experimented with children’s poems, in which be blended fragments of nursery rhymes with a strangely surrealistic, timeless poetic message; these he bound together with quick-packed rhythm and playful rhymes (e.g. ‘Chant’, 1934). Children’s poems have remained a recurrent feature of his poetry ever since.
The early volumes also showed his almost unlimited capability for empathy-irrespective of the different cultural background or distance in time his subjects might possess (e.g. he laments over old age in the guise of a priest from ancient Egypt). His struggle to find an outlet for the poetic self often led him to put on different masks (‘A long time ago I was a nun’, 1930); occasionally he was puzzled by the ‘plurality’ of his ego (‘Self-Caricature’, 1933), and even when he handled conventional themes (‘Valse Triste’, 1932-4) he seemed to conjure up a world unaffected by natural laws.
In the next phase of his development, Weöres wrote free adaptations of ancient myths-Theomachia (1938), Istar’s Descent to Hell (1939), Gilgamesh (1937) in an attempt to absorb and recreate the least-known stages of human awareness. These poems, together with his imaginary mythological characters (e.g. Kukszu and Szibbabi in ‘The First Couple’, 1941), embody ‘archetypal sources of knowledge’, in the sense Weöres uses the phrase:
The only way to genuine learning is to reactivate the knowledge within ourselves. Archetypal knowledge hidden in the human soul is essentially the same in everybody and its validity is total. This archetypal knowledge is the only appropriate foundation. Whatever is based on it is irrefutable; what is based on notions disintegrates. Archetypal knowledge is infinitely simple; it is so simple that it is impossible to express it with words.*
After the publication of The Colonnade of Teeth (1947), which contained Gilgamesh and a series of surprising ‘one-line poems’, sometimes consisting of a single compound word only, Weöres was no longer allowed to publish his own verse; only translations and children’s poems appeared under his name. Even his children’s poems produced a significant novelty: his experiments with Hungarian prosody yielded new metric variants. The Tower of Silence (1956), sent to the press in the brief interlude of liberalization preceding the revolution,* contain a series of epics. First of all, The Fall of Mahruh (1952) a vision of the destruction of a primordial gigantic cosmos, of which our present universe, including man and earth, are survivors. Other epics include ‘Medea’ (1954), ‘Orpheus’ (1955), and ‘Queen Tatavane’ (1956). The last evokes a strangely isolated primitive world, partly derived from Malay and Polynesian rituals and oral traditions. In addition, the volume contains ‘Le Journal’ (1953), in which Weöres depicts the absurdity of contemporary Hungarian society in surrealistic terms.
After long years of abuse, of accusations of nihilism, pessimism, existentialism. and even obscenity (for the erotic description of love in ‘Fairy Spring’), Weöres was finally accepted by official critics, and as an act of approval, The Well of Fire was also published in Hungary. This volume, together with Saturn Submerging (1968), contains further virtuoso pieces (e.g. ‘Thirty Bagatelles’), and shows his enterprising spirit and poetic creativity to be unimpaired. Perhaps his greatest recent poetic tour de force is the crowning achievement of his talent for empathy; Psyché (1972) is a collection of poems by a fictitious Hungarian poetess who lived at the turn of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, written in the contemporary language and forms, and replete with delightful amorous adventures and gossipy references to actual writers of the age. Weöres seems to have thoroughly enjoyed masquerading as a poetess, and the volume is a masterpiece of poetic invention. His latest work, Three Sparrows With Six Eyes (1977), is an anthology of early Hungarian poetry, originally selected by Weöres for a series in Contemporary. While making the selection Weöres made some startling discoveries, and has successfully removed the dust of centuries from unjustly neglected minor poets. Judging by the popularity of the series, the anthology may produce an impact on literary taste and may change accepted verdicts on early Hungarian poets. Weöres, in spite of his voluminous and varied ouvre, may still produce substantial works. Scholarship, notwithstanding its recent deference to him, has so far produced few studies worthy of his extraordinary poetic world.
Of the younger poets who made their debut after the war in New Moon, János Pilinszky (1921-81) survived the tongue-tied years of Stalinism apparently unscathed. A devout Catholic by upbringing, Pilinszky was called up for military service in 1944, just in time to witness the human inferno with the final collapse of Germany. The sights he saw, and the experiences he met with in and out of prison camps in Germany and Austria triggered off a poetic sensibility which in turn forced him to put these experiences into fierce, unforgettable poems, whose intensity is accentuated by his superhuman effort to break down his own reluctance to describe his visions. The publication of a slim volume, Trapeze and Parallel Bars (1946), containing only nineteen poems, was a literary event, and established him as the most promising young poet of the day. When, after a long silence, his second volume, On the Third Day (1959), containing thirty-odd new poems, appeared, it was acclaimed as a major achievement of a major poet. His forms are traditional; he has nothing of the technical brilliance and virtuosity of Weöres, yet his unerringly balanced choice of words, his poignancy, and his images denuded of all embellishment confront the reader with a peculiar ‘sort of lack of language, a sort of linguistic poverty’ which is redeemed by his art. In Pilinszky’s own words: ‘In art even such a poor language and I must say it with the pride of the poor can be redeemed. In art the deaf can hear, the blind can see, the cripple can walk, each deficiency may become a creative force of high quality.’*
|Where you have fallen, you stay.|
|In the whole universe, this is your place.|
|Just this single spot.|
|But you have made this yours absolutely.*|
He can speak about the biological humiliation of man with excruciating integrity, as when he recalls, for example, an escaped French prisoner who ‘just before dawn, creeping past our quarters’, ‘was gulping raw cattleturnip’:
|Yet he had hardly swallowed one mouthful|
|before it flooded back up.|
|Then the sweet pulp in his mouth mingled|
|with delight and disgust the same|
|as the unhappy and happy come together|
|in their bodies’ voracious ecstasy.*|
In a strange way, despair and ghastliness become a source of strength in Pilinszky’s poetry, no doubt as a consequence of his religious devotion; suffering and redemption are interlinked with the image of crucifixion overhanging. Yet nothing is redeemed in any religious sense, and it would be wrong to call Pilinszky’s poetry religious or mystical he records human suffering in a ‘bleak ecstasy’, bridging the gap between words and the untold. His later volumes include Requiem (1964), Big City Icons (1970), Splinters (1972), Denouement (1974), and Crater (1976). His poetic development reached a new phase in the last two volumes suggesting a wide range of possibilities, of which he could only explore a few before his untimely death.
Another poet who made her debut in New Moon, Ágnes Nemes Nagy (1922-1991), is also noted for her sparse, but exceedingly articulate, poetic pronouncements. Using traditional forms, her poetry is derived from a tension between intellectual inquiry and restrained emotions. She writes nothing directly about personal experiences, although sombre images of World War II, or references to its horrors, the chief inspiration of Pilinszky’s poems, do appear occasionally (e.g. ‘To a Poet’). She is more often concerned with the prime experience of existence, the ultimate reason for objects, colours, or sounds (‘The Sight’). Her unique mythological poem Ekhnaton was inspired by the Sun-hymn of Akhnaton,* in which he had come to view the sun as the visible source of life, creation, growth, and activity. Her first volume was Dual World (1946), followed by Dry Lightning (1957) and The Horses and the Angels (1969).
The next generation of poets infused new blood into Hungarian poetry, mainly through their origin; they came mostly from peasant families. They made their poetic debut in the late 1940s, when all poets who, like Pilinszky and Nemes Nagy, did not write about the present and the rosy future were ousted from literary life. The new poets who emerged, thanks to the egalitarian principles exercised in education by the regime, were first overwhelmed by their luck they could witness the birth of a new society, more just and providing more opportunities for the masses who had lived in squalor. The years of Stalinism, however, paved the way for popular revolt, and proved an anticlimax to the intial optimism.
The best case history can be found in the poetry in Ferenc Juhász (1928- ), who showed genuine enthusiasm for the cause of socialism, naïvely ‘approving’ official policies in verse. By the early 1950s Juhász found that writing eulogies in the prescribed manner was unwarranted, and led to poetic mediocrity. After much soul-searching and feverish experiment, his poetry underwent a gradual change: he abandoned simplicity, and his attempt to become a reincarnation of Petőfi. This gradual change can be traced from the volume Ode to Flight (1953), through The Prodigal Country (1954) and The Power of Flowers (1955) to his first volume of collected poems (The Country of Overgrowth, 1956), in which all the virtues and defects of his poetic renewal were already present; since then his poetry has changed very little.
The main novelty in his poetry is the plethora of strange images, which include prehistoric monsters and proliferating vegetation, and which, as in science fiction, begin to grow suddenly to immense size, covering everything else. Juhász writes about these creatures in bewilderment, yet with unparalleled energy and fertility. The latter is the source of his limitations, a verbosity and an indiscipline which, with the passing of time, have improved very little. Nevertheless, he has created a completely new poetic world in strange, compound words of extraordinary length, adapted from modern biology and related sciences. Additional sources of inspiration in his poetry are the ballads and folklore of Hungary, drawn from Bartók’s and Kodály’s collection.
The finest example of this latter type of poem is ‘The Boy Changed into a Stag Clamours at the Gate of Secrets’ (1955). It is a long allegory* written for two voices: mother and son, calling and answering each other. They are separated; the boy stands ‘on the crest of time’ at the gate of secrets, from which there is no turning back. The poem, hailed by many, including W. H. Auden, as one of the greatest poems written recently, makes accessible the inevitability of human fate. Other memorable poems include ‘Poem for Four Voices, for Wailing and Imploring, Without Curses’, (1956) which is a challenge to the irrationality of death, and ‘Thursday, Day of Superstition’ (1963), the epitaph of post-revolutionary pessimism, marking Juhász’s return to the literary scene after a period of prolonged silence, depression and self-torment. The most recent works of Juhász seem to reveal that his poetic ideas have become diluted; consequently his verse is often over-written or self-repetitive.
Although their poetry is entirely different, the poetic development of László Nagy (1925-78) moved along parallel lines to that of Juhász. As a young peasant lad Nagy wrote poetry about a fairytale world of hazy dreams, and when he was given the chance to receive an education in a People’s College* he became an ardent supporter and propagator of the new social order, writing about class warfare and the ‘Five Year Plan’. Nagy’s romantic communism lasted until his common sense prevailed, when he realized that literary policies which classified love poetry as a suspicious deviation from ideological correctness were not the right guidelines for a poet.
His poetic renewal was heralded by a slim volume, The Bride of the Sun (1954), strictly apolitical and containing some love poems written in the style of virágének, but with brilliant images and sensuous appeal. His next volume, The Pleasure of Sunday (1956), a long, buoyant, yet balanced poem, was devoted to the everyday joys of life, and contrasted curiously with the drab existence of the 1950s. The optimism fuelling his poetry in the period of ‘the thaw’ was shattered by the revolution of 1956: for Nagy’s generation the age of innocence was over; the cause of socialism was stained with blood, and the memory of the awesome annus mirabilis stayed with his poetry for long. The change of his poetic mood was indicated by the title of his next volume, Picnic in Frosty May (1957), and in a new volume published after a long silence, A Hymn for All Seasons (1965), he devoted a whole cycle of poems (Fairy Barking Blood, 1956-65) to his feeling of guilt at having been only a passive onlooker during the uprising (e.g. ‘Squared by Walls’). Significantly, the cycle is headed by a poem (‘Carrying Love’) in which Nagy’s faith in the poet’s task breaks through his self-tormenting despair; his obligation is to salvage love and carry it ‘to the other shore’.
Love has remained a central theme and a source of strength in Nagy’s poetry; it is nearly always a magic means of salvation, or the last refuge in which the poet can make a defiant last stand. In ‘Wedding’ (1964), for example, while retaining the pulsating rhythm of traditional music played at village weddings, and reproducing the whirling, unrestrained dance of the guests, Nagy strips the occasion of any solemnity or joy it might have, and produces a frivolous carnival of the hapless survivors of the turbulent 1950s. At the same time, ‘Wedding’ celebrates the timeless ritual, not related to any particular place, occasioned by man’s eternal desire to mark the cycles of life. An entirely different myth of love is presented in ‘Love of the Scorching Wind’ (1963) which is autobiographical in inspiration, and is dedicated to his wife. Among his other poems, ‘Green Angel’ (1965) is of special interest: it is a fascinating combination of the archaic with the modern, a confrontation between a rural background and an ever-changing modern world. Nagy’s last volume is Exiled into Poems (1973).
His wife, Margit Szécsi (1928-1990), is also a poet. Her love poetry is inspired by the natural bond between man and woman, providing a fortress of security, an ivory tower of retreat. It is conditioned by the disappointments and the sad loss of ideals in the 1950s, when like others of her generation, she was forced to face the disparity between the theory and the practice of socialism. István Kormos (1923-77) was also a talented young peasant poet who came forward as a result of the social revolution following World War II. After a promising first volume (We Are Staggering, 1947), noted for its freshness, Kormos, overcome by a sense of futility, eventually fell silent. His reappearance on the literary scene with Poor Yorick (1971) made a minor stir; although Kormos had written fine children’s verse, his later poetry was an unexpected breakthrough. Imre Csanádi’s (1920-1991) poetry bears the mark of his peasant origins, yet his technique is derived from the Nyugat traditions. His poetic world is rich and varied, he has been writing poetry from a very early age, but his first volume was published only in 1953.
Other poets of peasant stock who deserve a place in a survey of modern literature include Imre Takács (1926- ), András Fodor (1929-1997), and Sándor Csoóri (1930- ). In the 1950s Takács evoked the anger of officialdom by his outspoken criticism of living conditions in the villages (‘Naturalism in the Hajdú* Region’, 1954). His later volumes include Stone Angel (1959) and Dance of a Man (1964). Fodor’s attitude to the world is determined by the shock of the Stalinist era. ‘I was left out of literature overnight,’ he writes in an essay (in The Voice of a Generation, 1973) referring to the publication of his poems in a periodical which was suddenly suppressed in 1949, ‘… and it was deemed unwise even to mention that I had ever appeared in print.’ Fodor is a gentle, withdrawn poet, marked by a lifelong angst and a strong desire to live in a ‘normal’ world. He wrote a poem of haunting beauty about the aftermath of the revolution (‘The Dead and the Living’). His volumes include The Paths of My Face (1967) and Prisoners of Time (1974).
Csoóri made his debut during ‘the thaw’, or rather immediately preceding it. Because of illness he returned to his native village, and what he saw bread shortages, neglect, poverty confused and appalled him. This was not the social justice he and other young poets dreamt of. His poems when published caused excitement, and his brave criticism helped many fellow-poets to declare their loyalty to ‘the people’ rather than to inept party policies. Yet Csoóri remained a socialist poet after the revolution in which the Rákosi regime collapsed. Shocked, and fighting his pessimism, he retained a keen interest in public affairs, guided by pragmatism and common sense. The titles of his recent volumes are symbolic: My Second Birth (1967) and Dialogue in the Dark (1973). Both volumes contain powerful poetry fighting his own doubts. His latest volumes, The Memories of a Visitor (1977) and The Tenth Evening (1980), are different. While his previous volumes witnessed his constant search for poetic renewal, in these new volumes Csoóri is ready to look back on the controversial past and assumes responsibility for social issues of the day.
Poetry has always been the best indicator of political unrest in Hungary. Poets have always been sensitive instruments for measuring the slightest tremor in society. Surveying poetry in the late 1960s and early 1970s with these axioms in mind, its most recent development appears even and undisturbed. The presence of enterprising spirit and willingness to experiment are hardly lacking; the variety of new poetic attitudes and forms are bewildering. Although the early 1960s saw no exciting new departures, new poetry has surged forward in the past ten years, with the lifting of various social and political barriers. Of these new poets, Dezső Tandori (1938- ) and László Marsall (1933- ) have already established their reputation. Tandori’s intellectual and experimental poetry is full of unanswered questions; his first volume (Fragment to Hamlet, 1968) contains his poetic explorations over ten years. His next volume (Cleaning an Object Found, 1973) attempts to break down the last frontiers between prose and verse, and his scepticism turns against poetry, grammar, and language itself. His latest volumes include The Ceiling and the Floor (1976) and ‘Koalas Cross Here at Night’ (1977). Marsall is a late-comer. His first volume appeared in 1970 (Water-Marks), followed by a slim collection in 1977 (Love, Alpha Point). Other new poets whose experiments left behind the traditional avenues of Hungarian poetry include: János Parancs (1936-1999), Ottó Orbán (1936-2002), Miklós Veress (1942- ), Imre Oravecz (1943-), György Petri (1943-2000) and János Oláh (1942- ); their critical appreciation, however, will form a future chapter in the history of Hungarian literature.
The natural growth of fiction, like that of poetry, was severely curtailed by political conditions when socialist realism was imposed on literary life. Not only were numerous established literary careers temporarily halted or permanently broken, but budding young authors, in need of support and healthy criticism, were given the choice of either subscribing to the literary dogmas of the day or else being expelled from literary life. Consequently, those young writers who had made their debut in the late 1940s, but were unable to come to terms with the rigid rules of socialist realism, came forward in the liberal 1960s as ‘new faces’ on the literary scene.
Although the liberalization of literary life was a gradual and painful process, its beginning can be dated from the official approval of the publication of novels such as Ottlik’s School at the Frontier (1959), the first significant novel to appear after the revolution. While Ottlik was known to a small section of the reading public as a former Nyugat author, the other novelist who made a name for herself in the post-revolutionary era, Magda Szabó (1917- ), was completely unknown, although she had published poetry in the late 1940s. Magda Szabó’s early novels of manners were published in quick succession: Fresco (1958), The Fawn (1959), and Night of the Pig-Killing (1960). In Fresco she describes a family reunion occasioned by a funeral. The main virtue of the novel is its compactness the action takes place between morning and evening, and by using monologue intérieur she is able to present well-delineated characters whose conflicting interests come through in the denouement with dramatic intensity. Critics immediately compared Magda Szabó’s creative powers to Margit Kaffka’s, and this was not an entirely unfounded claim, since Hungarian novels, with the exception of Kaffka’s and László Németh’s, have always lacked outstanding studies of the female character. Her next novel, The Fawn, amply proved her power to create memorable heroines. The story is told by Esther, a leading actress, who addresses her dead lover, buried the day before; her life unfolds in a series of internal monologues triggered off by free associations as her eyes wander round the new grave in the cemetery. The self-denuding sincerity of the heroine, whose acting, on and off stage, had until then completely dominated her life through an elaborate system of lies, is effectively drawn, and the thoroughly unlikeable character of Esther is one of the most remarkable heroines in modern Hungarian fiction.
The gradual corrosion of entangled family relationships is the theme of the Night of the Pig-killing, in which the action is again compressed, this time into one and a half days. Two families are to be brought together by the traditional feast* which follows a pig-killing in rural Hungary. The wife’s family are déclassé gentry, the husband’s people are well-to-do artisans. The family feud has been smouldering for a generation on account of class hatred, religion, and wealth, and it explodes in tragedy on the night of the event referred to in the title. There is a host of characters aunts, mothers, children, various in-laws; each chapter introduces a new character and his or her view of the conflict. Magda Szabó seems to overreach herself; not only is the structure of this novel similar to that of Fresco, but she overmanipulates her characters, who are paler than those in Fresco. The novel is brought to its conclusion with skill, and all the loose ends are woven in, but it lacks the penetration and force of her previous novel. Magda Szabó writes with ease; her works are popular in translation too. Her later works seem to suggest that while her output has hardly declined, a desire to please has become her first priority. Critics, however, have praised her latest novel (Old Fashioned Story, 1977).
Magda Szabó’s second start was a consequence of a biographical detail when the personnel officer in the Ministry where she worked discovered in 1950 that she came from the wrong family background* she was summarily dismissed, and spent years in obscurity. Iván Mándy (1918-1995), on the other hand, survived the early 1950s on the fringes of literary life as an occasional lecturer, ghost-writer, adapter, and translator. He had already published fiction which had been noticed by the critics, but his originality was fully discovered only after his second start in the post-revolutionary era. His stories, written in a somewhat surrealistic and fragmentary manner, take their subject-matter usually from the lives of the poorer classes in the outer Józsefváros.* Mándy’s heroes, however, are not depicted with the heavy-handed naturalism occasionally conspicuous in modern Hungarian fiction aimed at social improvements; he is interested rather in their daydreaming. This provides him with two special themes: cinema and football. His figures are spellbound by the world of the silent movies and of the football pitch, which represent escape and excitement in their uninteresting tread-mill existence. Stories have been circulating in the district about film-stars and famous footballers who were born there and rose to stardom in Hollywood or in international football, and Mándy’s heroes subsist on fragments of old stories told by part-time usherettes or retired football coaches who used to know this or that celebrity (e.g. The Cinema of Bygone Days, 1967).
Yet they are not defeated people; they have a purpose and fight on, like the coach in By the Pitch (1963), perhaps Mándy’s best novel, who, after a disastrous setback in his effort to produce a fourth division team, instead of losing his spirit is already eying the street-urchins playing on an empty lot, and when he spots a potential talent immediately calls out to him: ‘Come to the Titania ground on Friday, at half-past two … when the junior team practises.’ His other figures include writers who contemplate with black humour the discrimination of which they have been the victims in the 1950s while eking out their livelihood by hack-work. Mándy described his alter egos first in oblique terms (The Wives of Fabulya, 1959); later, as conditions improved, he spoke more openly, and with disdainful irony (Occasional Lecturers, Co-authors, 1970). When Mándy made his come-back in the mid-1960s, critics at first accused him of presenting a world which was too limited in its appeal; they claimed that his figures were of only marginal importance. Today no critic would deny that Mándy is one of the major living writers, whose peculiar and enigmatic figures are the main feature of his original contribution to literature.
István Örkény (1912-79) made his debut during the war with short stories which often had a bizarre or grotesque element. He was called up and sent to the Russian front, returning to Hungary only in 1947, after having spent years in Russia as a prisoner of war. One of the main sources of Örkény’s stories is the dehumanized world he saw during those years. At first he wrote about his experiences with a straightforward naturalism (e.g. People of the Camps, 1947); he then made an unsuccessful effort to comply with the tenets of socialist realism. Örkény came into his own in the mid-1960s and became a master of the very brief short story which he called ‘one-minute stories’, usually developed from a surrealistic idea and narrated in dialogue. Many of these snapshots relate tragic incidents of the war in an unadorned style (e.g. ‘Snowy Landscape with Two Onion Domes’). His longer stories, some of which are not only documents of the age, but masterpieces in their own right (e.g. ‘The Last Train’, ‘A Grey Woman’, ‘Psalm 137’, or ‘Prayer’, which tells of the agony of an unidentified couple whose son was killed during the 1956 uprising), also describe tragic events, usually death, because death seems to be an obsession with Örkény; he treats it in every conceivable manner, from black humour to profundity. Of his novels, The Tóth Family (1967) and Catsplay (1966) have been dramatized and performed with great success. His last work (An Exhibition of Roses, 1977) shows again his morbid concern with the last grand scene of human life: a TV director, assisted by volunteers with terminal diseases, makes a documentary about the process of dying. In this short novel Örkény is able to penetrate into deeper layers of human motives, instead of simply showing the dehumanizing effect of the mass media in an affluent age.
While Örkény often employed grotesque elements in describing the ghastliness of the mid-century, this apparently being the only way he felt able to convey the meaningless suffering of ordinary people, Tibor Cseres (1915-1993) raises the issue of moral responsibility. Both collective and individual responsibility are treated in his Cold Days (1964), which recounts an incident in World War II, the Újvidék massacre.* This powerful novel examines the responsibility of those who carried out orders only. To make his point Cseres used the fragmentary recollections of four soldiers in prison in 1946 awaiting trial for their part in the massacre. The novel is both a meditation on the nature of violence and a striking demonstration of how ordinary men ‘trying to do their best’ become collective accomplices in horrors which none of them would be willing to commit as individuals.
The leading author of modern Hungarian fiction is undoubtedly Miklós Mészöly (1921-2001). He had to fight hard to rise from obscurity. Although he made his start during the war, and in 1947 published a slim volume of stories, he spent the years preceding the revolution far away from literary life, writing, or rather adapting, children’s stories and scripts for puppet-shows. He received no encouragement during the 1950s, like other young writers absorbed in self-analysis or interested in self-expression, and his second collection of short stories (Dark Signs, 1957) introduced a completely unknown writer to the public. The critics, however, ignored him and it was not until The Death of an Athlete (1966) had been published in French translation that Mészöly was noticed. Now he was able to open the drawer of his desk, and his manuscripts were published in quick succession: A Report Concerning Five Mice (1967), Saulus (1968), and Accurate Stories, Written on the Way (1970).
The initial reluctance of the critics to appreciate Mészöly’s works did not derive exclusively from the policies governing literary life, for Mészöly is an exceedingly difficult writer who makes his readers work hard to comprehend his inner world. His technique is often complex; instead of traditional plot, characterization, and description he provides only circumstantial evidence, describes states of minds in crisp sentences laden with abstractions arrived at after analyses from different viewpoints. His figures are nearly always symbolic, lonely individuals, tortured by the burden of existence. In The Death of an Athlete, for example, the wife of the athlete, who has died by overstraining himself while training, is asked to write a biography of her famous husband; she explores his life by listening to people who knew him, investigates his childhood, and stumbles across unexpected facts. Her investigations are presented without any apparent order, and interspersed with her thoughts as she attempts to follow a thread or loses her way in the maze of unrelated facts. The novel is open-ended; readers may form contradictory conclusions as to the character and motivation of the athlete.
Mészöly provides explanations neither in his short stories nor in his novels; in many of them there is a vague sensation of growing uneasiness, or an oppressive atmosphere which is unrelieved by the conclusion and contrasts curiously with the meticulously observed and impersonally presented objects. (‘The most a writer can do is to present obscurity in a clear manner’, Mészöly noted in a diary entry.) His later critics have often jumped to the conclusion that his irrational world is a reflection on the senseless restrictions and inhumanity of the 1950s. Others have compared his technique to the cinéma direct or to the roman nouveau. Each of these comparisons has more than a grain of truth in it, yet his attempts at objectivity and non-involvement may ultimately disguise a moral sensitivity which compels him to discard the traditional terminology and description which have been soiled by those who are too ready to pronounce judgement in the name of ill-founded ideals or abused principles. His latest novel, Film (1976), concerning an old couple, is perhaps the most significant piece of fiction written in the 1970s, and shows him at his best. His essays, diary-entries, and short discourses in School for Unrestrictedness (1977) are intellectually stimulating, and reveal his constant search for truth, substance, and precise definitions.
Another author who has been experimenting with new techniques of fiction, Gyula Hernádi (1926- ), is known above all as the scriptwriter of Jancsó’s internationally acclaimed films. Before starting his close collaboration with Jancsó, Hernádi attracted attention with a short novel, On the Steps of Friday (1959), which reflected both the existentialism of Camus and the apathy of the early years of the post-revolutionary era. Hernádi’s message that moral convictions are really only conventions, that the conformity of cowards sets the pattern of social behaviour incurred the resentment of critics who upheld the Victorian morality of socialist realism. His next novel, (Corridors, 1966) published after a semi-enforced silence, was conceived with Sisyphus the timeless symbol of futile struggle in mind; nevertheless, his pessimism seemed to subside. A breakthrough came with the short stories in Dry Baroque (1967), in which Hernádi discarded traditional narrative for basic situations, concisely described, and resembling variations on geometrical pattens, or esoteric abstractions. His experimental novels Sirocco (1969) and The Fortress (1971) contain many innovations: for example, the incorporation of scientific terms into metaphors. His constant interest in politico-ethical issues found its best outlet in his scripts for Jancsó’s films. Hernádi himself possesses a sensitivity for dramatic situations, and lately he has been interested in writing for the stage (e.g. Red Psalm, 1975, Royal Hunt, 1976). Together with Mészöly, he profited a great deal from adapting the technique of films to fiction.
Ferenc Karinthy (1921 1992), son of Frigyes Karinthy, the outstanding Nyugat author, has tried his hand at writing in various styles and genres. It is, however, the anecdote which best fits his talent he writes straightforward narratives, occassionally choosing topical issues which are likely to cause mild consternation. His first major novel, Spring Comes to Budapest (1953), was somewhat infected with schematism. His vividly told short stories of the early 1960s (A Fan of Ferencváros,* 1959; Blue-Green Florida,1962; Hinterland, 1965) range in tone and subject from the light-heartedly satirical, with touches of absurdity, to the serious. As a stage author Karinthy is witty and writes excellent, sparkling dialogue (e.g. Steinway Grand, 1967). His novel Epepe (1970) is set in an unknown city in which a linguist has landed in a misdirected aircraft and is unable to make out the language spoken there his communication is restricted to signs and gestures. This adventure in semiotics has many possibilities, which he explores skilfully. In his latest short stories, Karinthy is often sharply critical of the ‘neo-gentry’ attitudes of the new ruling class, which, at the same time, is very proud of its ‘proletarian origins’.
While Karinthy, by means of a half-hearted conformity, survived the age of socialist realism until more favourable circumstances permitted him to develop more or less free from external pressures, or while other authors, like Mándy or Mészöly, managed to survive the bleakest years in hibernation, there were not a few among their contemporaries who owed their opportunities to the early egalitarian principles of the post-war regime young, talented peasant poets and writers who espoused the cause of socialism with genuine enthusiasm, only to be bitterly disappointed during the 1950s. As conditions worsened they could not endure their sense of being duped; in order to recover from their shock they had to fall silent, either permanently or for a long time, each having to fight his own feeling of embarrassment, shame, and guilt. A case history of those who could not cope is provided by Imre Sarkadi (1921-61), a gifted writer and playwright, who committed suicide not long before conditions began to improve. His last novel, The Coward (1961), is symptomatic of the choice confronting his generation. Sarkadi’s mouthpiece is a woman, the unhappy wife of a successful artist who realizes the meaninglessness of her marriage and way of life. When she finds true love, and is unable to break away from her environment, she admits her cowardly inability to give up the minor pleasures of life provided by her position even at the price of losing her true love.
The Coward by Sarkadi is perhaps the first significant novel describing the moral dilemma facing the new intelligentsia in the post-revolutionary era as members or supporters of the ruling class. Nostalgia for the honestly-held ideals and the enthusiasm of the late 1940s has been a general sentiment in the generation who had been proved wrong by the revolution, and whose faith had consequently been replaced by an attitude of self-vindicating cynicism. The public exorciser who, in the name of the ‘new morality’, exposed the sham prophets who preached water and drank wine, has been Sándor Somogyi Tóth (1923-2000), himself a former alumnus of a People’s College. His best known novel, You Were a Prophet, My Darling! (1965), is both satirical and self-tormenting, he is accusing and confessing at the same time. Written in feverish internal monologues, cut by dramatic montages, it is at once the story of the breakdown of its hero, confined now to a mental home, and a document of a generation.
The career of Ferenc Sánta (1927- ) has been permeated by this new morality which, within its possibilities, explores the recent past. His main concern is the peasantry, who were first given land when the large estates were distributed in 1945, and were then forced into collective farms by the Rákosi regime. In Twenty Hours (1964), by using fictitious interviews in connection with a political killing during the Revolution of 1956, Sánta is able to present many controversial issues that have faced the peasantry. He cannot, however, provide a solution not only because his main interest prompts him to establish who or what is morally wrong or right, but because his philosophy of history is essentially pessimistic: ‘What’s going to happen now is called in human terms history’, remarks the former landlord of the village, who is now retired and has been experimenting with ants, when he successfully arranges a war between two groups of ants. Sánta’s other novels, The Fifth Seal (1963) and The Traitor (1966), are also inspired by examinations of issues involving moral responsibility.
The 1960s, in any case, were the age of asking awkward questions in Hungarian fiction, questions to which the wrong answers had been given in the 1950s. Not only was the moral responsibility for the recent past raised, but also more direct questions concerning the gap, still unbridged, between socialist ideals and practice. When writers realized that problems previously classified as taboo could be brought up with tact and moderation, high quality fiction, non-existent in the previous decade, was the result. One of the most interesting novels of the 1960s, A Generation of Rust (1962), written by an author of inpeccable working-class background, Endre Fejes (1923- ), raised an uncomfortable question, namely: after years of socialist propaganda, what was the condition, both social and cultural, of the working class? To illustrate his answer Fejes chose the same Budapest district, Józsefváros, which figures prominently in Mándy’s world. But while Mándy created nostalgic and highly evocative prose out of the slums, Fejes, who was not an outsider, provided the naturalistic truth about the workers’ interest in political affairs, and about their cultural aspirations. A Generation of Rust is the family chronicle of the Habetlers, in which Fejes sets out to prove that there is a layer in the lower depth of society which endures historic upheavals by means of beer-drinking, Sunday soccer, and family quarrels, and that the efforts of the party to raise the cultural standards of this layer (the local party secretary in the novel is a man of inarticulate inefficiency) are doomed to failure. The novel, written in unadorned factual language, faithfully reproduced the working-class slang and mentality, and is devoid of description. Its treatment of controversial issues produced the powerful impact of blunt truths boldly stated, and was both politically shocking and artistically relevant to the development of the post-revolutionary novel. Fejes could never wholly reproduce its power and thrust in his numerous later works.
Another controversial issue of the recent past is the ‘Jewish question’, the shameful memory of the deportations during the war, about which, like the annihilation of the Hungarian Second Army in Russia, or the Újvidék massacre, official silence has been kept for a long time. It was Gyula Fekete (1922- ) who first raised the issue in Death of a Doctor (1963), a novel abut a village doctor who has led an uneventfully dutiful life. The only incident in his life was his deportation, after which he returned to the same village where he had previously held his practice. The last days of the dying doctor, when memories of the holocaust mingle in his mind with petty official duties and question about the meaning of his own life, are beautifully described in the short novel. After Fekete’s modest start, the theme has often been treated, particularly by the youngest generation, which experienced the horrors in its tenderest age, and produced a number of perceptive first novels in the 1970s (e.g. Imre Kertész: Without Destiny, 1975).
The survivors, however, did not all return to Hungary after the war; many were unable to face the place and the people who reminded them of their suffering and humiliation, and stayed in Western Europe or emigrated overseas. Some decided to make the newly-born Jewish state, Israel, their home, yet a few of these found that their irrational ties with Hungary proved stronger than the bonds of their chosen country, and returned. Of these there is at least one writer, G. G. Kardos (1925-1997), who made Hungarian literature richer by his experience of Israel. His first novel, Seven Days in the Life of Avraham Bogatir (1968), tells of an episode in the summer of 1947, not long before the birth of the Israeli state and the first Arab-Israeli war. Based on personal observations, the novel contains many fine character sketches. Prompted by its popularity, Kardos followed up its success with other novels about Israel: Whatever Happened to the Soldiers? (1971), Eagles in the Dust (1975), and The End of the Story (1977).
Writers who were teenagers or younger during the war made their voice heard mostly after the revolution. Many of them are of peasant origin, and their interests and subject-matter derive from their class-loyalties. They usually describe the difficult transitional period of the peasantry from forced collectivization to its present more affluent state. Authors who made their name as watchdogs of the peasantry include Lajos Galambos (1929-1986), Erzsébet Galgóczi (1930-1989), and Gyula Csák (1930- ), and their works describe contemporary problems of village life with sociological inspiration and naturalism.
The need for the sociological description of society has been strongly felt since the mid-1960s. Many writers have excelled in this genre, which mixes reportage, precise description, and high literary standards with a nostalgia for the heroic age of sociological reportage in the 1930s, when the népi writers set out to discover the condition of the peasantry. Truth and fact are magic key-words, particularly to the generation which grew up amid the blatant lies of the Rákosi era. Of these writers György Moldova (1934- ) is the most popular. He first attracted attention with the strange characters of his short stories (The Alien Champion, 1963), called vagánys glorified types of hooligans and remote relatives of the heroes of Westerns. It was also this romantic approach that marred the effectiveness of his first novel, about a sixteen-year-old boy who took part in the revolution of 1956 (The Dark Angel, 1964). He has become a prolific novelist, and also writes social satire. Yet his best works are undoubtedly his sociological reportages (e.g. Hommage á Komló,* 1971; The Lament of Őrség,* 1974). His latest works are also social reportages, this time about the Hungarian State Railways (Hit by the Smoke of the Locomotive, 1977) and the textile industry (Holy Cow, 1980).
Other writers of the same generation include Károly Szakonyi (1931- ), whose original short stories (e.g. Beyond the City, 1964) and plays, of which A Fault in Transmission (1970) and A Wig from Hong Kong (1973) are the best known, have been noticed by the critics. István Csurka (1934- ) writes satiric stories and witty novels, in which he often recalls the traumatic experiences of the 1950s (e.g. Moór and Paál, 1965). He is also a playwright. István Gáll (1931-82) is noted for this enterprising spirit in producing novels with social relevance (e.g. The Sun-Worshipper, 1970; The Old One, 1975; and The Manager of the Stud Farm, 1976), using experimental techniques. Ákos Kertész (1932- ) owes his reputation to a single novel, Makra (1971).
Of working-class background and a late starter, Kertész writes with authenticity about his hero, Ferenc Makra, who is a misfit among his fellow workers, and whose efforts to rise above routine life end in inevitable tragedy. Bulcsu Bertha (1935-1997) is a spokesman for the generation which was too young to tarnish its reputation in the Rákosi era. Its elders were then able to atone with spectacular gestures, or to participate in the intellectual ferment preceding the revolution, but this younger generation feels left out, alienated, and insignificant. They view everything with lethargy, they become soulless consumers, or take up a hobby. Bertha’s novels include Dogs of Smoke (1965), The Life of a Champion (1969), Fireballs (1970), and The Kangaroo, (1976).
György Konrád (1933- ) occupies a special place among his contemporaries. Originally a sociologist who later turned novelist, Konrád’s first novel The Case Worker (1969) was an instant success in most major languages. Based on his personal experiences, the narrative is told by a middle-aged bureaucrat in a Budapest child-welfare organization, who, having listened to his clients’ woes, toys with the idea of leaving his former life and career to devote himself to the care of a five-year-old mentally handicapped boy whose parents have recently poisoned themselves. Virtually plotless, the powerful narrative is related in the course of a single day, in long passages of poetic beauty, with compassion expressed in restrained language. Konrád’s original rhetoric, his dazzling metaphors, and elegant adjectives make his writing altogether remarkable. His next novel, The City Builder (1977), deals with a civil servant, an unnamed town-planner in an unspecified East European city. The narrative contains his meditations, written in a technique similar to The Case Worker. The rambling monologues, however, have less urgency and passion, but there is a constant awareness of social forces, as well as frequent aphoristic thoughts on reconciling the early socialist ideals of the city builder with the mediocrity of present conditions engineered by fellow bureaucrats.
Another noteworthy recent development in Hungarian literature which is partly a result of sociological interest is the appearance of gipsy writers. In the early 1970s public opinion was focused on the high birth rate of the gipsies; they are now estimated to number about 300,000. On account of their traditionally nomadic way of life there is little chance of integrating them. This caused public concern, the various aspects of which include growing intolerance, but also the increasing efforts on the part of sociologists to describe their condition; it has also led to the emergence of a few talented writers of gipsy origin. A powerful autobiograhical novel (Smoky Faces, 1975) by Menyhért Lakatos (1926- ) opens up a hitherto unknown world, described in a strangely evocative language. The young poet Károly Bari (1952- ) caused a literary sensation with his shamanistic songs (Over the Face of the Dead, 1970 and Forgotten Fires, 1973). In addition, the gipsies’ plight and ill-defined place in society have been treated sympathetically by the novelist Zsolt Csalog (1935-1997) in Nine Gipsies (1976). There is now a distinct possibility of the emergence of a gipsy literature in Hungarian.
Finally, many authors of present-day fiction who started their careers in the past few years have left the beaten track in favour of writing ‘texts’ which defy the traditional categories of novel, short story, or any other genre. Bearing this in mind, the names which are most easily recalled include first of all Péter Hajnóczy (1942-81), whose short ‘novels’ (Death Rode out of Persia, 1979 and The Bride of Jesus, 1981) show powerful immediacy, Gyula Kurucz (1944- ), Vilmos Csaplár (1947- ) Géza Bereményi (1947- ), and Péter Esterházy (1950- ). They all have approaches to literature which are different from those of their predecessors in one way or another, but it is too soon to say whether they will win a permanent place in Hungarian literature.
Contemporary drama is far less rich or varied than prose and poetry; a playwright par excellence seems to be a rara avis in contemporary letters, or indeed ever since the golden age of the export drama. Nevertheless, there is a steady production of plays written mainly by prose-writers, though most of these plays are adapted from their short stories or novels (e.g. by Örkény, Sarkadi, Fejes, and Csurka). Still other writers produce historical dramas of lofty ideas and mediocre stagecraft, but Hungarian theatregoers are reluctant to appreciate these efforts. Apart from Háy, there is at least one playwright proper, Miklós Hubay (1918- ), who deserves special attention. His early plays (e.g. Without Heroes, 1942) followed the traditions of contemporary French theatre, but since the 1960s he has often ventured off the beaten track of theatrical realism. Hubay’s world is pessimistic, he is obsessed with man being destroyed by impersonal forces but he likes to transform the doom of his characters into parody with a strangely disquieting and cruel humour, often verging on the ludicruous. In some of his plays (Silence Behind the Door, 1963; School for Geniuses, 1966; or Nero Enjoys Himself, 1967) there is a faint hope of redemption which turns out to be a mere illusion, for most of his characters seem to know in advance that the game is lost. In other plays there is a blank nihilism, derived from the hopeless predicament of his characters which they cannot change. Hubay’s theatre reflects the bleakest aspects of East European life.
|1. The early years: socialist realism at any cost||CONTENTS||3. Hungarian Literature Abroad|