Zsigmond Kemény

The third, and oldest, leading figure of the ‘Literary Deák Party’ was a Transylvanian baron, Zsigmond Kemény, who came from a distinguished family, yet was left with little personal wealth, as a result of family feuds. Born on 12 June 1814 at Alvinc in Transylvania, Kemény, a precocious child with an unhappy family background, was educated in the College of Nagyenyed where he received a thorough grounding in French, German, and English political ideas and cultural traditions. His interest in politics soon attracted him to public life, and he became an outstanding spokesman of the liberal opposition in Transylvania. Yet he could not achieve success in public life, for his personality, full of childhood traumas, lacked those traits which make a successful statesman. His political writings, however, revealed him to be an accomplished writer whose flair for grasping the essence of human relations and political structures was remarkable. He had an innate tendency to read tragedy into men’s lives and historical events. In Kemény’s view, individuals and nations are at the mercy of dark forces governing history. Man is unable to comprehend fully or to limit those irrational forces, and since Kemény saw this as true of nations too, the duty of man, assisted by self-knowledge and self-control, is to comply with the irrationality of history. Based on the above premises, Kemény prescribed self – examination and self – discipline as the chief virtues for politicians. His ideas reveal the influence of the irrationalism prevalent in the German Romantics. His pessimistic view of the world was further aggravated by his medical studies in Vienna; the biological determinism then fashionable also made an impact on him. Before the Revolution he lived in Pest and supported the Centralists, later he become a member of the revolutionary parliament. Kemény’s enthusiasm for the cause, however, soon declined, he came to the conclusion that the European balance of power was not in favour of Hungarian independence, even in the unlikely event of Hungary’s securing independence by force of arms. For this reason, he advocated a policy of reconciliation towards Austria, yet he remained loyal to Kossuth’s government to the end. After the failure of the national cause Kemény took issue with Kossuth’s radical policies and argued that the national interest was best served by appeasement of the Austrians; the idea of full national independence should be sincerely abandoned. He also tried to convince the Austrians that radicalism and a revolutionary spirit were alien to the Hungarian people. He gained only unpopularity by the pamphlets in which he put forward these ideas (After Revolution, 1850; Another Word After Revolution, 1851).

During the reign of terror, Kemény and Deák propagated a policy of passive resistance, and together they reorganized intellectual life. Kemény’s newspaper, Pest Diary, was the first to formulate a moderate standpoint as early as 1859, when Austrian power in Europe was considerably weakened, – a policy which would eventually lead to the successful Settlement. After 1867 the increasing gravity of Kemény’s mental condition made him retire into himself; he gradually lost his reason and died on 22 December 1875 at Pusztakamarás in Transylvania.

Kemény made his début as a novelist about the same time as his contemporaries: Baron Jósika, the successful author of historical novels, and Baron Eötvös, who also played a prominent part in politics besides being a novelist. While most of Kemény’s novels draw their subject-matter from Hungarian, and particularly from Transylvanian, history, he is usually considered the foremost author of psychological novels to emerge in Hungary. He never achieved popularity, mainly because of his morbid views and his inability to create lively, life-like dialogue. All his virtues and faults are already present in Pál Gyulai (1847), a historical novel set in the reign of Zsigmond Báthori, Prince of Transylvania. In spite of its sixteenth-century background, the novel is more an illustration of the author’s views than a historical account of men and events. Gyulai is a tragic figure whose tragedy represents its author’s own conviction that men have little power over events, and that the individual is likely to suffer from encounters with history. Kemény takes a morbid pleasure in describing the experience of being at the mercy of events. He often excels in depicting helplessness as reflected in the minds of his characters with much detail of their self-torture. By employing soliloquy he is able to reveal the torments of his characters with a passion and a lyricism which create tension, for Kemény’s characters are not weaklings; they are only born losers against the dark forces of history. Kemény had learnt his lesson from the vicissitudes of his native country, and had very few illusions left. Although he possessed a profound moral sense, the fate of his characters does not accord with their moral stature; it is not their crimes alone which hurl men into disaster, but often their virtues also cause their downfall. In this sense, Kemény is a modern writer because he knows what so many nineteenth-century novelists seemed to forget: virtue is not always rewarded, no matter how gratifying it would be for the reader.

Of his novels, A Widow and her Daughter (1855-7), The Fanatics (1858), and Stormy Times (1862) are considered the best. In a sense, all these works are historical novels, for Kemény felt at home in the history of his native Transylvania, the sources of which he studied intensively; depicting Transylvanian scenery came naturally to him, for he was more familiar with it than with that of Hungary proper. A Widow and her Daughter is set in seventeenth-century Transylvania and revolves around the abduction of Sára, the daughter of the widowed Mrs Tarnóczy. The Mikes boys are the culprits; one of them is in love with shy young Sára, but she loves the other, a fact which inevitably leads to complications. Mrs Tarnóczy, whose sexual repression is projected into religious fanaticism, and who finds her lofty principles compatible with a very human greed, covets the Mikes family’s estates, and to this end is willing to sacrifice even her daughter’s happiness, which is a source of catastrophe for all concerned. Of the characters she is undoubtedly the best: in her personality bigotry, indulgence, a natural common sense, a clever utilization of learning (she finds in the Bible or in the law the necessary justification for all her actions), and a skill for manipulating people in her favour are all shown in turn. Finally, when her schemes come to an unforeseen end, the description of her final anguish leading to her death is drawn with psychological insight and analytical skill. Although Kemény, not unlike Jósika, learned from Sir Walter Scott, his main concern was human motivation, not shining medieval armour, and consequently he penetrated deeper into the pathological mainsprings of human character. Kemény’s preoccupation with human abnormalities left its imprint on the atmosphere of his novels, which is seldom relieved by humour or light entertainment; instead the reader feels all the time the heavy, oppressive air of an approaching thunderstorm.

The theme of religious fanaticism was further developed in his Fanatics, a study of the causes and effects of both unreserved devotion and intolerance, and of mob-psychology. The fanatics were the Sabbatarians, a sect originating in Transylvania, who attempted to reconcile the teachings of the Reformed Church with orthodox Judaism. The plot, perhaps the best Kemény ever constructed, although based on a historical incident, is entirely fictitious. The mighty chancellor of Transylvania, István Kassai, is fighting against the chief spokesman of the sect, Simon Pécsi, whose daughter is loved by Kassai’s nephew. Kassai is jealous of the respect and wealth attained by Pécsi, and his hatred is increased by Pécsi’s rejection of his nephew. By his Machiavellian schemes Kassai secures the Prince of Transylvania’s support for the merciless persecution of the Sabbatarians (the family feud had been a very popular device ever since the Romantics rediscovered the tragic appeal of the Romeo and Juliet theme). Kassai’s nephew, because of his love for Deborah, tries to warn the Sabbatarians of his uncle’s design, but the angry mob, not knowing his intention, kills him. The conclusion of the novel is morbid; there is no place for mercy in Kemény’s world. Although the Prince eventually pardons Pécsi, his estates are confiscated. Neither do Kassai’s schemes produce the desired effect: he falls into disfavour with the Prince. Concurrently with the main plot, there is a subplot: the story of a Sabbatarian minister who lives happily in pious devotion, until Kassai finds out that the minister has been one of his serfs and forces him to spy on his fellowSabbatarians. The burden on his conscience proves too heavy, and destroys both his personality and his peaceful life. The closed world of the novel is so pregnant with gloom and tragedy that it is bearable only for the stoic.

His last novel, Stormy Times, is remarkable for its panoramic historical background. It is set at the time following the disastrous battle of Mohács, when independent statehood was lost. Critics have often found in the subject-matter of the novel a parallel with Kemény’s own age, the Turkish occupation standing for the Austrian rule of terror after the War of Independence. This may be true, but Kemény’s novel is also a story of human passion caught up in the upheaval of ‘stormy times’. Set partly in Transylvania, it is a love-story about Elemér, a wandering songster, and Dóra, the daughter of the house where the orphan Elemér has been brought up. To attain social respectability Elemér goes off to fight the Turks, who are about to take the capital, Buda, only to meet his death at the hands of the sinister Barnabás, who is also in love with Dóra. The other main line of the story is set in the Royal Court of Isabella, peopled mostly by historical figures, the nádor Werbőczi, George Martinuzzi, a diplomat of exceptional ability, and great lords, including Orbán Frangepán, whose love for the Queen brings him only self-imposed exile. Their efforts to save the country are ineffective: they do not recognize the forces operating in history – the situation is assessed correctly only by Frangepán who is probably a mouthpiece for the author himself. Turgovics, the magistrate of Buda, makes efforts to negotiate with the Turks, but in spite of his good intentions, fate allots him a sorry role: by letting in the Janissaries he is ultimately beaten at his own game: he is responsible far the loss of the city he wanted to save at all costs. The novel excels in descriptions, perhaps the best of which is the concluding scene: Isabella and Dóra, who had become her lady-in-waiting, confide in each other, telling of their respective loves for Frangepán and Elemér.

It has often been asserted that Kemény’s figures represent facets of human character sub specie aeternitatis. Nothing could be further from the truth. Kemény’s historical determinism was a result of an analysis of the gloomy aspects of Hungarian history by an excellent mind whose natural inclination to pessimism overruled all other features of his character. Although his mind was basically analytical, he also possessed a keen eye for detail. He was at home in describing his native Transylvania, for he knew its mountains, rivers, and forests intimately: his landscapes are like the chorus in Greek tragedies, forming part of the scenes, not just supplying the background scenery. The people on the stage set by him are unwilling puppets in the hand of Fate or historical inevitability. His greatest virtue is that he can convey a sense of looming tragedy when presenting the most idyllic scene; his main fault is that he cannot construct easily-flowing dialogue. Furthermore, his characters often do not speak to each other, but pass on information to the reader. While his people are essentially Hungarian characters, or more particularly Transylvanians, and his problems are those of his native country, it is a tribute to his imagination and power of description that when he leaves his native soil his sense of realism in description does not fail him (e.g. the remarkably accurate description of scenery in the novel about the Portuguese national poet Camões, Life and Illusion, 1842-4).

Finally, Kemény’s pessimism is not a deliberate show of pessimism – his heroes fight hard, make schemes, try to outdo each other in their machinations; they expect to win or to succeed, and, when they fail in their efforts, it is usually on account of small mistakes and errors. The final downfall of his heroes is a consequence of some minor piece of carelessness; they are not struck by lightning, they are more likely to be consumed by a fire caused by a carelessly dropped match. This relentless fatalism embedded deep in Kemény’s mind may have contributed to his unpopularity both at home and abroad.