|CHAPTER XIV The Decline of the Gentry and the Novel
AFTER the War of Independence there was one author, himself a fugitive in disguise in the early days of the Austrian reprisals, who provided the balm for the fresh sores of his compatriots. This writer seized the imagination of his countrymen in their patriotic gloom by opening up for them an escapist paradise, in a series of novels set in the distant fairyland of the allegedly glorious past of Hungary and Transylvania, where readers could find relief from their actual misfortunes. The popularity of Mór (or as he had been widely known in England and America: Maurus) Jókai has never been seriously challenged in spite of the severe criticism to which he has been subjected by generations of critics, a testimony to the magic fascination he exercises over readers in his native Hungary. At the same time, Jókai has proved to be the most popular Hungarian author to be published abroad: his works are widely available in most European languages, and at the beginning of this century he was one of the better-known Continental writers in both England and the United States. In his native country he is still at the height of popularity; in less than twenty years, after World War II, altogether ten million copies of his works were printed, an all-time record for any author in the language.
For indeed, Jókai was prolific as well as popular; he produced over 100 volumes of fiction alone, during his long creative career. He had all the faults of the Romantic School, to which he indisputably belonged: excessive sensitivity, a taste for exaggeration and melodrama although in the few masterpieces he produced he could be true to life and draw character as competently as the best of his realist contemporaries. Furthermore, he loved the exotic: his novels are set in all parts of the world; his characters belong to many nations. In descriptive power he had few rivals, and he was at his best when painting on a large canvas with bold strokes in brilliant colours. Critics have always attacked his improbable plots and larger-than-life heroes, but his magic will last as long as readers prefer the limitless possibilities of the imagination to the grey plausibility of facts in fiction.
Jókai was born on 18 February 1825 in a thriving city and port on the Danube, Komárom. He was a sickly child of remarkable intelligence (his first poem was published at the age of ten), and was brought up in the puritanical tradition of his hard-working, pious Calvinist parents. In the College of Pápa he met and befriended Petőfi; both young men were interested exclusively in literature. When he was sent to the Law School of Kecskemét to complete a traditional education, he abandoned formal studies for literature. He set Victor Hugo up as his model, and published his first novel Weekdays (1846) at the age of twenty-one. The book was well received; its extravagance suited the taste of an age devoted to the enjoyment of the French Romantics, though it merely revealed the boundless imagination of a very young man, who had little experience of life.
Jókai was appointed editor of the fashionable magazine Sketches of Life, and in the stormy period of the revolution he and Petőfi (although no longer friends) were the protagonists of Young Hungary. His political writings were ‘love-letters to liberty’, as one of his critics aptly described the exuberant mood of the young revolutionary. Revolutionary activities, however, caused vicissitudes for young Jókai, although they did not break his spirit which radiated an inborn optimism until the end of a long creative life, through which Jókai became a sort of national institution: the embodiment of a glittering national past. The material for his first stories was drawn mostly from his personal experiences during the War of Independence (Battle Sketches, 1850), which he published under a pseudonym. In the 1850s he established his reputation as the leading novelist of the age by a series of historical novels describing ‘the golden age’ of Transylvania and by novels set in the recent past, the Age of Reform.
Jókai broke with the tradition according to which the historical past had served as a starting-point for self-examination (or, in its more extreme form, in the gloomy world of Kemény, for example, as an excuse for self-torture); history provided him with the opportunity of telling a good story, with plenty of action, written in an easy-flowing, colourful style not previously found in Hungarian prose. His ‘Turkish’ novels ’Midst the Wild Carpathians (1851), The Slaves of the Padishah (1853), The Lion of Janina (1854), and Halil the Pedlar (1854) showed that Jókai (besides being a diligent disciple of Victor Hugo) still owed much to Jósika, but they also proved that he was equal if not superior to his master.
Midst the Wild Carpathians, set in the seventeenth century, during the reign of Prince Mihály Apafi, is a succession of gorgeous tableaux hunting parties and banquets, sieges and battles, with figures moving in front of superb descriptions of Transylvanian scenery yet the novel is sadly lacking in character-drawing; even the main characters are simple all-black and all-white portraits of larger-than-life figures. They are the creatures of Jókai’s undisciplined imagination, being either of Herculean strength and irresistible charm or of diabolical cunning and ferocious cruelty. Its sequel, The Slaves of the Padishah, also has as its hero Prince Apafi, who in the words of the English translator of the novel is a sort of pocket-Richelieu, whose genius might make a great and strong state greater and stronger still, but cannot save a little state which is already doomed to destruction as much by its geographical position as by its inherent weakness.
In The Lion of Janina Jókai has left his native soil. This novel is about the colourful personality of Ali Pasha of the Janissaries. Full of Oriental splendour, the narrative is hardly sharpened to that acute edge of probability which is expected in the European novel. The story moves rapidly, touching only on effective points; it thus holds the reader’s imagination. However, it illustrates Jókai’s inability to curb his fantasy, to regulate the flood of his fancy and thereby compress the story into the form of a novel. Similarly, Halil the Pedlar is a tale of adventure treating an episode of Turkish history in which Sultan Ahmet III is dethroned by Janissaries led by an Albanian adventurer, Patrona Halil.
The significance of these ‘Turkish’ novels did not lie in Jókai’s characterization, nor in his effort to create an authentic historical atmosphere (not that he did not read his sources), but rather in his creation of a timeless world where everything worked according to the rules of his fantasy alone. Readers were prepared to put aside their critical faculties, and having finished the last pages of Jókai’s tale they concluded that the pedestrian rules of the world did not apply to his novels. The large number of foreign, and in particular English, readers seems to concede this point also the ‘Turkish’ novels were still popular abroad at the beginning of this century. While both foreign and Hungarian critics tore story, plot, and characterization to pieces, they were compelled to acknowledge the spell Jókai laid on his readers, the magic of which was not easily overcome. This spell may account for Jókai’s initial success in the 1850s and 1860s, when it created avenues of escape from the political realities of those years.
It was curious that the Hungarian public was able to share with Jókai a deep-rooted sympathy for the Turks, in spite of all the harm they had done to Hungary in over a century of military occupation. Jókai’s Turks, and his Turkish scenery, are fundamentally different in concept from those of other European literatures. Before the Romantics Turks merely represented peculiar, remote figures. In the seventeenth century, Molière used them as grotesque fellows in the ballet-scenes of his comedies. In Mozart’s Entführung aus dem Serail (1782) the two basic types of Turk are already present, the young conqueror and the old fool. These stereotypes had never quite made it in Hungarian literature, for the Turks were the Hungarians’ best enemies and worst friends. They were loved and hated in turn on the stage of real life; and later they evoked bitter memories of devastation. To be sure, the Turks of Lord Byron and Victor Hugo were somewhat different from the early stereotypes, but the Turkish characters created by Jókai’s imagination although nourished by very little authentic history somehow emerged as more genuinely Oriental figures, owing to a vague feeling of a mysterious kinship with Eastern peoples on the part of the Hungarians.
In order to create this bizarre and fascinating world, Jókai did not need to travel to the East: if he withdrew into his own dreams and fancies he found there the East as it had never been seen by any European traveller. For this reason alone Jókai is a unique phenomenon, a son of that nation which many centuries ago had attached itself to the Western world, while finding it impossible to forget entirely that it had come from the East. In a sense, Jókai is a paradoxical unity of East and West that could not be conceived outside Hungary, for no other European nation possesses a similar Eastern heritage. All the Romantics were fascinated with the Orient, yet the Orientalism of the Hungarian Romantics, particularly that of Vörösmarty, and the Arabian Night-like atmosphere found in Jókai’s Turkish novels, is a world peculiar to Hungarian literature.
His novels describing. the more recent past, the Age of Reform, An Hungarian Nabob (1853-54) and its sequel Zoltán Kárpáthy (1854-55), were less extravagantly coloured than his Turkish novels, yet they contained all the enthralling episodes that readers of Jókai had come to expect from their most popular entertainer. The plot is taken from an anecdote: an elderly aristocrat has a son, Zoltán by his young wife. The event upsets the expected order of inheritance: old Kárpáthy’s nephew Abellino who was to have been the sole inheritor wages a long legal battle to disinherit Zoltán. Abellino’s intrigues are not without dishonesty; he disputes old Kárpáthy’s paternity of Zoltán. While this basic idea of the plot is not free from sensationalism, although legal battles and family feuds of all kinds were a major pastime of the Hungarian nobility Jókai’s creative ability expands the anecdote into a monumental view of the fight between the old and the new Hungary. Social progress prior to the War of Independence was born out of this struggle.
Old Kárpáthy, one of the richest landowners, not unlike the representative of the older generation in The House of Bélteky by Fáy, has been pursuing the traditional pleasures of the aristocracy: wine, women, and song, in continuous merriment; he clearly does not accept the social responsibility that should follow from his rank and power. According to the contemporary view, reform in Hungary (and in all other Eastern European societies) could unfold only if those in possession of wealth and power assumed social responsibility and led the way. Most of the Hungarian intellectuals held this view, and as a testimony to the interaction between life and literature, the country did produce fine aristocrats, first and foremost Count István Széchenyi, who was willing to sacrifice his private interests for the public good. Jókai, however, did not create this type of magnate Kárpáthy’s motivation for abandoning his indolence comes primarily from his private circumstances: when his nephew, Abellino, presents him with a coffin as a practical joke, the old man suddenly realizes the futility of his life. As a redeeming act he marries Fanny, a middle-class girl (‘an innocent creature in a wicked society’) who is grateful to the elderly aristocrat, and who takes her secret love for a married count to her grave when she dies in childbirth. When old Kárpáthy also dies, their son, Zoltán, is brought up by Count Szentirmay, the object of Fanny’s secret longings.
The action of the novel takes place around the time of the 1825 Diet, which initiated social and political reform. Both old Kárpáthy and Szentirmay are repentant noblemen who feel a moral obligation to make up for the indolence of their lives, Kárpáthy on an individual level, Szentirmay feeling that he should accept responsibility for the wrongdoings of his class. With a wealth of detail Jókai is able to present his thesis in a plausible form; national reform can only be achieved through the initiative of morally conscious individuals. Not unlike Dickens (e.g. in the Pickwick Papers), he grows fond of his characters in the course of writing, and Kárpáthy leaves an over-all impression of being a fine old gentleman. Jókai also succeeds in confronting national values with cosmopolitan finesse; Abellino’s fight for the inheritance grows into a battle between domestic progress and the interests of foreign capital. (Abellino lives mostly in Paris, and he would use the inheritance the sweat of the Hungarian people for dubious investments, if not at the roulette table, as Russian, Polish, and Hungarian aristocrats indeed did in the nineteenth century.) The representative of the new generation, Zoltán Kárpáthy, is entirely different he has nothing to repent. He is also the mouthpiece for Jókai, idealized, embodying the best features of all those who fought for social progress in the 1830s and 1840s.
This saga of the Age of Reform is undoubtedly a Romantic composition both in concept and execution, yet Jókai achieves a masterly blend of tragic, elegiac, pathetic, humorous, and satirical ingredients in an easy-flowing prose, which contains detailed descriptions of social manners and customs as well as preserving many elements of folklore. Jókai called his novel an irányregény, but no reader would find in it the biting satire of the social reformer that characterized Eötvös’s Village Notary; it is rather an idealized and slightly nostalgic view of the way of life in pre-reform Hungary, and the saga of the heroic generation which set out to build a modern Hungary. It owed its contemporary success to a highly evocative tone, recalling a past which many of Jókai’s compatriots remembered personally, but which had nevertheless, been distanced by the harsh realities of the post-revolutionary era.
In the 1850s the Hungarian nobility withdrew from all sectors of public life; they made a virtue of their predicament and stubbornly refused to co-operate with the Establishment. A decade later, however, changing international relations weakened the position of the Austrian Empire, and politicians at the Ballhausplatz realized they could no longer afford an enemy lurking in the larger part of the Empire. As tensions eased, the Hungarian politicians also realized that passive resistance led only to a blind alley.
A born optimist, Jókai welcomed the new developments and wrote The New Landlord (1862), whose hero was an Austrian general (probably modelled on General Haynau) who had fought against the rebels and settled in ‘enemy country’. The novel set out to illustrate how Herr Ankerschmidt and the squire Garanvölgyi came to terms, or rather how the upright Austrian General adopted the Hungarian way of life and, as converts often do, became more of a patriot than those who were born to that position. The solution offered by Jókai was hardly more than an illusion, or a naive conception at best, that the formative strength of the native soil would make a patriot even of former enemy; yet the colourful novel was not without its qualities. Jókai’s superb power of description created memorable scenes; the epic proportions of the flooding of the River Tisza matched the best efforts of the Realist novelists (e.g. George Eliot’s similar scene in the Mill on the Floss), and the character of old Garanvölgyi, personifying passive resistance with great bravery and unflagging resolution, created a lasting impression on both domestic and foreign readers (Queen Victoria was said to have liked this novel of Jókai best). The final denouement, characteristically, asserted confidence in the new generation: the nephew of old Garanvölgyi, imprisoned in Kufstein for his active participation in the War of Independence, is pardoned as a result of the intervention of Herr Ankerschmidt, whose daughter not only studies the language of her father’s enemy, but eventually marries the returning hero.
The novel certainly paved the way for the Settlement of 1867, at least as far as public opinion and general feeling in one of the capitals on the ‘Blue Danube’* were concerned. The Settlement marked the beginning of a new era: Deák and his administration achieved partial independence for the nation by negotiation; the only areas in which the two parts of the Empire were linked were external affairs, the army and finance and indeed in the last quarter of the century it was often called the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In the absence of political censorship Jókai’s attention turned to the subject dearest to him the War of Independence and he wrote The Baron’s Sons (1869). It was a timely tribute to the Honvéd army at a time when Hungary possessed no national army.
The Baron’s Sons is a family-novel; it is the story of the three Baradlay boys, whose father’s deathbed wish is that his sons should faithfully serve the Crown. But this wish is thwarted by his wife: her appeal for their loyalty to the land of their birth proves to be stronger than the father’s wish to increase the family power and wealth. The conflict between the dead father’s wish and the call of the larger community is put into a broader context, the conservatism of the older generation versus national progress. The plot leads consequently to the real battlefield, for two of the Baradlay boys take part in the War of Independence. Ödön enrolls in the Honvéd army because of his own conscience, while Richard, who is stationed abroad with the Austrian army, is convinced by his mother that he must return home. (The description of his return home with his Hussars is one of the finest parts of the novel.) The third son of Baradlay is loyal to Vienna, where he is a civil servant. Yet in spite of his love-affair with a Viennese girl his mother’s appeal to come home proves fatal. The quiet, withdrawn young man does not, however, take part in the events, but unassumingly goes to prison and death, when after the capitulation he is arrested in a case of mistaken identity instead of his brother Ödön. While episodes of the novel were based on real-life people and events, and Jókai happened to possess first-hand knowledge of the War of Independence (e.g. he witnessed the siege of the fortress of Buda), the construction of the plot is overtly Romantic; with all its faults Jókai’s narrative is of epic dimensions. His figures do not obey the rules of nineteenth century fiction; they are just as static as epic heroes usually are, and their characters contain either positive or negative features only. Yet they do have a degree of plausibility which is sustained by the emotional intensity and the tautness of the writing. Hungarian critics have always been lenient with The Baron’s Sons because of its subject-matter, but its success with foreign readers can only be explained by the power of Jókai’s narrative. On the other hand, the supporting cast of superheroes and their evil opposites are kept within everyday proportions, and are excellent miniature character-studies, contrasting well with the larger-than-life heroes and villains. Hungarian scholars have identified Jókai’s specific feature as a kind of ‘national Romanticism’ particularly in The Baron’s Sons, a term applicable to that special blend of nationalism and Romanticism which was indeed characteristic of Jókai (with the possible exception of a few of his adventure stories set in exotic backgrounds).
Jókai did make efforts to introduce social criticism into his novels. In Black Diamonds (1870), for example, he turns against entrepreneurs who try to exploit natural resources in this case, coal (hence the title of the novel), the most important raw material in industrial society before oil. The plot is based on the concession of mining rights for the rich coalfields at Bondavár in exchange for a large foreign loan, mortgaging the estates of the Church in Hungary. The transaction would increase the political power of the clergy and, ultimately, would extend the influence of the Vatican. The theme provides Jókai with a canvas large enough for him to describe the various forces operating in the background of society; but in the melting-pot of Jókai’s fancy the social implications of the theme are nearly always missed. Instead he concentrates on his superhero, Iván Berend, who manages single-handed to avert the destructive influence of the various foreign and domestic pressure groups. For Berend is not only an impeccable patriot (he took part in the War of Independence), but a towering character, a great inventor, a sportsman and an idealistic lover of humanity. Black Diamonds, like his other novels, excels in breathtaking descriptions of natural disasters and the possibilities of scientific discoveries, and Jókai is at his best in creating the atmosphere of the small world of the coalmine at Bondavár, where Berend successfully unites the community in working towards a common goal. In spite of his preoccupation with his larger-than-life hero, Jókai’s Romantic ant-capitalism in this novel does contain valid criticism of the ‘ugly face’ of capitalistic production, its dehumanizing effects, and the social injustice it causes.
As the years passed by, Jókai’s creativeness did not diminish; on the contrary, he seemed to produce novels at an alarming rate. In the 1870s his attention turned to the then rapidly advancing natural sciences. He loved to employ in his novels devices based on the new technology, either in order to provide dramatic effects and intriguing turns in the narrative, or to enable his heroes to gain a decisive advantage over their adversaries. He entered the domain of pure scientific fantasy when he wrote a novel which could be regarded as one of the earliest attempts at science fiction in the modern sense of the term. His Novel of the Next Century (1872-4) was, in fact, the first Hungarian novel which could claim to be science fiction. This remarkable futuristic work takes place in mid-twentieth century. Everything depends on ichor, a glass-like substance that is flexible and unbreakable. Long before Jules Verne’s Robur the Conqueror (1886), the hero of Jókai’s novel builds a ‘flying machine’ powered by electricity. Jókai also realized the potential of the ‘flying machine’ as a lethal weapon, and he was the first writer in any language to describe an air battle. In a sense he forecast superpowers and world wars. The most fantastic occurrence in the novel, however, is the arrival of a comet in the solar system. This cosmic vagrant destroys the rings of Saturn and threatens to devastate the Earth, provides the moon with its own atmosphere, and finally settles into orbit as another planet.
It was shortly afterwards that Jókai wrote Timár’s Two Worlds (1873), considered by many critics as his best novel, and one which justly established his reputation in English-speaking countries. For once it was not only the Oriental brilliance, with all the Romantic paraphernalia glittering unashamedly, that captivated his readers at home and abroad, although there were plenty of marvels in the action-packed novel; this time Jókai managed to create in Mihály Timár not a superman, but a well-rounded and psychologically valid character, who appealed to the secret longings and moral indecision of tired town-dwellers living in industrialized societies.
The narrative unfolds partly in the lower region of the Danube, in the neighbourhood of the Iron Gate where Hungary and (then) Turkey had a common border. The other line of the story takes the reader to Komárom, Jókai’s thriving native city and port on the Danube, a colourful world of merchants, soldiers, and Danube skippers. The plot revolves around the timeless motive of wealth which brings harm to its recipient. Ali Chorbadjee, the treasurer of the Sultan of Turkey, is the owner of such riches, but his claim to ownership is unsatisfactory. When Ali suspects he may lose the Sultan’s favour he flees with his treasure hidden in a ship towards Hungary. The ship’s captain is Mihály Timár, a Danube skipper, who assists the Turkish refugee successfully to avoid the gunboat of the Sultan. Chorbadjee nevertheless commits suicide, and it is Timár who is entrusted with the execution of his will; he is to deliver the cargo of the ship to Ali’s friend, and is to ask him to bring up Ali’s daughter, Timea, and to provide her with a dowry out of the price fetched by the cargo. The Saint Barbara, however, never reaches its destination, and all that Timár can deliver to Ali’s friend are a few gold pieces. The sunken ship is salvaged and auctioned, and on a sudden impulse Timár buys it. In one of the sacks on board he finds the hidden treasure. He becomes a successful businessman with this capital; whatever he touches becomes gold. Timár loves Timea, and perhaps because he is not entirely convinced of his title to the treasure he proposes to her and she marries him out of gratitude. Before long Timár realizes that he has gained only the devotion of his wife, but not her love, for Timea is in love with someone else. Timár gradually loses his interest in business; he wants no more riches, and disappears from his successful life, leaving everything behind. Timea marries her love, but this marriage is also a luckless one, and the treasure is lost.
The other main line of the story concerns the Island, the refuge of Romantic imagination where the hero, Timár, returns every now and then in search of tranquillity and forbidden love with its secret delights. This Nameless Island is on the Lower Danube, and as it is of recent formation neither of the two neighbouring states claim sovereignity. Here live a mother and her daughter, shipwrecks of society, in complete isolation from the rest of the world; then the Island is discovered by the passengers of the Saint Barbara in their flight from the pursuing Turkish gunboat. Theresa and her daughter Noemi harbour them in their secret world, and when Timár, unhappy in the bonds of a marriage lacking genuine emotions and attachments, begins to visit the Island he finds true love with Noemi; in the little secluded paradise he builds a separate existence without outside interests. This Garden of Eden is an obvious product of modern nostalgia or timeless cravings, an idea which has always appealed to the escapist impulse of modern man tired of the mixed blessings of urban society. Jókai surpasses himself in describing the peaceful bliss on the island: Timár returns to the essential simple joys of life, cultivating the soil, and living by ancient arts and crafts, while Noemi is busy in the garden, which produces everything they need. Noemi is a unique figure among Jókai’s creations; she is a natural child of the earth, full of naive grace and understanding, a symbol of young, fertile motherhood. Their relationship is based on the primeval bond of man and woman before society imposed its meaningless restrictions on human relationships.
These two backgrounds have enabled Jókai to create his most complex figure. To be sure, Timár starts out with more than his share of luck, as Jókai’s heroes always do, but by the conflict between his two lives he becomes a suffering, struggling human being. The psychological problems involved in the ‘two lives’ become a heavy burden on the conscience of the hero. For he is tormented by conscience, living in a sort of bigamy with which he is unable to come to terms; moreover he is frustrated by the moral strictures of society, which he is unable either to disregard entirely, or fully respect. While to Timea, his lawful wife, and all the world he is the great patriot, the true Christian, the exemplary husband, the father of the poor, guardian of the orphan, supporter of the schools, a pillar of the Church, what is he to himself then? as one of his English critics asked rhetorically. For the story of Timár is the story of a man strong in intellect, will, and conscience who has once yielded to a sudden, overpowering temptation, thereby creating in his innermost self a crevice which is continually widened by the magnetic attraction of two different ways of life, between which he is unable to make a final choice. The uncertainty created by this hesitation overpowers his personality Jókai instinctively employs all the lessons of modern psychology Noemi and the Island awaken a strange, unknown side of his ego which bewilders him with its unreasonable demands and burning passions. This suppressed ego of Timár seeks an outlet in dreams, premonitions, and an inclination to superstition, until the plaster of civilization and the way of life which has restricted his subconscious world is shattered, breaking all the conventional values of his life.
Notwithstanding the three-dimensional quality and the psychological validity of his main character, Jókai is unable to discontinue his practice of employing highly Romantic devices in his novel. The plot contains unexpected turns and the villains are wicked beyond imagination, often without apparent reason. The main villain of the novel is Tódor Krisztyán, who has discovered Timár’s secret life. Since Timár is forced into a tormented double life (his wife will not divorce him) he is an easy prey to Krisztyán’s attempts at blackmail. Then suddenly, when Timár is already on the verge of committing suicide, the blackmailer becomes the victim of an accident. Timár’s wife has the wrongly-identified corpse of Krisztyán buried instead of the body of her husband. She is then free to remarry and Timár also regains his independence from the obligations of society; he can withdraw to the Nameless Island.
This final denouement is overtly Romantic, yet it demonstrates well the duality of his works, which at their best exhibit the wildest idealism going hand in hand with intensely realistic descriptions of scenery and portrays of local customs, manners, and modes of thought and feeling. The plot of Timár’s Two Worlds has suffered from the fertility of Jókai’s genius. He considered and declared himself to be a Realist writer and was genuinely astonished when critics called him an arch-Romantic. While the background of Timár’s Two Worlds abounds in episodes taken from real life (e.g. the jobbery and jerry-building at the time of the military fortification of Komárom, or the corruption of the army-contractors), the fact remains that it is basically an escapist work portraying a Romantic utopia.
1875 was a turning point in the era following the Settlement of 1867. Kálmán Tisza, the leader of the opposition party (‘The Centre-Left’), accepted the provisos of the Settlement and became Prime Minister and leader of the newly-created Liberal Party. Jókai, who took an active part in political life, followed his leader from opposition into the new governing party. Supported by the lesser nobility, the Liberal Party pursued a policy which Jókai approved they all expected the balance to tip in favour of Hungary within the dual monarchy. Moreover, Jókai expected the growth of pro-Hungarian sentiment in the House of Habsburg (e.g. Crown-Prince Rudolph had indeed professed strong Hungarian sympathies). His novels, however, began to show serious signs of decline. He often chose pseudo-historical subjects dealing with the distant past none of these works produced the electrifying effects of his earlier novels which had dealt with the recent past and carried a definite message. The new novels were often adventure tales only, wrapped in history which Jókai read for background diligently, but with little critical acumen.
Of the numerous novels Jókai wrote in this period only a few, which gained exceptional popularity abroad, particularly in English-speaking countries, can be mentioned here. The Nameless Castle (1877) was a light historical romance dealing with Napoleon’s attempt to find Princess Marie Bourbon, daughter of Louis XVI. Jókai introduced a host of characters into the story (taking place in the depths of Hungary) who had been victims of circumstance: people who, despite their crimes, are basically noble souls. More or less the same is true of Pretty Michal (1877), which abounds in murders and executions with all their accompanying tortures, although the plot was constructed from documents relating to an infamous seventeenth-century case, preserved in the archives of Kassa.
The most popular novel in English translation was The Green Book (1880), concerning the celebrated Decembrist conspiracy in Russia against the life of Czar Alexander I; the cast of characters includes the poet Pushkin, who saves the Czar’s daughter. It is full of plots and counterplots, marvels and mysteries, set against a magnificent description of the great Neva flood. Russia, with its mysteries, its severe repressiveness and its untold dark and bloody tragedies of enigamatic characters, lends an exotic flavour to the novel. Dr Dumány’s Wife (1891) verges on sensationalism, and concerns a mysterious American ‘silver king’ who turns out to be a Hungarian emigrant who made a fortune in the United States. Dr Dumányi is, however, merely a pale shadow of Timár; the problems of a rich man are presented here without the psychological intricacies of Timár’s Two Worlds. Hasty workmanship can also be detected behind the glittering facade of powerful descriptions.
The same can be said about the rest of his novels, although Jókai went on producing new works almost until his death on 5 May 1904. In 1894 the country paid homage on an unprecedented scale to the Nestor of Hungarian letters by celebrating his fiftieth anniversary as a writer; it was a public acknowledgement that he had become a national institution and the most widely read and translated Hungarian author. At the beginning of 1904, the year he died, he published his 202nd book. Of his great literary output Jókai said: ‘The secret of my fertility is communion with nature.’
A hallmark of Jókai’s style is its musicality. In his early works he often employed periodic exclamations and rhetorical questions, thereby achieving a pulsating sentence structure. Characteristic sentence-types in his works contain numerous loosely-connected subordinate clauses building in emotional intensity. In his later works he preferred detailed descriptions and the natural rhythm of colloquial speech. His vocabulary was not free from slang, nor from carelessness and occasional slips. Jókai loved to insert exotic words and fashionable German and French expressions into his prose, but equally he loved exotic Hungarian words; as an amateur linguist he collected obsolete and little-known words and phrases from dialects which he used with sonorous effect. His language and style made a strong impact on modern Hungarian.
His main achievement was that he alone among indigenous writers secured a large readership in the second half of the century, at a time when the Hungarian public, the middle class in particular, habitually turned to foreign fiction both for light entertainment and for more serious fare. He competed successfully with the great foreign Romantics and Realists Sir Walter Scott, Dumas pére, Victor Hugo, and Dickens for the favour of readers. His influence in the development of the Hungarian novel was also epochmaking; not only his contemporaries but future generations of novelists felt their indebtedness to Jókai. What Dostoevsky said of Gogol: ‘We all came out of Gogol’s Overcoat’ was a word of gratitude and acknowledgement of his spiritual debt to the great Russian novelist. Similarly, all Hungarian writers could pay homage to Jókai, although no single work of the great raconteur could be named as being solely responsible for this debt. It is the entire lifework of Jókai which, with all its faults, Romantic excesses, and often overdrawn characters, forms a separate universe, and no Hungarian writer could come into his own without first traversing this universe.
Of Jókai’s contemporaries, Gereben Vas* (1823-68) was a prolific novelist, and his popularity was at its peak in the 1850s and 1860s. In a sense, Vas was already old-fashioned in his time, one of the last representatives of the népies trend, a belated descendant of Gvadányi. He was unable to take a broad view of society; he had neither the vision nor the conception to create figures or events on a large scale; yet his novels, particularly his earlier attempts (Good Old Days, 1855; Great Events, Great Men, 1856) possess a certain charm because of the ability he had to tell anecdotes which somehow never quite fitted into his diffuse plots with great gusto and vividness. The subject-matter of his novels mostly concerned the recent past; he depicted an idyllic Hungary of the early nineteenth century. Although he took part in the War of Independence his views remained conservative, and in the world drawn by him serfs, peasants, and their lords were just one large happy family. He had an intimate knowledge of peasant life, and his style contained colourful phrases in the popular idiom.
In the second half of the nineteenth century the literary anecedote was an important genre in fiction. Many writers made use of it; only Mikszáth was able to expand anecdotes into short novels. Jókai skilfully incorporated anecdotes by the dozen into his novels, and Károly Eötvös (1842-1916) relied on them almost exclusively. A lawyer by profession and a supporter of the Literary Deák Party, Eötvös collected anecdotes and reminiscences of the nobility before the War of Independence. His style was influenced by Jókai and all his writings, of which the most significant are perhaps A Journey Around Lake Balaton (1901) and Notes of Count Gábor Károlyi (1902), preserved a nostalgic, old-fashioned, and slow world, strangely out of place in the bustling literary life at the turn of the century.
Géza Gárdonyi (1863-1922) was an enigmatic figure of the turn of the century, who nevertheless owed much to Jókai. He was possessed by a compelling interest in the esoteric heritage of the East (e.g. he loved The Tibetan Book of the Dead), and studied the occult and mysticism. As he tended to hypersensitivity, his emotional life was deeply affected by his early, unsuccessful marriage (he was twenty-two and his wife only sixteen), leaving him a life-long misogynist.
Yet he could have been a successor to Jókai. He wrote with ease and had great imaginative power, supplemented by meticulous research. He began as a teacher in the remote countryside, and then became a provincial journalist; his early works, mostly published under pseudonyms, were cheap adventure stories, distinguished only by the easy flow of his language. He achieved popularity with a singular figure: Gábor Göre (1892). The Göre stories parody, by mock-dialect and coarse humour, the narrowness of village life. (Gárdonyi later disowned them.) He also experimented with poetry and drama, but none of his works in these forms is noteworthy; his artistic inclination also included an attraction to music-making and amateur painting.
When he turned to serious literature his main source of inspiration was the life of village people, which he had quietly observed while he was a teacher, and which he described with poetic tenderness.
My Village (1898) contains his rural short stories and sketches. According to Gárdonyi village people have no life-story, and no village has a history; consequently all village people over the centuries have had a similar fate. The scene in front of the school, church, public house or village green never changes. The heroes of these sketches are mostly children, but animals and plants also figure in his Rousseauesque world. Gárdonyi identifies himself with animate nature; plants and animals can suffer; his enthusiasm for ‘Life’ never ceases. The effectiveness of his idyllic world arises out of his modern, highly subjective approach, quite independently of his intentions; his attraction to the naïve and primitive is intellectual in inspiration, a defence against the then fashionable decadence and urban snobbery.
Gárdonyi lived what he believed; at the height of his popularity he withdrew from Budapest to the provincial city of Eger, and spent his time among esoteric books in his study, where, characteristically enough, the only window was a skylight, lest the outside world should disturb his inner images. In this closed world he wrote his novels in quick succession. The Stars of Eger (1901) is a historical romance describing the heroic defence of Eger in 1552 against the Turks. Its background is carefully documented, but the personal involvement of the author is evident; it is a stirring tale, with a well-conceived plot, and strongly-drawn characters. In spite of his serious background studies Gárdonyi was not, however, a writer of historical fiction. Nothing proved this better than his next novel, The Invisible Man (1902). This is the story of Attila and his Huns, culminating in the vast battle of Catalaunum (Chalons-sur-Marne, France) in AD 451, a decisive event for the future of Western Europe. Yet Gárdonyi’s attention is focussed on the psychological problem of his hero, Zéta, the Imperial Librarian at Constantinople, who becomes the slave of the Huns for the love of a girl. He is we all are invisible’: ‘It is only the face of man that can ever really be known. But a man is not his face: the real man is hidden behind this face. He is invisible.’ In other words, man is an eternal riddle for others and it is a hopeless struggle to uncover his real self. Gárdonyi’s conception contains elements of both Romantic ideas and mysticism; while no one can catch sight of the hidden inner self which is the mainspring of each individual’s seemingly unaccountable actions and sudden changes in attitude in the final analysis, the riddle of the Sphinx is not a riddle at all since human characteristics rest on man’s basic instincts and desires. This can be seen in the tragic love-story of Zéta, whose love is not noticed by Emő, the daughter of a Hun chieftain, because of her secret longing for the mighty Attila, who in turn does not notice her devotion. Emő dies when Attila dies, and the Greek slave returns to Constantinople with painful memories of Emő imprinted on his mind for ever. Gárdonyi knows only tragic love, a love which shakes and ultimately destroys men. This interpretation of love is Gárdonyi’s chief message: passion destroys the soul, whether it is assisted by external causes or not. In a way, Zéta was Gárdonyi’s alter ego; Gárdonyi was also a man who had had to earn society’s respect by his ‘learned knowledge’ and who, like Zéta, had suffered from his love for a girl, which nearly ruined his life.
A new aspect of the theme appears in Prisoners of God (1908), again disguised as a historical novel. It is set in a medieval monastery, where Jancsi, a Dominican friar, suffers for his love for Margaret, a nun, the daughter of the King. Although they live on the same island in the Danube, they hardly ever see each other, and hear of each other only occasionally. Nothing much happens in the novel, it is not a Heloïse and Abelard story, but one of repressed love; the two pray, work, and suffer, and finally Margaret dies. Gárdonyi creates an intense atmosphere of ascetism and ethereal love; his sentences are frequently short and seem to suppress something, leaving behind a sense of frustration and of tragic disappointment.
Further variations on his obsession with fatal love appear in The Mighty Third One (1903). ‘The mighty third one’ is the unborn child who wants to exist and draws man and woman towards each other with an irresistible force to assist his coming into the world. The influence of Schopenhauer can be seen at work in this novel, enriched by Gárdonyi’s own brand of theosophy. In The Lord’s Prayer According to Szunyoghy (1916), the hero prays not for deliverance from evil, but for deliverance from his own fancy, the source of all evil. Gárdonyi, like his hero, found relief ultimately in Indian philosophy; the price of freedom is the self-imposed limitation of one’s desires. This is the lesson drawn by Szunyoghy; if one can curb one’s own fantasy, there is less fuel for the consuming fire of the desires.
Gárdonyi’s career illustrated certain points in the development of the Hungarian novel. While he could have become a successor to Jókai in popularity, his strange fascination with esoteric subjects removed him from the centre of the Hungarian literary scene in spite of his imaginative and narrative powers. To be a central figure in Hungarian letters has always demanded more interest in national subjects and less subjectivity; only later, in the present century, does it seem that outsiders and loners can be accepted and attain respectability in literary life.
An opposite role in literary life was played by Ferenc Herczeg (1863-1954) who became its leading figure after World War I. Influenced by Jókai, but using a technique of short story writing learnt from Maupassant, Herczeg became the light-hearted chronicler of the decaying Hungarian gentry. Herczeg’s vivid sketches of country gentlemen and dashing hussar officers immortalized these characters; the officers, whose undoubted military virtues were best testified by their duels, loved hunting and horses and were ‘proper’ gentlemen hopping in and out of bedrooms. Their eventual aim was to marry shy and beautiful girls who lived in respectable manor houses, but usually the mothers of the pretty girls in question were bent on marrying off their daughters without a dowry. These short stories were all flawless in construction, to the point, and well written. Herczeg, himself of middle-class origin, envied and admired the gentry for their devil-may-care attitude and elegant nonchalance, and described their lives and loves with the intimacy of the well-informed outsider. Among his most popular books were The Gyurkovics Girls (1893) and The Gyurkovics Boys (1895).
Of Herczeg’s historical novels, The Heathens (1902) is of special interest. The plot is inspired by a Romantic concept, the duality of the Hungarian cultural heritage: the conflict between the heathen traditions of the East and the Christian civilization of the West. In the eleventh century numerous malcontents had revolted against the iron rule of King Stephen I, who had forced them to betray their pagan gods for Christianity, and they were to revert to the rituals of their forefathers. In Herczeg’s interpretation the rebels’ main grievance against the new God was his demanding discipline, which their freedom-loving spirit would not tolerate. (Márton, the Pecheneg convert, frequently complains about the tormenting wind of the Puszta that calls him back to his former life.) This naïve, even mystic notion was counterbalanced by Herczeg’s psychological approach: the rebels cannot revert to the ancient rituals, because the propaganda of the missionaries has erased the memory of these rites, and so their struggle is doomed to failure; it is only a meaningless outburst of their unbridled love for freedom. While Herczeg’s sympathy clearly lay with the hot-headed rebels, he managed to avoid representing Christanity as an evil innovation. The novel was an important prototype of the re-emerging conflict between East and West in Hungarian literature, a tenet that became a commonplace in the ideological dictionary of nationalism in the inter-war years.
Later works of Herczeg retained their marked nationalist flavour when dealing with historical themes; in addition, his technique was affected by concessions to popular taste. Novelists who set out to preserve national traditions without exercising a strong critical sense all too often became an easy prey to the nationalism of the masses; for the public demanded nationalism, and even the best authors found it difficult to avoid its pitfalls.
|CHAPTER XIV The Decline of the Gentry and the Novel