|CHAPTER XIV The Decline of the Gentry and the Novel
|CHAPTER XV A Pseudo-Victorian Era
This is largely true of the novels of Kálmán Mikszáth, who is traditionally held to be the leading novelist in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Mikszáth is still widely read-according to recent surveys no living author has surpassed his popularity; he is, in fact, second only to Jókai. Born on 16 January 1847 at Szklabonya, in the heart of Palóc* country, into a noble family whose life-style was nearer to that of a smallholder than of a gentleman-farmer, although the family traditions seemed to indicate distinguished ancestors. In spite of the family legends, it was life in Palóc country which shaped Mikszáth’s attitude as a writer, for in the family house he soon learnt the discrepancy between the pretensions of the lesser nobility and their actual standard of living. His education was typical of his class: different schools in the country with varying degrees of success, and then reading law at university. He was never called to the bar, and after a brief spell in the civil service chose a career in journalism, serving on various provincial papers, with limited success, and earning only a meagre livelihood. His early marriage also proved a failure; the attitude of his wife’s family drove home to the penniless journalist the merciless contempt the Hungarian gentry reserved for the failures among their own kind, especially those who, in addition to their permanent insolvency, were engaged in the ungentlemanly profession of scribbling.
Mikszáth’s early short stories were largely unsuccessful, furthermore they showed the influence of Jókai, and perhaps to a lesser degree the népies manner of Gereben Vas. His childhood memories, however, made a stronger impact on his mind than did the influence of his literary predecessors. He made himself a name with The Slovak Relations (1881) and The Good People of Palóc (1882). Often compared to the Californian stories of Bret Harte, these life-and character-sketches revealed Mikszáth’s compassion for the ordinary folk of his native county. He observed the mentality and way of life of the Palóc peasants and artisans, and described the unspectacular tragedies affecting their lives much in the same vein as did Gárdonyi in My Village some time later. The stories were hardly more than anecdotes related with the liveliness of colloquial speech, yet their flawless construction and Mikszáth’s lyrical style made them into remarkable short pieces of narrative. These stories signified a turning point in Mikszáth’s development; he had found his own manner of expression.
After his initial success Mikszáth did not give up his journalistic career, but moved to Budapest and eventually joined the Pest News, a widely-read daily, and served on its staff for a quarter of a century. He took part in political life as a member of the Liberal Party, and was a close friend of its leader, Kálmán Tisza. When he was elected a Member of Parliament his parliamentary reportage and sketches carried much weight and authority. He also re-married his former wife, and from then onward led the well-balanced life of a leading writer with considerable public influence.
It was in journalism that Mikszáth’s special gift for relating anecdotes became prominent. He became a master of this unassuming genre, the traditions of which were a distinct feature of both the peasants’ and gentry’s mentality in Hungary. To tell a trivial story with gusto and vividness requires little literary talent, yet to shape an anecdote which increasingly rivets the attention, and which is economic in style and rounded off with a point (neither too obvious nor too vulgar) establishing a sarcastic or ironic relation to the initial topic this is a considerable feat, not easily achieved without a particular talent. Most Hungarian writers employed anecdotes, but Mikszáth’s light and unpretentious touch remained unsurpassed. Many of the anecdotes which he expanded into short stories and occasionally short novels were current in the Parliament or in the Casino, both of which he frequented with equal diligence.
He never missed the latent potential of a good story which fired his imagination, and he had a special liking for stories with a supernatural element. His later stories The Grass of Lohina (1885), Two Beggar-Students (1886), or The Magic Caftan (1889) all contained strange popular beliefs treated in a light vein and with the humour which remained a salient feature of Mikszáth’s narrative art.
Of his early novels, St. Peter’s Umbrella (1895) was the most popular and perhaps the best. (Theodore Roosevelt was said to have admired the novel, and visited Mikszáth during his European trip in 1910 solely to express his admiration.) The novel illustrated well the working of Mikszáth’s craft. The umbrella of the title may have been the subject of an anecdote in Upper Hungary, in which it was claimed to have a supernatural origin St. Peter himself left it behind to protect an abandoned little girl. Thus the local peasants held the object in great veneration. The main line of the story concerning the treasure-hunt of Gyuri Wibra, whose eccentric father put his fortune in an open bank-draft and hid it in the handle of an umbrella is welded to the anecdote concerning the ‘celestial umbrella’. The complications arising out of the search for the umbrella provide Mikszáth with an opportunity to work on two different levels devising an exciting hunt for the inheritance, and at the same time observing the significance, in terms of mass-psychology, of a seemingly worthless object. When Gyuri finds true love with the girl who was once protected by the celestial umbrella the treasure-hunt comes to a delightful end, and Gyuri feels no regret for the treasure which is now lost for ever. The young lovers of the novel are drawn with idealism: Gyuri is an amiable young man and Veronika is a charmer, yet neither of them is without a sense of irony; in Gyuri the pride of the self-made man fights against his desire for the hidden treasure, and Veronika has a vague notion that Gyuri’s longing for her is not entirely unselfish. Mikszáth excels in creating the background: his countryside is full of well-observed characters, drawn with warm humour.
The Siege of Beszterce (1896) contains more irony and less straightforward idealism than does St. Peter’s Umbrella, with its young lovers. The plot of the novel is an expanded anecdote about an eccentric aristocrat who is completely wrapped up in his delusions: he believes himself to be a medieval oligarch. The eccentric Count Pongrácz lives in his faraway castle in the Carpathian mountains. His ‘court’ is full of bizarre characters who are on his payroll. The daydreaming becomes absurd when Count Pongrácz decides to lay siege to the city of Beszterce with his private army for an alleged omission of feudal dues. His influential friends persuade the aldermen of the city to play the game to save the Count from the ridicule of the Press: the aldermen hire and send a fair ‘hostage’ to please his lordship, who falls in love with her till his make-believe world is shattered by the truth. Old Pongrácz is perhaps the most minutely-drawn character of Mikszáth; his fantasy-world reveals Mikszáth’s sound psychological knowledge. At first, Pongrácz is merely a capricious old man whose fancy ideas might make him look ridiculous; but in the end, when he collapses in a confrontation with reality, he becomes a tragicomic figure whose self-torment creates an atmosphere of pity around him. The pity is derived from Mikszáth’s compassion for his quixotic hero; his ridicule is reserved for the social institutions which perpetuate the possibility of the eccentricity described in the novel. At first sight it might seem nothing more than a bizarre story when old Pongrácz’s peasants (who adore him for the free entertainment), dressed as medieval warriors, fight mock battles with units of the Austro-Hungarian army who have been sent on manoeuvres to the region, but and this is the point Mikszáth makes if something were to go wrong, Count Pongrácz would be protected, as no local authority may charge him; only the committee of immunity in the Upper House has the power of impeaching him and those gentlemen in the Upper House do not really want to defame a hereditary peer of the realm.
The strange Count might behave like a lunatic old man, yet he also possesses a certain grandeur, lent him by his strict observance of the rules of his own game, his absolute acceptance of the norms of bygone ages. His ‘normal’ contemporaries are not only mediocre compared with him but their empty lives, undisguised greed, corruption, and equally ridiculous pretensions provide no alternative to Count Pongrácz’s make-believe world. In other words, criticism is directed against contemporary society which has a twofold responsibility for its anomalies, not only tolerating their existence, but actually covering them up. Mikszáth, however, is not bitter about the social order; he merely exposes its features perhaps for his own pleasure, or perhaps to show his wisdom in his disclosure of its absurdity.
The world whose petty secrets he is so keen to disclose is of course the world of the gentry, which rarely has any grandeur in its decline. This world is depicted in The Gentry (1897), which is peopled by the clerks and retired civil servants of Sáros, the county of ‘good manners and hallucinations’, where ‘small men are great lords’. The plot is provided by a family occasion, a marriage when the parents of once-illustrious families seize the opportunity to create an illusion of their lost financial prosperity, and all the guests contribute their share to the show. The best vintage wines and large Havana cigars are offered, the guests arrive in beautiful carriages, wearing elegant dresses sparkling with diamonds. The conversation is about ancestors who were famous in this battle, or in the service of that King; amounts are named at the card table that would buy a large estate, and when the celebration is over, the narrator, a chance guest, realizes that everything has been only pretence. The jewels are taken back to their rightful owners, or to the pawn-shop, the magnificient carriages have also been lent, and the promissory notes collected at the card table are not worth the paper they are written on. Everyone has to go to the office next morning. They all know that they were making a show, and as one of the weekend ‘grand seigneurs’ sums it up to the astonished visitor:
‘But after all’ and he suddenly tossed his head proudly ’this is the custom with us and customs must be respected at all costs, brother. But as regards the merits of the case, even if the brilliance and pomp, the splendour and liveliness, the refined and easy manners, the joviality, the aristocratic airs, the horses, the silver cutlery and the nobility of tone don’t belong to one or the other, or to the person in whom you see them, by all means they belong to somebody to all of us. These things happen to be scattered among us and whose business is it if, on certain occasions, we artificially pool them?’
The story of this decaying class, its attitude of ‘rather breaking than bending’, provides Mikszáth with ample opportunity for social criticism, which grows stronger and more satirical in his later novels. In Two Elections in Hungary (1896, 1899) he declares war openly on the gentry in public life. Its hero is Menyhért Katánghy, featured formerly in his humorous parliamentary sketches; he is a fictitious Member of the Parliament, who writes about the proceedings to his wife living in the countryside. The letters give an over-all impression of Katánghy as a man of little integrity and few principles, who interprets political life according to his own convenience. As the figure of Katánghy gained popularity with the reader, Mikszáth made him the hero of an episode of electioneering corruption, and also wrote a biography of Katánghy up to his election as a Member of Parliament. These loosely connected sketches are included in Two Elections in Hungary, which is not a novel in the strict sense; the episodes are not connected by a common plot, but only by the identity of their hero; the narrative is unimportant in comparison to the character-sketch. Katánghy comes from the gentry, proud and insolent; his inheritance included no estates, only a contempt for work, both manual and intellectual; and of course, he married out of a desire to steer his life into the haven of financial security. He became a Member of Parliament by dubious schemes. Mikszáth leaves little doubt about his view of his hero; Katánghy emerges from the anecdotes rather as a type than as a singular case among the gentry whose collective irresponsibility undermines the foundations of society.
In these years Mikszáth established his own peculiar style: kerülgető (meandering). His narrative does not move in a direct line to its conclusion, but is interrupted by many seemingly irrelevant details, which all add up to a better understanding of the motives of his hero and a more detailed background to his actions.
In New Zrínyiád (1898) satire is blown up to absurd dimensions. The question posed in the novel is bitter: what would become of a revered ‘national hero’, were he to be reborn in the modern world? The answer is a natural counterpart and the opposite theorem to The Siege of Beszterce. The Hungarian Rip van Winkle is Miklós Zrínyi, the hero of the sixteenth century Turkish wars, who rises from the dead to find himself in the nineteenth-century business world of Budapest. In spite of his adaptability he becomes the director of a bank, like other contemporary aristocrats he has much to criticize in his new environment. The satire is at its bitterest when Zrínyi coarsely imitates the corrupt way of life of his descendants; it is not Zrínyi’s heroic qualities which help him to survive in the modern world, but his nature, the nature of the ruthless, feudal lord who lacks the sophistication to cover up his interests in financial and social dealings. His modern friends are embarrassed only by his business methods, and not by what he actually does. Ten crimes are venial in comparison to one instance of bad manner sthis is the general verdict of the class which holds pretension to be the chief virtue. (e.g. When Zrínyi holds hostages in the vault of his bank, the Minister of this Interior is worried only by the possibility of a public scandal what the European press is going to write about it this is his main concern.) To conclude the novel Mikszáth lets his hero escape from modern life; by royal privilege Zrínyi and his soldiers retire into a remote castle in the countryside, where they are free to live according to their own norms. And when an enemy attacks the country, Zrínyi can repeat his historic sortie to die valiantly again in a battle.
The ageing Mikszáth was overcome by his experiences in the House of Parliament during the Tisza administration; all his pity and sorrow for the gentry was lost. In his later novels he depicted them with merciless realism as a class hopelessly out of tune with the times, whose presence was a heavy burden on Hungarian society. Of his last novels, the most significant are: A Strange Marriage (1900) and The Young Noszty’s Affair with Mary Tóth (1908).
The plot of A Strange Marriage can be traced to an anecdote according to which a certain Baron Dőry, to cover up the consequences of an illicit love-affair between his homely daughter and the local priest, forces a visiting young aristocrat of eligible standing to marry the pregnant girl. The unwilling husband spends the rest of his life in a desperate effort to obtain a divorce, without success. The subject aroused Mikszáth’s interest just when Church and State were fighting a bitter battle over the exclusive right to register the births, marriages, and deaths of their subjects. Count János Buttler, the unwilling husband who cannot obtain a divorce despite his connections (which reach as far as the Vatican), epitomized Mikszáth’s anticlericalism, leaving little doubt whose side he took in the struggle. The novel is set at the beginning of the nineteenth century, and the figure of Count Buttler, already commanding sympathy on account of his undeserved distress, is rendered even more attractive by his progressive-minded attitude in public life. In addition, a romantic love-affair is prevented by the forced marriage. The conclusion of the novel is somewhat reminiscent of Jókai’s Timár’s Two Worlds: Buttler, like Timár, disappears from society with his mistress, and Mikszáth hints at their happiness in a faraway country, in which priests exercise less power than in Hungary, where even the frogs croak: Urak a papok! urak a papok!*
The conclusion, like that of Timár’s Two Worlds, is a concession to realism; neither story could have a happy ending, at the same time poetic justice is rendered by the glimmer of hope in the concluding sentences. Powerful criticism is directed against the manipulations of the clergy: a single individual, even one with the wealth and influence of the incredibly rich Buttler, can do nothing to break the spell of the ‘unholy union’ or to challenge the interest of the clergy, whose influence permeates the fabric of society.
In The Young Noszty’s Affair with Mary Tóth Mikszáth used a large canvas for social criticism. The nucleus of the plot is derived from an anecdote: a young gentleman desperately needs money and the family makes elaborate schemes to marry him to the daughter of a commoner, who is, of course, a millionaire. The scheme of the mésalliance fails; the father of the girl refuses his consent. In a final spectacular scene, when the cream of local society is invited to the wedding he informs the dumbfounded suitor that his daughter has been sent away and marriage is out of question.
Mikszáth constructed the plot working on these lines. Mihály Tóth made a fortune in America, but he has come back to the old country to enjoy his wealth. He is a democrat, full of ideas, who makes his money work in many ways to create prosperity in the county of Bontó where he has now settled. His wife is a parvenue; she enjoys the social opportunities created by the wealth of her husband. Their only daughter, Mary Tóth, is a withdrawn girl, with what amounts to a complex: everybody is chasing her, not for her intrinsic value but simply to get her fabulous dowry. In their own ways, the Tóths represent solid middle-class virtues sharply contrasted with the corrupt gentry world of the Nosztys and their relations, yet Mikszáth is careful not to make his gentry characters too evil. Young Noszty is not only a handsome young man, he is sincerely in love with Mary Tóth; and when as a last resort the family advise him to seduce Mary in order to compromise her and thus obtain her father’s consent, he brings about the compromising situation, yet does not seduce her. He is a likeable fellow; his main fault is an abhorrance of work gambling, hunting, and social life are the only acceptable pastimes for him. The main support for his schemes comes from the főispán of the county of Bontó, Baron Kopereczky, who is his brother-in-law, a man of little .formal education but much cunning, when it comes to schemes. Mikszáth employs Kopereczky to draw a satirical portrait of the official abuses in county administration. Dirty tricks are played on all groups, including the various nationalities who are represented in the county assembly (Mikszáth had a special liking for the Slovaks of his native Upper Hungary). He does not spare the local press (its editor is the first to print the spicy details of Mary Tóth’s alleged seduction, and Mikszáth leaves little doubt that a different version of the story would be easy to arrange, were Tóth to pay for it).
The Nosztys are proud of their ancestors, they have to uphold the family tradition at all costs: ‘Well, you have to see the power of the family’ old Noszty explains in one of his pensive moments ‘like a fortress withstanding the decay of centuries. It has walls, bastions, towers, alas, it also has cracks in the walls and weak spots where the inclemency of the weather penetrates. This fortress needs attention all the time, its weaknesses have to be supported, the cracks have to be repaired, some time a strap of iron is needed to hold it. This time, it is Feri who is the weak joint in the structure; we have to do something about him’. First a job is given him in the administration, then family support in the hunt for a dowry. The conclusion of the novel is similar to that of the original anecdote the illustrious guests invited to the wedding slowly find out the truth: there will be no marriage, old Tóth does not play their game. Feri Noszty takes the humiliation with little indignation: ‘The world is quite large. There are many more girls. One is prettier than the other. There are other dowries. The main thing is, anyway, health and a little luck at the card-table.’
The minor characters of the novel are drawn with less care; they either have a function in the plot, or are given a role in an anecdote; they emerge only for a brief moment and then disappear. The details of the plot contain many Romantic devices (e.g. the fortune of Kopereczky is derived from an eccentric will, even the self-made man Tóth has romantic ideas in his humanitarian designs). Mikszáth gives few descriptions of his figures or of the background to the action; rather, he narrates the story. This he does with great gusto, embellishing the narrative with amazing details when he thinks that the attention of his readers (or rather his audience) is flagging. His tongue-in-cheek remarks contribute to the entertaining qualities of his stories and his sense of humour is always present.
Mikszáth also wrote historical romances (e.g. The Women of Szelistye, 1901), in which he reveals the same virtues and vices as in his novels of manners his individuality of style, his direct approach to the reader with whom he establishes an almost personal relationship yet none of his historical novels create a panoramic portrait of an age. His main achievement is, however, the portrayal of the decaying gentry which he could depict at different levels: in his best moments with bitter irony, always with amazement, and often with compassion. He never passes judgement on his heroes, or on their actions; he lacks the moral indignation and reforming zeal of Eötvös, he never creates spectacular scenes like Jókai, and he is not gloomy like Kemény. In addition, he shows few signs of the influence of contemporary trends in European fiction. He was the only major writer who knew how to make full use of the anecdote, the literary genre of the country gentlemen. In more than one way, nineteenth-century Hungarian prose came to an end when he died on 28 May 1910.
On the whole, the Hungarian novel after the Settlement of 1867 developed a strong tendency towards social criticism. While Jókai painted panoramic views of the recent past in brilliant colours with unlimited energy and idealism, and while Mikszáth depicted a world in which he saw much to criticize, the minor writers, influenced by the Russian Realists (particularly Turgenev) and the French Naturalists, presented a world which was not only darker; they perceived few rays of hope in their own age to relieve their gloom. To be sure, the last third of the nineteenth century had nothing of the grandeur of the Age of Reform and the heroism of the War of Independence. Political life was stagnating in the stalemate achieved by the Settlement; it was an era dominated by small-time corruption and short-term gain on the part of the gentry and the petty officials. This uninspiring world is preserved with varying degrees of bitterness and criticism in the works of many minor writers who lived in godforsaken towns, nearly choked by the provincialism of their environment or the blind alleys of their own lives.
One author who took a particularly gloomy view of the world was Lajos Tolnai (1837-1902), whose lifework received little praise from his contemporaries, and who then, in turn, was over-praised by the populist writers in the 1930s. Born into a family of distinguished ancestors and limited means, Tolnai went to school at Nagykőrös, where Arany was one of his teachers. His influence was responsible for Tolnai’s experiments with poetry in the early part of his career, when he wrote ballads imitating Arany. Tolnai became a clergyman, and was pastor of the congregation at Marosvásárhely in Transylvania. The provincial community disliked his moralizing temperament; he made few friends and many enemies. His ill-natured personality continued to create many awkward situations for him in the latter part of his life, after he had left the Church, and he died an already forgotten figure.
His moroseness prevented the harmonious development of his talent; while he possessed the indisputable ability to depict both society and human character with vividness and in closely observed detail, he also displayed strong prejudices in his works, and a tendency to complain, to accuse, and to moralize. For this reason, his characters often became grotesquely satirical or excessively evil; human society became a single gang of criminals. His shortcomings were, however, counterbalanced to some extent by his powerful style, but as he was a born loser and a complete outsider, his view of society tended to be morbid; his characters were motivated by the base instincts of greed and self-interest, their deeds merely covered up by a hypocritical morality. In addition, Tolnai’s personality completely lacked the redeeming quality of humour.
In Gentlemen (1872) he destroyed the illusion of ‘passive resistance’ so convincingly idealized in Jókai’s The New Landlord. Tolnai painted a dark picture of a small town where, in the years of repression following the War of Independence, the various strata of society were corrupted through the opportunities created by the foreign administrators who represented the new regime. It is a powerful sketch of a traditional society broken up by intermarriage, corruption, and unscrupulous ambition in the local people. The subject-matter of Her Ladyship, the Baroness (1882) largely overlapped with that of Gentlemen, but the execution contained more nuances. Its hero, Dr Schwindler, is an excellently drawn figure of a careerist.
In The Mayor (1885) and The New Lord Lieutenant (1885) Tolnai depicts idealist heroes of moral rectitude who fight a losing battle against all kinds of corruption. The struggle of these senior officials to uphold lofty principles and to apply the law consistently, allows Tolnai to expose malpractices at all levels. The effect is, however, marred by the presence of many thinly-disguised real-life figures, introduced to act out Tolnai’s revenge on his numerous enemies in both public and private life.
His autobiographical novel, Dark World (1894), is a strange mixture of self-justification and lyrical scenes from his childhood. Nevertheless, he does manage to convey an authentic atmosphere of his childhood, with all its hardships, and to draw a vivid portrait of his family. The later part of the work, devoted to his struggles, carries perhaps less authenticity, but is marked by the same lyrical intensity, the voice of an injured soul. Taking his work as a whole, he made an effort to create novels on the model of the English realists, particularly Dickens and Thackeray, and never employed the device of the anecdote; but his attitude to life and literature made him rather an undeclared disciple of the Zola tradition.
Ödön Iványi (1854-93) developed slowly into a novelist, and his career was cut short by his untimely death. He, too, lived in the country, although Nagyvárad, the place of his birth, and his home for most of his life, was the scene of intellectual ferment and was prominent in cultural life at the turn of the century. Young Iványi was moulded into a Romantic revolutionary: he believed that the history of mankind is one unbroken line of unnecessary sufferings. In his early short stories he preferred exciting action to psychological detail; but nevertheless took pains to describe in minute detail the motivations of his heroes. His novel The Bishop’s Relatives (1888) is a significant experiment in the modernization of the Hungarian novel. Influenced by the Russian Realists, particularly by Turgenev, Iványi attempted to create a picture of the whole of Hungarian society in the 1880s, condensed into one family novel. The principal hero, Kanut Bacsó, is a newly-appointed Under-Secretary of State; the family includes a bishop, landed gentry, Members of Parliament, journalists, and anarchists, their main driving force being a desire for social success at all costs. The novel graphically depicts many aspects of contemporary life, but fails in its conclusion, for Bacsó, although he often hovers on the brink of immorality, emerges with his character untarnished, and sails into the haven of a happy marriage, in a somewhat Jókaiesque fashion.
Elek Gozsdu (1849-1919) came from a middle-class family of mixed Greek, Rumanian, and Serbian extraction. Educated at Budapest University, he was first a journalist and later entered the civil service. Like his contemporaries, his ideas were formed by the new natural sciences, in particular the work of Darwin, and by Schopenhauer, Taine, and Spencer. He served in the Bánát, that region in South Hungary where there was to be found the strongest mixture of nationalities Serbs, Croats, Hungarians, Romanians, and Greeks all lived side by side with no clearly-defined ethnic frontiers.
When Gozsdu’s stories (Tantalus, 1886) appeared, they were hailed by the critics; not only were they well-constructed, but they revealed their author’s aptitude for philosophizing and meditation. They were pessimistic in tone, and reflected his fascination with the eternal riddle of life and death. The stories he wrote about the Bánát were full of local colour, and his skilfully-drawn characters came from all walks of life. His heroes were victims of social injustice, people quietly resigned to their fate. Of his novels, Fog (1882) showed the influence of Turgenev its gentry hero is a ‘superfluous man’, enervated and decadent.
From about the 1890s he wrote less and less, adjusting himself with resignation to the norms of local society, and to his own steady advancement in the civil service. Gozsdu died as a forgotten writer, and without leaving a lifework which would have created a lasting monument to his sensibility and creative talent; it was as if biological determinism, which played an important part in his attitude to the fate of his characters, had also affected his own life unfavourably.
István Bársony (1855-1928) was another writer who contributed a distinctive voice to the Hungarian short story in the last third of the nineteenth century. Bársony, who was no doubt influenced by Turgenev’s Sportsman’s Sketches, is remembered mainly for his hunting tales, which reveal his love of nature and his keen eye for detail in an environment largely alien to town-dwellers. His lonely figures have an intimate relationship with a nature which is full of secrets and has a peculiar atmosphere of its own. He was a prolific author, whose often nostalgic and evocative style made a strong impression on his readers (In the Open Air, 1888; Hunting Stories, 1897).
Zsigmond Justh (1863-94), an aristocrat by birth and a cosmopolitan by inclination, had ambitious plans, of which he could accomplish very few during his short life, though it was spent in fervent activity: commuting between his estates, where he established a theatre for peasants, and Paris, where he indulged in high life, stopping briefly at Pest where he entertained the literati. His stories in Mirages (1887) show the influence of all the fashionable contemporary ideas. In one of his short stories, the hero listens one day to the principles of French Christian socialism, and the next day to the menacing doctrines of nihilism; at lunch-time he meets social democrats, and over coffee he hears a student explaining English liberalism, while in the evening he listens to modern scepticism. Justh’s heroes are bewildered by the diversity of ideas, and usually reluctant to act: ‘For everything is a mirage only; we do not know everything and we cannot be sure about anything.’
He was thoroughly disappointed with his own class, the aristocracy, whom he saw as inactive, neurotically idle, and enervated. He planned a cycle of novels with a suggestive Darwinian title: The Genesis of Selection, in which he was to portray Hungarian society. It remained incomplete; only three volumes ever appeared, of which Fuimus (1895) is unquestionably the best. Its subject-matter is the biological-social decadence of an aristocratic family in Upper Hungary intermarriage causes their mental degeneration; they live in a smallish, closed world; they are too high-brow and lack willpower, and have an ‘unhealthy’ taste for eccentricity: they often turn out to be dilettante patrons of new trends in art. Justh provided the solution for the principal hero by marrying him to a peasant girl, and in general expressed an attraction to the ‘healthy’ way of life of the rural people, as opposed to the degenerate life of the upper classes. The execution of the novel lags behind its conception, an utopia of social and racial levelling. Justh was not the first to discover the ‘common people’, nor was he the first to see in them a depository of unspent and uncorrupted life-energies; yet his conception did possess certain merit. Unfortunately he did not live long enough to explore the full possibilities of his fermenting ideas.
Finally, two men of letters deserve a place in a survey of Hungarian prose of the period: Péterfy and Riedl. Jenő Péterfy (1850-99) was, perhaps, the most significant essayist of his age. He made no career worthy of his exceptional qualities he taught in a high school, and took no part in literary life; he was a lonely, withdrawn figure who eventually committed suicide. His essays were published mostly in Budapest Review (1873-1944), a periodical modelled on the great English reviews of the century. In the first decades of its existence the Review, under the austere editorship of Pál Gyulai, became an arbiter of intellectual life, featuring as it did carefully-planned articles and thought-provoking reviews and essays like those of the young Péterfy. Impressively grounded in classical scholarship, his writings bore the hallmark of the sensibility of a true artist. He possessed a penetrating analytical mind, a sound judgement, a rigorous reverence for facts, and a lively, balanced style, full of poignant irony. His critical activity embraced diverse fields he wrote with equal ease about classical Greek literature, modern music and drama, and contemporary Hungarian literature. His essays on Jókai, Eötvös, and Kemény (all written in 1881) contained original observations; the force of his argument has lost little with the passing of time.
Frigyes Riedl (1856-1921) was also a regular contributor to Budapest Review. Like Péterfy, he was influenced by the positivism of Taine. When teaching in high school he produced two standard handbooks: Poetics (1888) and Rhetoric (1889), used by generations of students. He followed Pá1 Gyulai in the Chair of Hungarian Literature at Budapest University in 1905. As a positivist, he regarded philology to be the foundation of sound scholarship; in his critical activity, stylistic and psychological analysis were the essential features. His main works included a comprehensive monograph on János Arany (1887) and his university lectures on Petőfi (1923). He wrote a survey of Hungarian literature for the English public in 1906, which, although dated in many respects, contains substantial portraits of the main figures of ‘national classicism’; he devoted special attention to those features of Hungarian literature that might arouse the interest of English readers.
|CHAPTER XIV The Decline of the Gentry and the Novel
|CHAPTER XV A Pseudo-Victorian Era