|CHAPTER XV A Pseudo-Victorian Era
|CHAPTER XVII Revolt Turned into Style
BY 1900 Budapest had become one of the great modern cities of Europe. The population trebled between 1870 and 1910, and already in 1890 the capital stretched over eighty square miles it suddenly became the largest municipality on the Continent. In 1872 a radial avenue was designed to be one of the most beautiful boulevards of Europe. Andrássy út connected downtown Pest with the City Park. Underneath the impressive thoroughfare an underground railway was built, the first on the Continent and was later studied by the designers of the New York subway. As early as 1889 Budapest had introduced electric streetcars. At the same time, a network of suburban railways was constructed which facilitated commuting into the metropolis within a reasonable radius. Not only did the man in the street benefit from public transport, which was swift, reliable, and comfortable, but commerce and industry were also adequately provided for. Budapest thrived on everything: it thrived, for example, on the grain trade (Hungarian mills had pioneered steel rollers that produced the extra-fine flour needed for pastry); or on the untold wealth of mineral waters (its thermal baths, dating from Turkish times, now promoted tourism, and a great variety of bottled mineral water was sold all over Europe).
This large-scale modernization was first noticed by foreigners when the Millennial Exhibition of 1896*, in an orgy of self-congratulation, featured celebrations on a scale which exceeded the wildest expectations. In the City Park a whole Transylvanian castle, in its full splendour, was meticulously reproduced down to the tiniest detail. At the end of Andrássy út a magnificent square was designed with monumental sculptures of Árpád and his conquering warriors. A lavishly-illustrated history of Hungary in ten volumes and other commemorative publications were issued. There were many inaugurations, fanfares, and fireworks, pageantry with the participation of the gentry in cavalry boots, braided breeches, fur-trimmed capes, plumed hats, and swords studded with jewels-often in front of foreign royal dignitaries. Hungarians proved successfully their love for outsize celebrations.
Men were lulled into a feeling of well-being when they sat at the marble-topped tables in coffee-houses, of which there were hundreds. Animated conversation, the right to read the latest domestic or foreign newspapers, to play cards, billiards, or chess all these luxuries were theirs for the price of a cup of coffee, with the added thrill of being addressed as ‘Mr Director’, ‘Mr Professor’, or ‘Mr Editor’ by the immaculately dressed and polite waiters who knew how to oblige their respected customers. In the overheated, overlit, heavily gilded elegance men felt important, and soon forgot that their homes were dark and cold, that electricity, gas, and coal were expensive, that they owed last month’s rent for their lodgings in the basement shared by co-tenants. In a word, Budapest was a classic case of sudden industrial overgrowth.
The shining façade was however a délibáb only, a mirage of the Hungarian kind, covering up grave social problems not only in the capital, but all over the country. It revealed the Hungarians’ disposition to dream while under duress. To be sure, social problems could not be solved by the coffee-house wits, although so many talented people were rarely to be found sitting in coffee-houses in other parts of the world, as there were in Budapest at the turn of the century; for these coffee-houses were a breeding ground for much originality of thought.
But first the social problems. Besides the nationality question the social position of the lower classes, irrespective of their nationality, was appalling. The peasantry was largely landless and illiterate; alongside the giant estates of the aristocracy, the Catholic Church probably held in Hungary more land than it possessed anywhere else in Europe. Franchise was restricted by property and literacy to such an extent that the general electorate comprised only a ruling class, which fiercely opposed all attempts at reforming the electoral law. Agricultural unrest which became common among landless peasants, who were mostly kubikoses,* was brutally suppressed and the peasantry had no other remedy against the inhumane living and working conditions than to emigrate. Large-scale emigration started in the last years of the nineteenth century at an annual figure of over 100,000, mostly making for America.
The total number of emigrants who left Hungary between 1850 and 1920 is variously estimated at between 2.5, and 3 million. No exact figures can be reached, since between 15 and 33 per cent of the gross emigration returned. Furthermore, the figures include all nationalities from the population. Such a big cut in the manpower of a country must surely have made an impact on production, since whole villages became depopulated. These uneducated masses with no knowledge of English provided cheap unskilled labour, mostly in the industrial areas of the USA, where altogether about 1.5 million of them had settled. Characteristically, the peasants were eager to give up their traditional agricultural occupations, and instead sought their prosperity in industry; they lived in ethnic ghettoes, mostly in the Cleveland, Chicago, and Detroit areas, and were kept together by religious and fraternal associations, and by their newspapers and schools. Their cultural heritage consisted mostly of folksongs and traditions brought from the old country. Creative writers did come forward, but Hungarian-American literature failed to produce outstanding writers or to show a distinct profile, unlike French-Canadian literature, for example. The main themes of writers from the immigrant communities were their homesickness, and their present isolated existence. Those figures like Joseph Pulitzer (1847-1911), the well-known journalist, or Adolph Zukor (1873-1976), the Hollywood movie mogul who did make an impact on the American cultural scene did not emerge from the immigrant communities. The same is true of significant authors, like Áron Tamási or Lajos Zilahy, whose American sojourns were merely episodes in their lives, not unlike the American years of Thomas Mann.
While emigration presented one of the major social problems, immigration, although far less significant, brought about a social mobility which profoundly affected the structure of Hungarian society. Since growing anti-semitic outbreaks in Poland and Russia made the position of Jews there precarious, and since the Hungarian Parliament had enacted a liberal law shortly after the Settlement (Law XVII of 1867), Jews began to migrate to Hungary in large numbers to enjoy the improved conditions created there by their emancipation. The number of Hungarian Jewry was estimated at about between 150 and 200 thousand in 1840; by 1910 it was around the million mark. The original Jewish population had made a considerable effort to assimilate the Hungarian way of life in language, culture, and manners in the Age of Reform, and Jews had sided with their fellow-countrymen in the War of Independence. The new immigrants were initially not easily absorbed by society, for they lived in closely-knit communities in Eastern Hungary, particularly at Ungvár, Beregszász, and Munkács. But by the 1910s most of them had settled in Budapest, and one quarter of the population of the capital was Jewish. Many of them were engaged in commerce or the professions. Consequently, it was Hungarian Jewry which turned Budapest into an industrial and financial metropolis, and the Jewish contribution to the professions was also significant; for example two-fifth of Budapest’s lawyers, three fifths of its doctors, and two fifths of its journalists were Jewish. No doubt Jews added a cosmopolitan flavour to an otherwise xenophobic city, yet they eagerly espoused the national cause, adopted Hungarian names, and championed social progress. It was perhaps the result of this eagerness to be assimilated that, although Jews traditionally spoke German in their homes, no significant literature in German emerged in Budapest, or at any rate nothing that could compare with that produced in other non-German cities of the Empire, such as Prague.
At the same time Jews filled a vacuum in Hungarian society, since the gentry despised trade and commerce as ‘ungentlemanly’ occupations; consequently, a ‘marriage of convenience’ linked them to the Jews, who readily performed the role the gentry was unwilling to undertake. To be sure, it was not the Jews’ fault that Hungarian society lacked a large middle class. When the feudal structure of the society broke up after the reforms first conceived prior to the revolution of 1848, Hungary had no significant urban areas, the traditional home of the middle-class way of life. The small existing middle class consisted of a mixture of Hungarian, German, and Jewish town-dwellers in Budapest, in the Saxon towns of Transylvania, and in Upper Hungary. Large towns in exclusively Hungarian populated areas (e.g. Debrecen, the largest town at the beginning of the nineteenth century) were inhabited mostly by artisans and wealthy farmers. The radical political function of the middle class was undertaken by the lesser nobility, an inadequate substitute at best.
The consequence of this lack of a native middle class could be felt in the last third of the century, when suddenly a new middle class of Jews appeared. The Jews, traditionally town-dwellers, had very little by way of a model to which to assimilate themselves. Their upper crust was keen to imitate the aristocracy, but the majority of them had to adopt the way of life of the gentry, with all its antiquated paraphernalia, a contradiction in terms, since the gentry was unable and unwilling to act out any other role than its own. Even when forced by changing economic conditions to alter their lifestyle very few, if any, of the gentry tried their luck in commerce or in industry; instead they became day-dreaming civil servants.
To analyse the full impact of the changes caused by social mobility in the structure of Hungarian society lies outside the scope of a survey of literature; nevertheless, some features of intellectual history deserve mention as background to literature proper. The commonly held view that the decay of a civilization or an empire nurtures an astonishing bloom in the arts and letters is definitely supported by the case of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the years preceding and following its collapse.
To the science of psychoanalysis, born in neighbouring Vienna, Hungary made her special contribution, first in the person of Sándor Ferenczi (1873-1933), a faithful disciple and confidant of Freud; Ferenczi expounded the theory of ‘magical thinking’ whereby the ego seeks to evade reality. In other words, Ferenczi drew some general conclusions about his countrymen’s national pastime of turning away from reality and chasing délibáb. He saw escapism as a narcissistic impulse to control reality, as the adult ego’s desire to wield omnipotence. Later figures of international significance in psychology included Géza Róheim (1891-1954), whose application of the psychoanalytic approach to primitive myths inspired startling hypotheses supported by extensive field-work in primitive societies. Often labelled as a ‘sexual radical’ for his conviction of the unparalleled significance of sex, both in individual psychology and in the evolution of civilization, Róheim’s ideas about the repression of sexuality are strikingly in tune with the present-day trends, especially his belief that in our repression of sexuality we have paid too high a price for our civilization. Lipót Szondi (1893-1986) founded a school he called ‘fate-analysis’, based on the tracing of the genealogies of social misfits and criminals. He found that the genes carrying their coded secret message allow little choice for the individual; he asserted that repressed ancestral traits act as nature’s matchmaker when an individual makes a seemingly free marital choice. His theory in the final analysis is derived from a consciousness firmly rooted in Hungarian popular beliefs, that dead hands of the past rule the present, with the result that, in his pessimistic world, psychotherapy can merely facilitate the few options permitted by the genetic straitjackets.
In sociology there were also significant movements. The initiative was taken by the Sociological Society with the launching of its periodical Twentieth Century (1900-19), a forum of new, radical ideas about social reform in Hungary. Its contributors included a host of talented young scholars whose field-work and theoretical writings applied a wide range of ideas including Socialism and Marxism. Their representative figure, Oszkár Jászi (1875-1957), initially a political scientist, fought for universal suffrage and worked towards a just solution of the nationality question. After the revolution of 1919 the movement was dispersed and many social scientists left the country, including Jászi who emigrated to the USA and became a university professor there. He wrote the obituary of the Monarchy in an impressive analysis: The Dissolution of the Habsburg Monarchy (Chicago, 1929). Another leading figure from the group, Jenő Varga (1879-1964), became an authority on Marxist economics in the Soviet Union.
In retrospect, there was no single intellectual group more outstanding in Hungary than that known as ‘The Sunday Circle’. Their animated discussions took place informally and irregularly in private apartments under the watchful eyes of György Lukács and Béla Balázs. Most of these intellectuals left Hungary after the revolution of 1919 and contributed new ideas to European thought. It was only their mentor, György Lukács (1885-1971), who eventually returned to Hungary to stay for better or worse. Lukács was a philosopher who virtually created the sociology of literature and profoundly influenced the sociology of knowledge. No adequate account of his long philosophical career can be attempted in this short survey, only a brief outline of his thought and work in so far as they have a direct bearing on literature. Young Lukács, having obtained a PhD in literature at Budapest University, was first interested in aesthetics (The Soul and the Forms, 1910; The Development of Modern Drama, 1911; and Aesthetic Culture, 1913), but found no satisfaction in tackling problems of detail. His essentially theoretical mind, seeking universal truths, led him to philosophy. All the basic issues which occupied his mind throughout his life were raised by the young Lukács. His fascination with the conflict between intellect and society reflected an attitude of political involvement so characteristic of Hungarian literature, although his intellectual habitat was rather Germany than Hungary. Hungarian writers ever since the Age of Enlightenment have presumed co-operation between intellectuals and society, and most of the outstanding heroes of both fiction and poetry were, above all, socially active in the same way as their creators were: Petőfi, Eötvös, or Jókai. Lukács, a born rebel, challenged this presumption by applying it to non-Hungarian literature. In other literatures he found a discord between the self and society. What Hungarian writers were unwilling to recognize, Lukács managed to unmask in other societies.
This gave him a powerful tool of literary analysis and led him to write A Theory of the Novel (1920). In it Lukács distinguished two alternatives by which a novelist can react to the antagonism between the self and its environment. The writers whom Lukács called ‘idealists’ did not let the self emerge from its own world: thus their heroes escape contact with the external world (e.g. Cervantes’ Don Quixote or Schiller’s Don Carlos). The alternative was provided by those writers whom he labelled ‘romantics of disillusionment’. These writers expanded and glorified the ego to the detriment of the outside world (Flaubert in L’Éducation sentimentale, or Turgenev, and Tolstoy). A synthesis was provided by Goethe’s hero (Wilhelm Meister) who attempted to reconcile his dreams with reality by transforming both himself and society to match his ideals. Finally, Dostoevsky offered a new possibility of synthesis in the hero who, by his self-sacrifice, undid the conflict, thereby achieving a transformation of both himself and society.
Lukács insisted that the choice of approach cannot be derived from the writer’s personal preferences, because it depends on objective historical forces. His joining the Communist Party in 1918, for example, seemed to underline the role of objective historical forces, since in his philosophical development nothing appeared to vouchsafe such a radical change. Lukács spent the inter-war period in exile as a consequence of his holding the post of Commissar for Cultural Affairs in the short-lived revolutionary government of 1919. In the 1930s he perfected his theory of realism, according to which the task of the writer was to reflect social reality in its essential form and without distortion. The writer is permitted to emphasize only the objectively essential features of the characters. Narrowing the scope of literature so rigidly led inevitably to the theoretical rejection of modern tendencies represented by such writers as Joyce, Proust, or Kafka, and in practice it made him attack vehemently Expressionism and Constructivism. While praising only Dante, Shakespeare, Balzac, or Thomas Mann as ‘great realists’ Lukács forgot his own youthful enthusiasm for innovators like Ady, the only Hungarian writer he and other radical intellectuals held in great esteem. By the end of his life Lukács had become the grand old man of Marxist philosophy, yet he remained an outsider both in international communism and in his own country, where he had returned in 1945. He served the cause with unfailing vigour, and had the devotion and ascetic tenacity of a monk;* he fought against heretics, and when needed showed submission; he had the discipline to exorcise himself, yet in his own life he ultimately failed to solve the conflict between self and society.
Károly Mannheim (1893-1947) also emerged from the Sunday Circle. Often hailed as the founder of the sociology of knowledge, Mannheim was intellectually indebted to Lukács; he too recognized the conflict between form and life as the fundamental problem of modern thought. At first Mannheim rejected the idea that sociology could be useful in the understanding of thought, but when he left Hungary, thoroughly disappointed with the Communist regime of 1919, he was already convinced of the utility of sociology. This is also true of his colleagues. Arnold Hauser (1892-1978), in his Social History of Art (London, 1951), widens the scope of the conflict to include art, claiming that men distort reality in order to discern whatever they want to see. Furthermore, thirty years after leaving Hungary he still upheld the lesson of his youth: ‘there is always a conscious or unconscious practical purpose, a manifest or latent propagandistic tendency in a work of art’. Frigyes Antal (1887-1954), who emigrated to England after 1919, was another who applied the sociological method to art. The youngest member of the Circle was Károly Tolnay, (1899-1981) who, as Charles de Tolnay, made his reputation as an art historian exclusively abroad.
The other mentor of the Sunday Circle, Béla Balázs (1884-1949), was hailed by Lukács as the most profound young Hungarian poet and playwright. Undoubtedly talented, with an inclination towards German mysticism, Balázs is chiefly remembered today as the author of the libretto for Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle (1912) and the story for The Wooden Prince (Gyoma, 1917). The great potentialities which Lukács thought he had discovered in Balázs remained potentialities only, and perhaps his disappointment over Balázs’s failure to become a genuinely epoch-making creative writer contributed to Lukács’s loss of interest in contemporary literature, or rather to his careful reluctance to acknowledge new talents. Outside Hungary, Balázs made his name as the very first theoretician of the then new art-form, the cinema; for his perceptive analysis of the silent film was the earliest systematic and formal theory of the cinema ever published (The Visible Man, or Film Culture, Vienna, 1924). In this book Balázs drew attention to the dramaturgical and emotional powers of close-up, camera angle, and set-up, frame composition and cross-cutting. His influence on early great directors, Pudovkin and others, was significant. Balázs’s preoccupation with film derived from his morbid obsession with the esoteric, and he saw the magic effect evoked by the new medium in this context. He also hailed the apparently universal language of the film with its exclusive vocabulary of gestures. At the same time Balázs discerned the potential dangers inherent in the new medium’s ability to reach large masses, realizing that it would be possible to influence people to a degree inconceivable in any previous art forms. As a good Marxist he forewarned directors of the decisive part that business interest was going to play in cinematic productions, giving priority to commercial success over artistic respectability.
Balázs’s literary products are uneven. First he published aesthetic studies, then poems and plays. Influenced by French and Austrian Symbolists, Balázs saw the world as an esoteric and unique experience, searching for profound meaning behind phenomena. This search led him to discover in the ancient traditions of the folk-songs a repository of primeval symbols. In addition, Balázs’s poetry subsisted on his sense of loneliness; he suffered from not belonging anywhere. His mood is thoroughly decadent; he sensed that middle-class existence would collapse in the war and revolutions (which indeed ended a way of life in the Austro-Hungarian Empire). While his poetry contained many unusual and thought-provoking ideas, it also suffered from intellectualism and often seemed to lack genuine inspiration. Balázs’s technique leaves much to be desired: he did not have the ability to renew poetic language so that it could carry his message with force. The same is true of his dramas he raised too many philosophical problems. In Miss Margit Szélpál, PhD (1909), for example, he analyses the destiny of a woman, the conflict between her intellectual aspirations and her womanhood. Balázs’s best effort is, perhaps, a short story, A Story about Lógody Street, About Spring, Death and Distance (1913). Its soft, subdued tone and lingering pessimism are both effective and dramatic. Balázs left Hungary in 1919 and led the life of the Communist expatriates, first in Vienna, then in Berlin, and later in Moscow. His later works served the cause of international communism; he received mixed rewards for his services from Moscow, as his type of writer often did. Balázs returned to Hungary in 1945, but following accusations of sectarianism, he was not allowed to participate fully in cultural life; in particular, the reviving cinema industry could have profited from his vision and theoretic grounding. His autobiographical recollections, Dreaming Youth (1946), are perhaps the best of his later works.
No survey of intellectual trends would be complete without referring to the musical renewal initiated by Béla Bartók (1881-1945) and Zoltán Kodály (1882-1967). Inspired by a deep sense of responsibility to Hungarian musical heritage, they undertook a systematic collection of folk-songs. While folk-songs as a literary form had received attention since the Age of Reform, little research had been carried out on the music itself, for nobody was aware of the existence of an autochthonous music in Hungary. Bartók’s and Kodály’s interest in folk-songs dates from 1904 and 1905 respectively; not only did it profoundly affect their careers as composers in search of a style, it also drew attention to the Hungarian peasant tunes, which represented probably the most ancient cultural relic the Hungarians possessed. These tunes indicated a structural affinity with the songs of ancient and primitive Asiatic peoples, and Bartók and Kodály established the pentatonic scale as the interlinking device.
Having discovered the existence of a deep layer of native peasant music under the luxuriant gipsy ornamentation gipsy music was regarded as the native music of Hungary by Ferenc Liszt and others Bartók set out to investigate and classify the peasant music of the Romanians, Slovaks, Bulgarians, and Turks, and even of the Arabs of North Africa in addition to that of his own people. As a result, he reconsidered his whole aesthetics and found a style that assimilated the essence of peasant music and determined the direction of Hungarian music for years to come. Bartók’s and Kodály’s significance lies, as far as their ethno-musicological studies are concerned, in the detailed examination of the melodic and rhythmic characteristics of the peasant tunes and in the derivation of harmonies from them. Having discovered the intrinsic nature of Hungarian folk-music, and having amalgamated it with the techniques of art music, they brought it into concert halls all over the world.
Technical civilization was also advancing fast. It was initiated by a love of technological wonders in the new acquisitive middle class of Budapest: a telephone network, elevators, underground railways, up-to-date bridges were all hastily constructed in the capital. The coffee-houses were full of inventors sitting next to inimitable poets, next to philosophers who could change the world (except, that they lacked the initial capital outlay to cover their modest lunch), or next to journalists who were covering dangerous African expeditions while sipping their coffee and using German newspapers and some imagination, of which everybody seemed to possess too much. It all added up to a cult of illusion, yet Hungary nevertheless produced a wealth of able scientists.
Baron Loránd Eötvös’s (1848-1919) experiments, particularly his torsion pendulum, were essential for Einstein in formulating the theory of relativity. Tivadar Puskás (1844-93) constructed the first-ever telephone exchange, collaborated with Edison, and established a unique telephone news service in Budapest. Theodor von Kármán’s (1881-1963) researches in aerodynamics and in aviation were epoch-making, and the name of Leó Szilárd (1898-1964) is familiar to nuclear physicists on both sides of the Atlantic.
No doubt the bustling urban culture, both intellectual and material, of which some aspects are indicated above, could not have come into existence without those fertile cross-currents which had been contributed to the Hungarian intellectual scene largely by Jewish talent. On the one hand, the invigorating Jewish impact successfully countered some basic traits in Hungarian society, namely a certain ceremonial slovenliness and a disposition towards resignation; on the other hand, it also effectively speeded up intellectual integration in the larger, European context by the promotion of the free flow of ideas, thereby creating an intellectual climate eminently suitable for experimenting and for the creation of new thoughts. Traditional Hungarian scholarship has always looked with suspicion at this bewildering diversity of views and at the fluidity of intellectual attitudes, claiming that they were ‘alien’ to the national spirit. It may have been so, but a survey of the state of Hungarian letters in the last third of the nineteenth century shows that they were badly in need of some beneficial stimulant. While intellectual renewal from inner sources appeared to be beyond the népies trend, and the subsequent national classicism had lost its momentum, a second ‘age of reform’ was triggered off by the emancipation of the Jews; this resulted in an intellectual ferment that radically altered the course of intellectual life.
The bankruptcy of national classicism seemed nowhere so acute as in theatrical life. The standard of the népszínmű reached perhaps its lowest ebb with the glorification of second-hand values and hackneyed ideas. The need for domestic drama was strongly felt; national classicism failed to produce great playwrights and plays. Experiment was half-hearted, and the competition of foreign plays strong. At the same time, theatrical life was vigorous and theatres mushroomed in the capital after the opening of the Comedy Theatre in 1896 (Magyar Theatre, 1897; Kisfaludy Theatre, 1897; King’s Theatre, 1903; Modern Theatre, 1907, and so forth). Repertoires were varied; the new middle-class theatre-goers were hardly interested in patriotic subjects, but wanted good entertainment for their money, consequently works by contemporary European playwrights were the chief attraction of the new theatres. While the artistic value of the plays was uneven, stagecraft, direction and acting improved considerably. Credit for new departures was due first and foremost to the experimental theatre of the Thalia Company (1904-8) under the guidance of Sándor Hevesi (1873-1939), whose theatrical genius both in interpretation and in direction was chiefly responsible for a great deal of artistic experimentation. His overall contribution to theatrical life, including his directorship of the National Theatre (1923-32) does not fall short of the achievement of Reinhardt in Germany or Stanislavski in Russia: his reinterpretation of the classics, his theoretical and directorial work certainly broke fresh ground.
Shortly after 1900 a new breed of native playwrights appeared. Often labelled ‘export drama’, their productions achieved immense popularity both at home and abroad, especially on Broadway, but also in Vienna, Berlin, and London. The basic characteristics of export drama were lightness of subject, sophisticated dialogue, and a superior knowledge of stagecraft on the part of their authors, especially Ferenc Molnár (1878-1952) who is often regarded as one of the masters of the stage in the first decades of this century. Molnár, as a dramatist, proved himself to be an original mind whose work evinced a contempt for conventions; his quick apprehension both of the pathos and of the humour of human experience, and his keen sympathy with human suffering, were matched by an unerring instinct for stagecraft, demonstrated by his command of dramatic structure. Many of his themes were universal in their appeal, but at the same time displayed distinctive features of Hungarian life and temperament, and nearly always sharply urban in flavour. It was this latter quality which provided him with his initial success. While the Hungarian middle class was pleased to find itself reflected in Molnár’s mirror, audiences abroad found a novelty in his local colour, which was mild enough for their liking. Quick-paced action was effectively supported by witty dialogues generously interspersed with puns and other signs of urban refinement; his ambiguous play on words never lacked sexual undertones which titillated the imagination of his audience.
In spite of all his distinctive qualities as a playwright, serious critics have always found fault with Molnár’s plays, and not entirely without reason. To be sure, Molnár never imposed on his audiences any obligation to think profoundly, and thus seldom tried their patience; at the same time, he frequently disappointed literary-minded critics once they had made the acquaintance of his plays. It can be claimed that Molnár never wrestled with destiny, unlike the heroic struggles of the major playwrights: somehow he too seemed to be a victim of the cult of illusion so characteristic of the pseudo-Victorian Hungarian society. In Molnár’s world atmosphere is everything, and it would be difficult to substantiate social realities from his always amusing, unpredictable, and occasionally artistic dialogues. Once the atmosphere evaporates, the residue left behind often looks more like calculated sensationalism than spontaneity.
The plots of his numerous plays are variations on relatively few themes. There are triangle situations in the manner of French bourgeois drama, in which the woman is usually the temptress, almost falling victim to her own machinations to ensnare ‘the other man’, but ultimately reverting to her middle-class moral code of ‘thou shalt not commit ...’; in this way Molnár ensured a peaceful night for all the jealous husbands, who, though having enjoyed the play fancying themselves in the role of ‘the other man’, are secretly worried by a constant fear of infidelity on the part of their wives. Jealousy is one of Molnár’s chief preoccupations. His men generally suffer because of women, hardly ever the other way around; therefore most of his female characters have a psychological advantage over the men, whose male pride and dignity are under constant strain. The male characters are defenceless against female cunning, since their main interest is determined by sexual desires, in spite of all their urbanity, cynicism, wit, and good manners it is ‘the male animal’ lurking in the dark depths of their egos. This is of course a psychological platitude against which the only time-honoured remedy at hand is a large dose of sentimentality, and Molnár cannot be accused of the sparing use of the available medicine. Sentimentality in Molnár’s case is male self-pity.
Molnár was a born playwright; he wrote his first play at the age of twenty-three (The Lawyer, a light social comedy, 1902), but real success came to him with The Devil (1907) which established his reputation as one of the leading dramatists of his day. The plot concerns Jolán, the pretty young wife of an elderly merchant, who has successfully smothered her romantic first love for a struggling painter. They meet again, but now the painter is a recognized artist who happens to have been commissioned by Jolán’s husband to portray her beauty. The resulting opportunity for intimate togetherness is a strong temptation to rekindle the old flame. Furthermore, the path towards marital infidelity is paved by the sly manipulations of the ‘Devil’, who breaks up the proposed marriage between the artist and his fiancée in order to assist a flare-up of old passions. So closely do the words of the Devil approximate to the subconscious thoughts and emotions of the other characters that his utterances sound as if the characters were thinking aloud. By introducing the symbolic figure of the Devil, Molnár gained an excellent opportunity for social satire on the semi-unintentional restraint and the virtuous intentions of the lovers in their ‘smart society’ setting, yet the play is not primarily a vehicle for social criticism. The focus is on the supernatural character of the Devil, whose initial unexplained appearance and subsequent manipulations were responsible for the sweeping success of the play. The Devil is omniscient; he knows the intimate details of all the characters’ lives, he even anticipates their thoughts and controls their actions by subtly breaking down their inhibitions, so much so that he may be interpreted as a psychological study of the evil impulses within the human ego. Molnár’s insight into the pathetic and ludicrous motives of the human mind and the heart owed much to the recently-discovered Freudian truths about the spiritual and moral anxieties of modern man; hence the startling originality he gives to the old triangle theme. To be sure, much of the novelty has now worn off, yet it is undeniable that Molnár’s skilful control over his material makes The Devil an amusing and well-written play and not without claims to artistic value.
It is, however, Liliom (1909) which is usually regarded as Molnár’s best play, and it is also his best-known play, particularly since it became a successful musical in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s adaptation (Carousel, 1945). The plot* revolves around the hero of the title, Liliom, an occasional hand at an amusement arcade in the Budapest City Park, and his sweetheart Juli, a servant girl. Liliom is a ‘tough guy’, and in spite of his tender feelings for Juli his quick temper often gets the better of him, for which he feels duly sorry afterwards, since he is not a bad fellow; in fact, he is warm-hearted, but he finds it difficult to control his rage when his pride is at stake. Their love takes its course; they marry, even at the price of losing their jobs. After the initial bliss they find themselves very much in the real world; they have to live in a hovel on the city’s outskirts. Liliom is unemployed, and Juli is pregnant; Liliom in desperation turns to robbery, and when caught redhanded he stabs himself. Then Molnár reverts to the supernatural, to give an unexpected turn to the plot. In a ‘celestial court’ Liliom is sentenced to sixteen years of Purgatory for ill-treating his family, after which he is to return to earth to perform a redeeming act as a sign of his being purged; but when he returns, disguised as a beggar, his temper again gets the better of him, and instead of doing a good deed he manages to hit his sixteen-year old daughter, Lujza, to whom he had originally intended to give a stolen star as a present. In the concluding scene Lujza’s mother, sensing who the rude beggar is, gives the answer to her surprised daughter who has felt no pain on being slapped: ‘It is possible dear that someone may beat you and beat you and beat you, and not hurt you at all.’
While the play definitely has sentimental overtones, it also has noteworthy features: a choice of interpretations; an effective blend of raw realism and the sudden introduction of the supernatural, echoing the dream world of Hungarian folk-tales; and an odd looseness in construction which does not damage the structure or the coherence of the play. Liliom’s character demonstrates the strangely paradoxical make-up of human nature; he is a symbol of the inadequate functioning of human will, when the wishes of the heart are translated into actions. No doubt Molnár’s thesis that true love penetrates below the external signs of wickedness or cruelty is a truism, but this is only one interpretation of the theme; on a deeper level Liliom, an unwilling social drop-out, illustrates social injustice: he had had a rough deal even in the ‘celestial court’, which punished him for not caring enough for his family, although his fateful step had been taken precisely because of his devotion to them. True, he had made the wrong choice. Earlier in the play it has become clear that he is not a man who could settle down as a caretaker, or in any other menial job which would allow no play to the flamboyant nature he generously displayed while working as a bouncer in the amusement arcade. No doubt he is a bully, but his fate provides Molnár with an opportunity to prove his point, namely that it is futile for any man predestined to damnation to attempt to save his own soul. In the ‘celestial court’ scene Molnár is satirizing the faceless machinery of bureaucracy and its helpless victims. The background of the Budapest underworld is authentic-characters such as Ficsúr speak thieves’ slang with all its pungent idioms. The play is arranged into seven scenes and, by discarding the conventional division into acts, Molnár obtained a smooth continuity of the action which was essential to the blending of fantasy and reality.
After Liliom, which was a success on both sides of the Atlantic, Molnár produced his plays in quick succession, nearly thirty altogether, many of them being romantic light comedies (e.g. The Swan, 1920). Molnár’s most popular play in the United States, The Play’s the Thing (1926), also considered by many critics to be his best, shows his deep preoccupation with jealousy. The simple plot has a clever twist; by introducing a play-within-a-play, Molnár manages, with bold gestures and many theatrical manipulations, to produce a variation on the time-honoured triangle theme, and in addition gives a lesson in playwriting, showing that it was possible to maintain the whole Third Act without suspense, by relying entirely on the humour and emotional by-play of the situation.
Molnár was a significant prose-writer too. At the beginning of his career he cultivated both drama and prose with equal zeal, and could have developed into a novelist of the first order. While his plays contained less and less social criticism as the years went by, Molnár’s short stories revealed a social conscience (e.g. ‘Coal Thieves’, 1918) and showed him an outspoken critic of urban poverty. He achieved lasting fame, however, with The Paul Street Boys (1907), devoted to the problems of adolescence. The story concerns two warring gangs of youths on a grund*, and immortalized Ernő Nemecsek, a weak little boy whose unflinching loyalty and devotion to his gang brings about his untimely death, and belated recognition of his community spirit on his deathbed from his companions, whose starry eyes have been cast on more martial virtues. Molnár’s insight into the closely-knit community of schoolboys, his psychological understanding of the interaction of their instinctive and their conscious deeds, makes The Paul Street Boys a unique piece of narrative whose poetic qualities are still enjoyed by younger and older readers alike. Critics, particularly abroad, have later suggested that the novel also contains a powerful anti-war message in the magnanimous but senseless self-sacrifice of Nemecsek, who has taken ideals in dead earnest; for the caprices of his gang’s leaders could hardly have been lost on a generation that had just returned from the trenches of World War I.
Molnár himself saw a lot of warfare as a correspondent on the Eastern Front, sending back to Budapest excellent pieces of reportage (The Memoirs of a War Correspondent, 1916). It is, perhaps, the best tribute to his sensitivity towards human suffering that his eyewitness accounts of the war were also published in the New York Times, although Hungary belonged to the enemies of the Allies. Molnár frequently stayed in the United States during the inter-war years, and finally in 1940, when civilized life proved once more impossible in darkened Europe, he settled in New York. It was there he wrote his autobiography (Companion in Exile, 1950) a moving book by a man who had lost his illusions-even about cynicism.
The theatrical career of Menyhért Lengyel (1880-1974) was first connected with the Thalia Company, whose staging of The Great Prince (1907) provided the young journalist with instant success. While Lengyel learnt much from Ibsen, his Great Prince is, nevertheless, a genuinely satirical piece by a technically brilliant playwright. The plot revolves around what, for want of a better expression, can be described as the birth of ‘personality cult’, foreshadowing a dreadful experience in Eastern Europe half a century later. In a small town the local celebrities are preparing for the unveiling of a monumental marble statue of ‘the Great Prince’, and among those invited is the scholar who had devoted his time to the study of the ‘Life and Times of the Great Prince’. It is shortly before the actual celebrations that he finds decisive evidence: the Great Prince was a ruthless dictator, and the sources the scholar has been so diligently studying were suitably doctored by the order of the Great Prince himself. The president of the Academy expressly forbids the scholar to disclose his startling discovery ‘in the interest of the people’, who need great historical figures to admire. In desperation, the scholar decides to blow up the statue, but instead the walls crumble, burying the champion of truth, while the statue of the Great Prince remains undamaged. No doubt the author was moralizing somewhat, but the image of the tyrant of the Middle Ages towering above the life of a present-day small town and affecting the fate of the characters was effectively presented.
Success abroad came to Lengyel with The Typhoon (1909), a play devoted to the clash between Eastern and Western philosophies. It is set in Berlin, where a Japanese scholar is studying the German genius for efficiency in order to record it in a book, so that Japan may profit from it. For his lighter hours he finds distraction with Ilona, a prototype of the ‘dumb blonde’, whose undisciplined character is in striking contrast to his Oriental control. The action becomes somewhat melodramatic when Ilona, with whom Dr Tokeramo has fallen in love, teases him about his ‘Japaneseness’ until he strangles her. The ensuing tragedy in Dr Tokeramo’s life does not lie in the failure of his love affair with Ilona, nor even in his committing murder and dying in disgrace; it derives from the germs of Western individualism which have penetrated his Eastern nationalism at a vulnerable spot, and gradually undermine the structure of his Oriental life pattern until it finally falls to pieces. Lengyel is successful in creating an authentic Japanese atmosphere for the background; European audiences can discern such familiar Oriental features as the repression of emotions, excessive politeness, secretiveness, and a suppression of individual inclinations for the good of the state. The real tragedy of Tokeramo unfolds in the closing scene; he is alienated from his fellow-countrymen, whose solicitude leaves them when they discover his European ‘taint’. ‘Let us beware, lest along with European culture, this corruption also breaks upon us’ observers one of his Japanese fellow-scholars. Lengyel’s attraction to Oriental settings also manifested itself in his production of the scenario for Bartók’s ballet The Miraculous Mandarin (1918), the eroticism and sadism of which caused a scandal at its first public performance (Cologne, 1926). Lengyel was unable to repeat the artistic accomplishment of The Typhoon, although he became a much-sought-after scriptwriter, first in London, where he moved in 1931, and later in Hollywood. Opportunity was provided for him by Sándor Korda (1893-1956), who, having been the most talented director of the budding Hungarian motion picture world, became Sir Alexander Korda, virtually the founder of the British cinema industry.
A scriptwriter with whom Korda had a long and fruitful co-operation in London was Lajos Bíró (1880-1948), himself a playwright and short-story writer. The young Bíró was attracted by naturalism and political radicalism, and he never achieved the urban sophistication which characterized Molnár. His stories (e.g. Thirty Short Stories, 1906; Twenty-One Short Stories, 1908) were the products of a hard-working journalist who had seen the ugly face of life, the smal-scale but bloody dramas of ordinary people. The composition of Bíró’s stories revealed the genuine playwright; he had a natural instinct for perceiving human conflict. He was also one of the first urban writers to look upon the peasants with hostility and fear. In the powerfully-written ‘Scared City’ (1908), for example, the drunken harvesters who are let loose on the Eastern Railway Station, form an uncontrollable mob menacing the life and security of the middle-class citizens of Pest. Of his numerous plays Yellow Lily (1909) ought to be mentioned, as containing genuine conflict (Bíró often made concessions to business interests in the theatre). After 1919 he was forced to go abroad as a result of his active participation in politics, and he finally settled in London, producing scripts for Korda’s films (e.g. The Private Life of Henry VIII, 1933).
The rest of the host of playwrights producing successful commercial plays mainly for overseas consumption showed a considerable degree of craftsmanship, but very little literary taste; they were chasing the délibáb in the form of financial success, and most of them swarmed around Hollywood where they found the fulfilment of their dreams in proportion to their own shrewdness. Suffice it to say that Hungarian contribution to the Hollywood dream-industry was considerable, yet the artistic image of the movie centre of the world was improved very little by the onrush of the Budapest coffee-house wits. Not that it mattered.
The great theatrical upsurge in the 1910s produced at least one lasting side-effect, which made profound changes in the colloquial speech of town dwellers in Hungary: Budapest created its own ‘folklore’. The pace of town life was quick; it possessed very little of the slow, contemplative character of the rural way of life; therefore urban folklore bore little resemblance to folklore proper. Its birthplace was almost certainly the coffee-house, and its main features were wit, black humour, arrogance, and cynicism; its chief genre was the joke with the pungent punch-line, and it very often bordered on the absurd. Many of the smart sayings of Molnár and other light playwrights became part of this folklore, and the attitude of mind which was responsible for its development became ‘respectable’ (if respectability did not exclude by definition tongue-in-the-cheek urban smartness) in cabaret. Cabaret was the place where sparkling wit was most effectively employed, for it drew large audiences, and in any case this type of humour almost always evaporates off-stage. Moreover, in the cabaret the essence of the coffee-house mentality could be successfully applied to topical issues in politics, or to other daily events known to large numbers of people.
The ephemeral character of urban folklore has been proved by the fact that the celebrated cabaret author, Endre Nagy (1878-1938), to whom many significant modern writers have acknowledged themselves indebted, is hardly more than a memory today. Nevertheless, the germ of Budapest folklore is still virulent not only are words or phrases constantly being coined, and words, which were formerly respectable becoming unusable, except with the twist or allusion the Budapest joke has attached to their meanings, but it still produces an enriching influence, which can be detected in the writings of many authors; and finally, it has given birth to the Budapest political joke, which, as it provides a safety valve, has been tolerated by changing political regimes.
Undoubtedly, urban Hungarian literature possessed a distinctly Jewish flavour; this manifested itself in the wide variety of themes stressing a more general outlook than the traditionally self-centred Hungarian viewpoint. This outlook was eminently brought into focus by the ‘export playwrights’, and the subsequent theatrical revival. In more traditional departments of literature there also appeared a spirit of ferment activated by ambition, talent, and a deep desire for changes in an otherwise static social structure which were distinctly Jewish in origin. Its chief driving force was József Kiss (1843-1921), the first Jewish poet to be prompted by a noble desire to reconcile his Jewishness with the Hungarian way of life. Today, as a poet Kiss is only of historical significance; his efforts to adopt the népies poetical technique of Petőfi, and particularly of Arany, whose ballads he imitated with genuine enthusiasm and not entirely without talent, have been duly praised. By the 1890s his largely one-sided love-affair with a reluctant Hungarian public opinion brought home to him the limited value of assimilation as an alternative to traditional Jewish life-style, and his poetry underwent a change.
His true significance, however, manifested itself in his capacity as an editor. In 1889 Kiss was left without a job, and his friends provided him with the initial capital outlay for a magazine. His brain-child, the weekly literary magazine The Week (1890-1924) proved to be a colourful repository of varied writing, embracing fashionable literary trends. After initial financial difficulties, The Week established itself as a leading literary journal (Jókai and Mikszáth were among its early contributors). The magazine was edited without a political viewpoint; Kiss preferred the musicality of a well-composed sentence to party political issues, and leading articles were written alike by convinced socialists and conservative writers. The profile of the journal was moulded by the needs of its readership, which consisted predominantly of middle-class Budapest people, and by the enthusiasm of its contributors for propagating contemporary European literature. Another feature of The Week was that it showed comparatively little interest in rural matters and the problems of the peasantry. With its snobbish dispositions and mildly satirical tone, and with its opposition to establishment literature, whilst paying due respect to the arbiter of conservative taste, Gyulai, The Week definitely provided novelty on the fin de siécle literary scene.
Although most of its contributors were Jews, a particularly Jewish flavour was provided only by Tamás Kóbor (1867-1942), who had the same lower-middle-class background as the editor, Kiss. A prolific writer, Kóbor ambitiously portrayed the monotonous daily life of the Budapest lower classes; the heroes of his short stories are often workers without prospects, living in the poverty created by the sudden industrial growth of the Hungarian capital. His somewhat drab style fitted well with his often depressing themes, there was always a touch of naturalism (Work, 1909). Kóbor also advocated assimilation, and called on Jews to fight against racial and religious prejudices (Out of the Ghetto!, 1911).
Sándor Bródy (1863-1924) was the leading figure among the young writers who flocked around The Week. While he is generally considered to be the most talented prose-writer to have made his presence felt after Mikszáth, and though many authors of the Nyugat period acknowledged their indebtedness to him, Bródy’s works are very uneven. Influenced by Zola and naturalism, he made his name with a collection of short stories (Poverty, 1884) in which he introduced many stereotypes to modern literature (e.g. exploited seamstresses, servants, downtrodden figures doing menial jobs, and able only to dream about the life-style of their middle-class employers). Naturalism, as could be expected, included a blunt presentation of sexual desires too in particular Bródy shocked public taste by attributing sexual desires to his female characters, even to respectable middle-class mothers.
Bródy was a born rebel, yet he never espoused any of the fashionable political creeds: his rebellious nature longed for an ultimate reconciliation between reckless desires and lofty ideals, just as the young Bródy had attempted to reconcile Jókai’s romantic idealism with the blunt naturalism of Zola. Of his numerous novels, perhaps The Knight of the Sun (1902) is the best. It is the story of a career, with the message that those who think illusions will help them socially end by failing and making themselves ridiculous. Bródy is on much firmer ground when he depicts the unnoticed tragedies of servant girls, fresh from the country, whose sexual defencelessness against their middle-class employers is the source of much unhappiness. Bródy treats their fate with compassion, and presents them with artistic skill (Nursemaid Elizabeth, 1900-1). Bródy’s works were marked by an indiscriminate use of Budapest slang a novelty in those days and loose sentence construction, often giving a rough-and-ready impression; his style ultimately became mawkish, and infected by mannerisms, a sure sign of overproductivity.
Bródy also wrote for the theatre. His plays reveal a social conscience, particularly The Nurse (1902), adapted from the Nursemaid Elizabeth stories. The middle-class theatre-goers were not over-enthusiastic about the play, which accused them of corrupting the country girls who were babysitting and ironing for them while they spent the evening at the theatre. Yet The Nurse was more than a moralizing play; it was the first Hungarian drama, after a long series of népszínműs and neo-Romantic plays, which had at its heart a genuine conflict. It was not Bródy’s fault that he could not compete with the popularity of the ‘export drama’ which flooded the Budapest theatres in the 1910s. The overall effect of The Nurse is marred by Bródy’s inability to compose natural dialogues for his peasant characters; their speech is a strange mixture of elevated sentences of Biblical simplicity and purity, lapsing occasionally into clumsiness or containing an unexpected slang expression. His best drama is probably The Schoolmistress (1908), in which he managed to create a memorable female portrait.
As the years passed, Bródy estranged himself more and more from literary life; he had little contact with the Nyugat writers, although many of them respected the pioneer in him. Lonely, disappointed, and at least once on the verge of suicide, Bródy made one last great creative effort. The controversial figure of Rembrandt had always fascinated him, because he saw in the great Dutch painter the pioneer of modern artistic attitudes, the constant desire for self-expression. No doubt he also sought an explanation in Rembrandt’s failure for his own. The resulting cycle of short stories (Rembrandt, 1925) presents a unique approach to the fate of the artist, emerging from the double portrait of his chosen hero and himself.
The other leading writer of The Week, Zoltán Ambrus (1861-1932) took part in one of Bródy’s short-lived undertakings, as a co-editor of the periodical The Future (1903-6). Ambrus, too, was a pioneer. First of all he was an irodalmi író* who abhorred cheap showmanship and exhibitionism; secondly, he managed to absorb the essence of French culture, thus towering above the other contributors to The Week, most of whom received their French intellectual wares via German middlemen. As he was the first exponent of the roman à thèse many critics accused him of emotional tepidness, for cool intellectual analysis had little tradition in Hungarian literature. True, Ambrus did not excel in description, but his development of plot and his unfolding of character through lively dialogues counterbalanced his ostensible shortcomings in description. A writer with Ambrus’s talent and intellectual discipline could manipulate his creative ability effortlessly, and it seems that his main artistic object was to maintain a purposeful indifference as opposed to spontaneity, let alone the pseudo-rustic simplicity or journalistic slickness of many of his contemporaries. He was clearly a literary dissenter in that he attributed superiority to intelligence at the expense of instinct or intuition. Consequently, he aimed at reaching the critical faculties or the sense of irony of his readers, with the dubious result of gaining literary immortality and impressing only a few discerning critics and readers. His failure to win popularity either in his lifetime or with posterity demonstrates only too well how literary taste is governed by deep-seated traditions; in Hungarian prose, these were the traditions of colourful story-telling, of the anecdote, and of social commitment, none of which characterized Ambrus’s writings.
The reception of his unusual first novel, King Midas (1906), was symptomatic: written fifteen years before its publication, originally Ambrus had to be content with serializing it in Magyar News (1891-2). Then it became a literary myth without being read. In King Midas Ambrus raised the questions which Bródy raised much later in Rembrandt: What is the artist? What is his place in society? It was an acute question for writers in Hungary at the turn of the century, since the accepted image of the artist as a torch-bearer for his community or as a watch-dog against social maladies seemed no longer to be taken for granted by writers infected with large doses of individualism. The story concerns a painter, who is apparently successful, yet is beset by doubts about his own talents. His first marriage is happy: he has found in his wife, the daughter of a déclassé family who is unwilling to make concessions in spite of her poverty, the same uncompromising spirit as his own. They live in secluded happiness until she suddenly dies. His second marriage brings him luck, spectacular success, social and artistic recognition, yet the rich (hence the title), unhappy painter is driven to suicide.
King Midas is a milestone in Hungarian fiction, and a major artistic achievement. Although the novel clearly shows a break in style its first half being naturalistic with a minutely detailed background, the second half being more impressionistic, but by no means perfunctory the dialogues are lively and carry the rhythm of action, and at the same time convey the writer’s message convincingly. Operating with a small cast of characters, Ambrus is able to concentrate on details of human traits without indulging in emotional embroidery, for restraint is the keynote of his artistic attitude. In the plot, however, he makes a concession to Romanticism with the sudden death of the artist’s wife. In spite of all the excellent qualities of the novel, critics, both contemporary and later, had their reservations about it, claiming that ‘sweeping force of narrative’ and ‘powerful descriptions’ were missing from King Midas; they hardly realized that this claim was dictated by their subconscious desire for the action and the colourful description provided in such generous measure by Jókai and the Romantics.
None of Ambrus’s work has made an impact on the literary scene, although Girofle and Girofla (1901) is very near to artistic perfection. This novel is set in the Bácska country, and Ambrus’s sceptical view of human nature, his subtlety, and his wit enable him to make the most of the plot, which revolves around a passionate young country gentleman whose love for an actress inevitably leads to mésalliance; the message is: so much the worse for society, which imposes such burdensome restrictions on the individual. Behind the façade of light composition can be seen Ambrus’s profound knowledge of human nature and his intellectual disposition to philosophize.
His short stories were conceived in similar manner: careful construction, economy of style, emotional detachment, and closely observed characters. Ambrus carefully avoids spectacular conclusions to his stories; he often seems to be heading towards unexpected turns, yet manages to introduce anticlimax into the conclusion, neutralizing anticipation and echoing in the mind of the reader for a long time (e.g. ‘Summer Evening’, 1893; or ‘Nothing to Declare’, 1907). The stories reveal his disposition to treat uncommon, outlandish subjects; they are often set in faraway lands, or distant times; childhood memories or imaginary scenes also occur. More often his themes are drawn from literature, new motives or additional twists being added to themes from the Bible (e. g. in ‘The Destruction of Nineveh’, where the prophet is seduced, and is sorry only for the sensual prostitute who is also destroyed with the city), Boccaccio, or Casanova; he utilizes Swift, Mérimée, and many others. In doing so he resembles Anatole France, who also had a liking for ‘literary’ themes.
Ambrus was an excellent critic too his analytical mind waged an uncompromising war against mediocrity and commercial motives in theatrical life: he could never accept that the box-office should be the ultimate judge of the value of a play. He was also a hard-working, capable translator who rendered numerous French plays into Hungarian. By his maintenance of high literary standards he earned the respect of the young writers of the Nyugat, who saw in him a father-figure, too conservative for the radicals, too distinguished for the commercial writers, and too liberal for the ‘official’ literature, in fact just the right person to be mentor of the young men who were to create modern Hungarian literature.
Popular contributors to The Week included Jenő Heltai (1871-1957), a colourful figure on the literary scene at the beginning of the century. His first volume of verses, Modern Songs (1892), was the subject of a minor controversy, being declared immoral. Heltai offended public prudery with his unassuming but tongue-in-cheek verses, which had apparently only one theme: carnal love. The frivolity of the tone was unusual: nobody sang about showgirls who, like Heltai’s ‘muse’ Kató, visited their lovers’ apartments. Undoubtedly influenced by the French chanson, Heltai managed to create a carefree, bohemian atmosphere in his verses, and it is difficult to see today exactly what caused all the fuss.
His short stories and novels are set in the same congenial world, and are peopled by such easy-going characters as Jaguár, a struggling reporter (Jaguár, 1914); István Mák, the Paris correspondent of the Penny Truth, whose adventures revolve around girls and intricate schemes to obtain credit in the cafés (The Last of the Bohemians, 1911); Uncle Általános the retired pawnbroker; aspiring starlets of the Kültelki Theatre; haughty Balkan diplomats (The Age of Emmanuel VII, 1913); or Lord Notapenny, a caricature of English upper-class habits as observed on the Continent. In a word, Heltai is the chronicler of the bustling life of the coffee-houses, all his characters are realistic in the sense that they chase délibáb much in the same way as do their real-life counterparts who get up late in the afternoon, dream about red-haired chorus girls, write librettos without knowing who the composer will be, paint large historical frescoes, or at least talk about their paintings for hours on end.
Heltai does not pretend to be interested in politics or ‘serious life’; he is an unashamed entertainer, not unlike Somerset Maugham, yet his writing reveals human compassion behind the façade of flippancy, cynicism, and grotesque humour which are always present in his well-constructed plots. His ‘serious’ novel (House of Dreams, 1929) is an ambitious attempt to portray post-war Budapest; it has an intricate plot, and is heavily influenced by Freudianism.
His ability to write light satirical verse made him an excellent author for the cabaret. In his plays he retained his basic recipe for success, a touch of sentimentality and a large dose of cynicism. In The Tündérlaki Girls (1914), based on a short story of the same title, for example, he tells the fate of the Tündérlaki girls, ‘of whom two were respectable and the third fell into disgrace’, for which she is duly despised; but in fact, the youngest daughter has sacrificed her reputation to secure the happy marriages of her sisters. He successfully injected fresh blood into neo-Romantic drama with The Silent Knight (1936), a charming tale of a vow for a kiss, written in graceful verse and still popular today.
Perhaps none of the early contributors of The Week were more eccentric than Viktor Cholnoky (1868-1912), whose untimely death prevented the full development of his artistic potential. Cholnoky loved the esoteric, the bizarre, and the grostesque; he often used ancient cultures or distant countries as background to his short stories, demonstrating a superb ability to mix reality and supernatural elements. No doubt the mainspring of these stories was his inborn disposition to escapism, supported by diligent reading, which he cleverly used so as to authenticate even the most bizarre story (Tammuz, 1909). In ‘A Fat Man’ the unpleasant hero, who tells the story of a murder, turns out to be the victim himself who has been let into the passenger compartment from the cold freight carriage by the ticket collector who felt sorry for him. The story is built up with minute realism, and the suspense is not relieved at the end by any explanation. Cholnoky is often preoccupied with the relationship between writer and society; he subscribes to the decadent view that art is the product of sickness, both mental and physical, and that healthy people destroy culture. ‘Is there any genuine writer or genuine artist who is not possessed by the phantoms of his own mind?’ he asks in ‘Tartini’s Devil’ (1909). Redefinition of the role of the artist as a creative individual was a novelty in Hungarian literature, where social conscience and commitment were the most desirable characteristics of writers.
Zoltán Thury (1870-1906), another promising short story writer who died young, had only loose connections with The Week circle, yet he definitely deserves a place among those writers who established the traditions of the modern Hungarian short story. Thury was a born rebel, whose life seemed to be paved with humiliation and indignity; his stories are peopled with unbalanced figures, caught in dramatic situations where passions erupt and repressions are swept away by uncontrolled fury (Fools, 1897). His love of extremes might be considered Romantic, for he employed harsh colours in describing social evils in the world of the urban lower classes and of poverty-stricken peasants. The same vehemence characterized his plays, of which Soldiers (1898), devoted to the conflicts of private life behind the glittering façade of uniforms, was perhaps the best.
While there is no doubt that the beginning of the twentieth century witnessed the birth of new trends in Hungarian literature, first and foremost among those being the urbanization in the attitude of writers fostered mainly by The Week, traditional népies literature also revived. This revival was stimulated by the scholarly impetus that could be discerned in the field of ethnographical research. The Romantics regarded ‘the people’ as a homogeneous social stratum without distinguishing characteristics, although the existence of various dialects had been acknowledged. The new, more scholarly approach in the last quarter of the nineteenth century attempted to describe the diverse peculiarities of ‘the people’ according to regional differences.
Regionalism* first developed in Szeged, a city on the Tisza in the southern part of the Great Plains. At it was the second largest city in Hungary, many authors, Mikszáth and Gárdonyi among them, started their literary careers there in journalism, and on account of its lively literary life a sense of regional identity evolved there. Regionalism does not necessarily imply provincialism; the best regional authors, while preserving their sense of particularism in choosing local subjects or in employing one particular dialect, could also cater for wider audiences through the universal appeal of their writing, as the case of István Tömörkény (1866-1917) effectively illustrates.
Of lower-middle-class origin, Tömörkény set out in the footsteps of traditional writers, but his interest in folklore and ethnography turned his attention to the peasants living on the tanyas* of the Szeged area. His interest may have been aroused first by the exotic appeal of the subject; his early short stories in particular reveal the attitude of the curious outsider, the amazement of the middle-class city-dweller in the face of the mentality and customs of the tanya people. His amazement is a source of humour; the peasant figures are often observed in confrontation with city-dwellers, or rather with the authorities, and while their reactions are a constant source of humour, Tömörkény never ridicules his peasant heroes; his compassion is clearly on their side. As the years passed his involvement deepened, and did not only express itself as compassion; he became more and more aware of the social problems the mushrooming religious sects (which were a way of escape from the worries of reality), the growing agricultural labour movement; briefly, the struggle for day-to-day existence of the peasant-pariahs. It is the intense realism in those short stories describing everday occurrences in the lives of poverty-stricken peasants, artisans, and other figures of the lower classes that is the main virtue of Tömörkény’s writings (Szeged Peasants and Other Gentlemen, Szeged, 1893; Under Poplars, Szeged, 1898).
His regionalism opened up the closed world of the peasants in the Szeged district; in his writing he charted their emotional life-stoic resignation, fatalistic indifference, repressed desires to rebel, and class-hatred are the chief characteristics of this hardy race. When he became director of the local museum, Tömörkény’s interest was also channelled into professional ethnographical research, a time-consuming activity, and perhaps this is why he never wrote novels to match his short stories, some of which are among the best produced in Hungary at the turn of the century.
The tradition of regionalism established in Szeged by Tömörkény was continued by Ferenc Móra (1879-1934), who was first a journalist, and later became the director of the Municipal Museum, and a noted amateur archaeologist. What Tömörkény described from knowledge gathered during a lifetime’s study of the peasants, Móra experienced first-hand as a child, and wrote about it with an intimacy that cannot be acquired by the outsider (e.g. ‘September Remembered’, 1925). A son of very poor people, Móra started his career by writing children’s stories. His narrative technique was first influenced by Romantic moods and the traditional anecdotal simplicity but later, when his sense of social justice gained the upper hand, he embraced a more realistic manner. Yet he often avoided penetrating to the core of human conflicts, and treated his subject-matter light-heartedly and humorously; he revealed himself as a writer whose highly-civilized sensibility could not bear the burden of blunt truths. Móra apparently fought hard against his own overflowing sentiments; a touch of irony often relieved the bitterness derived from his childhood experiences. Of course, it would be an exaggeration to claim that Móra had the analytical writer’s ability or willingness to scrutinize human actions and their motives he relied rather on the warmth of his heart which guided him unerringly to present the viewpoint of the ‘have-nots’.
Móra became popular in the inter-war years, and his popularity did not fade away with the passing of time. It is by his warm humour that he reaches his readers most effectively in his stories and light sketches. The narrow geographical and social territory to which his characters were confined did not prevent his writing a novel, Song of the Wheatfields (1927), noted for its subtle psychological approach. Set in the period of World War I, the novel powerfully depicts how the fate of a peasant community, living in a godforsaken village, is affected by the turmoil of the war. Its hero, Mátyás, is the personification of the strong attachment of the peasant to his land; he does not sacrifice the soil even for his own prisoner-of-war son, who has been thought to be dead and whose wife has remarried. Móra excels in describing the dawning sense of tragedy when the news that Mátyás’s son is still alive in Siberia suddenly changes the lives of his folk. The story ends with Mátyás deciding not to sell his farm to pay the ransom for his son: ‘…The earth is the strongest of us all. It ate up my father, and his father, too. And it’ll eat me up, and you too. The earth eats up everybody. But others come in our place and the earth is left to them.’* Old Mátyás wants to die on the land on which his ancestors lived and died. Nothing has happened to change his stoic philosophy about man’s relation to the earth. The character-sketch of the old Hungarian farmer makes this point entirely authentic.
Móra’s next major novel, The Gold Coffin (1933), is primarily a love-story set in ancient Rome. While the historical background leaves nothing to be desired, and Móra’s story-telling ability and colourful descriptions maintain the reader’s interest, the novel does not match the artistic authenticity or the psychological insight of the Song of the Wheatfields. Still, it provides an impressive portrait of the Christian-Roman conflict at the time of the Emperor Diocletian. Some of the minor characters are excellently drawn, and Móra’s wry sense of humour comes out best in trivial scenes depicting favouritism and unscrupulousness in the Emperor’s administration.
Móra wrote no other major work, although his voluminous output of essays, sketches, and journalistic work is also significant. All his writings are permeated by his satirical comments on topical political issues; no aspect of public life remained untouched by his satire, often hidden in pleasant anecdotes or unexpected comparisons, about the possibility of archaeological digging in Hungary and Egypt, or about national characteristics in his travel sketches, and so forth. After World War I he wrote a satirical short novel (1924), which was published only posthumously: Hannibal Ressurected (Szeged, 1955). A classics master returning from a prisoner-of-war camp writes a treatise on the battle of Zama, describing what would have happened to the world had Hannibal won. He expects academic distinction for his original conjectures; but the short treatise becomes the centre of a muddled controversy; nobody ever reads it, yet he is attacked even in Parliament for his destructive views, and the meek little classics master is humiliated and driven to the verge of suicide. The plot provides Móra with ample opportunity for a deadly satire on the state of Hungarian education and cultural affairs in the inter-war period. Corruption, nepotism, ignorance, and wishful thinking are all part of chasing the délibáb in political aspirations, in particular after a lost war and the calamities of revolutions. Small wonder Móra could not have his book published.
|CHAPTER XV A Pseudo-Victorian Era
|CHAPTER XVII Revolt Turned into Style