Revolt Turned into Style


No single event was more significant in the history of modern Hungarian literature than the first appearance of a new periodical, Nyugat, on 1 January 1908. In the first years of this century many new literary reviews were established, most of them had the same ambition as Nyugat (West) indicated in its name – to be a vehicle of European literature and thought, and to provide a forum for talented new writers – but these other periodicals were abortive experiments; only Nyugat survived (its last issue appeared in August 1941) and shaped the profile of Hungarian literature for over half a century to come. True, The Week in its initial period contributed to the modernization of literary taste in Hungary, but no Hungarian periodical could ever muster such an impressive list of major poets, novelists, and critics as Nyugat. Nyugat maintained high standards in original contributions as well as in works translated from foreign languages. Its editors were tolerant, they required little in the way of conformity; they did, however, expect novelty or originality and craftsmanship. Perhaps this was why Nyugat so successfully secured the willing collaboration of unconventional authors. Artistically demanding editorial policy naturally led to a position of authority in shaping literary taste, and within a short span of time Nyugat achieved an unique position in literary life; no self-respecting author regarded himself as established until he had appeared in Nyugat, although Nyugat had at least as many enemies in the literary and political world as it had supporters.

Its original editor-in-chief was Ignotus, and the editors were Ernő Osvát and Miksa Fenyő. Ignotus*Pen-name of Hugo Veigelsberg. (1869-1949) first wrote poems imitating Arany, then became a leading critic of The Week; when he edited Nyugat his critical activity marked out the new trend. He defiantly upheld middle-class values against the traditional critics who saw Hungarian literature as a vehicle of gentry values. In Ignotus’s family German was spoken; German culture made a lasting impression on the formation of his intellectual values. He claimed tolerance for widely differing trends in literature; his only yardstick in measuring works of art was the degree of craftsmanship. He had an abhorrence of the theoretical approach, and his criticism was largely impressionistic, based on intuition. While acknowledging the validity of national literature, Ignotus did not regard it as an end in itself as the traditionalists did; in his view the assertion of national values could not be a policy, an aim, or a standard in literature. These principles guided him in forming the editorial policy of Nyugat.

Ernő Osvát (1877-1929) also came to Nyugat via The Week. As an editor he seldom wrote, but was the successful talent-spotter of the periodical. A dictatorial editor led by an uncompromising sense of vocation, Osvát was the literary arbiter of Nyugat for nearly twenty years. His discoveries included Zsigmond Móricz, Frigyes Karinthy, Árpád Tóth, and other major writers. His coeditor, Miksa Fenyő (1877-1972), was an economist by profession, and a critic whose sound judgement often withstood the changes of taste in the last sixty years. He was a lifelong admirer of Ady, and in 1908, for example, he was alone in his praise of Robert Musil’s Young Törless, a novel which only became generally appreciated after World War II, even in German-speaking countries. The most prolific and influential critic of the staff of Nyugat was Aladár Schöpflin (1872-1950) whose principles were as tolerant as Ignotus’s, but whose critical acumen was more penetrating. Rather than drawing up lists of faults and merits in a work, a practice which he regarded as somewhat futile, he preferred the sociological approach, and examined literary works in their social context. Schöpflin was more keen on characterizing and understanding than on passing judgement. He loved and respected consuming passions, whirling thoughts, and complex feelings in authors, and possessed a profound sense of continuity in literature, thus earning the respect of both conservative and radical writers during his long career. His monograph, Ady (1934), is still the best introduction to the poetry of the figure-head of the entire Nyugat movement.