from Encyclopedia of the Novel.
Schellinger, Paul (ed.); Hudson, Christopher; Rijsberman, Marijke (asst eds).
Chicago; London: Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers, 1998. 2 vols.
Copyright © 1998 Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers.
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HUNGARIAN NOVEL by George Gömöri
Whereas poetry and even drama flourished in Hungary as early as the 16th century, the novel was a genre unknown until the 18th century. The era of the Enlightenment favored didactic tales and it was in this vein that György Bessenyei wrote the satirical novel Tariménes utazása (1804; The Travels of Tarimenes), which registers the influence of Voltaire. A less critical writer, András Dugonics scored the first popular success with Etelka (1788; Etelka). A loosely constructed pseudo-historical romance, the story is set at the time of the 9th-century conquest of Hungary by the ancestors of the Magyars. Its success was due to the emergence of a strong Hungarian national consciousness and to the fact that it satisfied the nobility's nostalgia for a glorious and less complicated past. Paradoxically, Tariménes utazása is more readable today than Etelka, which is full of dialect words that have disappeared or become obsolete.
If the classicists believed in the power of reason, the sentimentalists, sometimes called pre-romantics, stressed the rights of the heart and favored a melancholic and often mournful manner. The best Hungarian representative of this trend was József Kármán, whose novel of letters Fanni hagyományai (1794; The Memoirs of Fanny) is the story of a delicate young girl born into a wealthy landowning family. She falls in love with a young man who is of lower social standing and thus unacceptable to her family. The sad story of frustrated love unfolds in the letters Fanni writes to a certain Baroness L. After Fanni gains the reader's sympathy with her suffering, it is related that she has passed away. The novel has little plot but is rich in psychological detail. Kármán published his novel in the literary quarterly Uránia, which targeted women readers. Unfortunately, he could not secure enough support for his magazine, which closed down after three numbers. Kármán's initiative was more or less forgotten, and his work was rediscovered only in the 1840s.
The language reforms of the first two decades of the 19th century gave new impetus to the hitherto neglected genre of the novel. The reformers, mostly writers and linguists, were led by Ferenc Kazinczy, a man of letters passionately in favor of modernization. He and his circle coined numerous words to fit new concepts of urban life and industrial social organization. They also tried to create a unified literary language out of a number of regional languages with different orthographies. Kazinczy himself did not write novels, although he translated a minor sentimental German novel into Hungarian. Having been imprisoned by the Austrian authorities for his participation in the plot of the Hungarian Jacobins, he wrote the memorable autobiography Fogságom naplója (The Journal of My Captivity), which was published in book form only in 1931. His greatest contribution to the Hungarian novel was his successful struggle to broaden the scope and register of literary Hungarian.
In the first decades of the 19th century, poetry and drama developed rapidly, and the key figure of Hungarian romanticism, Mihály Vörösmarty was an outstanding poet and playwright. Prose soon followed suit with a novel by András Fáy, A Bélteky ház (1832; The House of the Béltekys), a dramatized narrative about a generational conflict in a noble family during the social and economic reforms of the 1820s. The novel, written in the "new style" created by the language reforms, has been criticized for all its social insights as rambling and diffuse. Indeed, it discusses broad social issues as well as art and literature and also contains an account of foreign travels.
A more talented contemporary, Baron Miklós Jósika is often called the father of the Hungarian historical novel. He came from a wealthy noble family and made a career as an army officer before he took up writing in his 40s. His literary model was Sir Walter Scott, and his native Transylvania served as his "Scotland" in his first novel Abafi (1836; Abafi). The hero of this Bildungsroman changes his dissolute life through the ennobling effect of love and becomes in the end a self-sacrificing patriot. Although romantic with respect to the adventurous plot, Abafi attempts to paint an authentic historical background that underscores the verisimilitude of the narrative.
The reform era that lasted from the mid-1820s to the revolution of 1848 saw the transformation of Pest-Buda into a center of cultural life. The foundation of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences (1825), the opening of the first Hungarian-language theatre in Pest (1837), and the publication of regular literary almanacs and journals such as Aurora and Atheneum were among the more significant contributions to this transformation. The reading public was large enough by the 1830s to support Western-style literary magazines, enabling at least some writers to live on their earnings. While the literature of the first two or three decades of the century still reflected the tastes and expectations of the nobility, eventually writers appeared whose creative method was closer to social or psychological realism and whose readership became increasingly more urban, consisting of people in the free professions, young clerks, and students.
The shift from romanticism to realism that affected Western Europe after the 1840s failed to take place in Hungary. Owing to the political debacle of the post-1849 period, there was more critical realism in Hungarian prose before the 1848 revolution than after the War of Independence of 1848 and 1849. The leading Hungarian novelists of the mid-19th century were József Eötvös, Zsigmond Kemény, and Mór (or, as he was known in England, "Maurus") Jókai. Of the three, Jókai made the greatest impact on Hungarian readers; he is also the most romantic of the three.
Baron József Eötvös studied law and philosophy at Pest University and made his literary debut with plays. He also took an active part in politics, being a deputy at the Hungarian Diet and usually championing liberal and humanitarian causes. His first novel, A karthausi (1839; The Carthusian), was much influenced by contemporaneous French fiction. Indeed, it is set in France, where the hero, having had a number of dissatisfying or tragic love affairs, enters a Carthusian monastery to serve a community rather than lead a selfish, uncaring life. It has been described as the first genuine and important Hungarian social novel, but it has technical deficiencies that do not commend it to a modern reader. Eötvös' next novel, A falu jegyzöje (1845; The Village Notary), was hailed as perhaps the best social novel written during the reform era. It is fiercely critical of all the abuses of law, the corruption, the arbitrariness, and the bureaucratic injustice of the administration of an imaginary Hungarian county. The novel is in fact closer to a social satire with strong didactic undertones. Its hero is a liberal and compassionate village notary beset by political enemies. He manages to foil their plans to discredit him through the self-sacrifice of an outlaw farmer. Eötvös tried his hand at the historical novel, too, and while Magyarország 1514-ben (1847; Hungary in 1514) is less cohesive than The Village Notary, he managed to create an impressive picture of a country that had failed to introduce reforms in time and that, because of this omission, was plunged into the Peasant Rebellion of György Dózsa of the early 16th century.
Zsigmond Kemény, another baron born in Transylvania, spent most of his creative life in Vienna and Pest-Buda. Kemény had a particular interest in psychological analysis, and his novels focus on human conflict against a historical backdrop. Most of his novels are set in 16th- or 17th-century Hungary. His view of history is uniformly pessimistic: most of his characters are overcome by the forces of history. Kemény's career may be roughly divided into two periods. Between 1847 and 1855, he wrote novels that could still be described as romantic, but after 1855 a shift can be detected toward the historically defined realism of such writers as Honoré de Balzac or Charles Dickens. Both Özvegy és leánya (1855; The Widow and Her Daughter) and A rajongók (1859; The Fanatics) deal with tragic conflicts brought about by religious fanaticism and family feuds in which the protagonists become victims of forces and circumstances beyond their control. In Zord ido" (1862; Stormy Times), Kemény paints a broad historical panorama of Hungary at the time of the Turkish conquest that serves as the setting for a tragic love story. Kemény may have become a realist in his descriptions of society, but in the interpretation of human destiny he remained a romantic pessimist, which may have contributed to his relative unpopularity. Although he is sometimes regarded as a precursor of 20th-century fiction, he nevertheless cannot vie with the fame of Jókai.
Mór Jókai was a most prolific writer, having more time to write than Eötvös, who was minister of education in the first post-1867 Hungarian government, or Kemény, who was forced to support himself with journalism. Born in Komárom to a middle-class family, Jókai began to write when he was still studying law. His first novel, Hétköznapok (Weekdays), published in 1846, was much influenced by the French romantics, especially Victor Hugo. Jókai took part in the 1848 revolution and the struggle for independence and was forced into hiding for a while. He reemerged in the 1850s as a very active and influential writer and journalist. Like Kemény, he adopted the only genre that regularly made it past the censors---the historical novel.
In fact, Jókai wrote adventure novels set in the 16th and 17th centuries, when Hungary was fighting the Turks. He moved closer to the present in Egy magyar nábob (1854; A Hungarian Nabob) and its sequel, Kárpáthy Zoltán (1853-55; Zoltan Kárpáthy). Both deal with the fortunes of the Kárpáthy family in the reform era. Through a contrast between the egoistic rich older Kárpáthy and his noble-minded, patriotic son, Jókai manages to show the clash between the old and new Hungary that led to the revolution of 1848. These novels are still romantic and are composed mainly of anecdotes and incidents. In the long novel A ko"szívu" ember fiai (1859; Sons of the Stone-Hearted Man), Jókai shows, through the saga of the Baradlay family, the developments that made 1848 almost inevitable, and he gives a fair account of the atmosphere of the War of Independence. The construction of the book is melodramatic and the characters are drawn in black and white, but the novel enjoyed immense popularity in Hungary because of its sympathetic depiction of the Hungarian drive for independence.
Taken out of the nationalistic context, Mór Jókai is still significant, particularly for his utopian novels, which are also his most accomplished. Some of his novels have a highly personal quality, such as Az aranyember (1873; The Man With the Golden Touch, also translated as Timár's Two Worlds), the colorful story of Mihály Timár, a rich merchant of Komárom who is torn between two different and conflicting ways of life, exemplified by two women, and finds happiness eventually in the paradise of a small, secluded island in the lower Danube. This is a highly romantic work abounding in realistic detail and exciting confrontations between complex characters. While it could be labeled an escapist work, it also displays some of Jókai's most notable strengths of style and storytelling.
The novel Fekete gyémántok (1870; The Dark Diamonds) deals with problems raised by rapid industrialization and the exploitation of natural resources---coal. The book's hero is an engineer turned entrepreneur, Ivan Berend, a model capitalist, an inventor, a philanthropist, and a patriot. He is the embodiment of Jókai's romantic anticapitalism, which is nevertheless based on strong positivist beliefs in the unlimited technological progress awaiting mankind.
Jókai was also a pioneer of science fiction. In the voluminous novel A jövo" század regénye (1872-74; Novel of the Next Century), which is set in the mid-20th century, he shows a major clash between a modernized Austro-Hungarian empire and a despotic, quasi-communist Russia. The main scientific discovery of the century is a glass-like material, ichor, found and utilized by the Hungarian-Sekler genius Dávid Tatrangi, who uses it to build flying machines. In fact, one of the highlights of the novel is an immense air battle fought over Siberia. Long before Jules Verne, Jókai's imagination anticipated technological progress that would completely change human thinking. In this novel, as indeed in many other works, Jókai dazzles the reader with his encyclopedic erudition and his stylistic pyrotechnics. As one critic put it, he succeeded in "making the novel a Hungarian genre." Whole generations were brought up on his liberal, broad-minded, although often too benign and optimistic, views of Hungary and the world.
The first important Hungarian naturalist was Sándor Bródy, who was influenced by Émile Zola and first broke certain taboos in his short stories, published as early as 1884. Bródy's novels, of which A nap jegyese (1902; The Knight of the Sun) is perhaps the best, suffer from a lack of structure. They abound in criticism of urban living conditions and unscrupulous careerism, but his characters are not particularly interesting or memorable.
Kálmán Mikszáth continues the anecdotal, joking style so characteristic of the provincial Hungarian gentry in some of his work. Other novels conform to critical realism, making acute observations about social conflicts. His first short stories were conceived in the traditional spirit, but once his name was established he began to write with an unexpectedly critical edge. Szent Péter esernyo"je (1895; St. Peter's Umbrella), one of Mikszáth's most admired works abroad, is based on a legend from Upper Hungary about a miraculous umbrella. It is notable for its artfully meandering plot, warm humor, and superb irony. ÚjZrínyiász (1898; New Zrinyiad) impresses with its fierce social criticism and deep insights into the workings of contemporary Hungarian society. Mikszáth was a liberal, a member of parliament for several decades and a critic of the gentry, which had entrenched itself in the state administration of the post-1867 period. He also shared the anticlericalism of the political elite, a fact easily deduced from Különös házasság (1900; A Strange Marriage). The novel, based on a true story, is an eventful but realistic account of a young aristocrat's lifelong and unsuccessful struggle to get the Catholic Church to annul a marriage that was forced upon him. In A Noszty fiú esete Tóth Marival (1908; The Young Noszty's Affair with Mary Toth), a penniless young peer is after the hand and dowry of a middle-class girl whose father has made a fortune in America. Mikszáth uses many romantic devices, but the general tone of the narrative is ironic and realistic, its social criticism devastating. His third and last novel from this period, A fekete város (1911; The Black City) is probably Mikszáth's most realistic work. It is much less popular than his other books, indicating that his readers preferred entertainment to truth.
Géza Gárdonyi wrote three historical novels, each one of them popular. The first, Egri csillagok (1901; Eclipse of the Crescent Moon) recalls some of Jókai's best historical novels with its colorful, fast-moving narrative about Gergely Bornemisza, a 16th-century Hungarian captain who took part in the successful defense of Eger Castle against a huge Turkish army. This novel became one of the most popular books for young people. A láthatatlan ember (1902; Slave of the Huns), set in the time of Attila the Hun (not the barbarian of Western myth but a powerful and intelligent proto-Hungarian ruler), is more a psychological novel than a "novel of adventure," its main theme being unrequited love and its fatal influence on human lives. Gárdonyi's third historical novel, Isten rabjai (1908; God's Captives), tells the story of Saint Margaret, a 13th-century royal princess who chooses the frugal and self-deprecating existence of a nun. It delves deeply into the complex psychology of the mystics. Gárdonyi influenced Ferenc Móra, who wrote Ének a búzamezo"kro"l (1927; Song of the Wheatfields), about the life of country people disrupted by World War I, and the charming Aranykoporsó (1930; The Gold Coffin), a love story taking its theme from antiquity.
The modern era of Hungarian literature is usually dated from the publication of Endre Ady's Új versek (New Poems) in 1906 and the launching of the periodical Nyugat two years later. This review became the rallying point of all writers who opposed provincialism dressed up as patriotism and who wanted to change both the style of Hungarian literature and the tastes of the reading public. Its orientation was middle class, with a strong representation of reformist, left-wing intellectuals. The review's tone became more radical, even pacifist, during World War I. While Nyugat published all the eminent poets of the period, before 1918 it was associated with only three important novelists, namely Margit Kaffka, Zsigmond Móricz, and Gyula Krúdy.
Margit Kaffka wrote a number of realist novels dealing mostly with women's position in society. Szinek és évek (1912; Colors and Years), the story of several generations of women, has the highest reputation for its subtle psychological characterization. Hangyaboly (1917; Ant Heap), her last novel, published just before her untimely death, evokes the stifling atmosphere of a provincial school run by nuns. It is well constructed and shows Kaffka's considerable powers of observation. Zsigmond Móricz, although he is considered a realist by most critics, in fact went through various phases. He made a living as a journalist and often toured the country for material. There is a documentary streak in his prose, which often finds its themes in peasant life. His first novel, Sárarany (1910; Pure Gold), shows a village rent by social conflicts. Its peasant hero's "biological revolt" against the status quo is described in harsh, naturalistic colors. In A fáklya (1917; The Torch), Móricz depicts the backwardness of a typical Hungarian village and the isolation of an idealistic young Protestant minister from his parishioners. Despite his wishes, he cannot be a "torch" for his community, which is symbolically destroyed by a fire at the end of the book. Critics who find a shift toward critical realism in The Torch in spite of its obvious symbolism, usually praise Rokonok (1930; Relatives), a critique of the former gentry class, which had invaded all positions of the state bureaucracy, and of the corrupt, nepocratic, pseudo-parliamentary system of government between the two world wars. Another novel with accents of social criticism is Légy jó mindhalálig (1921; Be Faithful unto Death), the sensitive psychological portrait of a poor schoolboy in Debrecen, based partly on the author's own experiences.
The most important of Móricz's historical novels is the trilogy Erdély (1922-35; Transylvania). It is set in the 17th century, at a time when Transylvania enjoyed semi-independence. The two central characters are Prince Gábor Báthori, an impulsive romantic, and his successor, the cautious realist Prince Gábor Bethlen. Although its construction has been criticized, the narrative is spellbinding and the slightly archaic language powerful.
Another writer associated with Nyugat was Gyula Krúdy, who owed a debt to Jókai and Mikszáth but created his own inimitable style, which is often compared to Marcel Proust's. Krúdy is best described as a neoromantic with a penchant for handling time in a peculiarly modern way. Style is more important than plot, and atmosphere is privileged over reality. Krúdy's output was huge and his writing often uneven. His best novels are probably A vörös postakocsi (1914; The Crimson Coach), the short but enchantingly atmospheric Az útitárs (1919; The Companion), and, from the later period, Hét bagoly (1922; The Seven Owls) and Boldogult úrfikoromban (1930; In the Happy Days of My Youth).
Expressionism appears in the Hungarian novel at the end of World War I with the publication of Dezso" Szabó's Az elsodort falu (1919; The Village That Was Swept Away), a rambling novel that became one of the most influential books of the next generation with its rejection of cosmopolitan decadence and the projection of a romantic cult of peasant health. With the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy in 1919, the now independent Hungary lost two-thirds of its territory and some of its finest intellectuals. Aladár Kuncz published a novelistic account of his internment by French authorities during the war, Fekete kolostor (1931; The Black Monastery). The Sekler writer Áron Tamási wrote Ábel a rengetegben (1932; Abel Alone), the story of a young Sekler lad adapting to difficult circumstances with common sense and mischievous humor. Tamási was an outstanding stylist, and his masterly use of Hungarian won him wide recognition.
Dezso" Kosztolányi, the eminent poet of the pre-1919 years, emerged in the 1920s as the best prose writer of the time. He had tried his hand at short stories before the war, but it was only in 1922 that he first proved his skill at writing longer fiction with Nero, a véres költo" (The Bloody Poet: A Novel About Nero). This novel, which appeared with Thomas Mann's approving foreword, is strong on psychological introspection and shows the dangers of mingling art with politics. Psychology again prevails in the short novel Pacsirta (1924; Skylark), which investigates close human relationships, and in Édes Anna (1926; Wonder Maid, also translated as Anna Edes), the story of a "perfect" servant girl who is driven to murder by repression and repeated humiliation. Kosztolányi's passionate interest in psychoanalysis and psychopathology makes him a forerunner of modernist and, to some extent, of postmodernist prose.
Kosztolányi was followed and emulated by Sándor Márai, who started his career as a journalist and foreign correspondent. He lived in Paris for five years, returning to Budapest in 1928, when his first novel, Bébi, vagy az elso" szerelem (Baby, or First Love) was published. This was followed by a succession of popular novels and the excellent autobiography Egy polgár vallomásai (1934-35; Confessions of a Middle-Class Citizen). In Márai's hands, the novel turns into something between fiction and an essay collection. As his career soared, Márai moved back in time. His first "period novel," Vendégjáték Bolzanóban (1940; Guest Performance at Bolzano), describes an episode in the life of Casanova in a manner that recalls Thomas Mann's treatment of Goethe in Lotte in Weimar (1939; The Beloved Returns). Hungarian critics regard this book and Szindbád hazamegy (1940; Sindbad Returns Home) as the apogee of Márai's work as a novelist. After World War II he left Hungary, never to return. He produced four more novels, all of them "period pieces" focusing on the problem of faith and freedom of thought, but his best writing went into his Napló (Diaries), a part of which was first published as Föld ... föld ... in 1972 and translated as Memoir of Hungary, 1944-1948 in 1996.
A leading exponent of populist ideology and an excellent essayist, László Németh continued the Kosztolányi line of the psychological novel. Németh went to medical school before he began writing. Among his numerous novels, Iszony (1947; Revulsion) stands out as the most accomplished. A "microscopic study of female frigidity" (see Czigány, 1984), the novel is set against a backdrop of village life and customs. In the majority of Németh's novels, the central characters are women rather than men, suggesting that the author was truly interested only in female psychology.
Milán Füst's remarkable A feleségem története (1942; The Story of My Wife) is a gripping psychological novel on the jealousy of a Dutch sea-captain. Füst, a leading poet and playwright, is an excellent stylist. His novel, full of acute observations, has a brooding, almost Scandinavian, atmosphere, evoked by the protagonist's near-pathological thoughts and fantasies. The still insufficiently appreciated work of Zsigmond Remenyik, who spent many years in South America and also wrote in Spanish, shows similarities to Füst's. Remenyik planned a series of novels under the title of Apocalypsis Humana, which was to cover all aspects of human society. The title itself is indicative of Remenyik's dark and pessimistic tone. Élo"k és holtak (1948; The Living and the Dead) and Por és hamu (1955; Dust and Ashes) are his most accomplished novels.
The novel-reading public increased rapidly in interwar Hungary but exhibited a marked preference for popular fiction. Lajos Zilahy, who made his name with Halálos tavasz (1922; Deadly Spring), a torrid love story, wrote to these preferences in well-constructed novels such as Két fogoly (1927; Two Prisoners), which focuses on the experiences of World War I. His most lasting work, however, was written after his emigration to the United States in 1947. The Dukay trilogy (The Dukays, 1949; Angry Angel, 1954; Century in Scarlet, 1966), first published in English, is the saga of a Hungarian aristocratic family and its eventual demise during World War II. Apart from Zilahy at least two other Hungarian writers scored popular successes outside Hungary: Ferenc Körmendi with A budapesti kaland (1932; Escape to Life) and Jolán Földes with A halászó macska uccája (1936; The Street of the Fishing Cat).
The very opposite of a literature written for entertainment was the elitist fiction of Miklós Szentkuthy, an odd man out in Hungarian literature. His massive novel Prae (1934; Prae) is essayistic in the extreme, and while it has exceedingly well-written analytical parts, it is almost devoid of narration. After World War II, Szentkuthy wrote a number of historical novels and also novels on composers' lives, the best known of which, Divertimento (1957; Divertimento), evokes the life of Mozart. They are much more accessible than Prae and show enormous erudition. More avant garde but equally distinguished is the expatriate Gyo"zo" Határ, who has lived in England since 1956. His Heliane (1947; Heliane), a satirical utopia, is written in a language and with a narrative structure influenced by François Rabelais and Laurence Sterne. Határ's most ambitious novel is probably Köpönyeg sors (1985; A Cloaklike Fate), a novel on the youth of Julian the Apostate, about dissimulation in a complex political-historical situation. Határ's vocabulary is extremely rich, and his use of the language is ingenious, but the structure of his plots is often weak.
The development of Hungarian fiction after World War II was retarded by political factors such as the communist takeover of 1948-49 and the ensuing period of compulsory socialist realism. The writer who stood up best against the pressures of power was Tibor Déry, a writer from a middle-class Jewish background whose grand novel A befejezetlen mondat (The Unfinished Sentence), written before the war, could not be published, for political reasons, until 1947. Déry was a Marxist and a well-traveled writer who was attacked by a communist party spokesman for the "deficiencies" of his book Felelet (1950-52; The Answer) but refused to rewrite it. His short novel Niki (1956; Niki, The Story of a Dog) is an intensely moving work showing human suffering in Stalinist Hungary through the fate of a dog. After the 1956 uprising, Déry was jailed by the communist regime for "anti-State" activities, that is, his critique of the communist monopoly of power. After his release from prison, he wrote several novels including A kiközösíto" (1966; The Excommunicator) and a fascinating autobiography, Itelet nincs (1969; No Verdict), but critical opinion now regards his short stories as his best achievement.
The 1960s favored a critical realism trained on the recent past, as can be found in the work of Magda Szabó. Her first novels, including Az o"z (1959; The Fawn), focused on the crisis of provincial middle-class society, which had also provided the theme of many of Lászlo Németh's books. Among her novels, a special place is occupied by Régimódi történet (1977; An Old-Fashioned Story), which traces the story of the author's mother and is a family novel in the best sense of the word. Other prominent examples of critical realism are Endre Fejes' Rozsdatemeto" (1962; Generation of Rust) and Ferenc Sánta's Húsz óra (1964; Twenty Hours). The mid-1960s also saw the dramatic debut of József Lengyel, an old communist émigré who was arrested and imprisoned in the Soviet Union in the 1930s and returned to Hungary only in 1955. Apart from some heart-rending stories of the Gulag, Lengyel also published the short novel Elejeto"l végig (1963; From Beginning to End), which earned him the epithet of the "Hungarian Solzhenitsyn." He also wrote a sequel to his Siberian experiences, a short, outspoken novel, Szembesítés (1971; Confrontation), about conditions in postwar Russia. It was first published in English in 1973, but not until 1988 in Hungary.
The realistic mainstream was challenged by a number of writers for philosophical or purely aesthetic reasons. Gyula Hernádi produced a remarkable short novel, A péntek lépcso"in (1959; On the Steps of Friday), that was hailed by some critics as the first piece of existentialist prose in Hungary. Even more important was the publication of Géza Ottlik's Iskola a határon (1959; School at the Frontier). Although not particularly innovative in its narrative technique, it is a milestone in modern Hungarian fiction, a modernist novel of education in the manner of Robert Musil. Its sequel Buda (1993; Buda), a posthumous publication, does not quite match the quality of the first book, but Ottlik has nevertheless maintained a unique reputation. Among prose writers, the only author sometimes compared to him is Miklós Mészöly, whose first novel, Az atléta halála (1966; Death of an Athlete), had to wait long for publication, the French edition preceding the Hungarian original by one year. Mészöly rejects the 19th-century narrative model with its omniscient narrator and vast social canvas. His heroes are usually somewhat mysterious individuals whose lives can be perceived only dimly through the perspectives of different narrators. The short novel Film (1976; Film) forms an exception in Mészöly's oeuvre, with its cinematic technique reminiscent of the nouveau roman and its diachronic mode of narration. Mészöly's latest work Családáradás (1995; Family Flooding) marks a return to the more traditional theme of the family saga, but his technique remains thoroughly modern.
Another writer who cannot be called postmodernist but whose work unites elements of traditional fiction with modern techniques and modes of narration is György Konrád. His first novel, A látogató (1969; The Case Worker) leads us into a labyrinth of social deprivation and deviancy seen from the point of view of a sensitive social worker. It is a kind of lyrical monologue written with extraordinary linguistic skill. Some critics consider it Konrád's best work, although both A városalapító (1977; The City Builder) and A cinkos (1982; The Loser) have merit, the plot of the latter novel featuring a Hungarian communist turned dissident who eventually becomes a recluse. Most of Konrád's work has been translated into English and he is now internationally the most well-known Hungarian novelist.
Several Hungarian novelists have been active outside Hungary's current borders. Istvan Szilágyi, who lives in Romania, writes psychological novels, while the equally talented but more versatile Lajos Grendel, from Bratislava, is more sensitive to social change than the completely introverted Szilágyi. Of the Hungarian writers living in the West, the best novelist, apart from Gyo"zo" Határ, is probably Tamás Kabdebó, whose still incomplete Danube trilogy depicts the experiences of different generations of Hungarians and anchors the narrative in the timeless flow of the great river.
The historical novel has undergone new developments in György Spiró's Kerengo" (1974; Cloisters) and Az ikszek (1981; Society of the Xs) and Péter Dobai's short, cinematic Csontmolnárok (1974; Bone Grinders). They provide a provocative and controversial picture of 19th-century society in Hungary and Poland, laying bare the hidden psychological motivations of their heroes and society's collective myths and complexes. The most dramatic change took place in 1979 with the publication of Péter Esterházy's Termelési-regény (kissregény) (Production-Novel [Little Novel]), a complex novel, picaresque and parodistic, that pokes fun at 19th-century Hungarian social conventions and the socialist realism of the 1950s. The Hungarian critic Péter Balassa speaks of a new sensibility emerging from the work of Esterházy and Péter Nádas (see Balassa, 1986). These writers share an emphasis on formal elements. In Esterházy's case that emphasis translates into a constant readiness to pun and to subvert the original meaning of words. Esterházy's A szív segédigéi (1985; Helping Verbs of the Heart) and Hrabal könyve (1990; The Book of Hrabal) come closest to the traditional novel with one or more central characters. His writing fits neatly into the postmodernist category on account of its intertextuality and perspectivism.
Péter Nádas made his debut with Egy családregény vege (1977; The End of a Family Novel), a short novel set in the 1950s, displaying the eternal conflict of generations in a political context and using guilt and betrayal as the unifying factors. His main achievement, however, is the vast Emlékiratok könyve (1986; A Book of Memories), a novel composed of three different narratives, including descriptive chapters set in a late-19th-century German bourgeois milieu. Nádas' style is reminiscent of Marcel Proust and Thomas Mann, favoring long, undulating, and perfectly turned-out sentences, and the minute analysis of emotional conflicts and of the incessant struggle for sexual domination is often brutally outspoken.
Gábor Karátson's fascinating Ulrik úr keleti utazása avagy A zsidó menyasszony (1992; The Eastern Trip of Mr. Ulrik, or, The Jewish Bride) is simultaneously a rich family novel and a parody of the subgenre. It lacks a single plot and contains a disjointed autobiographical narrative interspersed with short essays on art history and meditations on Chinese philosophy, complete with ideograms. It is an example of postmodernism at its best.
The Hungarian novel has struck out in different directions since the early 1970s. Apart from the postmodernists discussed above, at least two prose writers of real stature appeared whose works exhibit existentialist traits but are difficult to classify within any stylistic trend. Imre Kertész wrote only one novel, Sorstalanság (1975; Fateless), which is remarkable in its detached treatment of the Holocaust as seen and narrated by a Jewish adolescent, the author himself. Ádám Bodor's excellent Sinistra körzet (1992; The Sinistra District) is situated somewhere "at the edge of the world" in the Carpathian Mountains and features strange characters communicating in laconic dialogues. Bodor deftly creates an atmosphere with a minimum of words, in contrast to László Krasznahorkai's first two novels, Sátántangó (1985; The Devil's Tango) and Az ellenállás melankóliája (1989; The Melancholy of Resistance), which are long on relentless gloom and social pessimism. Az urgai fogoly (1992; The Prisoner of Urga), his third novel, provides moments of relief. The intensity and, in parts, the beauty of Krasznahorkai's language make this narrative of a visit to China very memorable.
Hungarian fiction traditionally has taken a back seat to poetry. This situation changed in the mid-1970s, and Hungarian prose writers began to command international respect. At present, all kinds of fiction are being produced in Hungary, with a particular emphasis on the realist, the modernist-objective, and the postmodernist trends. The tastes of the reading public are slowly changing, but the first two types of fiction still have a numerically much greater readership than works written in the spirit of postmodernism.
See also Cross ReferencePÉTER ESTERHÁZY 1950- (HUNGARIAN); Cross ReferenceGYÖRGY KONRÁD 1933- (HUNGARIAN)
Balassa, Péter, "On Recent Hungarian Prose: Survey and Introduction," Formations 3:1 (Spring 1986)
Birnbaum, Marianna D., "György Konrad's The Loser," Cross Currents 7 (1988)
Czigány, Lóránt, The Oxford History of Hungarian Literature from the Earliest Times to the Present, Oxford: Clarendon Press, and New York: Oxford University Press, 1984
Esterházy, Péter, "On Hungarian Contemporary Literature," Cross Currents 9 (1990)
Fuentes, Carlos, introduction to György Konrád's The City Builder, New York: Penguin, 1987
Gömöri, George, "József Lengyel: Chronicler of Cruel Years," Books Abroad 49:3 (Summer 1975)
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