Magyar EnglishFrançaisGerman
The modernity in hungarian literature and the short novel

György Bodnár:

Milán Füst, modernity in hungarian literature and the short novel


            If we conceive of literary periods, trends and oeuvres as dialogues, rather than mere time-frames, modernity appears before us as a process, as part of a dialogue that has for long been carried on. It offers replies to new questions, it refers back to the past, and it provokes further questions, in which it is confronted with polemic arguments. Conceptual thinking, however, which aims at synthesis, is bound to halt this never-ending process, in order to search for a paradigm that distinguishes the literary renewal in the early 20th century from the changes that took place before it. Earlier, changes of periods were mostly accounted for through the body of historical and social references contained in the literary works, or at best with metaphoric formulations. In the case of literary modernity, however, its very ontological essence called for a self-sufficient definition. This was guided by two ideals – the autonomy of poetics and the expression of the individuum, and also, at the beginning, by subjectivism.

            The two ideals were the products not only of pure reason and the literary workshops; they were also a function and a manifestation of the economic and social changes of the period in question. The Austrian–Hungarian Compromise of 1867 and the emergence in its wake of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy ushered in a capitalism that was flourishing in a matter of a few decades. Parallel to it, a Hungarian middle class emerged which, despite its controversial situation, wanted to lead a new, urban way of life, in a world of new ideas, morals and tastes.  Pre-modern and modern Hungarian literature expressed these ideals and life motifs to begin with; then it also recognised the change that had taken place in it own role. First it strove to be independent of politics and power, then, in its conception of literature, it took the assertion of it own internal norms as a starting-point. The process was taking place in interaction with the knowledge and the influence of the literatures of more advanced Western countries, and served to remedy the deficiencies, at times belatedly, and concurrently, to carry on a dialogue with world literature. It was not by chance that the discontented writers of the period first turned to naturalism, because it liberated them from the postulates of the idealizing realism prevailing earlier. Then the modern trends that emerged one after another both carried forward the vein of thinking of the one before and shaped a new paradigm. Thus naturalism was followed by impressionism, art nouveau, symbolism and the avant-garde. Due to the growing insignificance of period styles in world literature and, in Hungary, also to an intellectual belatedness, modern Hungarian trends emerged in congestion, as it were, rather than in a sequence. As Endre Ady, representative poet of Hungarian literary modernity wrote, “In our part of the world, autumn, winter, spring and summer all converged.” In the literary history of the period, this was called stylistic plurality.

            Endre Ady became an embodiment of the paradigm shift in Hungarian modernity in 1905, and centre of the modernist movement was the literary review Nyugat [West], which was launched in 1908. While the pre-modern period merely expanded the literary vocabulary with its urban parlance, the Nyugat movement exploded the inherited poetic grammar, its hidden structures, and traditional literariness. It is a commonplace in Hungarian literary history that the three major components of Hungarian literary revolution were the creation of an autonomous idiom, the symbolist programme, and a novel perception of the ego that emerged as a consequence of the rise of the middle classes. Ady and the majority of the poets around Nyugat were guided by a desire for the expression of the consciousness of the self. As early as 1908, art historian and art philosopher Lajos Fülep recognised, primarily in painting, in the wake of Cézanne, that after the empirical ego, modern art and literature had to re-discover and reformulate the metaphysical ego of the cultic ages. Philosopher and aesthete Georg Lukács made the same point at the same time when he entitled his article polemicising with the subjectivism of Nyugat “The Ways Have Parted” (1910).

            Independently of them, the programme and practice leading to the much-called-for second beginning of a new period in Hungarian modernity is connected in the 1910s with the name of Milán Füst (1888-1967), who was a few years younger than the founders of Nyugat. His biblical, prophetic poetic diction and his poems consisting of long lines which preserve only a memory of rhythm, highlighted a poetic role in his subjective messages and expressions, which rendered his lyrical poetry objective, transposed and intellectually universal. The editor and the poet contributors of Nyugat had from the beginning ranked Milán Füst’s solitary poetry as belonging among their pluralistic values. Füst’s works in other literary forms confirm that this conception was indeed conducive to the emergence of a fully integrated oeuvre. His most important novels and dramas also aimed at universality, at times through historical themes, rather than serving the description of the moment or of the society. In them, history is a metaphor and at the same time a means of removal, just as the prophetic tone is in his poems. In his much-translated great novel, The Story of My Wife, he creates a universal medium by elevating, as it were, his protagonist out of real time and space, while in its literary form he brings it closer to the modern picaresque, as opposed to the Entwicklungsroman.  

            While the works referred to only mark the pillars of his lifework and his literary thinking, the integrative processes are more easily observed in his short novels, of which the first one took place in Nevetők [Laughers] in 1917 and the last one in Szívek a hínárban [Hearts in the Reed-grass] in 1959. Famous for his insistence on perpetual re-writing and on using his particular orthography, he called these works kis regény [lit. ‘little novel’, as opposed to the accepted term, the compound kisregény], which indicates that he made no distinction between the longer or shorter forms of prose fiction. Intensive readings of them, however, prove that, despite their adventurous, meandering plots, in his short novels he traces specific ethical or ontological speculations. As his friend and fellow writer, Dezső Kosztolányi put it, in Füst’s shorter pieces of fiction, “the doors remain open, the characters pop in unexpected, and the objects look mere accessories.”

            His third short novel published in 1929, Szakadék [Abyss] is about a professor’s odyssey or, in the writer’s self-reflexive definition, the story of his peregrinations. The protagonist starts out from a well-off, solid middle-class world, and only his poor spirits in the morning may prevent the reader from empathising with the idyll depicted. For a time, his (the reader’s) worries are lulled by the protagonist’s university performance, which is characterised by routine and formality and is permeated by inner and outer irony: the ironic lecturer earns a critical smile from the writer. The inner world opens up when the lecturer invites two of his students for lunch and conducts a conversation with them that is full of intellectual traps, bringing their submissive compliance and easily faltering sense of superiority to the surface. In the course of this conversation, the protagonist is in no position to have  a sense of achievement, which is, in this case, to his credit, as in his cunning intellectual games his partners are defenceless students. Unexpected, though logical, he is disillusioned of himself and in order to avoid going home, he sits down in a secluded corner of a café and recalls his childhood memories, the only thing to bring a degree of serenity in his life.

            The next stop of his peregrinations is his former lover’s flat, where he fights a verbal duel with her, by then deserted, husband.  The woman’s new boudoir is an epitome of tastelessness and riotous aestheticism. Here the verbal duel is resumed with increased intensity. The woman is even smarter and intellectually more alert than her deserted husband; she can both avoid the professor’s traps and re-assault him by bringing up his civil marriage. The duel of grievances results in actual fact from their different conceptions of individual freedom and the interaction of goodness and sin.

             The protagonist is about to leave the scene of intellectual duelling and continue his peregrination, when he finds out that the woman is expecting her new admirer, Baron Rezső Magas, a colonel of the Hussars, who happens to be the professor’s brother-in-law. It is irrelevant for the narrative whether the professor’s next stop on his wanderings, the Colonel’s hotel room, is by design or random. The point is that we are again shown a stage on which the verbal duelling continues. Equally uncertain is the motivation behind the only turning-point in the plot – the professor offers his wife to the Colonel. The train of thought in the short novel is again carried on by underlying arguments and repartees – the dilemma if a womanising Bohemian is indeed a freer man than the professor who faces nothingness. The answer emerges from the protagonist’s inner monologue, according to which there are two souls residing in Man, the living one and the observing one; it is praxis, rather than theory, that qualifies life.

            Drifting between design and improvisation, the plot next takes the professor to a room in the Colonel’s hotel, leading him away from his personal sphere and intellectual contests. There he has a dream about an approaching and revolving huge star, which is steered by the desire of fulfilling one’s potential. On waking up from his afternoon nap, he is led from one night to another, and he is imbued with sense of freedom. But this leads to new constraints as the question arises: what to do with his freedom. For the time being he replies to it by deciding never again to take a pen in his hand, and to live. His peregrinations thus lead him back into life, though it seems an ambiguous decision, which confronts the freedom of pubs and drunkenness with principles that are alienated of life. A new chance event puts an end to the deadlock: while visiting one pub after another he meets a former schoolmate, the painter Pötykös, whose natural medium is drinking, card-playing and poverty. Slow to start, they lead a conversation about their student days, about happiness and freedom, which ends in the plot by the professor’s exchange of his fur coat with the painter’s worn overcoat, thereby purchasing, as it were, his freedom from him. The true turning-point, however, arrives with a chest-of-drawers ‘story’, Pötykös’s inner monologue about freedom. It is in fact a sequence of fragmented memories, rather than a proper story – one is a memory of a little child perpetually chanting a ditty, which for the painter suggests the question if he would or would not like to have a child. Another is the memory of a dark blue jug, in the bottom of which silence dwells. The narrative recurs to the dialogue of the former school-mates, the relevance of which is that the painter now expounds on his philosophy of life: “One has to be able to live on an inclined plane”.  Naturally, this ‘philosophy of life’ is short of definition, formulated as it is through dreams, emotions and events in his life. An example is a shoemaker’ dream about a turn in his career. Formerly an accountant, one day he notices that, instead of numbers, a large pair of shoes is on the paper before him. Is that a delusion or the inclined plane? And viewed from this angle, what is Pötykös’s freedom worth? He is ambiguous about having a child; when the child’s angelic smile appears to him, he turns away, so his freedom is unhappiness. The intellectual duel is then drowned in drinking, and when the professor wakes up from his stupor he finds he has been robbed. It is as though Pötykös had deprived him of his life; the painter could have been his murderer and his record as an inmate of a mental hospital would make him exempt from the legal consequences of the crime. Eventually the memory retained of the incident is that, as an act of grace, Pötykös had killed a woman who kept writing the words ‘not to live, not to live’ on pieces of paper. And it appears as though the professor may eventually have asked the painter to do this favour for him too.

            Such pieces of memory, we perceive, appear as images of life because the professor again becomes lonely in his odyssey. He is left to fight with himself and to explore the moral of his chaotic night. One thing is certain – the value of silence. He recognises that he wants to stamp out sin by committing a sin. It is a frontier zone to where he is unwilling to follow the human soul. He feels that we can only get rid of our insanity through insanity.  We try to tame the daemons in us to no avail. We have an abyss in us – between what we are and what we live.   

            The last scene is the professor’s home. But the end of his peregrinations is not a simple return. His wife greets him with indifference and condescension, as tough she were beyond life and death, though her eyes are filled with tears. They are surrounded by the soft and cautious stillness of fatigued hearts. With a few laconic questions and answers they comply with the requirements of proper middle-class manners. Meanwhile, however, the professor is beset by a flood of strange sensations, of which he can no longer give an account, nor does he want to. An unbearable anxiety is increasing in him, and he sees the whole world around him as filled with anguish. He finishes his inner monologue by stating it is of no interest what happened afterwards. “And among other reasons, I cannot relate it because it is, for me, disgraceful more than any other things. I have grown old”, thus the short novel ends.

            Is this old age or nothingness? It is both. One is life; the other is a sense of life.

            In prose fiction, especially in its shorter forms, the plot with plenty of action and causality were noticeably relegated to the background as early as the late 19th century. Writers aimed at depicting a total picture of Man, not just social or historical developments. They aimed at entwining the social and historical narrative with the newly recognised psychological and ontological dimensions of human life. Idealising realism and the Entwicklungsroman, which the Modern Age inherited from the 19th century, used the stirring plot and causality to represent and verify Man in his social and historical perspective. Modern writers viewed a multi-dimensional representation of Man as authentic and, influenced by the sceptical philosophies of the age, distrusted the order of rational causality and turned away from it. Nyugat raised this problem when, in its first issue in 1908, published Gyula Szini’s “The Death of the ‘Tale’”, an essay substitutive of the theory.

            The winding peregrinations of the protagonist in Abyss serves no character development of any kind and its structure does not follow a pattern of rational causality. While in the Entwicklungsroman the characters are shown as progressing towards their ideals linearly in time and space, the picaresque Abyss offers a cross-section of the vision of Man, of his universal and constant essence. The adventures of its characters take place in the depths of the soul and existence. Nor is its style an instrument that serves this development; it has the cells and the bricks, of which the structure of the novel and the writer’s train of thought are built. Its language is not aesthetically elaborated, it is a designed vernacular. The main characters speak in a conspicuously similar manner: their manner of speech is not meant to serve in a realistic, even less a naturalistic, function. It is a means for the writer with which to play psychological and ontological games – verbal duels, traps, thoughts and intellectual extensions. The medium is the inner monologue, at times intensified to create the designed vernacular. This is why it is to be hoped that Abyss will join in the international dialogue not only on account of its universal human and intellectual frame of reference and thought but also through its idiom.