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(Hungarian literature during the first decades of the XXth century)

Endre (Andrew) Ady

Born of a Protestant family of ancient nobility in northern Transylvania (1877), he received a good education and chose the career of a journalist in the eastern Hungarian town of Nagyvarad. Here he met and fell in love with a married woman who became his great love, inspiring muse and tragic destiny, the "Leda" of his sensuous love poems. On Leda’s invitation Ady went to Paris, where the modern trends of French art and poetry changed his outlook on life. On his return he settled in Budapest and published "New Verses" (1906). The collection had a shattering effect on the stagnating Hungarian literary life of this complacent era.

The violent attacks of the critics of the "establishment" only enhanced Ady’s popularity with the young. He published several collections in the following years, each causing a storm of praise and attack for its prophetic, scolding patriotism, sensuous, sinful longing for love and for the poet’s imaginative but obscure symbolism. The excesses of his stormy youth gradually destroyed Ady’s health. He broke with Leda and found pure, youthful, true love in a girl much younger than himself whom he married. He was deeply shocked by the Great War, its senseless horrors and its destruction of human values. He died during the tragic month of January, 1919.

Ady created a symbolic language of his own to interpret his dynamic message. His exceptionally rich language uses picturesque, half-forgotten archaic words, racy folk-dialect, city slang and colourful composite words of his own creation Frequently a sequence of allegoric images becomes the vehicle for his thoughts. This symbolism may take the form of gothic image of his own captive soul in "an old, fearful castle’ where "the lone, forsaken rooms ring hollow" – the prison of his frustrations – from where "rarely at the hour of midnight. . . my large eyes begin to flare ("The White Lady"). He often creates symmetrical structures of opposites or choices as in the prophetic appeal to his nation presented in the form of a paraphrase of an old Magyar folk song: "Peacock" where he challenges his somnolent nation to accept the "new Magyar miracles…new flames, new faith…" The nation must accept the demands of the new times because "either the Magyar words – shall have new senses, or Magyar life will stay sad. . ." The very titles of his collections carry symbolic messages: "Blood and Gold", "In Eliah’s Chariot", "Craving for Affection", "This fleeing Life", "In Death’s Foreranks".

The choice of themes often displays challenging contrasts. Life and death, the struggle between vitality and melancholy, often find a fatalistic harmony in the same poem with the thought’ of death almost welcome – in the midst of life’s joys. The hauntingly beautiful "Autumn in Paris" presents his death-wish in the association of autumn and death". . . songs within my spirit burned – I knew for death they yearned . . . then Autumn whispered something from behind. . ." It would be interesting to compare Ady’s mystic death-wish with Petofi’s classic vision in his "End of September" (cf. Chapter 7). Another moving picture of fatalistic resignation uses the tone of the folk-tale in its sombre imagery: "The Horses of Death".

Love is a lethal passion: Ady’s thirst for love is akin to his resigned acceptance of death, which invades his most sensuous desires; "this kiss consumed we should peacefully – die without sorrow. . . " he says in "Half-kissed Kiss" The poet is "Death’s Kinsman", his kiss is the kiss of parting: "Her lips – to kiss I love who goes – not returning. . " The break with his "femme fatale", Leda, is motivated by his deep longing for pure, chaste, spiritual love: he "wants to be loved by somebody. . . and to be somebody’s" ("Craving for affection"). In the calm, sad moments of regret the memories of his childhood return: "A Familiar Lad" – his childhood innocence – mourns his approaching death.

Ady was deeply concerned with the tragic fate of his Magyar nation. He saw the faults of the present and he despaired of the nation’s future. He raised his scolding, prophetic words against his people, like an angry parent, called them his "detestable, lovable nation" His is the tragic mission of the tormented Messiah, the task of awakening his nation with "new melodies of newer years. The mystic attraction of the Hungarian soil is expressed in the moving picture of the "Outcast Stone" (cf. Chapter 7). As .the apocalyptic destruction of the War progresses, he despairs for his nation in the face of that monster devouring the youth of the Magyar people. His visionary poem, ‘Remembrance," written on the day the War broke out, conjures his fearful vision of War with the imagery of a folk-ballad.

Ady’s tormented heart repeatedly found peace in his never-failing refuge, God's love. He remained indeed throughout his sinful, cursing, prophetic career a God-seeking, repenting Christian psalmist echoing David’s eternal human cry from the depths of his misery and passion. He is his nation’s prophet, and the prophet’s destiny is loneliness ‘as his mission is "sad, between Heaven and earth to wander…" He knows that when he is deserted by humans he can find refuge and peace in the Lord, because He "took me in His embrace." Like the ancient poet of his Bible, he found God the greatest consolation and satisfaction. He faces death calmly because: "I’ve found Him and have clasped Him in my arms, in death we’ll be united, never to part…"

Ady’s poetry can only be understood if approached with respect and compassion.

The poets of the "Nyugat" circle

Ady’s appearance on the literary scene heralded the beginning of a new era, in Hungarian literature. His courage inspired a number of poets, essayists and critics rallied around the literary review "Nyugat" ("The West"). Though the writers of this group showed some degree of social concern,, their basic philosophy was that of universal humanism. This explains also their interest in foreign literature, especially French contemporary poetry and philosophy.

Milaly Babits (1883-1941), classic poet, aesthete, novelist and critic was a virtuoso of the language and a brilliant interpreter of foreign literature: Latin and western. He was a defender of pure poetry: his goal was aesthetic self-expression without any utilitarian or ideological aspects. The best known of his novels and novelettes are: "Stork Calif", a masterly portrait of a split personality, "Pilot Elsa", an Orwellian satire of a future society engaged in eternal wars, and the "Son of Virgil Timar", an emotional parallel between spiritual love and cynicism.

Babits’ many collections of poetry reflect his warm humanity and classic taste. Even self-pity takes the form of compassion in "Gypsy Song", where he bemoans his own "exile" from the capital in the symbolic image of the homeless gypsy. His pacifism lacks Ady’s bitterness and mirrors the classicist’s sorrow for the loss of human values ("They sang. . ") His lofty philosophy resulted in a certain degree of spiritual isolation.

Gyula Juhasz, the poet of deep, tender melancholy, searched in vain for sympathy; even his memories failed to console him.

Arpad Toth, a sensitive impressionist, was a subtle artist of the language and a true interpreter of French poetry. He described the melancholy feelings of the city-poet in exquisite’ sonnets.

Dezso Kosztolanyi, poet, translator, novelist, critic and essayist, was a charmlng, witty, optimistic person, an independent and’ true aesthete. His prose shows an interest in modern psychology. His short stories (many translated into Engiish) describe rniddle-class city society in colourful, humorous and vigorous style. His poems show his volatile temperament, all shades of light and gloom, vitality and refined decadence. His early farewell to the scene of his youth, "The Trees of Ulloi Ut", is a moving tribute to Budapest. He understands the timeless beauty of married love threatened by the dull routine of the home. The witty "To My Wife" is that rare phenomenon a love poem to the poet’s own wife.

His translations opened new horizons: lie interpreted subtle" Chinese and Japanese poetry, but also modern American poetry.

Attila Jozsef (1905-1937), the son of a deserted mother in a Budapest slum, was the representative of the urban proletariat in modern Hungarian poetry. After his expulsion from the University he joined the illegal Communist Party but was soon expelled from it for his individualistic views. The hardships of his life during the depression affected his mental health and he eventually committed suicide.

His poetry shows flashes of vitality, even humour, but it remains basically pessimistic. His witty, cynic, sad humour is best illustrated in his poem "On My Birthday" mentioned in Chapter 7. Some of his most moving poetry is dedicated to his mother’s memory ("Mama") His basic philosophy is characterised by his sincerity and classic realism. His imagery, naturalistic as it may be, impresses with its truth and lucidity, such as the lines where he describes how he feels mental illness approaching: "I feel my eyes jump in and out... when I squint with my whole reality…"

The "Ars Poetica", the basic creed of his art, stresses the role of the intellect in poetry. It is surprising to see this highly emotional, often unruly spirit stress the need of conscientious effort involved in writing poetry. We cannot help remembering Petofi, a kindred spirit who used a similarly classic, realistic, pure language to convey his revolutionary message.

Jozsef’s own suffering arouses his compassionate approach to his surroundings. The memories of his difficult slum childhood evoke nostalgic tableaus of happier children ("Lullaby"). His deep, humanistic Christianity is expressed in "The Three Kings", a Magyar Christmas scene, reminiscent of the "Bethlehem plays" of the people.

Though bitter and "an exile" in his own country, Jozsef still felt one with his Magyar nation: "My dear country – take me to your heart – I want to be your faithful soul. . ." be said in his credo which could be his epitaph.

Some novelists of the period

Geza Gardonyi (1863-1922) was born of Catholic peasant parents in Transdanubia. He spent his life teaching as a village teacher. His marriage was tragic and he died a melancholic, lonely man in the northern Hungarian town of Eger.

Gardonyi was successful in many literary genres, but most of all as a novelist. He was a realist, like Mikszath, but his gentle, shy person lacked malice and cynicism. He was also a good psychologist and could search the soul of the child and the peasant with perfection. However, his portraits of women were tinged with bitterness and mysogony – obviously the result of his unfortunate marriage.

His best novel is the "Invisible Man" (also translated: "The Slave of the Huns") which displays imagination, genuine historical sense and the ability to characterise young people in love. Set in the age of Attila and told by Zeta, a Greek slave, the novel is a good synthesis of history and romance. The background of historical events up to Attila’s death highlights the love story of Zeta and the Hun girl, Emoke. The characters are real and credible, and the aim of the narrative is to search for the real ego of the principal characters – hence the title.

Gardonyi’s other historical novels, "The Stars of Eger" (the epic saga of Eger’s defence in 1552) and "God’s Captives" (the story of Saint Margaret of the Arpads), describe historical events and characters behind romantic plots of gentle youthful love - in the first novel ending in happy marriage, in the second remaining pure and platonic.

Gardonyi’s social novels are spoilt by his distrust of women and his aversion to the institution of marriage. His short stories, especially those resulting from his long observation of village life, are idyllic, charming and colourful tableaus of peasant life.

He also wrote many plays, revolving around the problems of village life. The best known is "Wine", the story of the peasant who promises to give up drinking but breaks his promise. The near-tragedy is prevented by a timely application of peasant common sense and all ends well.

The work of his sensitive, lonely man has provided immense" enjoyment to countless readers. His choice of historical and rural topics limits his appeal to foreigners, though some of his works are available in excellent translations.

Zsigmond Moricz (1879-1942) was born in eastern Hungary of a poor, Protestant family. His novels, short stories and plays present a compassionate and realistic picture of the misfits of’ Hungarian society during the first decades of the century: the selfish peasant, the irresponsible gentry, the foolish, frustrated: middle-class woman, the violent outlaw ("betyar") and the greedy village-merchant. He paints a gloomy picture of a decaying society with coarse naturalism, in racy idiomatic Hungarian His view is limited: he only sees the misery, servility, conceit, greed and lewdness of his world without bothering to reveal the good and promising side of Hungarian society.

"Be Faithful unto Death" shows a different Moricz: this gentle, warm story of a sensitive boy’s schooldays has been his most popular work (filmed and adapted to the stage as well as in its original novel form). The historical trilogy, "Transylvania" is a fine analytical study of the XVIIth century with a lively plot and true, realistic portrayal of the leading personalities of the Principality.

Gyula Krudy (1878-1933) was a unique novelist who described hazy, undefined personalities in an impressive, dreamy atmosphere where realities and character delineations disappear, plots become blurred and the present and past are intertwined. His portraits of Budapest middle-class people or country gentry are reminiscent of a surrealistic painting. ("The Sindbad cycle",’ "The Red Mailcoach")

Christian renaissance

Bishop Ottokar Prohaszka (1858-1927) who watched the spread of materialism with anxiety, became the inspired voice of the Christian conscience of millenary Hungary. He expounded the principles of modern Catholic social justice in his writings, sermons and lectures; sought out the roots of the spiritual, social and economic’ problems of’ his period and pointed to the resources of true Christianity. The mystic depth of his religious writings and the progressive humanism of his social ideas met with mixed response from his contemporaries.

Only after his death did his teachings find their echo among the writers of the short-lived Christian renaissance of the twenties and thirties.

The most popular of the post-war Catholic poets was the gentle humanist, Laszlo Mecs (1895-), a priest-poet of Northern Hungary. Unfortunately, the imaginative symbolism and colourful language of his poetry defy translation.

The other Catholic poets and writers (Sandor Sik, Lajos Aprily, Lajos Harsanyi, Bishop Tihamer Toth) and the great protestant Bishop, Laszlo Ravasz were the leaders of a promising Christian literary revival which ended abruptly with the collapse of the old social structure of Hungary in 1945.

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