Literature and Society: Hungary at the Millennium

Article excerpt

Method and Madness

The political, literary, and social history of Hungary at the turn of the century just past has been amply investigated in general works and in monographs. An example of a general study would be the Academy of Science's ponderous, multi-volume history; the segment dealing with the years 1890 to 1918, the final stages of the Dual Monarchy, alone takes up one thousand, four hundred pages.(1) Another study, hard to classify because, unlike most historical works, it is lucid, penetrating and eloquent at the same time, would be John Lukacs's quasi-bestseller, Budapest 1900.(2) An example of a pertinent monograph is Janos Mazsu's Social History of the Hungarian Intelligentsia in the Half Century Before World War I,(3) which I had the privilege of translating recently. It provides quantitative data on Hungarian society, well beyond that social conglomeration called the intelligentsia. In this monograph Mazsu argues that "historical works include many statements and stereotypes regarding the social background of the Hungarian intelligentsia that are based largely on the uncritical acceptance of characters in literature."(4) In other words, his research and statistical analysis is intended to correct the picture presented in literary works. I have reversed that process: in this essay I have used literary works to verify the validity of the statistics and the conclusions presented by Mazsu and in other historical works.

What prompted Mazsu to write a corrective to the impressionistic portrait of Hungarian society found in novels and short stories? In Hungary, as in much of East-central Europe, literary works are taken seriously. I, for one, had obtained my picture of Hungarian society around the turn of the century from contemporary literature. If I may indulge in a bit of autobiography, one of the very first books my father -- a literary figure in his own right -- made me read, at age five or six, right after Sandor Petofi's Hary Janos and Janos Arany's Toldi (part 1), was Kalman Mikszgth's St. Peter's Umbrella.(5) The next book, if I remember correctly, was Ferenc Molnar's popular adventure story for children, The Paul Street Boys.(6) In other words, I (and many others, I am sure) was brought up on the same classics my father educated himself on, before he became part of the so-called "Nyugat generation," except that they had not yet attained the rank of classics at his time.

What I propose to do, then, is to sketch, in a tentative manner, a vision of Hungarian society around the time of the "millennium" of 1896 (or 1900, if we prefer) that is not quantitative and statistical, yet perhaps more insightful and perceptive: society as seen through the eyes of the great writers of the pre-Nyugat generation, whose names may well be unfamiliar even to the most sophisticated American reader: Kalman Mikszath, Zoltdn Ambrus, Gyula Krudy, Sandor Brody, Ferenc Molnar, Jeno Heltai, Ferenc Herczeg, Geza Gardonyi, etc. -- all of whom were still writing, or already writing, around 1900. They are part of what John Lukacs calls, in deference to Spain's "generacion del noventa-y-ocho," the generation of 1900. Indeed, their works reveal the workings of society better than any historical or sociological monograph; after all, in the words of Vladimir Lenin, who understood the power of fiction as well as any sociologist of literature, a great writer is nothing less than a scientific observer, "a ruthless observer."(7) Or, for those of us who prefer our politics in a less activist mold, there is the straightforward language of the literary sociologist Lucien Goldmann: "Any important work ... has a scope and exercises an influence on the behavior of members of the group..."(8)

The following comments are based on a somewhat random collection of masterpieces and lesser works, published anywhere between 1895 and 1967. Generally speaking, novels, stories, plays are conceived or experienced long before they get published. …