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. A book like The Paul Street Boys, published in 1907,(9) is bound to reflect Molnar's childhood experiences. He was not precise about dates. The "Putty Collectors' Club" of pre-teen youngsters at the center of the story was founded, according to the gang's official seal, in 188910; on the other hand, in the middle of the stor-y, there is passing reference to the Russo-Japanese war, which broke out in 1904!
Issues and Insights
Perhaps what strikes the reader most in the literature from the millennium is an atmosphere of peace. Certainly there is suffering and death, in fact dying is often the stuff Hungarian short novels are made of. But wars and epidemics, genocide or ethnic cleansing play no part in these stories, except perhaps as some distant and obscure historical reference. There is no war of the worlds, a la H.G. Wells; there is no war of the end of the world, a la Euclides Da Cunha or Mario Vargas Llosa (it may be worth noting that the battle of Canudos, won by the Brazilian millenarians of the sertao, was fought in 1896). In the words of Mihaly Babits, the great Catholic poet of the subsequent Nyugat generation, "that was the age of love in Hungary... for what else could have been interesting in life?"(12) The war between the gang on Paul Street in Molnar's book and the gang from the Botanical Gardens is not even an imitation of what we have come to know as real war; the boys fight according to elaborate rules. They are not allowed to trip each other. They throw sand at each other, rather than rocks. The code of honor is what really counts. The story reflects, according to Lukacs, "those particularly Magyar values of its time... the standards of an older Hungary."(13) In fact, by our contemporary standards, the fight is "pure fiction." No one gets hurt, other than little Nemecsek, who ducked and was also dunked into the waters of a freezing pond during the preliminaries leading to the great battle, and who consequently dies of pneumonia.
In one of Ferenc Herczeg's short stories, "A daruvari hid" (The Bridge at Daruvar), we read of what to our war- and violence-conscious minds appears to be a bloody military encounter; it comes as somewhat of a surprise - and that is not the point of the story -- that the encounter was nothing but a maneuver of some unit of the K.u.K., the Royal and Imperial Army of Austria-hungary, in which no one got hurt.(14)
Hungarian writers and their creatures seem blissfully unaware of the impending disaster: the most threatening reference in St. Peter's Umbrella is to some highwaymen who had killed an innkeeper in Slovakia some eighty years earlier!(15) Fifty years of peace had left their mark on Hungarian society, and even the war of independence (revolution of 1848-49) had receded into the mist of the past as yet another heroic episode of Hungarian history.
When there is bloodshed, it often appears in the guise of duel. In fiction as in reality, dueling was an activity implying social status. In Herczeg's story "Mutamur" the reputation of the petite-bourgeoise diary-keeping protagonist has been tarnished; to prod her suitor into fighting a duel to defend her honor, she declares to her suitor's aide-de-camp: "If he is a nobleman, let him be a nobleman!(16) Other stories, however, make it clear that dueling was indulged in by the nouveau-riche, by some who aspired to higher status. Thus in Gyula Krudy's story written in 1900 (but first published in 1906), The Ghost of Podolin,(17) Pogranyi, whose social background is never discussed, is left for dead on the dueling turf at Heidelberg. In Mikszath's work already mentioned, Grigorics, another well-to-do commoner, is almost challenged to a series of duels, his lack of a pedigree notwithstanding.(18) Indeed, the class structure in Hungary was not a structure of castes; the progeny of the same Grigorics family attend the prestigious Theresianum preparatory school in Vienna, alongside sons of barons and counts.
Duels are fought at the drop of a hat. In another story by Mikzsath, "The Gentry Wedding," first published in 1897, one of the wedding guests -- inebriated, to be sure -- challenges the host because the latter's servant had turned his back on him.(19)
Another striking and perhaps surprising impression that can be gleaned from these literary works is the low level of intensity of nationalist sentiment, the lack of ethnic dissension. According to the multi-volume history of Hungary already mentioned, and according to other works published during the "socialist period," when authors sought to make amends for Hungarian arrogance under the Dual Monarchy, the political leaders of the nationalities boycotted the celebration of the Millennium and objected to the insistence on Hungarian hegemony.(20) Yet ethnic antagonism does not manifest itself in literary works. Hungarian nationalism, if mentioned at all, referred to a feeling of anti-Austrianism, a feeling of resentment toward the House of Habsburg -- nothing to do with Slovaks, Serbs, Croatians or Romanians. The plot of St. Peter's Umbrella takes place in different locations of what is now Slovakia (the places mentioned are Glogova, which is probably a fictional name, Besztercebanya, Selmecbanya) and most of the characters in the work bear Slovak names. Much of the time the author does not bother to tell us what language is spoken by the characters, as if that were of no consequence. If the reader persists, she may discover that most speak Slovak, but are fluent in Hungarian as well. According to contemporary statistics, over two million native Hungarian-speakers spoke a second language, while 1.8 million members of other ethnic groups also spoke Hungarian.21 Mazsu informs us that almost the entire intelligentsia spoke Hungarian, while 50% of them could be considered assimilated," that is, of other than Hungarian extraction, by 1910.(22) In Mikszath's story, when the French governess of the heroine Veronika arrives in Babaszek, Mrs. Mravucsan, the mayor's wife. exclaims: "So old and she still cannot speak Hungarian!"(23)
In Mikszgth's social satire, The Gentry Wedding." the protagonists are all members of the Hungarian gentry. Almost everything the gentry does is pretense. Thus, while they all claim to be descendants of the seven chieftains who accompanied the Hungarian invader Arpad in 896 -- surely in public consciousness in the year of the millennium -- "It was interesting to hear," notes Mikszath, "how in moments of crisis they instinctively switched to speaking Slovak."(24)
Nowhere in Mikszath's stories, however, do we find a hint of nationalism or even ethnocentrism, of Slovak resentment of Hungarian domination, or of any feeling of Hungarian superiority. On the contrary, the Slovaks in the story are portrayed as good, bad, and indifferent, clever and not so clever - in fact rather more clever than not, much like the Hungarian peasant himself, so often the protagonist in other stories by Mikszath. Must we assume, then, that Mikszath deliberately concealed the antagonisms of his time for the sake of presenting Hungarians in a favorable light? It makes far more sense to assume that Mikszath wrote down what he saw, heard, or experienced, for his purpose was to tell stories that the public would find both believable and entertaining.
The above observations are corroborated by Krudy in his short novel, The Ghost of Podolin. Podolin is an actual town of northern Slovakia where Krudy attended school as a boy and where Slovaks, Poles, and Hungarians interacted. Indeed, the reader is never quite sure who is of what background.
Slovaks were certainly not privileged as regards their social status in contemporary Hungary, nor are they singled out as characters in works of Hungarian literature. The stories and short novels of Zoltan Ambrus are often cosmopolitan, sometimes with exotic locales, with heroes bearing exotic, Western (the circus lion is called "Bob," and the Great Dane is named "Brunswick"), or Southern Slav names. When the plot takes place in Budapest, or some other part of Hungary, the names of the characters may be Hungarian or Magyarized, German-Souabian, or Southern Slav. Ethnic background is never an issue.(25)
As for the mainly working-class boys in The Paul Street Boys, there is no lack of respect, let alone antagonism, toward "Uncle Dan," the Slovenian watchman of their improvised playground (better known as the grund) in Jozsefvaros, even though the only luxury he can indulge in is smoking Havana cigar-butts.
The exception may confirm the rule: about the only ethnocentric or biased comment I have noted is one by Herczeg, in a story about Hungarian and German peasants from a village in the Torontal. He describes one of them as lazier than three Romanians from Krasso."(26)
There are occasional references to "exotic" ethnic groups or races. These stories have a tendency to repeat Western stereotypes. For instance, in one of Herczeg's stories, indirectly about the world-famous Hungarian artists Mihaly Munkacsy, who died in 1896, Gauguin's girlfriends (misidentified as "Hawaiians") are described wistfully as tame but dumb, like pets.27 But in another fable about members of two neighboring tribes - one black, the other white -- who feel nothing but "racial hatred" toward each other, Herczeg tells about an encounter a la Romeo and Juliet between a beautiful African girl and a red-haired hero, in which the girl and man match each other in wit and desire for each other.28 In most of Herczeg"s stories, the woman of beauty has a "brown" complexion - but everything is relative, of course.
Jews, however, are described in ambivalent terms. It becomes clear, from literary works as well as from statistics, that there was an influx of Jews into the villages and towns of the Hungarian kingdom towards the end of the century. According to the statistics, the influx was steady, but not precipitous: while Jews represented 4% of the total population in Hungary in 1864, their ratio had grown to 5% (or 911,000) by 1910.(29) The official history of the Academy of Science claims that anti-semitism had deep roots among the traditional middle strata (meaning, I suppose, mainly the gentry).(30) Indeed. there is some literary evidence to support this contention. Thus, the bridegroom in Mikszath's "The Gentry Wedding" is a journalist; according to his father he embarked on this career, even though it admittedly derogated a true nobleman, for a noble cause: "to reconquer the pen" from the Jews who, as g matter of common knowledge corroborated by statistics, dominated the field of journalism, especially in the capital city.(31)
In Ambrus's story from 1897, "Brunswick," a throng of journalists, while not identified as Jewish, give a poor account of themselves, living days on end like leaches in the home of a prominent politician and professor, while awaiting the news of the man's death. Some of them while away their time fishing: "The swans and trouts," write Ambrus, "looked at them in amazement; they had never seen a newspaperman before .... "(32)
Usually Jews remain nameless stereotypes, referred to as the red Jew, the black Jew, the white Jew, the Jew owner of the tavern, or simply the Jew. But then these stereotypes are already implicit in surnames the Jewish immigrants brought with them: Roth, Schwarz, Weiss, Grun, etc.
The literary evidence does not always corroborate the social historian's. In the story "A daruvari hid" by the conservative writer Herczeg, Hungarian officers are the guests of the Steiner couple, identified as "Israelites"; yet the hosts are described as generous and wealthy landowners, moreover as a handsome man and an attractive woman.(33) Mrs. Muncz, the widow of a Jewish peddler in St. Peter's Umbrella, the one who mysteriously gave away the umbrella, does have a name and a personality. Upon the death of her husband she was lured to Babaszek and offered a salary for the sake of the town's prestige: after all, no town of any consequence should be without at least one Jew, even if it is "only a woman."(34) (The issue of gender deserves separate treatment.) At any rate, there is no common denominator between the anti-semitism we occasionally encounter in the products of Hungarian literature around the millennium, and the anti-Semitism we have come to know as a result of Hungarian and East-Central European history after 1919 and in the Second World War.
It is the gentry and the intelligentsia that people literature, more so than peasants, workers, or even aristocrats; hardly surprising, if we bear in mind that writers as a rule were born into or became members of the gentry or petite bourgeoisie. Janos Mazsu's statistical analysis comes to life. According to his statistics, in 1890 less than 1% of the total population qualified as members of the intelligentsia, over two-thirds of whom lived in cities and settlements of at least 10,000 inhabitants.(35) There is no equivocation as regards their housing conditions. As in Ambrus's masterpiece from 1895, Oszi napsugar (Autumn Light), this intelligentsia often lived in a sublet, or in an apartment where the other room, i.e., the room of the landlord, served as bedroom and living room, studio and dining room. The landlord, probably a member of the intelligentsia himself, could afford to keep his apartment only by subletting half - that is, sharing his poverty.(36)
Who were the intelligentsia? In the small town of Babaszek at least, apart from the distinguished or not so distinguished guests and the mayor who was the host, the intelligentsia included the schoolteacher, some "senators" (members of the municipal council), the reverend (a Lutheran clergyman), the forester, the butcher, and the aforementioned Jewish lady (invited, but could not attend), all dining and playing cards, at the same table. The wives dine, but do not play cards.(37) Card-playing is for money, of course, and the schoolteacher is reduced to kibitzer, for he has none -- Mikszath informs us, in parenthesis, that schoolmasters as a rule are "the poorest members of the community."38 Moreover, characteristically enough, there is little respect for the teacher: when he slumps to sleep over the table during the card-game, his buddies seal his beard to the wood with melted wax.
In Mikszath's "The Gentry Wedding" the satire is ruthless. "Everyone treated money as if they had their own mint...," he writes.(39) The gentry had joined the intelligentsia and found jobs at measly wages in the lower rungs of civil service, as clerks and minor officials, "but if the eye of a stranger was upon them they would part with their last five-forint piece with an air of princely indifference."(40) The four-horse carriages, the uniforms, the wedding gown from a Parisian couturier, the huge dowry, the jewelry, everything is pretense. Everything but the food, drinks, and entertainment, for that, after all, was how the gentry had dissipated its wealth in the first place. In one of his stories, Herczeg defines the period discussed here as the "classical golden age of cards, courting and hiring the Gypsy to play the fiddle."(41)
Social Status and Social Mobility
Mikszath, Krudy, Molnar, Ambrus, Herczeg and others convey a picture of society in change, as well as snapshots of society as it then stood. There was, as Mazsu avers, upward mobility. Gyorgy Wibra, the hero of St. Peter's Umbrella, is the illegitimate son of a Slovak maidservant, yet studies at the University of Budapest, and becomes a noted lawyer -- clearly not a particularly unusual feat, since it is mentioned only incidentally. In 1894, about 17.5% of the intelligentsia originated from land-owning families, including peasants.(42)
At the public secondary school in the typically working-class district of Jozsefvaros, the background of most students is not unlike that of little Nemecsek, whose father is a poor tailor, and who is served nothing but cumin soup, even when sick. Among the members of the same gang we also find a boy who recently migrated from the countryside (Csonakos), the son of a doctor with a Hungarian gentry surname (Kolnay), and the son of a lawyer with a Jewish surname (Richter).
The gap between middle-class and gentry on the one hand, and the peasantry on the other, is recorded in a story by Herczeg, "Furedi emlek" (Memories of Balatonfured). The heroine, a member of the upper-middle-class, is wooed by a member of her own class, but they test each other's commitment - perhaps because, as the author explains, there were no great battles to be fought, no opportunity for demonstrations of heroism. The young lady in love is tested by being challenged to don peasant garb and wash her suitor's clothes in the lake. She performs the task as challenged, but amidst a shower of tears on account of the humiliation.(43)
In Krudy's story a Slovak servant girl named Ancsurka Prihoda -- incidentally, the daughter of a poor Slovak who left the baby behind to disappear in America and came back to his native land a rich man -- marries into the Hungarian aristocracy. Thus we have intermarriage between ethnic groups and intermarriage across contrasting social classes. But that is not the gist of Krudy's story; it is not about intermarriage or social climbing, it is about a German ghost. Intermarriage is merely incidental as far as Krudy is concerned, something he takes for granted. The social distance may be even greater in Herczeg's story "Uzlet-uzlet" (Business is Business); here the penniless but distinguished aristocrat marries the daughter of a Jewish moneylender.(44) Marriage for money is the other side of the coin of marriage for status; indeed, a large percentage of the stories and novels by Ambrus, Herczeg, and others, involves either affairs or marriages between lower- or middle-class women and aristocratic (or gentry) beaux.(45) To what extent such a story-line reflects actual social mobility as opposed to mere social aspirations is not clear, even from the "hard" sociographic data.
In one of Herczeg's short stories of the fairy-tale genre, somewhat a la E.T.A. Hoffmann, Eskinacz, a Jewish broker, sells just about anything. To one customer who is in the market for a husband, he offers a baron for 300,000, a young member of parliament for 250,000 (the actual denomination of the currency hardly matters), a major in the hussars, of noble background, for 60,000, an officer of middle-class background for 30,000, a lawyer for the same price, all of them mechanical, of course. Social status has never been quantified in a more exact manner!(46)
What may we conclude from all this? First of all, that literature, especially great works, offer an added dimension to the study of social history in Hungary (and in other countries). Second, that the picture conveyed to us by literary works does not always corroborate what historians assert, and that, given, the lack of imagination(47) and insight of most historians, the picture presented by the great writers is probably more accurate. Third, that knowledge being holistic, the study of literature and the humanities leads to a better understanding of the social sciences, and vice-versa. Fourth, a further hypothesis might be that it would benefit all nations of East-central Europe today if we could read and analyze other literatures in other languages and, in the spirit of Herder, probably come up with results similar to those contained in this essay.
(1.) Magyarorszag tortenete, 1890-1918 [The History of Hungary], eds. Peter Hanak and Ferenc Mucsi (Budapest: Akademiai Kiado, 1988).
(2.) John Lukacs, Budapest 1900: A Historical Portrait of a City and its Culture (New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1988).
(3.) Janos Mazsu, Ertelmiseg, ertelmisegiek, szellemi munkasok Magyarorszagon az elso vilaghaboru elotti felszazadban, manuscript, Debrecen-Budapest, 1984-94.
(4.) Mazsu, op. cit., p. 23.
(5.) Kalman Mikszath, St. Peter's Umbrella (Budapest: Corvina Press, 1962).
(6.) Ferenc Molnar, The Paul Street Boys (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1980, ed. Molnar-Basa).
(7.) Quoted in Mario D. Fenyo, Literature and Political Change: Budapest 1908-1918 Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1987), p. 137.
(8.) Lucien Goldmann, "Dialectical Materialism and Literary History," New Left Review, 92 (July-august 1975), p. 44.
(9.) Clara Gyorgyey, Ferenc Molnar, (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1980, ed. Molnar-basa).
(10.) Molnar, The Paul Street Boys, p. 104.
(11.) Ibid., p. 78.
(12.) Lukacs, op. cit., p. 26.
(13.) Ibid., p. 157.
(14.) Ferenc Herczeg, "A daruvari hid," in Szaz elbeszeles [A Hundred Short Stories) (Budapest: Singer and Wolfner, 1943), pp. 31-41.
(15.) Mikszath, St. Peter's Umbrella, p. 156.
(16.) Herczeg, "Mutamur," op. cit., p. 62.
(17.) Gyula Krudy, "The Ghost of Podolin," in Regi szelkakasok kozott [Among Old Weathercocks] (Budapest: Szepirodalmi Konyvkiado, 1976).
(18.) Mikszath, St. Peter's Umbrella, p. 65.
(19.) Kalman Mikszath, "The Gentry Wedding," in The Siege of Beszterce (Budapest: Corvina, 1982), p. 261.
(20.) Magyarorszag tortenete, p. 158.
(21.) Ibid., p. 419.
(22.) Mazsu, op. cit., p. 176.
(23.) Mikszath, St. Peter's Umbrella, p. 121 (as re-translated).
(24.) Mikszath, "The Gentry Wedding," in The Siege of Beszterce, p. 290.
(25.) Valeria Korek, Hangulat is valosag [Mood and Realityl (Munich: Aurora, 1976), passim.
(26.) Herczeg, "Parasztok" [Peasants], op. cit., p. 249.
(27.) Herczeg, "Estely Parisban" [Soiree in Paris], op. cit., p. 450. The date of the fictionalized soiree described here can be pinpointed as 1894 or 1895.
(28.) Herczeg, "A voros ember" [The Red-Haired Man], op. cit., pp. 381-390.
(29.) Magyarorszag tortenete, p. 420.
(30.) Ibid., p. 463.
(31.) Mikszath, "The Gentry Wedding," in The Siege of Beszterce (Budapest: Corvina, 1982), p. 250.
(32.) Korek, op. cit., pp. 53-54.
(33.) Herczeg, "A daruvari hid," op. cit.
(34.) Mikszath, St. Peter's Umbrella, p. 94 ff.
(35.) Mazsu, op. cit., pp. 65, 74.
(36.) Korek, op. cit., p. 73; see also Mazsu, op. cit., passim.
(37.) Mikszath, St. Peter's Umbrella, p. 127 ff.
(38.) Ibid., p. 141.
(39.) Mikszath, "The Gentry Wedding," in The Siege of Beszterce, p. 288.
(40.) Ibid., p. 237.
(41.) Herczeg, "Furedi emlek" [Memory from Balatonfured], op. cit., p. 140.
(42.) Mazsu, op. cit., p. 86.
(43.) Herczeg, "Furedi emlek," op. cit., p. 147.
(44.) Herczeg, "Uzlet-uzlet," op. cit., pp. 159-183.
(45.) For instance, Ferenc Herczeg's "Mutamur; Terka naploja" beginning in 1887, op. cit., pp. 42-75.
(46.) Herczeg, Bard Rebusz," op. cit., p. 106.
(47.) According to Anatole France, history is both art and science. It is art, "car il y faut de l'imagination!"…