03. 16. 2008. 20:38

An eroticist of politics

Béla Zsolt: a portrait

Béla Zsolt was one of the great eroticists of politics who channel their libido and even all their madness into social struggle. A characteristic anecdote is that he was newly married when he woke up in the morning and declared in a firm and defiant tone to his somewhat startled wife: “Bethlen’s regime must be overthrown.”

The career of Béla Zsolt is a paradigmatic instance of the history of Hungary’s Jews. It begins with enthusiastic assimilation and patriotism, followed by disappointment brought by World War I and the subsequent revolution, terror and confusion in the age of growing anti-Semitism, ending finally with Auschwitz, which spelt betrayal by the adored homeland.
Zsolt’s entire life and activity, spent in the name of Politics and Work, took place within three brief decades. These thirty years, however, were the most dense and eventful period of Hungarian history. Born in Komárom in 1895, his family background was one of stability and permanence. “My maternal great-grandfather and grandfather were tanners in the same house for a hundred years; my paternal great-grandfather and great-grandmother were publicans in the same house for a hundred years,” wrote Zsolt in his autobiographical novel Lightning Stroke (Villámcsapás, 1937). A golden age of successful assimilation, this period shows no sign of disharmony. “My family and myself were not among the oppressed, the impoverished or the excluded. The way to wealth, culture and the bourgeois way of life had been open to all of us for decades.”
In 1918, he went to Nagyvárad and found out that although some of his poetry had even won the great Endre Ady’s acclaim, as poet he was in fact an imitator. His real talent lay in the field of prose and, within that, journalism. Zsolt developed into one of the most significant political analysts of inter-war Hungary – radical in thought and language, razor-sharp in his humour, brilliantly intelligent. His was a mind that knew no compromise. With their powerful autobiographic basis, his novels provide a sense of the daily troubles of the Hungarian Jewish middle and lower middle classes. Contrary to one of the most significant representatives of “Hungarian Jewish writing”, Károly Pap, a little known author of world rank (his novel Azarel has been translated into English), Zsolt was not an avowed “Jewish author”. This meant that he always viewed the problems of the Hungarian Jewry in the context of the historical problems of Hungary and Hungarians. He thought of Jewish assimilation as an accomplished fact and considered the idea of going back on it, either by the Jews or the Hungarians, a fatal step. This is one of the reasons why he believed that Pap was sinfully wrong and self-destructive when, in 1943, he drew the conclusion that the assimilation process had gone off track and the Hungarian Jews had nothing left to do but retreat to the ghettos and live as an ethnic minority.
Pitting a massive amount of journalistic work against the onslaught of fascism, he of course proved insufficient to halt the process. In 1942, he was deported to do forced labour in Ukraine, and was later confined to the ghetto in Nagyvárad (Oradea) from where he and his wife were deported to Bergen-Belsen. A famous transaction with the Germans executed by Rezso Kasztner and involving the payment of a massive sum enabled him to escape to Switzerland in the twelfth rather than the eleventh hour. His wife’s family probably perished in Auschwitz. These terrible adventures were commemorated in what is probably his most significant work, his only one published in English so far, the unfinished novel Nine Suitcases (Kilenc koffer). First published as a magazine series, it was only released in book form posthumously in 1980.
After the war was concluded, Zsolt set to work as a journalist fuelled with high hopes and his earlier radical liberalism. (He wrote no more fiction.) But this kind of liberalism was never very popular in Hungary. His articles raised much hostility both on the left and the right, a point of interest being that his most ardent enemy from the Communist camp was none other than György (Georg) Lukács. Zsolt never gave up, but he was unable to continue his struggle for long: the various illnesses he had contracted during the two world wars and the horrific sequence of bodily suffering he had undergone finally got the better of him: he died in Budapest in 1949, directly before the Stalinist regime of Mátyás Rákosi came into power. A fortunate moment, one might ironically claim. Zsolt had been the author of the most plausible and profound analysis about Rákosi after the war. Now possessed of absolute power, the Communist leader was unlikely to forgive for this article. Even after the decline of Hungarian Stalinism Zsolt never became a popular author in this country. During the socialist years his name is only ever mentioned as a polite “also ran” and of his novels only one (An Embarrassing Affair – Kínos ügy) was republished, in 1970. It is only at the present time that he is being rediscovered: 2007 saw the re-publication of two of his novels.
The tragedy of Zsolt’s career mainly resides in the fact that although he spent his entire life and every drop of ink in his pen in the ardent service of his Hungarian homeland, this homeland, this adored nation did not accept his sacrifice, but instead left him imprisoned in his denied Jewish identity and rejected him like a proud lady rejects a stubborn, pushy, hopeless lover who will just never learn. The confession he makes in Nine Suitcases is all the more shocking as it was conceived in the ante-room of the gas chambers.
This country was more of a cause to me than to those around me: I was devoted to it in writing, in speech and in my dreams, and there were years, indeed the years of my youth, when I was so absorbed by it that I near enough refused to accept the gift of love. This was when, after the failure of the revolution, for almost ten years I kept expecting my political ideals, my exiled ideals and distant friends to return and save the country from criminals and dilettantes. I waited almost ten years and in the meantime did not even have a lover. (..) Then further years of my youth came, and time and nature did their work to dull the effect and bring regeneration, but if I am honest, I never again felt entirely at ease. An ill flavour lingered in all my food and drink and I always felt as if, whenever I did anything other than confine the power of my hatred and my devotion to politics and related intellectual struggle, I was committing disloyalty. Even in a woman’s embrace I felt guilty that in that relationship I was wasting something which I should reserve for my one and only important passion.
Yes, Béla Zsolt was one of the great eroticists of politics who channel their libido and even all their madness into social struggle. A characteristic anecdote is that he was newly married when he woke up in the morning and declared in a firm and defiant tone to his somewhat startled wife: “Bethlen’s regime must be overthrown.”
Longing for love yet too distrustful to take it, rational yet empathetic to the point of sentimentality, a passionate political journalist aiming to depict what is beautiful but without harping on poetical tunes, Zsolt’s contradictory figure was best captured by his colleague, writer-journalist Andor Kellér in his obituary. “His hair was usually untidy, his tie askew, his clothes covered in bits of cigarette ash, he smoked eighty to a hundred cigarettes a day and was constantly drinking coffee. He liked to live and work in bed or by the café table. Staying in bed first came as a consequence of his illness, but later became a way of life. If he walked into a café it was soon filled with people, if he wrote in a magazine it began to sell and grow popular. He asked everyone a hundred questions, he was interested in everything.”
However, to Zsolt a café meant even more than this. He was a representative of that café-based strand of contemporary Hungarian literature so closely allied with journalism. He embodied the middle-class citizen raised and socialised in the café whose perceptions of the outside world are filtered through the massive glass panes. Zsolt identified fully with the central figure of his art and journalism, with the middle-class or lower middle-class Jew. He could see right into the core of their everyday life. He knew their habits in eating, drinking, dressing, and even the central values of their sexual taste. His sharp and unerring eye penetrated the walls of the apartment blocks in Budapest’s predominantly Jewish districts and peeped into the bedrooms. This was rather unique in the context of the prudish literature of the age. He depicted the symptoms of his heroes' sex life as determined by social factors. This kind of identification did not necessarily take the most fortunate aesthetic form – his knack for empathy led the author astray in aesthetic terms. Even the best of his writing (e.g. An Embarrassing Affair) lacks distance and sober distinction – in a sense, his novels may be perceived as covert auto-biography or oversize editorials. Besides Lightning Stroke, another powerful example is Women on the Danube Embankment (Duna-parti no, 1936, 2007). From the literary angle, the novel’s worst flaw is perhaps that everything about it is symbolic and metaphoric, causing scenes to appear as mere illustrations. Zsolt crams too much meaning even into the first scene, taking place on 23rd December, the day before Christmas Eve. The wife of Victor Bauer, the first person protagonist, goes into labour in the bedroom. Bauer had never felt he was a Jew but “in the panic which caught up with me when I realised that I was Jewish and may at any moment become a part of the common European Jewish destiny which grew more and more discernible day by day, I realised that even the question whether or not to have a child had to be considered from a political and sociological angle.” To be sure, choosing an appropriate name for the child also causes no end of trouble, and after settling on the name Arthur with its English resonances, the future father falls into reveries of his son’s future. In these daydreams Arthur appears as a kind of Saviour, a secularised Jesus who will be potent enough to smooth away the hostilities in this world, and as a Jewish Hungarian or Hungarian Jew brings about social peace and social Paradise. However, the moment of soberness also dawns upon him, his final conclusion sounding rather earthly and practical. “There is nothing left to do but salvage the little bit that may be salvaged. We are Hungarians and we are Jews – a pretty bad recipe. Still, Hungarians have persisted through a thousand years and Jews through five thousand. Something will come up.” However, even this minimalist life programme is denied the Bauer family, as Arthur turns out to be stillborn. “I only gave one wail of pain and then fell silent. No Arthur! Nothing would be salvaged or redeemed. There is nothing more. The world has come to an end.”
This 1936 book is more or less the last word Zsolt uttered in fiction. He now devoted all his strength to writing journalism in an attempt to stop the onslaught of Nazism, with the end result which we all know. He published a Credo printed at the beginning of his collected editorials published in 1939, entitled Bread for Stone (Koért kenyér). In this second Christmas monologue, which proved to be one of the most authentic statements of Hungarian radical liberalism, he says, “We believe in the homeland which is our cradle and our grave. But we also believe that we are not serving our country if the extent and method of service is determined by the people who mean by service to the country service to certain persons or social classes. We make this statement on Christmas night, the night of creeds. Our faith is not a religion or a racial myth, but the exact contrary, as it could come equally well from any denomination or any race. It has but one ritual: intelligent thinking.”
Yet, by this time intelligent thinking had long taken a vacation from Europe. Nobody wanted the faith that Zsolt offered, and it is another tragic aspect of his life that he became irrevocably isolated – his thoughts were not listened to anywhere. One side saw his faith as phoney and self-interested Jewish flattery to the Hungarians, in other words as hypocrisy of the worst kind, while the other side perceived it as a purely particular Jewish stance which is unable to think about the country’s troubles from any but a Jewish angle. In other words, before 1945 no political or intellectual power credited Béla Zsolt’s fatal love for his country. They believed him to be a liar, a fraud or, in the best of cases, simply narrow-minded. Not surprisingly, he was also excluded by the communists upon their victorious return after the war. They expected Zsolt to deny his adored country in the name of internationalism. Zsolt would never think of doing this. Lying on his hospital bed in 1949, he perhaps realised that his massive, all-consuming game of love with his country came to an end only there and then, instead of 1944 as he had believed. Again, we quote the obituary by Andor Kellér, “From time to time he dropped back on his pillow, more exhausted each time, and in the overheated room where visitors stripped themselves to a shirt, he pulled four or five covers over him. He was cold. Then he was finally overcome by the unknown and stopped asking questions of his visitors. Really, he had died on the day when he stopped being curious.”

Béla Zsolt: Nine Suitcases
Schocken, 2004

Zoltán András Bán

Tags: Béla Zsolt (1895–1949)