07. 21. 2011. 14:24

An even quieter revolution III: László Végel’s Memoirs of a Macro

The very first of Végel’s novels was highly influential among young writers in Hungary, being perceived as relating to all things 'hip' and being seen as the first Hungarian 'beat' novel. "Memoirs of a Macro" reminds one of the true spiritual fathers of the Beats like Henry Miller.

The Corfu Pact of July 1917 set the South Slavs, Montenegrins included, into a unitary Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes under the Karadjordjević dynasty of Serbia. The work was completed in 1920 with the Treaty of Trianon, which added a southern chunk of the former Banat (or Southlands) of the kingdom of Hungary as an autonomous Serbian province of Vojvodina (capital city: Novi Sad), where it has largely remained to this day.

True, it could not boast quite as longstanding and extensive literary traditions as, say, Transylvania (part of what became modern Romania) or the northern Uplands of what is now Slovakia (Márai is perhaps now the best-known ‘son’), Vojvodina did begin to emerge almost immediately after World War I—perhaps precisely through its ethnically highly mixed population—as the source of several highly influential literary modernists. Then the focus was very much on Subotica (Szabadka in Hungarian, Maria-Theresiopel in German), just across the Hungarian border south of Szeged, with native-born Géza Csáth—the author of Opium and Other Stories put out in 1983 under Philip Roth’s editorship of the series ‘Writers from the Other Europe’—and even more his friend, the poet and novelist Dezső Kosztolányi.

It is important to note, however, that during the Sixties and early Seventies Vojvodina was one of the liveliest spots in the Hungarian-speaking world. Apart from Hungarians, Serbs, Croats, Slovenes, Germans, Slovaks and Ruthenians, individuals representing at least another twenty ethnic groups were recorded and, most important, Tito’s regime, alone among Socialist countries, guaranteed its citizens a substantial degree of freedom, and on top of that Vojvodina, being an autonomous province, gained special privileges. More specifically the ‘centre’ moved southwards from Subotica.

The flourishing of Novi Sad (or Újvidék in Hungarian) as a literary centre for the Hungarian language took its cue from the founding of a chair in Hungarian Studies at the University of Novi Sad in 1959, the first occupant of which was Ervin Sinkó (1898–1967) a much-travelled veteran poet and writer for at least 30 years. At the time Yugoslavia under Tito had managed to win for itself a status which, although Communist and subject to abuses of civil rights of individuals, to say nothing of concealed inter-ethnic rivalries (Serbs vs Croats, etc.), was still a haven of relative independence, luxury and even liberality compared with the Soviet bloc, including Hungary.

Vojvodina’s Hungarian-language writers were largely left to their own devices, and fortunately they had the skill and talent to exploit the relative freedom, notably through the foundation of a monthly magazine Új Symposion (‘New Symposium’, starting in 1965 and from 1993 known just Symposion). Among the early editors of this arts periodical was poet Ottó Tolnai and a string of other major writers, including Nándor Gion, László Végel and, more recently, Attila Balázs, and it provided links, especially through its innovative typography and use of illustrations, to a wide range of neo-avantgarde and, slightly later, postmodern approaches to artistic creation. So, even though politically an Iron Curtain ran between Hungary and Yugoslavia, it was fairly porous, and the work of the (Új) Symposion writers did manage to percolate through to Hungary, undoubtedly having a major part to play in sparking the new writing which started to emerge there from the late Sixties and especially into the Seventies.

László Végel (1941- ) was born in Srbobran, or Szenttamás as it is still called by its largely ethnic Hungarian populace. After studying at Novi Sad and Belgrade, he went on to work as a journalist, essayist and TV screenwriter, publishing novels and short stories in Serbo-Croatian as well as his mother tongue. His most important works are the three novels Egy makró emlékiratai (Memoirs of a Macro, 1967), Áttüntetések (Fade-outs, 1984) and Eckhart gyűrűje (Eckhart's Ring, 1989), since republished as the Újvidéki trilógia (Novi Sad Trilogy, 1993), and more recently a continuing stream of works including the “journal-essay” Wittgenstein szövőszéke (Wittgenstein’s Loom, 1995), the “essay-novel” Extraterritórium (2000), and the novel Parainézis (Paraenesis or Exhortation, 2003).

The very first of Végel’s novels was highly influential among young writers in Hungary, being perceived as relating to all things 'hip' and being seen as the first Hungarian 'beat' novel. It should be noted that even though, as noted in the first article of this series, Jack Kerouac’s 1957 novel On the Road had been translated into Hungarian astonishingly quickly (1962), Végel’s novel—Memoirs of a Macro—does not strike one as being anything like that but more akin to the true spiritual fathers of the Beats: writers like Henry Miller, with his hilarious memoirs of the raffish life of decidedly Bohemian expat Americans in Paris before World War II such as Tropic of Cancer.

More to the point, it falls into line with a lineage of ‘coming-of-age’ novels—what the Germans call a Bildungsroman or Erziehungsroman (novel of upbringing/education)—which traditionally marks its start with Voltaire’s Candide or Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister, and traces its subsequent development through e.g. Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield, Flaubert’s L’Education sentimentale, Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and, more recently, J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. Distinguished company, indeed, but not inappropriate as Memoirs of a Macro did seem to find a way of setting a new tone and language which were picked up and further developed by young Hungarian writers in the Seventies.

This is a story about students at a place of learning which sounds like some potpourri of a sixth-form college, teachers’ training college and university. Written in diary form from the very beginning, it strikes one as a tale which, although it puts several strands of plot into play, is much more about style and poses than about storytelling as such. It starts off in a breezy, impassive, no-nonsense manner which is maintained to the end, though it is made clear that the “diarist”, who is not given a name but is occasionally referred to as “Bub” (Sonny), is keeping his own feelings largely to himself and has a decidedly dim view of some of the people and incidents.

Végel made use of a sprinkling of local vernacular and slang expressions in a way that the printed media certainly eschewed and even outlawed. A good index of the impact Memoirs of a Macro had can be seen in the hugely influential Péter Esterházy’s own ‘coming-of-age’ tale: Függő (1981; ‘Depending’), which at the time bore the add-on subtitle of Bevezetés a szépirodalomba (Introduction to Belles-Lettres) but after the addition of several further books, was subsumed in 1986 into one large volume with the main title Bevezetés a szépirodalomba. Containing 22 highly varied sections of which Depending was just one, the latter is constructed as a single sentence by the device of simply turning all full stops into commas. The poetry of Dezső Kosztolányi (dozens of poems from his entire output) is by far the most important single source of the several hundred quotes, from single words to whole short stories (e.g. by Franz Kafka and Péter Nádas), but there are also pointed minings from prose works by in some cases distinctly non-approved Hungarian writers. For instance, a sentence from Antal Szerb is: “I beg you to take careful note of Erzsi’s times of the month” from Journey by Moonlight; Sándor Márai: “It is my most beautiful slide, says his father. There is some dry, blue matter between the two sheets of glass, something with blotches and lines on it, like the map of the country he sees in the geography book. A brain.” (Rebels); Milán Füst: “Naturally, we have our difficulties with the sanctity of family life, with the virginity of our buxom daughters...” from The Story of My Wife; and Géza Ottlik: “Ouch! don't hurt me, dear, Danny darling. Dear, darling Danny, don’t hurt me. Ouch! Don’t pull my hair, I’d rather you did anything you liked with me, but darling Danny, don’t hurt me!” from School at the Frontier.

Among the quotations relayed from Memoirs of a Macro are:
“’You’re a dead peculiar whore, Rockabye,’ I said.”
“I stared at the table. My God, the stuff they torture a person with here... I looked straight into the old fellow’s watery eyes. ‘Yes,’ I answered firmly, ‘I lied’.”
“But why should I be grateful in front of these prissy people? Why should I blubber away at their feet? What have I got to complain about?”
“Chicks want everything, but come the night they cry their eyes out, and by the next day their faces are haggard as sin.”
“She had one of those frightfully modern hairdos. A big, thick helmet with a lock curling onto her temple on each side.”
“She linked her arm lightly into mine. Some girls, when they take one’s arm, are a drag straight off.”
“Only Pud could have been so naive as to daub on the wall of our room: ÉGALITÉ, SEXUALITÉ, LIBERTÉ”
“I chiselled it into my brain that being serious is bad manners. Being afraid is bad manners. It’s a sin to be different. It’s shameful to be poor. It’s dumb to take risks.”
“We can buy ourselves a new shirt, trousers, jacket, we can swap girls, race around the streets. Well, that's cleanliness for you.”
“I say we should love one another like brothers and sisters. Smile at one another like the beatified! Let’s stick together! Smile! Be glad! Like so! Let’s all hold hands! Like so! And let’s repeat in chorus, ‘everything’s cool.’”

In neither book, however, do we learn what a “macro” denotes.

Tim Wilkinson

Tags: László Végel