08. 19. 2011. 10:04

An even quieter revolution IV: Péter Hajnóczy's intoxicating first short novel

Although for decades on end alcoholism has been a major blight on the health of the Hungarian population, few writers, particularly during the period of the Communist hold on power, were willing to tackle it honestly.

The first sentences of a wonderful essay that György Spiró wrote to celebrate his Imre Kertész's recent award of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2002.

I have Péter Hajnóczy, the talented writer who died of alcohol-induced liver failure in his thirty-eighth year, in 1981, to thank for Imre Kertész. Hajnóczy was a clever, cultivated fellow, only bothering to hide that from the uninformed. In the spring of 1975 he turned up one day at the editorial office in the Corvina Press,… and on this occasion,… he added agitatedly, "Now, Imre Kertész. Shit! he's the real McCoy! Fatelessness. Shit! that's the real stuff! Unbelievable. That you just have to read!" (The Hungarian Quarterly XLIII/168 (Winter 2002): 29-37).   

To show that this attitude towards Hajnóczy was quite widely shared, in Chapter XXV of his seminal 1984 work, The Oxford History of Hungarian Literature, Lóránt Czigány winds up his survey of the literature of post-war Hungary with the following:

… many authors of present-day fiction who started their careers in the past few years have left the beaten track in favour of writing ’texts’ which defy the traditional categories of novel, short story, or any other genre. Bearing this in mind, the names which are most easily recalled include first of all Péter Hajnóczy (1942-1981), whose short ‘novels’ (Death Rode Out of Persia, 1979 and The Bride of Jesus, 1981) show powerful immediacy, Gyula Kurucz (1944- ), Vilmos Csaplár (1947- ), Géza Bereményi (1946- ), and Péter Esterházy (1950- ). They all have approaches which are different from those of their predecessors in one way or another, but it is too soon to say whether they will win a permanent place in Hungarian literature.

It is clear from this that already 25 years ago Péter Hajnóczy, although by then dead and author of just three “short novels” or novellas and a dozen or so short stories, had established a claim to be regarded as a significant literary figure. He himself believed (it is not clear whether this had any foundation) that he was directly descended from József Hajnóczy, a distinguished radical Hungarian poet of the late 18th century, despite his own less than aristocratic circumstances, as related in the short novel A halál kilovagolt Perzsiából (Death Rode Out of Persia, 1979):

In short, he escaped from home and from the H. family with its treasured memories of a former lifestyle of some opulence; at the age of 18 he married a harpy seven years older than himself, the marriage had quickly gone bad, and he was now living with a 78-year-old biddy, apart from whom his only company was a malodorous parrot covered in open sores, and that had no relationship with anybody. Most of his former playmates had gone to university and would not have associated with an unskilled labourer who was living in digs and, discounting some appalling literary experiments, had done nothing that amounted to anything; the studies for secondary-school qualifications that had been commenced at evening school were not pursued. On the other hand, he read good literature voraciously, with discerning taste, though there was no one with whom he could have talked with brickies, chippies, plumbers and tilers about Kleist or the agent provocateur Ignatius Martinovics, who worked with József Hajnóczy, the leader of the radical, Jacobin wing of the Hungarian reform movement in the 1790s. They for their part, of course, regarded him as clumsy and ham-fisted. (p. 15)

More detail on József Hajnóczy is provided towards the end of the story:

… this foundation which bridged historical time, which gave as a heritage to posterity the ideals of freedom of the Hungarian Jacobins and, for example’s sake, the moral fibre of a József Hajnóczy—a Hajnóczy who, as he had read in Ferenc Kazinczy’s memoir Fogságom naplója (Diary of My Imprisonment), completed in 1828 but not published until 1849—during the last three days of his life following the promulgation of his death sentence "cooled his blood with lemonade. He stepped calmly up to the tumbril. A commoner sought to assist him in getting onto the back of the cart, but Hajnóczy, looking back at the soldier guarding him, said 'Don’t bother yourself, good fellow! I have enough strength to do it myself.'" (pp. 71-72)

As for literary predecessors who dealt with the tricky subject of alcoholism and drug addiction, Hajnóczy quotes not only some well established figures who are perhaps primarily of interest to Hungarians, but also a suggestive selection of mainly Anglo-American provenance:

When it came down to it, in his case alcoholism was an occupational hazard: any writer who was worth his salt was an alcoholic, and if he happened not to be writing, then he drank like a fish. Just to mention a few names off the top of his head as examples and by way of self-justification, among Hungarian poets Miklós Vörösmarty and Endre Ady, or the writer Gyula Krúdy, the morphine-addicted Géza Csáth, and his favourite of all Hungarian writers: László Cholnoky. Then there were the likes of Edgar Allen Poe, E.T.A. Hoffmann, Ambrose Bierce, Malcolm Lowry, Dylan Thomas, William H. Faulkner, Scott Fitzgerald, Eugene O’Neill, and Jack London (his ’Alcoholic Memoirs’: John Barleycorn), along with drug addicts like Ken Kesey and Sadegh Hedayat, the Persian author of Buf-e kur (The Blind Owl, English translation 1957), and he could have continued the list, the sad list of names, but what would be the sense… (p. 79)

The truth is that although for decades on end the illness has been a major blight on the health of the Hungarian population, few writers, particularly during the period of the Communist hold on power, were willing to tackle it honestly. The need Hajnóczy clearly perceived to justify the choice of that subject for Death Rode Out of Persia is addressed head-on by Stephen Spender in his Introduction to the 1967 edition of Lowry’s Under the Volcano:

I should dispose of what may seem to some readers a serious objection to this novel: the Consul’s dipsomania. A book in which for three quarters of the time the hero is drunk may seem to be too special, too much a case history… Under the Volcano is… perhaps the best account of a ‘drunk’ in fiction.”

Hedayat, a friend of Sartre until his death by suicide in April 1951, is particularly intriguing. He is not in any obvious way the source for Hajnóczy’s title, though this early Persia modernist writer suffered not only from alcoholism but also opium addiction:

There are sores which slowly erode the mind in solitude like a kind of canker… mankind has not yet discovered a cure for this disease. Relief from it is only to be found in the oblivion brought about by wine and the artificial sleep induced by opium and similar narcotics. Alas the effects of such medicines are only temporary. After a certain point, instead of alleviating the pain, they only intensify it. (p. 3)
It is three months—no, it is four months and two days—since I lost her from sight… After she had gone I withdrew from the company of man, from the company of the stupid and the successful and, in order to forget, took refuge in wine and opium. (The Blind Owl, p. 5)

Hajnóczy starts his own heavily autobiographical short novel with a seemingly straightforward description of the central subject of the piece:

Here it was, that frightful blank sheet of paper on which I must write, he thought. By now he was somewhat better; he tried to work.
    From mid-July to the end of November with short intermissions, he had been loaded to the gills and not written so much as one line. Prior to that he had been enmeshed in an odd, unclear relationship with a 19-year-old girl that an outsider might have justifiably deemed idiotic, apart from which it had been a matter of life and death; the girl had come out of the mess relatively unscathed.
    Now he was leafing through the notes he had made during that orgy of drunkenness, as well as 270 pages of typescript that he knew he would have to discard and which would afford at best a couple of paragraphs and some sentences that he could make use of.
    "Three years’ work." (p. 11)

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, what unfurls over the next 80 pages is a good deal more than that. In particular Death Rode Out of Persia is almost exclusively a story about how the narrator, at the time himself around 18 years old, formed a close attachment to a second-year student at Law School:

It had happened at the outside pool of the Gellért Hotel.
    "A great body your friend has. Introduce me!"
    …He turned round and spotted the girl, who giggled as she proffered a hand. "Krisztina V…" He too had muttered his name and gripped the girl’s hand confusedly, unable to believe that this miracle could happen to him. The girl was slightly chubby, but she was well-proportioned and had a good figure with her face undoubtedly her most attractive feature. (p. 16)

The narrator had already started the habits of regular heavy drinking (and smoking) and his unsuccessful subterfuges to try and disguise these from Krisztina are logged more or less remorselessly.

He endeavoured to make good on his lapse and write himself in Krisztina’s good books by offering to spread more suntan oil on her back. That offer now acquired a totally new signification: to start with he wanted to express his willingness to be of service, and only after that did he realise it would give him a chance to caress a female body. Krisztina declined as they were soon going to leave and it would be a waste of bergamot oil. They lay beside each other, with her allowing him to hold her hand. (p. 39)

Not that Krisztina’s side of the story is immaculate. In a passage which helps date the relationship to the mid-Sixties, Hajnóczy writes:

Krisztina would seat herself on the piano stool and play an accompaniment as she sang pop songs in a dreadful voice. He could not have known that she secretly cherished a dream of becoming a pop singer, but still she would naturally finish her university studies. because the career of a pop singer was bumpy and uncertain. He could not have known what objects were in that room. An old tape recorder on which she listened so many times to the Manfred Mann hit song Ha! Ha! Said the Clown; he could not have known about the bathroom, where the WC was also located, to which he would retire mostly for purpose of smoking a ciggie; he could not have seen the partition wall of wood which separated the bathroom from the kitchen where Krisztina’s father dwelled and who was given no greeting either by his wife or by Krisztina (allegedly because on one occasion he had wanted to hurl a shoe at Krisztina’s mother). (p. 28)

Another strand of the piece takes up a story a number of years later, by which time the narrator is married to a woman known only as A. and is having serious problems with his alcoholism:

At that time he was not making a living from writing but as an unskilled labourer working alongside bricklayers (for whatever number Construction Firm), and living as a subtenant of some old dame in an unheated kitchen on the fringes of Rákoscsaba in the 17th District of the far east of Pest. That was a bitterly cold winter, and by the morning he had to punch through the ice in the basin whenever he wanted to wash. (It was strange to think that A. had been thirteen years old at the time, and now she was making sure every morning that he took his dose of Antabuse, with which it was not advisable to drink any alcohol… (p. 14)

By the time he meets Krisztina, however, winter has turned to summer:

The way things worked out, through a drinking acquaintance he was taken on by the Institute of Geodesics as a surveyor’s assistant. The work was easy and counted as a sort of paid holiday after the grind of working for bricklayers; usually he was able to go home in Pest on the Friday and would only have to show up for work at noon on the Monday. (By then his father was no longer living, and at weekends was obliged, like it or not, to spend the night at his mother’s place, even though she never forgave him for dropping his school studies and never accomplishing anything in his life.) (p. 16)
Hajnóczy is unsparing in his recording of the experience of being an alcoholic and not least the terrifying apparitions that were visited upon him—a subject which tended to be “celebrated” in literature around the world, not just in Hungary:

…he still had at least three quarters of an hour to wait until his wife was back. On the table lay a spiral-bound notebook with a pen resting on it; he had at least attempted to write something, which might contain some bits of text he could use.
    He lit a cigarette and, all of a sudden, he felt he had died. In that case it doesn’t matter, he conjectured; I’ll go out for another bottle of wine. He covered the path between the wine bar and the apartment within a few minutes. He drank a spritzer and, sitting back on his chair, he waited for the phantasmagoria to appear before his eyes that, as he knew all too well, only his wife’s appearance would be able to dispel. He poured out another drink of wine and soda into his glass, but this time he drank with sow, cautious sips. The spectres, the sole, exclusive property that he owned, gradually presented themselves.
    First of all, he saw a lifeless jackal, which was lying on an automobile that had crashed into a tree, blood dribbling from its half-open jowls, the head drooping down from the car engine’s bonnet, the forelegs covering the lower part of the headlights…. (p. 51)

One of these vision is probably the source of the novella’s title:

Finally, he saw a dead city, or rather did not just see it but wandered round in the labyrinth of mustard-yellow houses and partly or completely collapsed buildings searching for his wife A. The room offering refuge, the writing desk, the clock, the hidden and not-hidden bottles all vanished—forever, as he supposed. For a minute he had a bird’s eye view of the city. In the foreground was tracery parapets and arcades, then again tracery parapets in a semicircle around a bastion, which could be reached from below by steps, and this was where the rectangular space broken by the steps followed from which steps again led up to the bastion.
    The man was somehow aware that Persians had at one time inhabited this unknown city, and that it had been destroyed in a war 130 years ago. The ruins of the houses, gleaming mustard-yellow in the sunshine had adopted the most diverse geometric forms. (p. 76)

Shortly after is the observation

… he also knew that his would not be an easy or quick death. With gashed and bleeding hand, in torn clothes, knees grazed he would clamber over wall after wall in order to get closer to water, trees, and his wife. His tongue was dry and swollen in his mouth; a yellow discharge was streaming down his cheeks from the corners of his eyes. His mouth gaping, he was having increasing difficulty with breathing in the hot and dusty air. (p. 76)

The tale closes the circle:

The lad lay on the turf of the outside swimming pool, face to the blazing sun, holding Krisztina’s hand. Yellow circles were dancing before his eyes, then out of the yellow circles a dead, yellow, formerly Persian-inhabited city emerged. Beyond the city, he knew, flowed a freshwater brook, and the green leaves of unknown trees quivered in the westerly wind. (p.81)

Hajnóczy was far too much a child of his age to resist completely what one assumes are digs at the Soviet Union in particular, because the “130 years before” puts the date at around 1848-49, which any Hungarian will instantly recall as being the period of the failed war of liberation fought against Austrian (Habsburg) rule. This was only suppressed by the recourse the Habsburgs made to military intervention by the Russian empire (which in turn evokes a much more recent USSR intervention in 1956). Indeed the wider political framework in which Persia was operating has some much more chilling resonances which have nothing to do with Hajnóczy: After the accession of Muhammad Shah the Afghan war was resumed, again with the encouragement of Russia, whose influence had increased at the Persian court since the Treaty of Turkomanchai. Herat was besieged again in 1837; but when the Shah was threatened with British intervention, British policy by this time having come to regard Afghanistan as an important link in the defence of India, the siege was raised. In 1847 the Treaty of Erzerum with Turkey led to the delimitation of the Turco-Persian frontier. Muhammad Shah died in 1848. His son, Nasir ud–Din, who succeeded him, was faced by various movements of insurrection, one of which, in Mashhad, was not put down until 1850. Three revolts of the Babi (Baha’i) sect broke out between 1949 and 1850, and the leader of the sect, the Bab, was executed.
One index of Hajnóczy’s lightly worn knowledge of literature outside Hungary and the Soviet bloc is early adoption of some of the innovations offered by so-called post-modernism—not least the incorporation of non-standard typography, as with a passage which recalls some of the horrifying images that assail the narrator during spells of alcohol-induced fever (p. 52):

First of all, he saw a lifeless jackal, which was lying on an automobile that had crashed into a tree… the jackal’s owner and the policemen, mouths open, were standing face to face...
    In the background…
    The man knew that he could recall the pictures of the background whenever he wanted, and he therefore opened issue No.5 of the magazine DELTA for the year 1973 as if he were longing for some variety and was seeking intelligence on events in mundane reality, though the sensation of having already expired had not left him for a moment.
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This bears no obvious relation to anything written elsewhere in the piece any more than the following a few lines further on (p. 53):

He went to the toilet, sat on the toilet bowl and started gazing at the blue lettering inscribed on the plastic wrapper covering the toilet paper:
He looked at the inscription and had trouble believing his eyes: he turned the roll of toilet paper round and round in his hands but all that stood on the wrapper was that injunction—a demand that hitherto he had only seen on the knockers of young women in Western picture magazines.

It is telling testimony of his power as a writer (and the loss his death meant for Hungarian literature) that so slender a work can sustain such speculation.

Tim Wilkinson

Tags: Péter Hajnóczy