04. 04. 2011. 08:11

An even quieter revolution I: the case of Vilmos Csaplár

A wide selection of writers are rarely included in synopses of contemporary Hungarian fiction despite being in the vanguard of the ‘quiet revolution’ of the early Seventies and in many cases remaining highly (and rewardingly) productive to the present day.

Some years ago, in putting together a synopsis of Hungarian fiction writing over the past 25-30 years, I managed to include 20 writers but was painfully conscious (and noted as much) that due to constraints of space at least as many had been omitted from the “quiet revolution” in Hungarian writing of the late Sixties and early seventies, which had been spearheaded by Milán Füst, Géza Ottlik, Sándor Weöres (as poet and prose writer), and the somewhat younger János Pilinszky (another poet-prose writer) and Miklós Mészöly.
    This 'quiet revolution' was based, above all, on an unspoken agreement to steer away from open conflict in which political views were openly trailed and almost without exception were those which demonstrably lauded the ‘working classes’, as in the preferred socialist-realist novel. Instead, freedom of thought was exercised more subtly, by implicit criticism of the regime, usually by finding ways of cocking a snook which were only clear to those who shared that point of view. Like one famous group decampment from the country, where escapees staged a bike race at the Hungarian frontier and had pedalled into Austria before the border police cottoned. (Think about it!)
    One has to bear in mind that the book ‘market’ (and a great deal more) in Hungary was overwhelmingly shaped by the ideologues of Communist taste, with György (Georg) Lukács as theoretical pillar and György Aczél spearheading the more practical side of dictatorship. As Alain Robbe-Grillet commented in his opening essay on “The Use of Theory” in For a New Novel (1963):

… the novel’s forms must evolve in order to remain alive… socialist realism or Sartrean ‘engagement’ are difficult to reconcile with the problematic exercise of literature, as with that of any art.

    At best readers could choose not to buy, but the height of fashion ventured little beyond the favoured/tolerated likes of Ferenc Karinthy whose Metropole  was recently translated into English, and Magda Szabó, or alternatively there was Endre Fejes’s Rozsdatemető (literally ‘Rust Cemetery’ aka ‘Junk Yard’, 1962).
    Readers of Hungarian literature (even most Hungarians) hardly reflect on how the Hungarian writing of the last 30-40 years relates to anything in or out of Hungary. Most people write as if it could be taken for granted that everyone was intimately familiar with everything and everybody. That is why, when I decided to write about Vilmos Csaplár’s first novel, I realized that I could not leave readers suspended in a vacuum round any given writer and just make self-serving comments about how great they are. There have obviously been wider social and cultural influences at work which we cannot ignore, so although I don’t want to leave readers floundering in a sea of names and titles of books, I need to outline the literary scene in which some often overlooked writers like Csaplár worked.
    By the early Seventies György Konrád had just published in Hungarian his first novel (The Case Worker, 1969), but that had not as yet been translated into German (in 1973), then English (1975); Péter Nádas had just started; Imre Kertész, then forty years old, was still 4 years or more away from having Fatelessness published (in 1975), even though it was largely ignored both then and (with the honourable exceptions of György Spiró’s efforts and, from 1990 on, the German literary establishment and reading public) until he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2002.

British and American literature in Socialist Hungary
    Not that, to be frank, contemporary British literature, to take that first offered much to emulate. George Orwell was one of the absolute taboos of all Communist regimes virtually to the end, above all Animal Farm (1945; published in Hungarian translation in 1989) and Nineteen Eighty-four (1949; transl. 1986). Graham Greene was just about acceptable but only sporadically translated as with e.g. The Honorary Consul (1973; transl. 1976) or The Human Factor (1978; transl. 1980), as was William Golding, whose allegorical Lord of the Flies had been published in 1954; transl. 1963).
    The UK was beginning to grow out of the working-class orientation of its ‘Angry Young Men’ such as John Braine (Room at the Top, 1957), Alan Sillitoe (Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, 1958; The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, 1959), and David Storey (This Sporting Life, 1960), to which list one should almost certainly add Barry Hines (A Kestrel for a Knave, 1968). Likewise, although very popular in the UK and USA in the Sixties, and revitalized by the Harry Potter fever from the Nineties onwards, J.R.R. Tolkien was literally on his last legs; the three volumes of his The Lord of the Rings (1954–1955) were fairly promptly translated into Hungarian (1981), they found little resonance. On the other hand, Muriel Spark was hitting the sparkling best she had established with The Ballad of Peckham Rye (1960) and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961) with e.g. The Takeover (1976) and Loitering with Intent (1981), but these were evidently not to Hungarian tastes. John Fowles, on the other hand, clearly found a readership for The Collector (1963; transl. 1969) and The French Lieutenant's Woman (1969; transl. 1983).
    The linguistically highly inventive Anthony Burgess was still productive, having written the dystopian A Clockwork Orange (1962), probably his best-known work, not least because Stanley Kubrick used it as the basis for his hugely controversial 1971 film of the same title (the Hungarian translation of the book came out promptly after the change in regime in 1990). John le Carré was equally at his creative best after The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963), though spy stories were, perhaps for obvious reasons, also a difficult, usually taboo subject. Among other genres (disregarding crime fiction, again perhaps for obvious reasons), science fiction was still going strong, though the days of ‘old-style’ likes of John Wyndham had by then being overhauled by Arthur C. Clarke, who was the main progenitor of the screenplay (and later novel) for director Stanley Kubrick’s hugely influential film 2001: A Space Odyssey, which was released in the spring of 1968, before the book was completed (it was not translated, though the earlier A Fall of Moondust had been, as was Rendezvous with Rama and the follow-up 2010: Odyssey Two). Perhaps more tellingly, J.G. Ballard was approaching the height of his powers after The Terminal Beach (1964) with The Atrocity Exhibition (1969) and Crash (1973), but he seems to have been overlooked in Hungary.
    One could point to broadly similar trends in American literature. Chicago-raised Saul Bellow was very influential as a writer there, but not so much anywhere else, with novels like The Adventures of Augie March, Herzog or Humboldt’s Gift. The science fiction of Ray Bradbury, even The Illustrated Man and Fahrenheit 451, was unable to break through and establish a broad readership for his take on sci-fi. Of the younger writers, John Updike, having published Rabbit, Run and Rabbit Redux, was halfway through his tetralogy about Harry Angstrom; Philip Roth was hitting his stride with Portnoy's Complaint, as was Kurt Vonnegut Jr. with, for instance, Slaughterhouse Five; while Toni Morrison, the most recent American recipient of a Nobel Prize for Literature, published her controversial debut novel, The Bluest Eye, in 1970.
    On the whole, though, it was none of these but the shorter fiction of so-called postmodernists, which managed to creep through in Hungarian translation. This marked a belated start in Hungarian for the likes of J.D. Salinger – not so much his first novel The Catcher in the Rye or the novellas Franny and Zooey and Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction as short stories like "A Perfect Day for Bananafish" and "For Esmé – with Love and Squalor". Similarly Thomas Pynchon became known not so much V. or The Crying of Lot 49, still less the sprawling Gravity's Rainbow. With John Barth it was not the big novels like The Sot-Weed Factor or Giles Goat-Boy but pieces from his collection Lost in the Funhouse, while with Donald Barthelmé there were short stories from collections like City Life and Sadness, but in his case more especially the novel The Dead Father.
    Somewhat surprisingly perhaps, Jack Kerouac found fairly rapid acceptance for On the Road (1957; transl. 1962) but not Dharma Bums; indeed, On the Road was all that became known in Hungarian until its follow-up was touched, Big Sur (1962; transl. 1995). Predictably the radical subject-matter and experimental style of William S. Burroughs were avoided, and only his third novel, Naked Lunch (1959; transl. 1992) of his best-known works got through Hungarian censorship, though two decades later Cities of the Red Night did not. In any case poet Allen Ginsberg was better known through his milestone long poem 'Howl' (1956; transl. 1967) and a collection of shorter poems. It helped that Ginsberg was one of the few American writers to pay a visit (he was seen by officialdom from afar as outspokenly hostile to capitalism but less desirable close-up). He made brief but abiding contacts with a range of Hungarian writers, including István Eörsi.


To cut back to where this started, though, a wide selection of writers are rarely included in synopses of contemporary Hungarian fiction despite being in the vanguard of the ‘quiet revolution’ that it was starting to undergo by the early Seventies and in many cases remaining highly (and rewardingly) productive to the present day.
    Among them, for example, is indefatigable Dezső Tandori (1938– ), who made a major impact with his very first volume of poetry Töredék Hamletnek [Fragment for Hamlet, 1968], which was soon to lead to a continuous stream. Péter Hajnóczy (1942–1981) was attracting considerable attention in literary circles but had no major publication to his name until the short novel A halál kilovagolt Perzsiából [Death Rode Out of Persia, 1979]. Erzsébet Galgóczi (1930–89) was one of the few woman writers allowed to dent a male-dominated field. Although her most accomplished, and also successful, novel was Vidravas [Otter Trap, 1984], her only work to appear in English translation was Törvényen belül (1980; translated as Another Love, 1991), though film director Károly Makk made a film based on the novel, Egymásra nézve (Another Way, 1982) with Polish actresses Jadwiga Jankowska-Cieslak and Grazyna Szapolowska taking the lead roles. One wonders if the disappearance of this work from standard reference works has anything to do with its subject matter: a lesbian relationship which has tragic consequences in an hostile social setting. (Makk is probably still best known for Szerelem (1970; Engl. Love, 1971), based on a novella by Tibor Déry and played by the outstanding real-life mother and son actors Lili Darvas and Iván Darvas, but also a young Mari Törőcsik.)

Vilmos Csaplár
    Vilmos Csaplár (1947– ) is most certainly another writer who has maintained a strong presence throughout. Though perhaps best known for his work on the screenplays for a couple of films by film director Gábor Bódy (1946–85), who died in mysterious circumstances (ruled suicide). Psyché (1980) is a little known psychedelic epic based on a book of that title (1972) by poet Sándor Weöres, which tells the intertwined tales of a young (adopted) noblewoman and her teacher, friend and would-be lover, Laci Tóth. (The film Psyché exists in three versions: the two-part original, a one-part, truncated, 2–hour version for export, and a 41/2-hour extended version designed to be broadcast in three parts on Hungarian national TV. It takes place over more than a hundred years and yet the protagonists barely age; it is almost as if they act as a backdrop for the changing boundaries and politics of the countries of Eastern Europe.)
    A kutya éji dala [The Dog’s Night Song, 1983] was the only further collaboration, but Csaplár has kept up a steady output as a writer with e.g. Igazságos Kádár János [János Kádár the Just, 2001], which draws from a cycle of fables about the Renaissance king, Matthias, which form a distinct chapter in the country’s historical folk tale tradition. The very title alludes to the great king’s heroic status, for it was on him that the sobriquet “the Just” was bestowed, which jars with the stale, petty bourgeois tone and drearily vapid banalities that marked the Kádár era.
    With that as a necessarily brief background, one can turn to Csaplár’s first major published work, the short novel Két nap, amikor összevesztünk, vagyis a történetírás nehézségei [Two Days When We Bust Up, or The Predicaments of Writing Stories, 1972]. To begin with you can’t help thinking it is about a row between the narrator and a bunch of his mates:

Don’t take it amiss if I start right away with a dispute. I know everyone is fed up to the back teeth with that sort of thing. But then what can you do when there are things to dispute! I beg your pardon furthermore for dropping you into a dispute when I am the “speaker” and the word is with me… So, let us begin, as I promised, with the dispute…
That’s deception!” I yelled, suddenly leaping up from my place. “CHRIST’s a deceiver too!” With that I transgressed all rational bounds. “The whole redemption—“but which of us was talking of redemption?”—was just a pretext. Redeemers like that——“but which of us was talking of redeemers?”—are only ever gambling on how to inflict themselves on others. It’s an intimation they get, isn’t it? Or do they have a “spiritual compulsion”? Do they hell! They decide that it has to be done this way or that, and what is called enlightenment is, as it happens, the murkiest bit in the whole thing. This is where the deception comes in: they have a need for what I figured out—they need me, in other words. Anyone dispute that? Only “infidels” don’t know as yet who I am. But I do! Those redeemers are very much humanity’s highwaymen!
    “To say nothing of what they have to offer. You’ll never get anywhere with those explanations; you just mix everyone up.”

The narrator is soon enough physically ejected from the house and mooches about for the rest of the day. That soon leads to a scene in a packed club bit we are left none the wiser.
    Going into Day 2, one starts to wonder if—surprise, surprise—a row with the girlfriend is not behind this after all. The narrator receives a telegram (the second):


Still no explanations are offered, but the action soon lead to readmittance to the house from which the main protagonists had been thrown out the day before and a group discussion about a club for youthful talents that is being mooted by officially backed youth leaders in the district:

“That touched off instant shock. “If you please!” the trombone of the voice parped. “That’s going too far! And you, matey,” this was directed at me, “Get it into your skull that what we are talking about here is not my club! And for your interest,” he started tugging at the lock of the attaché case, “I’ll show you what’s…” but the briefcase refused to open.
    In any event what happened next quickly put the attaché case out of mind. Young Pintér ran into the room and shouted: “Two of you come immediately!” and was already racing back out.
    Horse and I went..” (full stop).

Csaplár then appends to this abrupt cessation:

I have read through what I have written so far and have concluded that there is something improbable about it. And that leaves me in a quandary as I don’t want things that I write to come across as improbable. Or absurd or alienated or anything else of which modern literature is replete with examples and for which explanations are continually being advanced. I am sick and tired of that sort of thing; indeed, of late I am repelled by them, although not so long ago I was still dazzled by them. Without any ill-will, based on sober inspection I am in a position to assert the following: those writings and glosses proclaim that the world is absurd. Alienated and so on, or in other words, improbable.
    However, I have no desire to proclaim that! I know that everything around me exists, has genuine sense, and I should concern myself with that. If I set off along a street it never widens out like in a dream, it just is, full stop, and even if I have no wish to walk to the very end of it: I know. If that is the case, what’s the sense in imagining endless streets, as a French author does in a nouveau roman published not long ago here in Hungary where a wounded soldier roams freely for more than a hundred and fifty pages through fictitious streets labelled a labyrinth. True, the author admits in the Preface that the story is an invention, though I would bet that this is with the hidden goal of thereby making it more ‘credible’.

(It is not hard to decipher that the book in question is the 1959 novel In the Labyrinth by Alain Robbe-Grillet, who went on, in 1961, to work with Alain Resnais on the script for Last Year in Marienbad, and in 1963 published For a New Novel, a collection of previously published theoretical essays.) Having promised to carry on, Csaplár’s book swiftly closes with a laconic postscript:

I am writing these lines months later. I am unable to carry on after all. In any case, so much has happened since that we patched over our differences. The club has come to nothing—or at least nothing to date. The Pintér crowd went on discussing, and for the time being I am also dropping in. But now I can keep quiet. (That’s no good either.)

So, we never do learn who the bust-up was with, or what happened next to Horse and the narrator, which rather goes to underline the book’s subtitle: ‘The Predicaments of Writing Stories’.
    But, then again, it is maybe worth remembering the brief prefatory note that Robbe-Grillet gave to the above novel:

The story is fiction, not a report. It describes a reality which is not necessarily that of the reader’s own experience… The reader should therefore see in it only the objects, the gestures, the words and the events that are told, without seeking to give them either more or less meaning than they would have in his own life, or in his own death.

Tim Wilkinson

Tags: Vilmos Csaplár