03. 07. 2007. 10:12

Erzsébet Galgóczi

These urban intellectual women had lost their livelihoods and their positions in the wake of the 1956 Revolution or in the Rákosi era: jobless, they sit around drinking coffee, sipping cheap cognac, smoking working men’s cigarettes and finding comfort in each other’s beds. Escaping from their unheated bed-sitters, they while away the time in cheap bistros pondering whether to kill themselves or escape to the West.

Erzsébet Galgóczi was born in a village near the city of Gyor (in north-west Hungary), and she died in 1989. For a long time it seemed as if she would become the anointed author of socialist ‘art’ and ‘rural policy’, but toward the end of her life she became an acutely critical commentator of the regime. Her background played a decisive part in her oeuvre: her parents ran a traditional Hungarian farm, Erzsébet being the seventh in a line of eight children. She was only twenty when she published her first short story, "Száz százalék" (One Hundred Per Cent). After leaving secondary school she decided to become a professional writer, but for a short time she worked for the Rail Carriage Works at Gyor as a turner, and later went on to study dramaturgy and screenwriting at the College of Film and Theatre. She wrote short stories, novellas, plays and film scripts.

At first sincerely determined to become a committed socialist writer, she later gradually lost faith in the regime. Her first book of short stories was published in 1953 under the title Egy kosár hazai (A Basketful of Food from Home). This was followed by a number of other books, but as she became noticeably disillusioned with state socialism, she also found it increasingly hard to publish her works. Over the 1960’s she published innumerable articles and reports about the controversial and dysfunctional workings of rural collective farms. In the 70’s she once more won the support of the regime. By this time, however, her favourite subjects were faith and distrust, the tense, dramatic, backward world of the village, and the phoney ideology of the urban intelligentsia. Her two best known works come from her late period: Törvényen belül (Lawful, 1980) and Vidravas (Otter Trap, 1984) take place in the Hungary of the 1950’s with female intellectuals as protagonists. Both of the above novellas deal with the fundamental identity conflicts taken directly from Galgóczi’s personal life: those of a woman who comes from a well-to-do peasant family and finds herself an urban lesbian. Lawful was turned into a film by Károly Makk in 1982 under the title Egymásra nézve (Another Way, read review here). Based on the book, the film gives an iconoclast portrayal of the meaningless death of a female intellectual, centred around her then unacceptable sexuality.

For a long time Erzsébet Galgóczi’s work was characterised, rather unfittingly, as realist prose. At the time when she was working, Georg Lukács was still alive and active as a determining force of what was to be called realism, and the regime took this very seriously, practically in the literal sense. According to Lukács’s aesthetics, "The greater the writer, the less private their experiences and works are." Galgóczi and other young writers and artists of the period lived under the permanent pressure to exercise ‘self-criticism’. This was a widely used technique of the representatives of power in Hungary as well as in the Soviet Union in the 1950’s. Galgóczi’s case led to an unexpected and very interesting outcome after she used her self-criticism to disclose (indeed, discover) her homosexuality. She acknowledged this to be a ‘bourgeois disease’ which she had to combat. Her journals contain further clues as to her struggles and emotions, written in the contemporary jargon of the party. "Naturally, I cannot be fully relaxed, as I have this latest enemy: my body." By the late 1970’s she spoke differently: she publicly and openly acknowledged her ‘illness’ and in her most important work, Lawful, articulated extremely harsh criticism of the regime and the ideal of the intellectual woman that was being propagated at the time.

This work was read by contemporary critics as autobiography and they blamed her for over-riding pessimism and ‘black nail varnish’. They were right but only in a paradoxical sense: Galgóczi is indeed a pessimistic, disillusioned writer, the characters in her novellas end up on the peripheries of society. These urban intellectual women had lost their livelihoods and their positions in the wake of the 1956 Revolution or in the Rákosi era: jobless, they sit around drinking coffee, sipping cheap cognac, smoking working men’s cigarettes and finding comfort in each other’s beds. Escaping from their unheated bed-sitters, they while away the time in cheap bistros pondering whether to kill themselves or escape to the West. Galgóczi’s heroines are naked and defenceless in their bodies, their thoughts and souls alike. These emotionally fractured, vulnerable figures filled with desires are unable to face any collective or real dilemma: they had taken things too seriously and spent too much time wondering how to utter the truth. They stand poor and naked at the end of the novels when death comes to them, opposed to the political power after it had discarded them for good.

Lawful presents its heroine Éva Szalánczky facing a dilemma where collective conviction in the indoctrinated symbolic order clashes with free individuality. Political conviction (her roles as a social being) and sexual desire (her role as a physical being) are permanent obstacles to each other. These conflicts are parallel in the internal and the external world; instead of being independent from each other they are inextricably intertwined. Freedom of identity would naturally presuppose and create freedom of speech, indeed, the right to speak at all and also, in this case in a symbolic sense, the freedom of sexuality. In Socialist Hungary, however, this is impossible: in her reports Éva reveals the ‘real’ stories of the regime, i.e. ‘the truth’, therefore she cannot publish her writing. Everything is toppled. In the meantime she falls in love with her colleague Lívia. This way the Hungary of the 1950’s comes under heavy criticism from two sides – from the perspective of the body and from that of conviction. The disintegration of symbolic order, the bodily symptoms that occur in the wake of this disintegration and the fact of writing – all make these dilemmas valid to this day (the body as political authority and writing as the linguistic battle between truth and lie). Galgóczi articulates fundamental questions of female writing that are unresolved to this day and therefore remain of extreme importance to contemporary Hungarian prose literature.

Noémi Kiss

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