07. 22. 2013. 00:20

An "entertainer of the middle classes": Ferenc Körmendi

A writer of international fame in the 1930s, but by now all but forgotten in Hungary, Ferenc Körmendi is especially popular in Italy. His novels have lately been published by Bompiani.

Ferenc Körmendi belonged to those writers of interwar Hungary whom literary historian Lóránt Czigány labelled as “entertainers of the Middle Classes” in his The Oxford History of Hungarian Literature.

According to Czigány, the key to success of these writers was their approach to ordinary human problems. They wrote novels about the “men in the street,” about characters whose lives were just a little bit more adventurous than the common life of the middle class. For Ferenc Körmendi, catering for the literary needs of average people was a matter of craftsmanship, and he was a very skilful literary craftsman indeed. Yet at the same time, his writings touched upon social and political problems of great importance.

Born in Budapest in 1900, Körmendi studied law, history and music theory. After his studies, he worked as an official and a journalist, so he himself belonged to the middle class that constituted his target audience. In 1932 he won an international competition organized by three leading British publishers with his novel Escape to Life (Budapesti kaland). This novel is about a Hungarian emigrant on a visit to his native Hungary, where he is immediately approached by all his former classmates, eager to obtain some social or material advantage from knowing someone who lives abroad.

Ironically, it was due to his good reputation in England that Körmendi became famous overnight in Hungary. Escape to Life was translated into twenty-five languages and Körmendi continued to be an internationally successful author during the 1930s (seven of his books were translated into Italian alone, and published by the prestigious Bompiani, the publisher of Umberto Eco and Alberto Moravia, among others).

In 1939, after the implementation of the first and second anti-Jewish laws in Hungary, restricting the number of Jews, then banning them altogether from government offices and newspapers, Körmendi emigrated to London where he edited the Hungarian service of BBC Radio. In 1948 he visited Hungary on the occasion of the publication of his book at the Hungarian Book Week. However, he could not stay in his home country after the Communist takeover; being a liberal democrat, he was just as much an anti-Communist as an anti-Fascist. He spent the rest of his life in the United States where he worked for the Voice of America Radio. He died in 1972 in Bethesda, Maryland.

Several of his novels are available in English, among them The Happy Generation, Weekday in June and The Seventh Trumpet. The Happy Generation shows the disillusionment of the author’s generation, who were born around the turn of the 20th century in Austro-Hungary, in a period of prosperity, and expected to have a happy and carefree life. But history turned the young generation’s expectations into bitter experiences. Weekday in June focuses on one day of a Jewish young man who lost his job due to the anti-Jewish law of 1938. That day is the last day before his emigration to Paris. The narrative follows his former classmate’s life on the same day as well. That evening, the Jewish man became the victim of a terror attack that his classmate, member of a radical rightist party, had organized. The narrative is based on a real event: the terror attack in 1939 against people coming out from the Dohány Synagogue (the largest synagogue of Hungary and of Europe) after a Friday evening service. The Seventh Trumpet, a novel that expressed the author's harsh criticism on the Communist regime, has recently been republished in English in 2011 with Körmendi's pen-name Peter Julian, just like the original edition in 1953.

Ágnes Kelemen

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