05. 10. 2012. 15:06

Géza Ottlik was born 100 years ago

Though the best of the middle generation of Hungarian writers regard Ottlik as their precursor and his School at the Frontier as one of the greatest Hungarian novels of the 20th century, the writer still remains unknown for the English-speaking audience.

Hardly a month after Örkény’s 100th birthday, we celebrate the centenary of another great Hungarian writer. Géza Ottlik’s School at the Frontier was published in 1959, in an era of complete darkness and hopelessness in Hungary, a mere three years after the failed revolution of 1956. At a time when everything was tainted with political ideology, in this novel it was conspicuously absent. It showed a deeper layer of human personality, beneath and beyond ideology and history. The author himself was an unlikely sight in the Hungary of the Kádár era—when everyone wore tasteless clothes and drank great quantities of cheap alcohol, Ottlik wore a tweed jacket and tie and played bridge masterfully. Although School at the Frontier was not an immediate success, gradually its values—uncompromising independence, as well as the sense of freedom, integrity and love of life that radiate from it—were recognized, and by the 70s a cult began to grow around the writer. The most extreme example of this cult is the gesture of Péter Esterházy, who copied the entire text of the novel onto a single piece of paper as a present for Ottlik on his 70th birthday. Besides School at the Frontier Ottlik wrote very little—mainly short stories, the posthumously published novel Buda, and a brilliant book in English on the analysis of bridge problems, Adventures of Card Play, written together with the great bridge analyst Hugh Kelsey. (It was last published in 2005 and hailed by specialists as one of the best in its field.)

The first important early event in Ottlik’s life that we should note here was in 1922 when he was sent to study at a military school in Kőszeg, the place that was to become the scene of his great novel. At the tender age of 10, his arrival at the school brutally ended the innocence of a sheltered childhood in a well-educated upper-class family. The protagonist of School at the Frontier tries to make sense of this event, and through this, to interpret the world and the individual’s place in it. His conclusion is that neither revolting against a community that crushes the individual nor adapting oneself to it is the answer—one must embrace the misery and evil in human nature. An obvious parallel to the novel is The Confusions of Young Törless by Robert Musil, though Ottlik said that he had never read it.

After the military school Ottlik went on to study mathematics and physics at the university of Budapest with the great mathematician Lipót Fejér—another major influence on the young Ottlik who wrote later on that his professor’s ”mere existence was an unearthly consolation”. His mathematical studies greatly influenced his writing, as one can see from Ottlik’s unending attempts to give multiple interpretations of the world and of human beings, while being aware of the impossibility of the whole enterprise. As Miklós Szentkuthy writes, ”his strict, disciplined technique and exact wording do not try to record some kind of hidden laws; this is his artistic method to express chaos.”

Ottlik’s first stories were published in the 30s, and they were quite well received. However, after World War II (during which he gave shelter to his friend István Vas, who was Jewish), he was relegated to the background for political reasons, and was not allowed to publish anything. He spent the dark 50s with his wife in Gödöllő, a small town close to Budapest, and lived on translation work: he translated Hemingway, Dickens, and Bernard Shaw, among others. (In the 60s the British government invited him to London in recognition of his excellent translations.) Towards the end of the decade he moved back to Budapest, but official recognition for his work was slow in coming: it was only in the 80s that he received several state prizes, among them the prestigious Kossuth Prize. He died in 1990, before he could finish his second novel, Buda, a continuation of the saga of the military school, eventually published in 1993 (in English: Budapest: Corvina, 2004, trans. John Batki). School at the Frontier was translated into English by Kathleen Szász very early on (1966, Harcourt, Brace and World), but has not been republished ever since.

Read our portrait of Géza Ottlik and a short story by him

Géza Ottlik and Ágnes Nemes Nagy

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