07. 01. 2013. 10:43

György Bálint: “I am scandalized, therefore I am”: A Central European publicist

György Bálint was an outstanding journalist and literary critic of the period between the two world wars. Hungarian literature also owes him the translation of several English novels, among them Dickens’s Oliver Twist.

György Bálint was an outstanding journalist and literary critic of the period between the two world wars. He started his career as a poet. In 1925 and 1926 (when he was only 19-20 years old) two of his poems and one of his short stories were published in Nyugat, the most prestigious literary periodical of his age. In 1929 he published a whole volume of his poems. However, he became more successful as a prose writer and as a publicist – so much so that  the official higher educational institution of the Association of Hungarian Journalists is named after him. As a literary critic, he was among the first to recognize the poetic talent of Miklós Radnóti and Attila József. Hungarian literature also owes him the translation of several English novels, among them  Dickens’s Oliver Twist.

Bálint was born in Budapest in 1906, in a bourgeois Jewish family. His father, Ármin Bálint, was a bank director, besides being the reader of radical newspapers and a supporter of a radical leftist party in the late 1910s. In 1924 Ármin Bálint was forced to retire and György Bálint could not continue his studies after high school graduation at the University of Budapest, due to the anti-Semitic “numerus clausus” law that restricted the proportion of Jewish students in higher education. Due to the forced retirement of the father, the financial circumstances of the family deteriorated and the young György Bálint had to find a way to earn his living after having studied for one year at a commercial academy. In late 1926 he became a reporter of Pesti Napló, a moderately oppositionist daily paper of the era. He worked for this journal up until 1939, and meanwhile published poems and articles in leftist German newspapers as well (Arbeiterzeitung, Eulenspiegel, Frankfurter Volksstimme, Kunst und Volk, Neue Bücherei). In the 1930s he also worked as a correspondent for the British Daily Express and for the American Hearst-Newspapers.

Besides journalism, Bálint worked on literary translations continuously from 1929 and especially after 1938, when the new anti-Jewish laws prevented him from earning a living as a journalist. Besides Oliver Twist he translated into Hungarian the works of John Glasworthy, Pierre MacOrlan. Alfred Machard, Eberth Ingeborg, and numerous works of Sinclair Lewis (Ann Wickers, Work of Art, It Can’t Happen Here) and Aldous Huxley (Antic Hay).

One of Bálint’s short stories, “The Crime of Pessimism”, that has not been published in Hungarian to date, was published in Story magazine and in two volumes that included selections of writings published in Story, in 1933 and in 1934. In the foreword of the 1934 edition the editors, Whit Burnett and Martha Foley noted that “this story could not be printed in Hungary because it was a brilliant satire of the oppressive political regime.” (A Story Anthology. Thirty-three selections from the European years of the “Story”. Ed. by Whit Burnett and Martha Foley. London, Jonathan Cape, 1934. p.VII) The narrative of “The Crime of Pessimism” is about a man who cannot stop crying and noticing the negative features of the world he lives in and therefore is convicted to death by the court, since in his home country it is obligatory for citizens to smile and be optimistic.

Other satiric writings of György Bálint that concerned the drifting of Europe and Hungary towards Fascism were nonetheless published in Hungary, while others were banned, such as his literary diary about the Spanish Civil War. Besides the spread of Fascism he was most concerned with social inequalities, which made him sympathize with the illegal Communist Party. Between 1935 and 1937 he edited and became a leading publicist of the periodical Gondolat, which was indirectly led by the Communists. He never joined the party though; he remained an independent leftist thinker. The main reason why neither he could join the party nor the party could accept him as a member was his openness towards psychoanalysis. In the mid-30s he was analysed by the noted analyst Géza Róheim. Bálint was particularly appalled by the fact that the Communist Party ostracized Attila József for being involved in psychoanalysis.

In 1936 Bálint published an essay titled “Self-portrait” which summarized his ars poetica as a Central-European publicist. By being a publicist he meant to write always the truth for the sake of the people.He admitted to be “outdated” for his time because of reminding his audience constantly on the conditions of the misled, poor, oppressed masses. The essay concluded that the publicist, whose mission was supposed to be the conscience of public opinion, was no more allowed to embarrass the readers with appealing to their conscience. Thus, the Central-European publicist of his time became merely “public opinion’s remorse in forced retirement”. How could anybody be happy while others live in unbearable circumstances, he wondered in his other writings too. He thought that an intellectual of his time could take only one possible stance that he formulated thus: “I am scandalized, therefore I am”.

His closest friends were Miklós Radnóti and István Vas, two Hungarian poets of Jewish origin, from a similar social background and with similar anti-Fascist and humanist political concerns. However, while Radnóti and Vas  struggled with their Jewish identity and in the end converted to Christianity, György Bálint did not have a religious or any sort of Jewish identity . He also converted to Roman Catholicism, but only in the hope of escaping isolation in an anti-Semitic regime. He did not want to be persecuted for his origins, but for the principles he represented: intellectual independence, humanism, social sensitivity and Marxism.

Of course his contacts with Hungarian and foreign leftist and Marxist circles did not escape the attention of the Hungarian authorities. He was the first among his Jewish friends to be conscripted for forced labour service in 1939. In fact, he was conscripted for military service already before the institutionalization of forced labour service, in 1938. After a stint of forced labour in 1939, he spent two months in London trying to find employment for himself and for his wife, Vera Csillag, a graphic artist. Since he did not succeed, he returned to Hungary only to be conscripted to labour service again and again. In 1942 he and Vera Csillag, among other leftists and Communists, were  accused of spying and arrested. György Bálint spent six months in prison without a trial.

After his release, Bálint spent a mere month at home before his last stint of labour service. In October he was sent to the Eastern front with a special “punitive” forced labour battalion. He died in a Ukrainian village on the 21st of January in 1943, at the age of 36.

Ágnes Kelemen

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