07. 04. 2017. 14:48

György Gömöri: Growing up with Antal Szerb

György Gömöri's article on growing up with Antal Szerb. A version of the article was first read by Gömöri at the Antal Szerb conference held at University of London, 8 June.

 

I would like to explain not only what Antal Szerb’s work means to me now, but how much it meant growing up in the Budapest of the nineteen-fifties. But first let me point out that my affinity with Szerb is strengthened by the proximity of our Budapest addresses. It’s common knowledge that he was born in Budapest, but what was his native district? Belváros, the Inner City, where at his birth  the address of Antal Szerb’s parents was 15 Ferenc Deák street, three houses away from the house where I grew up many years later: No. 3 Ferenc Deák Square. In other words, he was my close neighbour and “landsman”, even if later he lived elsewhere in Budapest.

I also knew someone, the late Robert Kenedy, whom Szerb had taught English. Kenedy (that was his real name, though with an “i”), left Hungary in 1946 and after a spell in Northern Ireland lived in London where he was Assistant Keeper in the Library of the Victoria and Albert Museum. He also wrote essays and novels in English, but the only reason why I am mentioning his name is because he spoke the best English of all my fellow-emigrés, in fact, his accent was too perfect for a foreigner. (I have a theory that foreigners can be recognized by British-born people because of their vowel-inconsistency in English). Robert was a friend of mine and I can recall several occasions when we discussed the legacy of Antal Szerb, a pivotal literary figure in Hungary between the two wars.

As regards to connections and affinities, there is another one. I was born in 1934, the year when Antal Szerb’s influential “History of Hungarian Literature” appeared, and the year in which his entertaining first novel Pendragon legenda (The Legend of Pendragon) also left the printer. I discovered both books 16 years later when I was sixteen years of age and both impressed me, though for different reasons. What I did not know at the time was the fact which puts a blot on Hungarian society of war years: Szerb’s literary history which had won first prize at the competition of Erdélyi Helikon, was banned in 1942 by the pro-German Hungarian authorities. The reason for this was of course Antal Szerb’s Jewish origin which the fact of his early conversion did not change in the eyes of those who took their cue from Nuremberg: after 1941 most Jewish authors, including authors of Jewish origins were banned, though their books were pulped or burned only after March 1944.

 

 

To clarify why Antal Szerb made an impact on my generation, one has to say a few words about the Communist cultural policies of the 1950-ies. (People who read Miłosz’s “The Captive Mind” are familiar with this, but I still think it needs some explanation.) The comparatively free atmosphere of the so-called “coalition years” (1945-48) was severely constricted after 1948 when Stalinist ideology and cultural policy was forced upon the existing literary groups and diversity of styles.  The change was also marked by an attack on Marxist critic and philosopher Georg Lukács who had played an important part in Party cultural politics in the “coalition period”. His cardinal sin in the eyes of the Party ideologues was “the underestimation of the achievements of Soviet literature” and neglect of Soviet-style Socialist realism. The other line of attack on Lukács was for his obvious respect for “bourgeois” literature of past and present. Consider one article in this debate written by István Király in 1950, a piece denouncing “cosmopolitans” who dared to admire the “so-called cultural products of imperialist decadence, those who write lengthy resounding articles on Sartre, Camus, Gide, Malraux, Faulkner and Huxley, etc. who at the same time tried to prevent the most advanced (élenjáró) Soviet literature from gaining ground, in their reviews often basely slandering Soviet literature” (A Lukács-vita, 1949-51, Bp., 1985, 202)

Szerb, though himself a victim of Fascist murderers, was condemned at the time as part of Western cosmopolitan culture. His writings were not banned but not recommended either in Hungarian schools.  From a Communist point of view rightly so, for in his History of World Literature where amongst others he discusses D.H. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf, he devotes most space to Aldous Huxley whose scepticism and intelligence he most admires. I am not quite sure, but it is likely that I began to read Huxley on Szerb’s recommendation. Moreover, Szerb’s self-professed theory of “neo-frivolity” should have had its roots in his close contact with Bloomsbury and interest in the then fashionable prose-writers of the Twenties, amongst them less famous figures as David Garnett, Katherine Mansfield and her husband, John Middleton Murray. Szerb spent nearly a year in London on a scholarship in 1929-30, most of his time in the Great Reading Room of the British Museum. We do not know much about his social life during that year, but the fact remains that he was most impressed by modern English fiction of the time, although he missed out on Evelyn Waugh, who goes unmentioned in his essays and literary histories.

 

 

But if I want to tell the truth, I was then mainly impressed by Szerb, the writer of fiction: The Pendragon Legend appealed to me both as an adventure story and an introduction to the occult, the mysterious Rosicrucians of Wales. (There are actually elements in this novel which remind me of the Harry Potter stories). I also loved Szerb’s short stories collected in Madelon, az eb (Madelon, The Dog) not only for their elegant style but also for the author’s excellent sense of humour and self-irony. And probably also for the fact that some of these stories took place in countries which I longed to visit, in cities like London, Paris, or great-sounding places like Saint-Cloud. I began to learn English at the age of 14 in one of the best schools of the country, that is in the Protestant school of Sárospatak, a place where the great Comenius taught at one point, and London became more familiar to me more through Antal Szerb and Aldous Huxley than through Dickens or Conan Doyle.

Szerb’s best novel Utas és holdvilág ( Traveller by Moonlight) I read only much later, when I was twenty. Yes, it is a better novel than “The Pendragon”, but it is also more complex and introverted than the first one, with less appeal to a young, excitable person that I was in those days. As for his History of World Literature which many consider his greatest achievement, I appreciated its scope and the enormous erudition behind it, but  it seemed to have deficiencies: for example, on Polish literature, which I started to read seriously at the age of 18, Szerb was decidedly weak, second-rate, most of his judgements probably culled from German or French textbooks.

Some readers of Szerb were puzzled about his admiration for Chesterton, but first of all, this  originated in his youth when he went through a religious “Catholic” phase, secondly, Szerb read Chesterton’s book on William Blake and probably liked it better than others. From the essay which is now included in Reflections in the Library it seems that Szerb was not particularly interested in Chesterton’s medievalism, but enjoyed his irreverence about English tradition, also liking this controversial writer’s sense of humour.

 

 

In one of his sketches Antal Szerb wrote very warmly about poetry, considering it the highest form of literature. Devoting essays to Blake, Milton, Byron, Keats and Shelley shows that he was attracted to English poetry no less than to drama and fiction. While it was not so much his instigation that made me read modern English poets (in this respect Géza Képes played an important  role with his anthology A sziget énekel (1946)), I admired Szerb’s taste in choosing poems for the anthology Száz vers (A Hundred Poems) which was published in February 1944; it includes work by the then best translators of foreign poetry. Let me point out that this multilingual anthology which covers European poetry from the Greeks to the Germans, the largest section is devoted to English poets. And if you think of the date of the publication, the Editor’s choice of poems was not a simple aesthetic statement but clearly a political one: Hungary at the time was an ally of Nazi Germany and a selection that included English writers and poets both in original and Hungarian translation, (some of them translated by Jewish poets) could have been interpreted as a sign of defiance to official policy. As a twist of history German troops marched into Hungary a few weeks after the A Hundred Poems reached the bookshops, and a few months later the anthology was also pulped or burnt by the authorities, but triumphantly reissued after the end of the war, thus proving that the power of the written word is greater than a strongest power of arms. It was in this anthology that I first read poems by John Keats, his last sonnet beginning with the words “Bright star! Would I were steadfast as thou art”, the magnificent “Ode on a Grecian Urn”, Shelley’s “Ode to the Western Wind” and the bravura Hungarian translation of Robert Browning’s “A Toccata of Galuppi’s” - for those and similar discoveries I am forever grateful to Antal Szerb.

To sum up, many aspects of Szerb’s work enchanted and influenced me in my youth. That is why the English Szerb revival, thanks largely to the translations of Len Rix came as a pleasant surprise and why I was glad to see the present essay selection in Reflections in the Library celebrating a good philologist, an entertaining writer and a true lover of English literature. Though his life was cut short by the Nazis in January 1945 and he wrote in a marginal - though beautiful - European language, I believe Antal Szerb’s writings now entered the European canon of the twenty-first century.

György Gömöri