08. 24. 2009. 07:08

He had a dream

George Konrád: a portrait

In sketching a portrait of George Konrád, it is my intention to delineate the features of a creative personality whose likeness is deeply embedded in history; an Eastern European intellectual whose life history, as well as the motifs of his work, are deeply interwoven with the public history of the region.

Konrád’s status is not without parallel: intellectuals have always been granted, and indeed willingly assumed, a conspicuous role in this part of Europe, particularly considering that, until the most recent times and the political changes, democratic traditions never took root here; the structures of authoritarian political power formed the character of this region and impeded the possibility of civic development. Konrád was to suffer two such configurations of Hungarian rule, if in varying degrees.

George (György) Konrád was born in Debrecen on April 2, 1933. His father was a well-to-do Jewish hardware merchant; the family lived in Berettyóújfalu. At the time of the persecutions in 1944, Konrád was taken in by his relatives in Pest. Because of his status as a “bourgeois”, he could not apply to university, but he was able to enroll at the Russian (later Lenin) Institute and from there, in 1953, he was admitted to the Hungarian department at Eötvös Loránd University. In October 1956, he was a member of the National Guard at the university.
Konrád’s significance, as well as his role, is incomprehensible without an understanding of the political and social background. After the Communists took power in 1949, the darkest period of Stalinism followed; yet it was quite a while until doctrinaire intellectuals committed to the regime understood what really was going on, and (beginning in 1953) became adherents of Imre Nagy, the subsequently martyred prime minister in 1956. Like so many others who shared his fate, Konrád too walked this path, which led straight to the autumn of 1956. After the crushing Soviet defeat of the 1956 Revolution, many still nourished a belief in “socialism with a human face”: it took the Soviet occupation of Prague in 1968 for a genuine intellectual fermentation to start. Konrád was one of the initiators of this change. As a sociologist, he concentrated on issues of city planning while working for the social services department of one of Budapest’s district councils; later on, he was to be employed by the Institute of City Construction and Planning. His first novel, The Case Worker, appeared in 1969 (English translation: 1974); the second, The City Builder, only much later, in 1977 (English translation: 1980), and in censored form. In 1973–74, Konrád wrote his first work (with Iván Szelényi) that was to spark serious political conflict, his sociological treatise entitled The Intellectuals on the Road to Class Power (English translation: 1979).
These works were all closely related to the author’s immediate personal situation at the time: the marginal position of the dissident intellectual; and also to the fact that Konrád – and other restless creatures of the intelligentsia –managed to find themselves in their positions within the border regions of official tolerance: they conducted field research which, as in Konrád’s case, often became the inspirational source for significant literary works. Konrád’s first novel was considered to be a true revelation: it portrayed dispassionately the tormented narrative of a mentally handicapped child within the consolidated relations of the Kádár era. Konrád was one of the first writers in Hungary to recognize and draw attention to the significance of the nouveau roman, incorporating its literary tools into his novel, as well as making use of the stylistic traits of naturalism to draw a trenchant picture of contemporary (Kafkaesque) bureaucracy, as well as of the dire poverty that official propaganda claimed to be nonexistent. The book written with Szelényi further articulated the truth of socialism under Kádár, demonstrating the degree to which the experience of the world-view of class equality diverged from its own principles.
In the summer of 1973, Konrád lost his job. Szelényi left Hungary to escape harassment, while Konrád chose the path of inner emigration. For all intents and purposes, he withdrew from public life, from the category of being “tolerated” into the category of being “prohibited”. At times, his inner emigration included border crossings: in 1976, his three-year ban on travelling abroad ceased, and he went to West Berlin, where he received a grant for a year. From there, he travelled to New York, San Francisco and Paris, returning to Hungary only in March 1979. From 1982 to 1984, he again travelled abroad, to West Berlin, New York and Paris. In the academic year 1987–88, he lectured in world literature at Colorado College. During these years, all of his works were published beyond Hungary's borders (his novels were translated into twelve languages), and he became the best known contemporary Hungarian author. 
To be sure, the reasons for his popularity were, initially, largely political. Here was a thinker, however, in the centre of western political interest, who justifiably won distinction for himself and his country, alongside the emblematic figures of dissident movements in the neighbouring lands. Konrád was one of the founders, and a champion, of the Hungarian democratic dissident movement, publishing in samizdat with the poet György Petri, and the poet-essayist István Eörsi. During this period, his prose – if not marked by radical change – is marked by a shift of emphasis onto the talent and courage of Konrád as an essayist. In 1978, he completed his novel The Loser (English translation: 1984), treating the subject of Hungary in the years from the early 1950s up until the revolution of 1956 – which only saw the light of day in samizdat. The central tenets of his thought can be discerned in the essay collections Antipolitics (English translation: 1984) and The Temptation of Autonomy. As Konrád writes in his essay “The Benefits of Travel”:
The monopolization of decision-making by capitalists and by state bureaucrats stands in opposition to the socialization of these decisions, which should be neither liberal nor communist but autonomous in nature. Western administrators raise the specter of the Eastern political police, and Eastern officials on the other hand evoke unemployment in the West, to frighten those who want more democracy, both economically and politically.
Of course, the key concept here is autonomy; in bringing it to the fore, Konrád also provided a summation of the credo of the independent intellectual. Konrád’s dream spoke of an autonomous intelligentsia, and a sovereign Central Europe built upon mutual cooperation; he renewed the vision, following Lajos Kossuth, of the “bourgeois radical” historian and sociologist Oscar Jászi in articulating the idea of a federal republic of the Danubian nations.
Towards the end of the 1980s, Konrád assumed a role within the political changes underway; he became a prominent member of the Alliance of Free Democrats (SZDSZ), formed out of the democratic opposition, and represented the viewpoints of that section of the opposition, rapidly moving towards a liberal stance. His journalistic activity revived; within the framework of the newly opened society, his sensitivity towards quotidian life could now reach its potential.
The year 1994 marked a new era in Konrád’s epic career, with the publication of his novel Stone Dial (English translation: 2000): his prose works are now marked by a highly subjective narration, as well as reflective and at times fragmentary, confessional tones. A need to summarize, to create a kind of inventory, is evident in these works. The volumes following Stone Dial, Elutazás és hazatérés [Parting and Homecoming] and Fenn a hegyen napfogyatkozáskor [Up on the Hill During Solar Eclipse] are composed under the auspices of the same poetics. Konrád has returned to, and has re-discovered, a tradition that is truly accessible to him: the classical model of Central European modernist literary narrative, the “expanded” novel of a profoundly essayistic character. Konrád has made himself the successor of Sándor Márai and Hermann Broch, the relative of Milan Kundera and the conversational partner of Czeslaw Milosz. He had a dream; now, as to so much else, he bids it farewell.
Previously on HLO
György Konrád: Pendulum (review)

Lajos Jánossy

Translated by: Ottilie Mulzet

Tags: George Konrád: a portrait, George Kondrád