12. 19. 2018. 18:54

Lajos Grendel has died aged 70

One of the most significant contemporary Hungarian writers, a prominent figure in Slovakian Hungarian literature, Lajos Grendel has died aged 70.

'On Tuesday 18 December, the writer Lajos Grendel died,' reported his publisher, Kalligram. One of the most significant contemporary Hungarian writers, a prominent figure in Slovakian Hungarian literature, and the author of novels Live Fire, Galeri, Áttételek, Mátyás Király New Hontban, Négy hét az élet, he was 70 years old.

Lajos Grendel was born 6 April 1948 in Levice, Slovakia (Hungarian: Léva). He was a Slovakian-Hungarian writer, critic and university teacher. In 1966-1967 he began his studies at the Comenius University in Bratislava studying Mathematics and Physics, and in 1968-1973 he continued in Hungarian and English. In 1973-1992 he was editor at Madách Publishing House, from 1988 he was deputy head of office, while between 1992-1996 he was editor-in-chief of Kalligram Publishing House and the journal of the same name. He has been a freelance writer since 1994.

Photo: Gábor Valuska

Since 1990 he has been a member of the Hungarian Independent Initiative (Független Magyar Kezdeményezés). Since 1997 he has been a spokesman for the Slovakian Hungarian Intellectual Forum (Szlovákiai Magyarok Értelmiségi Fórum). Between 1997 and 2000, he was president of the Slovak PEN Centre. In the same year he became assistant professor at Komensky University. Since 1998 he has been a member of the Hungarian Writers' Association (Magyar Írók Szövetsége). In 1998 he became an honorary member of the Széchenyi Academy of Arts and Literature, and in 2012 he made a member of the Hungarian Academy of Arts.

Grendel’s prose was known for its respect to tradition and its contradictory boldness. He knew that the epic renewal of the second half of the twentieth century would require a sensitivity to the trends dissolving the limits of all forms of realist consensus, for example a trust in stories that runs throughout tradition. He was open to beat poetry, American dialogue prose and he cultivated a contemporary relationship with the literary minds of Krúdy and Hayek. But the secret of Grendel's greatness, like all major authors, is ultimately inexplicable.

This autumn Litera visited him in Bratislava to make an interview with him on occasion of his 70th birthday. In October he was Litera’s author of the month.

Here’s an excerpt from the interview:

You started university in 1966 in the Mathematics and Physics department, but then applied to Hungarian and English. Were books the reason you changed direction?

It might sound odd but it means that I was reading books. It’s not so fashionable today, but frankly I couldn’t give a rat’s ass about what’s fashionable. In 1997 I started teaching in the humanities faculty, and much to my astonishment with one or two exceptions nobody read books, not even a bestseller. What sort of teachers could they be? Terrible ones. In the beginning of the sixties I discovered Jókai and fell in love. From then on reading was a constant encouragement. I became a real amphibian. I was interested in maths but also in reading. Especially when I moved to Bratislava 1966. From the first moment the city was alien to me. It took a year to get used to it, then I left and moved back to Levice. In autumn 1966 I learnt of the events of ’56 in Hungary over Radio Free Europe, and it was a defining moment in my life. First I got close to Déry, not literally speaking, but I was interested in him, I read his novel G. A. úr X-ben. I’d already been reading Irodalmi Újság. Slowly the maths moved into the background. I decided I would leave the faculty of natural sciences and transfer to the faculty of humanities. It took a year. Not everyone agreed with me, many criticised me for choosing an uncertain career rather than a certain one. The faculty of humanities wasn’t awfully respected, but that’s what I chose and I didn’t regret it. It was difficult to get in but I managed. I’m not especially gifted at languages, I’d studied a ton of English and I couldn’t feel the nuances of the Slovak, so even though I had wanted to study philosophy, I didn’t apply because of my Slovak.

And how did you start writing?

In the early seventies I was a big Mándy fan. I still am today but back then I tinkered with Mándyesque prose for years on end. I got nowhere, it was awful. I met him in ’86, we were together in Hamburg. We sat in a café together and chatted all afternoon, though I’ve not a clue about what. After that I came to love Mándy even more. That was the moment I decided to become a writer once I’d finished mathematics and physics, and from then on I focused on Mándy short stories. Hrabal was another large influence on me. I met him too. He was a fan of Mészöly, he’d read Death of an Athlete in ’70, not long after it had been published. They spent an afternoon and an evening together in Budapest once and then went to Kisoroszi together.

How much were you influenced by the Beat Generation?

Interestingly enough, it didn’t, or very little. But American literature was of central importance, especially after reading Faulkner. We read Faulkner’s novels seven or eight times one after the other. I was captivated, I liked his pessimism and his fatalism, the plot of Light in August. Gregory Corso and Ginsberg also intrigued me, but mostly prose, Styron’s Set This House on Fire and The Confessions of Nat Turner, then the short stories of Capote or Hemingway and Fitzgerald. In the seventies American literature was number one.  Then the others, French, german, latin American, Cortázar and Borges, that was the peak. Cortázar’s short stories were published a few years ago in four volumes, I bought the lot of them and read them ll. But Musil had the greatest influence on me, Sanyi Mészáros, my editor also noticed. On one book in particular, Négy hét az élet.