05. 07. 2008. 07:58

Land of swindlers

Zsigmond Móricz, author of Relations

Móricz's novel Relations, recently published in English, is a career story in the Balzac vein, a kaleidoscopic image of the hierarchic society of a Hungarian small town, as well as a description of the "natural history" of corruption, the all-encompassing network of swindles.

The Western European reading public is finding its way to a growing number of authors from the recent and more remote past of Hungarian literature. The domestic audience, however, seems to have a more rigid relationship to its own tradition. We seem to be waiting in vain for a discourse which would breathe new life into the canonised tradition and highlight its relevance to our contemporary life. The dead poets and writers seem to have acquired the place they deserve on the bookshelf; the tomes look respectable on the shelf and lend an appearance of good taste, but the dust on top seems to be growing ever thicker. This year is the centenary of the trend-setting periodical Nyugat (West), the very first home of modernist Hungarian literature, which offers an excellent occasion to speak about these authors. Yet, even these memorial events are failing to break long-held notions and stereotypes. Some authors are seen to be part of a covenant sealed for all eternity, while others have their names “writ in water” with no one to read them. The first group includes, entirely deservedly, the names of Dezso Kosztolányi and Antal Szerb. Their merits cannot be overstated. The subject of our present essay, Zsigmond Móricz (1879–1942), belongs to the latter category as an author whose personal and creative presence was at least as powerfully felt at the birth of this mainstream Hungarian literature as were those of his above-mentioned contemporaries.
 
Without offering a detailed biography, we must mention briefly that he came from a family of moderately affluent farmers, attended law school in Debrecen, arrived in Budapest in the early years of the 20th century, and began to work for the daily Az Újság. Between 1903 and 1906, he went on folklore field trips on five occasions in Szatmár County, collecting folk stories and folk songs. His first short story (“Seven Pennies”) was published in Nyugat in 1908. In 1915, he became a war correspondent; while in 1919, he first became an enthusiastic supporter of the short-lived Commune and then an ever more hesitant sympathiser. Following the Commune, he fell into disfavour for a short while, but soon began to publish again. Between 1929 and 1933, he worked as co-editor of Nyugat along with Mihály Babits. He was one of the founders of the “ruralist” movement, which began at that time.
 
This career outline is informative in that it implicitly contains the directions in intellectual history and poetics, which lead us on to a closer understanding of 20th-century social developments and their literary representations. If we wish to find our way through Móricz’s prose world as it comes alive through the novels, short stories, literary reportage, and newspaper articles, it is useful to outline some kind of a historical backdrop. This is not to say that his work becomes hollow unless we understand how it is embedded in the sociological context. However, our vision does become clearer if we take into account the fact that the majority of Hungary’s population, both before and after World War I, was employed in agriculture; they lived off the land, as the phrase goes – a phrase which is highly euphemistic, in view of the fact that for the peasantry this meant little more than an extension of the age of serfdom. Peasants and day labourers worked not on the brink of impoverishment, but on the brink of barely tolerable poverty. Land reform was and remained one of the most neuralgic questions of Hungarian history. After the compromise of 1967, land reform ended in failure, as it did between the two world wars and after 1945. At the cost of some (though not very much exaggeration and generalisation), we might say that the unresolved question of the peasantry was one of the central factors that led Hungarian society toward what István Bibó called a “dead end”. This was one of the breaking points in the narrative of modernism – and one of the reasons why the history of Hungary more or less foundered half way between a feudal and a capitalist structure. The problem was no less acute during the years when Móricz was most active, his sensitivities in this area being fed by his personal background as well.
 
Móricz’s choice of subject matter also defined one of the most important currents in later Hungarian prose which eventually found its consummation in the idea of the above-mentioned “ruralist” movement. There were two original voices within the broader genealogy of modern Hungarian literature: the “ruralist” and the “bourgeois” trend, the latter describing metropolitan culture, whereas the former focused on diagnosing the hardships of the peasantry, traditional in terms of culture and increasingly marginalized in its quality of life. A systematic presentation of the intellectual and historic afterlife of these movements would be far too much for our present purposes. Nevertheless, we must point out that while in the Nyugat period these approaches worked as complementary angles presenting different areas of Hungarian reality, later on the approaches became overly politicised and antagonistic. The two camps engaged in mutual accusations of nationalism vs. internationalism; fundamentalism vs. rootlessness. Móricz, however, described the terrible downward spiral of the Hungarian countryside most graphically. Yet, as an author, he was not a committed to the peasantry alone. The scope of his knowledge and experience relied in equal measure upon the facts and living reality of small towns and the open plains. In his best works, as in Relations, he bridges the two in one grand arch of prose.
 
In terms of motifs, the basic pillars of his prose are poverty and the lack of self-determination, corruption and the arrogance of the lower and higher aristocracy. In other words, similarly to many contemporaries, Móricz clearly discerns the land-mines on the path to modernisation: the cultural superiority of the nouveau riche and of those for whom culture is a birthright; the problems bred by corruption, which seem inalienable from the tradition of Hungarian public administration; the deprivation of the oppressed that cry out for emancipation; and at the same time, the vanishing of folk culture.
 
Móricz wrote Relations when he was fifty and at the peak of his artistic potency. It is indeed a mature book – partly a career story in the Balzac vein, the rise and fall of chief prosecutor István Kopjáss; partly the capturing of a milieu and historical cross-section, a kaleidoscopic image of the hierarchic society of a Hungarian small town; partly a love story, the disappointing failure of a never fulfilled, secret attraction; partly a description of the “natural history” of corruption, the all-encompassing network of swindles.
 
Once a councillor in charge of cultural issues, István Kopjáss is unexpectedly appointed to the post of chief prosecutor and rapidly finds himself amidst the upper crust of the small town of Zsarátnok, a club that includes public servants, the mayor, the chief engineer, and businessmen. Before long he comes to face the trap of a corruption scandal surrounding the local pig farm. It being his appointed role to smother the scandal, he becomes irrevocably entangled in it. His faithful and loyal wife acts as something of a guardian angel, trying to protect Kopjáss from the inevitable developments; still, the chief prosecutor believes that he is stronger than the powers that be. His impeccable character does not remain impeccable long – within minutes of his appointment, the family’s relatives appear on the scene. Uncles and aunts, brothers, sisters, and in-laws of all description beseech his assistance in what they term “insignificant trifles”. The minute our hero makes the first compromise, he signs his own death sentence. One day he forgets to pay a taxi fare and is instantly suckered into the machinery of his own undoing. In vain does he try to reassure himself that it is he who deals the cards; his doom is sealed. Móricz masterfully transfigures the life story of his hero into destiny itself. The protagonist is overcome and suffocated step by step, inch by inch, by the web of informal power held by the potentates of the small town. His attempts at resistance are futile. He is alone – alone against the world, we might say. The problem is that as soon as he was appointed, he in fact became part of “the world” – a link in the endless chain of relations, the basic metaphor of the novel that we have no difficulty identifying with Hungary, even though the book makes no allowances to didacticism. It is more of a fresco in the grand realist vein, figuring all the main and auxiliary characters of 20th-century Central Europe, locked in strife with a heritage impossible to shake off. To use the “old-time” Marxist phraseology of Karl Mannheim, the tableau is infused with the “false consciousness” of Central Europe, which is, to follow Mannheim, not adequate to deal with the surrounding reality. (One of Kopjáss’s relatives who arrives to visit from the Upper Lands, annexed away from Hungary after the Trianon treaty, complains that “the poor Hungarian children must babble in Slovakian…Their father says, stop [reading the school-book] lest I knock it out of your hand…It’s not a book if it is written in Slovakian.” These complaints carry the flavour of stubborn Hungarian national pride, the pride of slogans such as “If the world is God’s hat, Hungary is the flower upon it” embroidered on wall hangings.
 
Zs. V. is a pair of initials. The letters refer to a phrase shared by the inhabitants of the town of Zsarátnok. It means “I’ll pocket you.” Anybody is free to disapprove of this sentiment nowadays, but no one can question it. Móricz reports on a world without mercy, a world in which people’s personalities are defined by their contradictory traits, as they adapt and survive. All of this is evoked with an amazingly subtle use of language. The turns of speech and the “technical terms” evoke the poverty of soul of the converging middle classes, the new culture of greed and possession.
 
“For, and let’s not mince our words, that crappy, unspeakably crappy socialism still retained, to the very end, a crumb of humanity, not as a result of the system, but more in spite of it, nor by way of resistance, but because the old tradition: slovenliness, alloyed with the new, with the cynicism of the Kádár regime, was unable to take anything quite seriously: neither itself nor the regime, which meant that the gaps in functioning always allowed a human gesture or two to slip through – not per se, but to make sure we were moving along somehow, even when we were not moving along – in other words, it was not the laws of a merciless regime at work, but the unpredictable and easily manipulated human rules of corruption, cowardice, and personal ambition,” writes Peter Esterházy in his recently published book Semmi muvészet (No Art). Esterházy is rather lenient; Móricz was merciless. His hero, a victim and culprit in one person, has nothing left in the end but a well-deserved and self-ordained. It is the only way he could win. By appealing to his conscience.
 
 
Zsigmond Móricz: Relations
Translated by Bernard Adams
Budapest: Corvina, 2007

Lajos Jánossy

Tags: Zsigmond Móricz