06. 08. 2006. 09:23

Landing on the New Moon

On the 20th anniversary of a periodical

The Hungarian literary scene has only recently celebrated the 20th anniversary of the rebirth in 1986 of the notable literary periodical Újhold (New Moon), which originally existed between 1946-1948. This is an important anniversary for contemporary literature which found its roots in the New Moon generation.

This group bound together a whole generation consisting of people like Ágnes Nemes Nagy (picture), proponent of object poetry; the Catholic poet János Pilinszky; the bard of Budapest suburbia, Iván Mándy; essayist Balázs Lengyel; pagan realist Miklós Mészöly; bucolic Zoltán Jékely; classicist György Rába; the master of the family saga, Magda Szabó; and the sui generis poet, Sándor Weöres. (Needless to say, the list is far from complete.)

"New Moon had not been intended to be what it became. We had had no idea it would turn out to be such a special entry in Hungarian literary history. We didn't know that it would give them a pretext to ban us from Hungarian culture for ten or fifteen years. Nor did we know that 20 or 25 years later it would be excavated, slowly, step by step, like a crumbling relic. All we wanted was a periodical for the young authors.  (…) War, danger and the experience of seeing all human ideals debased and trampled on had come to us when we were still very young and inexperienced. (…) We were not silenced because we had been fascists. Nor was it the case that they did not want any of our writing. Quite the contrary. Latterly, in ’47 and even in late ’48-49 they were constantly trying to win us over. (…) Naturally, at first we believed that we were a part of the literature of this country. But as the expectations became ever more absurd in our eyes, we became increasingly withdrawn. (…) We did not want to comply with the cultural and literary standards that were being imposed on us, as we considered them totally wrong. Therefore we became excluded and written off." - These are the recollections of one of the founding editors, Ágnes Nemes Nagy, from an interview given in 1981 to literary historian Lóránt Kabdebó.

Nemes Nagy’s account incorporates all that is important and lends itself to a brief summary of this era of (literary) history. After the shift into a dictatorship, centralised cultural politics launched an open offensive, and the results were just what had been expected. Most Hungarian writers became integrated, either voluntarily or under threat and pressure, into a cultural life which was totally different in structure from before, and which was under strict ideological control in its every particle. The "rural" authors, many of whom only recently emancipated from the ranks of the peasantry or even from serfdom, were celebrating the spirit of the egalitarian revolution, while the younger generation of "urban" writers experienced the changes as a rebellion against their fathers and the world they represented. As for the remaining portion, most of them saw the communist takeover as a chance to make up for decades of delay in modernisation. The rank and file of bourgeois literature became scanty, the few who remained adamant in their principles actually joined the authors clustered around New Moon.

Having talked about Ágnes Nemes Nagy, we cannot possibly omit Mihály Babits, poet, prose writer, essayist, editor of the legendary periodical Nyugat. The role Babits played in the interwar period can in no way be over-emphasised when we describe the cultural identity of people committed to the spirit of the New Moon circle. He and his later legacy (Babits did not live to see World War II) offered them a spiritus rector who saw aesthetics and ethics as mutually dependent on each other; each lacking validity without the other. In his approach, an authentic work and an inauthentic life mutually excluded each other. This strength of principle, this expectation of adequacy between life and work, was what nourished the power of resistance that these people displayed. If we talk about "bourgeois literature" in their context, it can only be with a strong emphasis on value, freedom and sovereignty.

The outcome of their relentlessness was as expected: as Nemes Nagy recalls, they were condemned to complete silence in the 1950’s. They made a modest living from translation, children’s books and radio plays. After the defeat of the 1956 revolution, some of them suffered prison sentences of varying lengths. In the 1960’s, cultural policy, under the direction of György Aczél, became more refined and tactically oriented, offering these authors a somewhat more domesticated climate. This new cultural policy went hand in hand with the consolidation of internal politics which placated the entire country. Bit by bit, New Moon authors were allowed to publish poems and prose pieces without being forced to take on political roles. Slowly, they made their arrival in contemporary literature. Many of them, deservedly, came to be surrounded by something of a cult: Pilinszky, Mészöly, Nemes Nagy, Ottlik, Mándy continued to gain in popularity.

From the point of view of intellectual history, however, they still remained completely isolated. First of all, talking of the intellectual map of this period, we need to point out the neo-leftist trend which emerged after the invasion of Prague in 1968, and which advocated, with the mediation of George Lukács, a renaissance of the writings of the young Marx. This group came to determine the theoretical, philosophical and aesthetic thought of the time. The context of this trend in Hungarian internal politics is relatively well known: this is the time of the fermentation which led to the emergence of the illegal opposition. Despite their opposition to the regime, New Moon authors kept aloof from this movement. Their experiences in the 1950’s and their ethical commitment had driven them to the conviction that they could not make allowances for any version of the ideology legitimising the existing regime, nor could they make concessions to the people who had been or were currently committed to them through any, institutional or merely intellectual ties. Therefore, with the exception of Miklós Mészöly, they did not sign the protest sheets that formed a movement for the liberation of the Czechoslovakian opposition.

In a purely literary sense, however, the nascent new Hungarian literature of the time, marked by names such as Esterházy, Nádas, Lengyel and Hajnóczy, stretched out a hand to them. This was to a large extent due to the ethical consequences of their aesthetic autonomy. Continuity with this generation was emphasized by young authors who, at the same time, had the freedom and the courage to experiment with the rejuvenation of the literary language. When Esterházy discovered Ottlik’s novel School at the Frontier, a novel that came to be a cult book in Hungarian literature, he recommended to his friends more than a literary work of excellence: he also pointed out Ottlik’s jacket (cf. Péter Esterházy: The Secret Structure of Our Jackets), that tweed jacket which no one is able to wear with the same combination of elegance and nonchalance any more. Esterházy identified a school of behaviour, a form that any self-respecting creative artist could adhere to in the languid, lazy, gauche and motionless world of the seventies. 

This is the track of history along which the old/new New Moon followed on their way into Hungarian literature around the second half of the eighties, at the cost, to be sure, of some political difficulty. The first New Moon Annual came out in 1986, to be followed by further ones through four years. It became a boiling point for something, a point of reference which remained valid throughout the last years preceding the political transition, in which - partly owing to the renaissance of New Moon - various innovative forums came into being (such as the Örley Circle, the Attila József Circle, or the periodicals called Új hölgyfutár [New Ladies’ Courier] and 84-es kijárat [Exit No. 84]) .

This way, contemporary Hungarian literature came to find its origin in the group of writers preceding them by two generations, and established its own independence with the help of these forerunners.

Lajos Jánossy

Translated by Orsolya Frank

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