05. 01. 2012. 19:24

A comedy of ideas. Miklós Szentkuthy: Prae

"Prae" is a huge mock-encyclopaedia of whatever we know (or its author knows) about mind and matter, history and self, language and reality, fact and fiction, man and woman. Its stance is a sort of Olympian irreverence of the writer as philosopher-clown toward controlling and ordering constructs of every  description.

Misunderstood and reviled in the thirties and forties, effectively silenced in the early fifties, gathering new force through writing a series of quasi-historical novel-biographies (on Luther, Haydn, Goethe, Dürer and Händel) in the sixties, the author was increasingly recognized from the seventies as a major presence on the contemporary Hungarian literary scene.

Prae is Szentkuthy’s youthful work; written in the early thirties, it appeared in a small private edition in 1934 (its author was twenty-six at that time). Apart from a few honorable exceptions (e.g. László Németh, Gábor Halász, Antal Szerb), critics responded with blank incomprehension and painful embarrassment. In spite of this, Prae managed to start a kind of furtive existence; over the years the bulky paperback copies of the first edition became collectors’ items, generating a small but distinguished readership. Recently this readership seems to have become larger and found a voice; signs of some serious interest and more intelligent critical comment gather around Szentkuthy’s work.

Prae compels its recognition as a serious contribution to modern “experimental” fiction, in its aspirations at least as ambitious as Ulysses or À la recherche du temps perdu, the two books with which it has been frequently and, in my view, misleadingly compared. It is certainly fiction, though not quite a novel, not even in a Joycean or Proustian sense of the term. A more accurate description of its fictional mode could be Northrop Frye’s “anatomy” or “Menippean satire”: the basic concern of the book is intellectual, its pervading mood is that of the comedy of ideas; ultimately, Prae is a huge mock-encyclopaedia of whatever we know (or its author knows) about mind and matter, history and self, language and reality, fact and fiction, man and woman. Its stance is a sort of Olympian irreverence of the writer as philosopher-clown toward established intellectual divisions, philosophical systems, controlling and ordering constructs of every  description; it is a 1,225-page mock-essay where, in a relentless dance of metaphor, allegory, analogy, pun and double entendre, practically every intellectual issue and position of our century is reviewed, revised, turned upside down and inside out, declassified and re-divided, fused into some ultimate holistic meaning and dispersed into contingent Nothing.

Mock-essayism, then, the paradoxical divide between the discursive and the fictional, with the writer preying on both of them, playing them out against each other; if we must insist on comparisons, Prae is much closer to Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften than to anything in Joyce or Proust, while it is as important to recognize an older tradition informing this apparently unorthodox work: “anatomies” by Lucian, Rabelais, and, more particularly, Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy provide a loose generic framework we can usefully apply. (This latter connection is perhaps the most important: Szentkuthy is emphatically part of that already “classic” trend in the modern which sees highly significant affinities between the baroque and surrealism, between metaphysical conceit and diaphoric juxtaposition).

Also, Prae, though not quite a novel, is certainly a sort of anti-novel or meta-novel: it does have a plot (though the very ratio of its meager plot and elephantine non-plot sections makes it an implied criticism of the idea of plot in general), and it has characters: for instance, Leville-Touqué, the youthful philosopher, provided by Szentkuthy with an impressive list of publications; Leatrice, the woman of the book; Halbert, an Englishman; and his father, a country parson in Exeter. But these characters are playfully unreal and serve anyway as occasional masks for the omniscient writer; and more important, there is one highly significant line of mock-speculation concerning the “writability” of the modern novel. Here, as in many other aspects, Szentkuthy opts for “virtuality”: a novel, once realized, pre-empts other possibilities for its realization, while a novel which is only virtually a novel, a book which is only a prae-paration for an unwritten (unwritable) novel, can maintain, on the level of fictional illusion, the freedom and openness of its potentialities. As far as the form of the book is concerned, this line of speculation is self-reflexive: the text of Prae, as we have it, is itself such a virtual novel. Reading it is a difficult, bewildering, occasionally infuriating though in the end highly rewarding task; also, its quite unparalleled linguistic richness and flexibility may prove invaluably helpful to those Hungarian writers who, in the seventies, set out on a course of finding alternative fictional modes to the more customary and virtually bankrupt naturalistic, quasi-documentary type of novel so long dominant in modern Hungarian fiction.

(Slightly revised version of a review originally published in World Literature Today. Spring 1981, Vol. 55, No. 2)

Miklós Szentkuthy: Prae
Private edition, 1934
Magvető, 1980, 2004

Ferenc Takács

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