03. 14. 2016. 18:37

More enduring than bronze

Pál Réz: Ankle Deep in Champagne (spoken memoir)

"It must have happened mostly along those lines, I think," says Pál Réz, and readers and scholars alike need to realize: this is "mostly" how close we can get to truly knowing our own literary history. – The memoir of Pál Réz, a living legend in Hungarian literature.

Pál Réz is a living legend in Hungarian literature. As editor of one of the main publishing houses, Szépirodalmi Kiadó (from 1951 until 1990) and the influential Holmi periodical (from 1989 to 2014), he personally knew and worked with almost every Hungarian writer in the second half of the twentieth century. In the rare cases when this was impossible, like with Dezső Kosztolányi who died in 1936, he took it upon himself to be in charge of the reedition of their oeuvre – establishing another kind of unique bond with the artists by building their legacies. Through his work spanning more than six decades, Pál Réz became a cherished and exceptional witness, friend, nodal point, critic, interpreter, mediator, enabler, mentor, and chronicler of Hungarian literature (comparable, perhaps, to the incomparable Marcel Reich-Ranicki in Germany). So as we finally hold his memoir in our hands our sense of wonderment is quite understandable, our respect is genuine, and our curiosity boundless.

What was it like to meet Ernő Szép, the aging author of The Smell of Humans? To have dinner with the eccentric Milán Füst? To secretly help the wife and mother of Tibor Déry, while he was imprisoned? To make prank telephone calls to various Party functionaries with Ferenc Karinthy? Or to be the closest friend of the brilliant poet, István Vas? I am convinced that even the most dedicated post-structuralists and text-centered literary scholars are curious to hear these stories: if one loves literature, then one is most likely also interested in what lies beyond the texts, and would like to find out more about the people and the relations that make up literary life. This elementary curiosity provides the ground for the reception of Ankle deep in champagne, a "spoken memoir" in which Pál Réz answers the questions of his friend, the poet Lajos Parti Nagy. Reflecting on the almost historical nature of their conversation, the interviewer later said: "In the company of Mr. Réz one feels immersed in Hungarian literature and in literary tradition, and not just ankle deep," as if being one handshake away from the "great ones."

The narrative of this extraordinary life follows the classical structure of a biography: starting from his birth in 1930 in Arad (Romania), his entire family’s escape from the Nagyvárad (Oradea) ghetto during the Holocaust, his move to Budapest after the war, and his socialization and intellectual formation within the very core of Hungarian literature under the darkest years of Stalinism. Nonetheless, the informal tone, the flexible form, and improvisational dynamic of the interview give almost complete freedom to the conversation: through the multiple digressions it easily switches from one period, topic, or register to another. Yet, all the while the narrative remains entertaining, instructive, and intellectually challenging, delivered through one of the traditional forms of cultural communication: the literary anecdote.

In order to appreciate the wide-ranging and highly entertaining recollections of Mr. Réz, it is crucial to rehabilitate this little dialogical genre within the larger context of cultural history. Before one rushes to dismiss the truth value or importance of this form with the usual positivist smugness, it is worth considering how in the last decades the increased focus on personal modes of remembering paradigmatically transformed the approach to historical memory. The study of oral history projects, like the "spoken memoir" recorded in this book, revealed, on the one hand, the narrative closeness of "historiography" and "memory," and on the other, shifted the attention to the discovery and emancipatory exploration of micro-histories within the personal realm. As such, anecdotes that are told and retold many times, represent one of the central narrative forms in which history takes shape. They also represent the ground-level of the individual reflecting upon historical events: opening up unique passageways to the past. Furthermore, by acknowledging the rhetorical nature of history writing in general, almost paradoxically, personal recollections gain historical authenticity. Mr. Réz is both a participant and a witness in the anecdotes he tells about famous or unknown writers, and his stories have a subjective, but also a wider cultural relevance. "It must have happened mostly along those lines, I think," adds the chronicler, and readers and scholars alike need to realize: this is "mostly" how close we can get to truly knowing our own literary history.

One of the most instructive and revelatory aspects of the memoir is its ability to illustrate, through the multiple and bizarre stories from the period, how intensely – and one could even say intimately – the communist regime wished to control cultural and literary life. Within the regime’s tyrannical approach the unusually generous attention and care that the literary sphere received was closely intertwined with a merciless grip that intended to shape it in its totality. As a consequence, paranoid distrust towards the writers (bringing jail sentences, like for Tibor Déry, or blacklisting, as in the case of István Örkény) was coupled with the distribution of various forms of symbolic, institutional, or financial privilege. The intellectuals of the period had the possibility to oscillate between various degrees of embeddedness ("compromise") and independence ("resistance"), periodically inhabiting positions of either power or vulnerability. Coerced by personal or circumstantial motivations, they were navigating inside a moral labyrinth that is highly difficult to disentangle, and even harder to judge, retrospectively. The career of Mr. Réz is a case in point, exemplifying the complexity of the period. When he started out as a young editor at Szépirodalmi in the 1950s, it would have been an existential – and perhaps even literal – suicide to refuse to edit the celebratory volume prepared in honor of dictator Mátyás Rákosi’s 60th birthday. Yet, in the admittedly lighter 1970s, he was one of the few Hungarian intellectuals who signed the declaration of solidarity with the Charta 77 – potentially facing similar existential dangers, but in the end receiving only a three-day suspension from his job. Mr. Réz’s insistence on the anecdotal form reveals something far deeper and more significant about the given person as a human being and an artist than narratives operating with "heroes" and "villains" could ever achieve.

Truly exemplary for our understanding of cultural history during and after the communist regime is the chance to learn about Mr. Réz’s aesthetic worldview – a disposition he self-mockingly calls "snobbism." This approach was not only the guiding force behind his work in literary criticism and commentary, but it also served as a survival strategy in an ideologically overrun and politically paralyzed era. Although most probably seen as somewhat outdated today, his unshakable belief in the ahistorical, autonomous dimension of art, in a cross-European cultural tradition, and in the "Western literary canon" provided the foundation for his professional life. Furthermore, it also guaranteed continuity, because its high-brow conservativism did not depend on shifting ideologies, methodologies, generations, or institutions. In spite of having little or no possibility to travel outside of Hungary until 1989, his intellectual attitude (not to mention his knowledge of several languages, both Western and Eastern) made him a true cosmopolite in a troublingly monocultural and increasingly provincialized country. Moreover, it allowed him to be open-minded towards all literary groups and be professional in his approach: he discussed authors and works based on artistic criteria alone, addressing the merits of paradigmatically different writers, like the "ethnopopulist" poet Gyula Illyés, the staunchly communist Tibor Déry, or the dissident György Konrád.

Yet, Ankle Deep in Champagne is a valuable read not only from a quantitative point of view, its importance lies not only in preserving the memory of the deeds and the facts, but also in opening up a qualitatively different approach to the past: by offering an alternative literary history, built from the bottom-up, from the micro- and interpersonal level. By shedding light on the informal relations and the hidden institutional networks, the book allows access to a whole new side of literary life and national history: a side which does not fit into the customary meta-narratives of "literary movements" and theories.

Taking the case of Mr. Réz as a starting point once more, one can easily discover that the recurring blind spots of all literary histories conceal the activity of editors, critics, and organizers – grey eminences of the literary world in all ages. This in spite of the fact that their function is so vital for, on the one hand, building up, managing, and maintaining the web of relationships that make up culture as we know it, and on the other, the presentation and contextualization of literary texts as cultural products. As fellow critic Zoltán András Bán has remarked, Mr. Réz "edited not only the manuscripts, but the writers themselves as well." The role of such quintessentially literary individuals and the talent required to become an informal one-person institution is difficult to categorize and evaluate. Their cohesive and inspirational activity is preserved and transmitted only through the stories circulating within the unofficial literary public sphere, since those outside of the field simply cannot fathom and treasure their significance. Yet through their work these people facilitated the creative interactions of artists and provided intellectual inspiration or guidance for many a writer in need – thus, becoming an integral part of the creative process. Their legacy seems immaterial and hard to trace, although it is "more enduring than bronze," since it can be undeniably found on every printed page of Hungarian and world literature.

Szabolcs László

Tags: Pál Réz