11. 07. 2014. 11:30

The diary of Radnóti’s wife is to be published in December

A fascinating account of the life of a couple who had literature and art in the focus of their everyday life, and whose life amounted to an idyll from Virgil’s eclogues in the midst of the ravages of war.

Fanni Gyarmati kept a diary from 1935, after she married Miklós Radnóti, until Autumn 1946. The last entry is about the exhumation and reburial of her husband, killed in the holocaust. Fanni's diary will now be published by Jaffa Press in December 2014, edited by literary historian and poet Győző Ferencz, the author of an excellent monograph on Miklós Radnóti.

Fanni Gyarmati, who died this February, at the age of 102, lived a secluded life. She gave only one interview (in 1962) and never appeared on television or in the radio. It was by accident that Ferencz learnt about the existence of the diary she kept in the years that included the darkest years of her life, as well as of 20th century Hungarian history. During a visit to Radnóti’s wife, Ferencz found the manuscript, and when he inquired about it, Fanni said: “Sure, I kept a diary. You can read it after my death.”

Originally, she recorded events in shorthand, and typed them only decades later. She worked on the diaries, which amount to three and a half million characters, for her whole life, with the primary aim of “preserving what happened to Miklós.” Initially, she recorded memorable moments for Miklós and herself to be able to remember together when they grow old. She wrote in the evening, in bed, recording events almost daily, or at least several times a week.

Fanni’s diary is not a work of literature – as opposed to, for example, that of Márai – says Győző Ferencz, who made the decision not to smooth down the roughness of the text, which may make reading it more demanding, but it significantly increases the authenticity of the text. The interpretation of the diary will be aided by footnotes and an index.

The diary is a fascinating account of the life of a couple who had literature and art in the focus of their everyday life, and whose life amounted to “an idyll from Virgil’s eclogues in the shadow of the war, then in the midst of the ravages of war,” as Győző Ferencz says. Though the most famous pictures of the couple show them as skiing, lying in the sun and frolicking, we learn from the diary that Miklós actually hated skiing and preferred to stay home, lying in bed and reading. Their home was a virtual literary workshop: Fanni strongly believed in Miklós’s talent, and did not urge him to take up a ‘decent’ job. Miklós was supported by his uncle, whereas Fanni was a working woman. This, however, did not cause tension in their relationship, since they opposed the traditional values of the times concerning work, money and the relationship of the sexes. In Fanni’s vocabulary ‘work’ meant writing poetry – i.e. creative activity – whereas what the world at large considered work was for her a waste of time and talent.

Fanni was also an excellent critic of her husband’s works. We learn from their letters, for example, that when Radnóti sent her the poem Októbervégi hexameterek from labor service (Jews were banned from armed service and were forced to do ‘labor service’ instead – Miklós had to go to labor service three times), Fanni suggested that he change the ending, and Radnóti did in fact change it.

We can also learn a lot about the literary and intellectual life of the era from the diary, since several well-known figures were close friends of the couple (e.g. Gyula Schöpflin or István Vas). The diary, however, is also an intriguing self-portrait of a young woman in the middle of the 20th century, who belonged to the first generation of working women in Hungary. Besides, the diary will probably contribute to the research of the holocaust as Fanni reports about the years of persecution and hiding. Fanni, who was in her 20s, managed a school that was closed in 1941 because it was ‘Jewish property,’ and she had to go into hiding in a Catholic mission under a pseudonym. She recorded these dreary experiences in a dry, matter-of-fact tone, but with increasing bitterness.

As for the relationship of the couple to Jewishness and Christianity, as Győző Ferencz said in an interview at Litera.hu, before the war both Miklós and Fanni rejected their Jewishness as they saw something archaic and outmoded in it. In his conversion to Catholicism in 1943, Radnóti was influenced by Sándor Sík, a Piarist and a poet, who was his professor at the university of Szeged.

The diary is kept in the archives of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, and will be available to scholars after the publication of the book in December.