A classic of Hungarian literature, this novel tells the story of a peasant Don Juan and leader of a village who, torn between the torpid bliss of his home life and a seething quest for prosperity, follows his urge to break the bonds of his low social status.
P ublished as Sárarany in 1910, Gold in the Mud was written by Zsigmond Móricz (1879–1942), one of Hungary’s foremost novelists, whose literary career extended from the turn of the twentieth century to the Second World War. Móricz was the first Hungarian author of note to have been born and raised among the peasantry. His father, Bálint Móricz, was descended from impoverished peasants and farmed a small parcel of land in eastern Hungary, in the village of Tiszacsécse, then numbering all of 300 souls. One can still visit the house he built for his family there when Zsigmond was a youth, the “Móricz Zsigmond Emlékház.”
Zsigmond was the first of nine children, eight boys and one girl, two of whom died in infancy. His family was well acquainted with the poverty he often depicted in his narratives. But this did not prevent his parents from nurturing cultural ambitions in young Zsigmond, whose mother, Erzsébet Pallagi, was a Reformed pastor’s daughter and presumably descended from ancient Hungarian nobility, a claim that son Miklós Móricz, also a writer, later proved false. The author’s father went to great lengths to secure an education for his first-born son, and Zsigmond began his studies at the Debreceni Református Kollégium in 1890. After trying a variety of career directions including law and theology, Móricz eventually took up journalism, moving to Budapest in 1900. He devoted energy to the study of Hungarian folk culture, which he prized, while at the same time entering the urbane cultural world of Hungary’s capital and acquainting himself with important authors of the time, including several who have gone down in the annals of Hungarian literary history: Dezső Kosztolányi, Mihály Babits, Kálmán Mikszáth, and the revolutionary poet Endre Ady, with whom Móricz forged an influential friendship in 1909.
Naturalism and Realism, literary trends that were already fading in western Europe, gained in importance in countries such as Hungary, Romania, and Poland during the era dominated by the experience of the First World War and the halting rise of capitalism in these traditionally agrarian societies. Móricz’s experiences as a reporter at the front during the Great War, and as a witness to the sometimes promising, but more often disappointing political upheavals that took place in the wake of the conflict, strengthened his commitment to recording the plight of his nation’s poorest classes in his writings. His early fame was founded on the novella “Seven Pennies” (“Hét krajcár”) published in 1908 in Nyugat (“West”), a journal of such significance for Hungarian literature that an entire era is named for it, extending from 1908 when the first issues appeared, and lasting until the time of Móricz’s death in 1942. The poignant portrayal of the value a mere seven pennies can have for an impoverished family sealed Móricz’s reputation as an author with an unprecedented ability to lay bare the suffering of society’s most neglected members.
Móricz’s career as an author, grounded in ten years’ work as a journalist, had begun. Tragically, only a fraction of his novels have been translated into English: The Torch (A fáklya, 1917), Be Faithful unto Death (Légy jó mindhalálig, 1920), Very Merry (Úri muri, 1928), and Relations (Rokonok, 1932), along with the story collection Seven Pennies (Hét krajcár, 1909). His works have fared better in other languages, especially French and German, but nonetheless the lack of availability of his novels in English translation has caused prominent historians of Hungary to lament the loss to English-speaking readers. In his article “How Modern Was Zsigmond Móricz,” Péter Nagy points out the following: “In [Móricz’s] own life-time, two modern spokesmen of the peasant world, Władysław Reymont and Frans Sillanpää, were awarded the Nobel Prize. His life-work is of no lesser importance than theirs, he is their equal in the beauty he created.” Of all the novels Móricz wrote that have yet to be translated into English, his first: Sárarany, or “Gold in the Mud,” is perhaps most deserving of the international readership it has lacked until now.
Sárarany first appeared in 1910 as a serial novel in the influential Nyugat magazine, to be published in book form a year later. It was the first Hungarian novel to portray the peasant, here embodied by protagonist Dani Turi, as an ambitious individual who bows to no man, thus ushering in a new era of Hungarian literature. The novel’s central theme is the deplorable waste of human potential resulting from the repression of the peasantry in what was still a largely feudal society, even in 1910. Móricz relies on the techniques of Naturalism to get his message across, creating memorable scenes that will appeal to modern readers in their vivid imagery and brutal directness. His descriptive powers are at their height in such scenes as the nighttime flight of Dani’s wife Erzsi to her uncaring parents after he’s beaten her, Dani’s passionless tumble in the hay with a peasant girl during the wheat harvest, his claustrophobic encounter with his aging, hopelessly apathetic parents in their decaying cottage, and the gambling scene at the home of the alcoholic schoolmaster with his large, impoverished family, among many others.
But Móricz’s skill goes far beyond such revealing vignettes of village apathy and disillusionment. The author’s reputation rests also on his unflinching account of how Hungary’s long-standing social and economic injustices stripped its peasantry of access to agency, happiness, and success. Dani Turi is a progressive farmer whose skill at making the land profitable through the application of modern agricultural techniques sets him apart not only from his downtrodden peasant peers, but also from the backward-looking landowners who see land merely as a means to maintain their powerful social status, rather than as a resource for the benefit of society as a whole. In order to realize his vision for a successful agricultural enterprise, Turi must secure the approval of Countess Helene, member of the comital Karay family to whom the estate surrounding Kiskara village belongs. The confrontation between Turi and the Countess towards the novel’s end is one of its most memorable moments. But the traces left on the reader by the murder scene involving Helene’s paramour, Count László, are if anything more indelible, as Móricz exposes how the weight of Hungarian history turns Dani Turi’s enormous positive energy into a brutish force of pointless destruction.
Gold in the Mud is arguably the most powerful novel Zsigmond Móricz penned. In rendering this text into English, the translator has worked to remain as true as possible to the original Hungarian prose. Translation inevitably involves compromise, and in the case of Sárarany, a peculiar challenge is posed by the novel’s unique publication history. More recent editions omit scenes and passages from the first version published in the pages of Nyugat. Some of these omissions strengthened the novel, by tightening the prose and improving its coherence and flow. Others resulted in a loss of detail, background, or clarity in terms of a seamless unfolding of the plot. The present translation is based on two versions of Sárarany, the second Hungarian edition from 1939, published by Athenaeum a few short years before Móricz’s death, and the German translation by Armin Schwartz put out by Ernst Rowohlt Verlag in 1921, which is largely faithful to the first edition of Sárarany, though it contains several glaring translation errors, errors that have been corrected in this English version. The resulting text has been edited for its faithfulness to Móricz’s wording and punctuation, as well as for consistency in details of plot and character development, with the goal of allowing the reader to experience the original novel as authentically as a polished English version will allow.
Although this translation of Sárarany is a century overdue, it is nonetheless a timely work. Hungary’s history is unique, yet also representative of the experience of those European nations that struggled with often tragic failure to keep up with the revolutions brought about by capitalism and industrialization, to say nothing of democratization and embourgeoisement. Hungary is still struggling to realize its full potential as a free, democratic country, a struggle informed by precisely those historic social and economic problems diagnosed so vividly by Zsigmond Móricz in his early prose works. But Gold in the Mud is also a worthy literary experience in its own right, apart from its value as a historical document. Móricz’s depictions of eastern Hungary’s landscapes and the impoverished circumstances of many of its inhabitants at the turn of the twentieth century are unparalleled. And the often chilling confrontations he narrates between husbands and wives, parents and their children, peasants and nobles, the rich and the poor, will keep readers on the edge of their seats for generations to come.
 Péter Nagy, “How Modern Was Zsigmond Móricz,” The New Hungarian Quarterly, vol. 77 (1980), p. 42.
 Zsigmond Móricz, Sárarany, 2nd ed. (Budapest: Athenaeum, 1939); Zsigmond Móricz, Gold im Kote: ein ungarischer Bauernroman, trans. by Armin Schwartz, 2nd ed. (Berlin: Ernst Rowohlt Verlag, 1921).
Zsigmond Móricz: Gold in the Mud
Translated by Virginia L. Lewis
Library Cat Publishing, 2014
Tags: Zsigmond Móricz