“An ambassador of the West”

Although it is near impossible to reduce a nation’s literature to a single brief description, according to Moses Nagy there exist six primary characteristics of Hungarian literature, including a certain indifference and “observational” rather than “moralising” tone, an intense and striking imagery and an authenticity of imagery rare in world literature. Perhaps most important for the idea of Global Citizenship however is a certain ‘global’ outlook encompassing both Western and Eastern traditions, as Mihály Babits states, “the Hungarian writer is a living ambassador of the West in the stormy East.”

To summarise the history of Magyar literature briefly (a merciful act given the amount of available material) although it had had some impact before then, Hungarian literature really began to flourish during the renaissance, with the first printing houses set up in the 15th century and poets like Bálint Balassi and Gróf Zrinvi taking advantage of the new technologies to diffuse their artistic endeavours within and without Hungarian borders.

The oldest surviving Hungarian language poem, ‘Laments of Mary’, 1125

The oldest surviving Hungarian language poem, ‘Laments of Mary’, 1125

Such progress continued up to the Enlightenment era, which arrived around 50 years late to Hungary, coursing through the Danube via Vienna. Despite such a slow start, when these new thoughts and ideas breached Magyar border, they took hold. A good example of such intellectual modernisation, or at least an impulse to adapt to a modernising world, is the ‘language renewal’, led by Ferenc Kazinczy. In the 18th century the language was incapable of expressing new scientific concepts, and several writers felt frustration with the vocabulary’s perceived weakness for literary purposes. To counter such lexical paucity, a group of writers took it upon themselves to artificially modify the language, shortening some words (győzedelem > győzelem, ‘triumph’ or ‘victory’), reintroducing some previously extant ones (dísz ‘décor’), creating some for new concepts (mozdony, ‘locomotive’) and spreading a number of dialectal ones on a national scale (cselleng , ‘dawdle’), among other innovations. In total the movement added over ten thousand words to the language, many of which remain in the Hungarian lexicon today.

In the present day, although still widely unknown outside the Carpathian Basin, Hungarian literature has begun to gain renown on a wider scale. Imre Kertész, a Hungarian Holocaust survivor, exemplified these shifting attitudes when he won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2002. On the other hand, classics and poetry still remain beyond the regard of most in Europe and the world. As such, in an (admittedly feeble) attempt to redress the balance, reproduced below are just a couple of the examples available from a strikingly rich and lamentably underrepresented canon.

Hunor and Magor
“The Huns, who had been completely ignorant that any other world existed beyond the Maeotic swamp, were filled with admiration of the Scythian country… They returned to their own people, told them what had happened, and persuaded them to follow along the way which the deer, as their guide, had shown them. They hastened to Scythia… Soon they crossed the huge swamp and like some tempest overwhelmed the various tribes.”

2Although not technically a classic, the story of Hunor and Magor is a famous Hungarian legend which also functions effectively as a genesis story for the Hungarian people. As folklore would have it, Hunor and Magor were the ancestors of the Huns and Magyars (which one corresponded to which should hopefully be clear). Twin princes, Hunor and Magor were the sons of Nimrod, a powerful ruler and legendary hunter. On one hunting trip, they caught sight of a wondrous white stag (The ‘Csodaszarvas’, translated as ‘miraculous deer’) and proceeded to give chase. The deer however was too fast and led them on a seven-day chase through the swamps of Meotis (surrounding the Sea of Azov) and into Scythia (modern-day Ukraine). At this point the deer (rather unfairly) jumped into a lake and disappeared. Despite their initial despair at losing their prize, upon seeing the beauty of this newly-discovered region, the two were enchanted and decided to settle there, marrying the two daughters of Dula, King of the Alans. From them descended the 108 clans of the Scythian Nation, as well as Attila the Hun and High Prince Almos, the first head of a federation of Hungarian tribes.

Like many national myths, the story of Hunor and Magor lends itself to, or rather is forced to dovetail with, political goals. In ascribing the origins of the Hungarians to the merging of Huns and Magyars the myth furnishes a vital historical continuum of the Kingdom of Hungary with the Hun Empire, which was used at the dawn of the Hungarian nation to claim legitimacy for the state.

Some of the impacts of the myth however surpass nationalistic aims and touch on the perpetuation of stereotypes based on social distinctions as well as justification for inequality based on such distinctions. For instance in the 16th century the writer István Werbőczy used the tale to justify serfdom: lauding the nobility as the true heirs to Hunor and Magor while condemning the peasantry as the descendants of those cursed for cowardice in battle. Werbőczy’s ideas were keenly accepted by Hungarian nobles who claimed from their supposed Scythian heritage “the right to rule their subjects without having to meet any obligations” and even influenced the charter of common law for three centuries.

Attila József
József is arguably the most important Hungarian poet of the previous century and his life follows a fascinating arc from tragedy to catastrophe. Born into poverty in Budapest, József managed to escape through publishing his works and pursued his education across Europe in Vienna and Paris. He initially aspired to teaching, but his poem “With all my heart” was considered too radical and effectively barred him from influencing young minds:

I have no father and no mother,
I have no God, I have no land,
neither cradle, nor a cover,
nor kiss, nor lover’s hand.

Three days I haven’t eaten,
not too much and not too well,
all I have is twenty years,
twenty years I’ll gladly sell.

If no one takes them,
maybe then the devil will.
I’ll break in with all my heart,
and if need be, kill.

They’ll catch me, they’ll hang me,
cover me up with blessed earth,
and death-eating grass will start
growing on my lovely heart.

He has been called a radical leftist, and his membership of the Union Anarchiste-Communiste and contributions to left wing publications would probably support such a label. However it would be a simplification to attempt to boil down such a complex personality to a narrow political perspective, and his unorthodox Marxism, which would bring him into conflict with the Hungarian Communist Party in 1935, marks him out as a truly unique mind. Despite his wonderful talent his life was marred by severe psychological conditions which caused him to take his life, at the age of just 32, by throwing himself under a train.

The following is a reading of József’s most famous work, A Dunánál (By the Danube), with transcript below.

On the bottom step that from the wharf descends
I sat, and watched a melon-rind float by.
I hardly heard, wrapped in my destined ends,
To surface chat the silent depth reply.
As if it flowed from my own heart in spate,
Wise was the Danube, turbulent and great.
Like a man’s muscles bending at his toil,
Hammering, pitching, leaning on the spade,
So bulged and then contracted in recoil
Each wave that rippling in the current played.
It rocked me like my mother, told me a wealth
Of tales, and washed out all the city’s filth.
And drops of rain began to fall, but then,
As though their fall had no effect, they stopped.
Yet still, like one who stayed at the long rain
Out of a cave, my gaze I never dropped
Below the horizon. Endlessly to waste,
Drably like rain fell all bright things, the past.
The Danube just flowed on. And playfully
The ripples laughed at me as I reclined,
A child on his prolific mother’s knee
Resting, while other thoughts engaged her mind.
They trembled in time’s flow and in its wake
As tottering tombstones in a graveyard shake.
I am he who has gazed a hundred thousand years
On that which he now sees for the first time.
One moment, and fulfilled all time appears
In a hundred thousand forbears’ eyes and mine.
I see what they could not because they must
Drag hoes, kill and embrace, for this enrolled,
And they, who have descended into dust
See what I do not, if the truth be told.
We know each other as sorrow and delight.
I, in the past, they in the present live.
They hold the pencil in the poem I write.
I feel them and evoke what they now give.
My mother was Cumanian, and half Szekler
My father half Rumanian or entire.
The nurture from my mother’s mouth was nectar
And from my father’s lips the truth was pure.
When I stir, they embrace. Then, soon or late,
This makes me sad. This is mortality.
Of this I am made. Such words as these: Just wait
Until we are no more – they speak to me.
They speak to me, for not I am they, robust
Despite whatever weakness made me frail,
And I think back that I am more than most:
Each ancestor am I, to the first cell.
I am the Forbear split and multiplied
To make my father and my mother whole;
My father and mother then in turn divide,
and so I am made one, a single soul.
I am the world; all that is past exists;
Where nations hurl themselves against each other,
With me in death the conqueror’s victory lasts,
In me the anguish gnaws of those they smother.
Árpád, Zalán, Werbőczy, Dózsa, Turks,
Tartars, Rumanians, Slovaks, storm this heart.
If in great depths a quiet future lurks,
It owes the past, to-day’s Hungarians, part.
I want to work. Enough of conflict goes
Into that need which must confess the past.
The Danube’s tender ripples which compose
Past, present, future, hold each other fast.
The battle which our ancestors once fought
Through recollection is resolved in peace,
And settling at long last the price of thought,
This is our task, and none too short its lease.

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