Geschichte der ungarischen Literatur (Eine historisch-poetologische Darstellung) – Review by Anna Tüskés

október 14th, 2014 § 0 comments


Geschichte der ungarischen Literatur (Eine historisch-poetologische Darstellung) [The History of Hungarian Literature (A historical-poetological presentation)], hrsg. v. Ernő Kulcsár Szabó, Berlin–Boston, Walter De Gruyter, 2013.

This large and well-produced volume, the work of ten eminent Hungarian scholars, is one of the most interesting and informative histories of Hungarian literature ever published. The book is available only in German at present. One must go back to the History of Hungarian Literature by a team of authors headed by the editor Tibor Klaniczay to encounter a scholarly guide in the field of Hungarian literary studies published in English (1982), German (1977) and French (1980). One also acknowledges A History Of Hungarian Literature: from the Earliest Times to the Present by Lóránt Czigány (1984), which has been influential amongst the English public.

The new work pays careful attention to the historical, social and intellectual environment, giving many personal and bibliographical details, and, while taking extensive note of the major and smaller authors, it also traces the chief literary forms. The editor, Ernő Kulcsár Szabó is a Hungarian literary historian, critic, university professor, and member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. He is a prominent researcher of the history of criticism and cultural studies. Between 1996 and 2005 he was professor and Head of Department at the Humboldt University of Berlin. Since 2006, he has been Head of the Research Institute of Hungarian Literature and Culture at the Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest. He is the author of several books and articles on criticism, including Hungarian Literature 1945-1991, and the editor of many publications. His latest available book for foreign readers is Kulturtechnik Philologie: zur Theorie des Umgangs mit Texten (Culture Technique Philology: the Theory of Dealing with Texts), Heidelberg: Winter Universitätsverlag, 2011. For the current publication he collaborated with nine Hungarian colleagues of different universities, with whom he had also worked together previously. The concept of literature and modernity delineated in the current volume is similar to his academic views known from earlier works.

This volume delights us by its encyclopaedic inclusiveness, its clear and logical format, and its highest standards of editing. It is divided into ten chapters. Each of these chapters is further divided into sections and subsections. Each of the chapters is introduced by general historical paragraphs. A successful attempt was made by the authors to calibrate the general form, areas to be covered, and space allotted. There is no considerable difference of emphasis and style, the chapters are similar in approach. The ten authors came together and agreed on the unifying concept employed to assimilate their wealth of detail. The Preface states that „The emphasis of the presentation is on modernity in its broader understanding”. The present volume offers a very innovative approach to presenting Hungarian Literature in comparison with the aforementioned one. It gives not only a systematic overview of Hungarian Literature of over 800 years but also draws a clear outline of literary events, as well as cultural and ideological processes. Literary history is not treated in isolation, from time to time groups of texts are included that do not belong in the “literary” corpus: early juridical, historical and other pragmatic texts are incorporated in the concept of literature of their time for the contextualization of the historical paradigms.

Old and Middle Hungarian Literature are presented by Péter Ötvös (professor of the Department of Old Hungarian Literature at the University of Szeged). The first chapter gives an excellent account of early poetry and prose, including Hungarian-Latin literature. The author gives many illustrative extracts both in original language and translated to German. Literature is put into its historical context, aided by a complete account of the life of the authors. The importance of early Hungarian and Latin writing is shown also through their interactions with European literature, for example the translations and the peregrination to foreign universities. Many references are made to non-Hungarian works, for example Kelemen Mikes translated the short story collection Jounées amusantes by Mme de Gomez to Hungarian with the title Mulatságos napok (Amusing Days), or Ferenc Faludi translated works by William Darrell (The Gentleman Instructed in the Conduct of a Virtuous and Happy Life), Baltasar Gratian (El oraculo manual) and Antonio de Eslava (Noches de invierno) to Hungarian. In connection to the latter Olga Penke has recently proved that the 8th chapter of Téli éjszakák (Winter Nights) by Faludi also has French sources: the Lettres d’un Sicilien by Giovanni Paolo Marana (1700) and the Bibliothèque des gens de cour by Gayot de Pitaval (1723). The whole section makes a valuable introduction to medieval, humanist and Baroque literature and its complex problems.

István Fried (professor emeritus of the Departement of Comparative Literary History at the Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest), writes about the poetic language in Classicism and Rococo with ease, devoting close attention to the differentiation of the literary system, the polemics about the literary language and the language reform. He proposes the discussion of the new literary era, which begins with the reign of Maria Theresa and ends around 1825. He explains that the ethnocentric and language-based approach is not appropriate given the spirit of the prevalent concept in the era; national revival. Chapters follow about the restructuring of national institutions, cultural modernization, polemics about the literary language and language reform. He also shows that literary creation moves towards professionalisation, and the press organs become differentiated based on the language and the targeted public. All the great names are there: György Bessenyei, Dávid Baróti Szabó, Miklós Révai, Dávid Czvittinger, Péter Bod, Mihály Csokonai Vitéz, Ferenc Kazinczy, András Dugonics, count Ferenc Széchényi, and a number of lesser authors and editors who are little read or else entirely forgotten today – Elek Horányi, Pál Wallaszky, Sándor Báróczi, Mátyás Rát, Gáspár Pajor. The account is well-written and fascinating; it constitutes an original synthesis.

Chapter III, by Pál S. Varga (deputy director of the Institute for Hungarian Literary and Cultural Studies at the University of Debrecen), is called “Art-Centered Development of the Literary: Classical Hungarian Literature 1825-1890”. In fact the first section “Classicism and Romanticism” professor S. Varga presents the oeuvre of Ferenc Kölcsey, insisting that his poetry creates a lyrical manner through the deformation of archaic discourses. He also shows Kölcsey’s theory about national literature in the spirit of the singularity of general subjects. The second section is centred on the development of Romantic literature, in which he describes among other things the peculiarities of Hungarian Romanticism, the importance of collective identity paradigms, and the structural transformation of the literary public sphere. The final section discusses the late Romantic literature emphasizing the oeuvre of János Arany, János Vajda, Mór Jókai, Zsigmond Kemény and Imre Madách.

György Eisemann (professor at the Department of 18th-19th Century Hungarian Literature at the Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest) takes the period between 1882-1895, the turn to modernity. The first section presents the structural changes of the literary public and the change of artistic perception. The third section shows how anecdotes, history, multiculturalism, detective story and reportage are present in works by Kálmán Mikszáth. There are valuable sections about the element of fantastic, the subjectivity, and the influences of naturalism. Connections between works of Hungarian and other European literatures are fully presented also in this chapter: for example how symbolism of Schopenhauer, Jean Paul, Renan and Tolstoy influenced Hungarian poetry after János Arany, mainly in the oeuvres of Gyula Reviczky and Jenő Komjáthy.

Chapter V, by Csongor Lőrincz (professor at the Department of Slavic Studies at Humboldt University, Berlin), is called “Aestheticization of Language: Classic Modern Between the Artistic Metaphysics and Repositioning of the Subject (1895-1932)”. The first section gives an overview of society, culture and politics at the turn of the century through the patterns and paradigms of literary communication. The second section describes the trends of poetry, namely the two main strands of classical modern poetry: the egocentric on one hand (Endre Ady), and the aestheticised on the other hand (Mihály Babits). The author shows the wonderful complexity of influences that entered into the development of Hungarian novels of the period, for example Az Isten háta mögött (Behind God’s Back) by Zsigmond Móricz (1911) is the variation of the topic of Madame Bovary by Flaubert; or the Szindbád hazamegy (Szindbád Goes Home) by Sándor Márai is the intertextual continuation of Krúdy’s texts.

Zoltán Kékesi’s study (the youngest of the ten authors, fellow of two universities: Department of Theory of Visual Arts at the Hungarian University of Fine Arts, Department of Comparative Literature and Cultural Studies at the Eötvös Loránd University, both in Budapest) is Chapter VI in which he proposes to discuss the “Materialisation of Language: The Historical Avant-garde Movements 1915-1929/1938”. An introductory section outlines the importance of the five avant-garde reviews all founded by Lajos Kassák and his companions with five different strategies. He explains the inter-media experiments of the 1920s and the importance of media in poetry and perception around 1926/1927. Subsequent chapters present drama and theatre after 1920, and ways out of the avant-garde.

We have now reached chapter VII on the literature of late modernity with the title “Mediatisation of the Literary” by Ernő Kulcsár Szabó (between 1996-2005, professor and head of the department at Humboldt University, Berlin; currently director of the Institute of Hungarian Literature and Culture at the Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest). This chapter shows currents and interferences in the period between 1931/32-1960/1970. Entire independent subsections are dedicated to four authors: Lőrinc Szabó, Attila József, Sándor Márai and László Németh. Kulcsár Szabó tends to emphasise the mediatisation and the unanthropologisation of language, the biologisation and mechanisation of the text. He dedicates attention to the study of futuro-expressionist techniques, and surrealist-dadaist influences in the poetry of the era.

Chapter VIII on the literary turn in Hungarian Postmodernity is divided between two authors: Péter Szirák (professor and director of the Centre of Communication and Media Studies, University of Debrecen) has written about the prose, while Zoltán Kulcsár-Szabó (the second youngest of the authors, associate professor of the Institute for Hungarian Literature and Cultural Studies at the Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest) presents the poetry from 1960/1970. Many prose writers are considered here for the first time in any foreign language manual of the history of Hungarian literature: Ádám Bodor, László Darvasi, László Garaczi, Krisztián Grecsó, Lajos Grendel, János Háy, László Krasznahorkai, Endre Kukorelly, Zsolt Láng, Péter Lengyel, László Márton, Péter Nádas, István Szilágyi, Sándor Tar, Pál Závada. Kulcsár-Szabó calls attention to the linguistic criticism, the new sensibility and the mediatisation in poetry.

The last chapter, titled “Ways of Modernity: Drama and Theatre” by Gabriella Kiss (lecturer of the Department of Theatre Studies at the Károli Gáspár Reformed University, Budapest) presents the theatre of the 19th and 20th centuries very fully. Kiss departs from Bánk bán (Palatine Bánk) by József Katona in 1815 and arrives to what is the end of the post-bourgeois theatre of illusion, illustrated by the pieces of Péter Esterházy. She includes several writers, directors and plays. She also underlines the importance of the theatre experiments around 1920, mentioning for example Az óriáscsecsemő (The Giant Baby) by Tibor Déry, an outstanding piece of the Hungarian avant-garde in 1926.

However, there is still improvement in some minor matters. The proportion of presented periods to space is strikingly different: while the first two chapters processing the material of six hundred years have about 130 pages, a space disproportionate to his importance some may think, the following eight chapters concerning the period of the 19th and 20th centuries have 500 pages. The manual seems rather weak in the early periods of Hungarian literature. One can note the apparent absence of a large number of minor names (for example Baron Péter Apor, Baron László Amade). The structure of the chapters is similar to each other: in the text one can find short references to the specialised literature, the critical editions, and anthologies which are listed with full data in the bibliography at the end of each chapter. There are no footnotes except chapter VI, which seems rather uneven. I have found only a few typist’s errors in the text (p. 65. Kürfürst instead of Kurfürst, p. 305. Mas-zák instead of Ma-szák).

Perhaps the most attractive feature of the book, and a very important one, is the carefully chosen group of fifty images representing mainly major literary figures (e.g. Bálint Balassi, Péter Pázmány, Mihály Csokonai Vitéz, Dániel Berzsenyi), but also documents (e.g. Halotti beszéd (Funeral Sermon), title page of Zrínyi’s Adriai tengernek Syrenája (The Syren of the Adriatic Sea), title page and illustration of the almanac Aurora) or significant events (e.g. Kazinczy’s first encounter with Károly Kisfaludy). In some cases the title of the images could have been more accurate, for example in the case of the portrait of Kelemen Mikes. The half-length oil painting kept in the Museum of Fine Arts of Cluj-Napoca is surely the copy of a portrait painted between 1707-1711. However, this picture is not of the 18th century but seems to be a mid-19th century copy. András Kovács observed that the canvas is not primed by hand, so it does not come from a period earlier than 1840–1850 (see Transmission of Literature and Intercultural Discourse in Exile, ed. by Gábor Tüskés, Bern, Peter Lang AG, 2012, p. 404-408).

Beyond the continuous highlighting of the connections between Hungarian and other European literatures, one of the many virtues of the volume is the range of references back and forth within Hungarian literature. Some examples of this: how the short story A gavallérok (The Gentry) by Kálmán Mikszáth (1897) influenced the novel Hahn-Hahn grófnő pillantása (The Glance of Countess Hahn-Hahn) by Péter Esterházy (1991), or how the historical novel Zord idő (Stormy Times) by Zsigmond Kemény (1862) affected the novel A könnymutatványosok legendája (The Legend of the Tear Jugglers) by László Darvasi (1999) in postmodernism. The volume, with its considerable bibliography, chronology and indices, will be of great service to students, teachers, scholars and the general reader.


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