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november 13th, 2020 § 0 comments


Gyorgyevics Tamás. Széchenyi Zsigmond élete. Budapest: Amicus, 2018.

Anniversary dates are traditionally occasions to celebrate a person or event. The biography of Zsigmond Széchenyi by Tamás Gyorgyevics meets the criterion in two ways: 2018 marked the 120th anniversary of the birth of Széchenyi and, furthermore, the year coincided with the 90th anniversary of his second, and at the same time his longest, half-year-long journey to Kenya in 1928. Both were, in their own ways, crucial in his life. The story of this journey was preserved forever in his book Csui!… (chui means leopard in Swahili): the book was first published in 1930, and its eleventh edition was released in 2009. This richly illustrated book (80 illustrations) was instrumental in presenting Kenya’s wildlife to Hungarians. To celebrate these achievements, Gyorgyevics, who has researched the life and work of Széchenyi for over thirty years, has published this biography. It is also richly illustrated, with 170 photos from both archival material and new photos showing the memorable buildings in the hunter-writer’s life in their current state. With this book, we can not only follow Széchenyi’s life almost day by day, but we can also get an insight into the workshop secrets of the transformation of his hunting and travel experiences into literary works.

Zsigmond Széchenyi (1898–1967) is the best-known figure in the history of Hungarian hunting. His hunting performance in itself would make it so, but his widespread fame is mainly due to his books. He collected many things in his life: butterflies and stamps, porcelain birds and passenger lists, tiger skins and elephant tusks, and, in addition to all this, books on animals and hunting. He was not only an excellent hunter and photographer, but also a writer: he published fourteen books in his lifetime, some of them were translated into German, English, Dutch and Slovak. After his death, several of his books were republished: with the exception of a scientific work (Manipulative Management on Deer Population, 1948), they are all works of (semi-)fiction. Széchenyi described his hunts so directly, with so much experience, that the reader, even if opposed to the hunt, is almost happy with the writer when, after an exciting story, he finally manages to observe, photograph and sometimes even kill the chosen animal. But perhaps even more interesting than his hunting descriptions are those parts of his book that are about his observations of the local populations. He writes and rewrites his experiences with humorous kindness.

As the biographer claims in his Introduction, “over the past decades, he had many opportunities to speak at length with Mrs. Zsigmond Széchenyi, who helped him process her husband’s diaries, letters, and photo albums. This book also contains her personal memories and these relics mentioned, in an attempt to give a true picture of the famous hunter and successful writer. One of the most important sources for the book is the diary of Széchenyi’s father, Viktor, in which he recorded the events of his life from his childhood almost to the day of his death. Of course, the events of his son’s life were also included in this diary, until the end of the siege of Budapest and the death of the diary writer. Zsigmond Széchenyi himself kept several diaries, but these are not ordinary diaries that record daily events. He also wrote such things at times, as much of his books are travel diaries. More important for his biography are his other types of records such as his hunter’s diary and his so-called awakening diary. Both are an irreplaceable source for getting to know and understand his life.”

Széchenyi had many Anglo-American connections between the two world wars: he spent several weeks studying zoology as a paying guest at Christ’s College, Cambridge in the spring of 1923, and he took part in coursings in Tring, at the house of Lionel Walter Rothschild, whose sister-in-law was of Hungarian origin. Land of Elephants, his book on his hunting adventures in 1933–1934 in Kenya, Tanganyika and Uganda, was published in 1935 by Putnam Books. In the same year, he hunted moose, Kodiak bear, bighorn sheep, and caribou in Alaska. At the end of 1935, he met in Budapest his future first wife, Stella Crowther, daughter of David Stoner Crowther, owner of one of the largest cloth-producing mills in Yorkshire, whom he married half a year later. They had a son, but their marriage soon broke down and Stella returned to England at the beginning of the Second World War.

Awareness of Széchenyi has increased in recent years in Hungary, beyond the circles of hunters who never forgot him. One year before the publication of this biography, in 2017, the Natural History Museum in Budapest held an exhibition exploring Széchenyi’s life and work, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of his death in 1967. This is the museum which conserves the valuable library of the hunter-writer and the animals which Széchenyi himself hunted for the museum’s collections in the 1960s. The second development which attests to and also promotes this “cult” is the release in 2019 of the film Close to The Wild – On The Path of Count Sigmund Széchenyi, directed by the screenwriter, director and cinematographer János Lerner with the advice of Gyorgyevics. The third phenomenon is a portrait sculpture inaugurated in July 2020 in Balatongyörök, where Széchenyi lived in the 1950s after half a year of forced resettlement because of his status as “enemy” of the then political system. The artist, Lajos Orr, depicted the aging Széchenyi in the act of writing, and the rifle and backpack placed in front of the bust base were props for the hiker and hunter. This is the fourth sculpture of Széchenyi within the last six years.


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