“Conservative” writers in the curriculum: Dezső Szabó

On March 8, 2012 Rózsa Hoffmann, Christian Democratic undersecretary in charge of education, announced that the task of drafting the basic curriculum for elementary and high schools had been completed. She claimed that 648 individuals and 60 professional organizations responded to the ministry’s working papers that were made public on the Internet. It was Hungarian literature that attracted the most comments. Many commentators complained that so-called “conservative” writers were not represented in the curriculum.

Three writers were mentioned by name: Albert Wass, Dezső Szabó, and József Nyirő. None of them can be described as “conservative.” The conservative writers between the two world wars were men like Ferenc Herczeg, Kálmán Harsányi, Sándor Sík, Miklós Surányi, Lajos Zilahy, Irén Gulácsy, or Zsolt Harsányi. The three who will be included in the basic curriculum were right radicals. All three were born in Transylvania and all three were anti-Semites and fiercely nationalistic. Two of them, Wass and Nyirő, were declared to be war criminals. Wass was sentenced to death in absentia in Romania. In 1947 the Hungarian government requested Nyirő’s extradition without success. Both left Hungary in 1944-45 and lived the rest of their lives in exile, Wass in the United States and Nyirő in Franco’s Spain. Szabó died of old age and malnutrition during the siege of Budapest in 1945. I devoted a long post to Albert Wass. Today’s topic is a second Hungarian writer students must learn about in school: Dezső Szabó (Kolozsvár/Cluj 1879-Budapest 1945).

Szabó is a controversial figure whose literary output can charitably be described as uneven. In fact, some of his critics claim that most of his prose is close to unreadable today. I don’t think that the critics exaggerate. I have his two-volume autobiography published in the late 1960s; its flowery prose borders on the ridiculous.

His best known and most important novel was Elsodort falu (Swept away village, 1919). In it he espoused the idea that the hope for a Hungarian renaissance lay in the peasant class, as opposed to the middle classes that in Szabó’s opinion were “corrupted by the mentalities of the assimilated Germans and Jews.” Anyone who knows anything about the Hungarian literary school of populists (narodniks, népiesek) of the 1930s will immediately realize that Dezső Szabó was one of the early members of this group of writers, although he wasn’t as original as he wanted others to believe. There had been Hungarian writers already in the nineteenth century who championed the idea of Hungarian uniqueness, even superiority.

Szabó didn’t understand democracy, hated progress and capitalism, and painted an idealized picture of the village. His Elsodort falu is full of references to Jews and capitalists. Naturally, both should be hated as enemies of the true Hungarians. As the author of Progressziv blog remarked, today’s seventeen-year-olds will not understand nor will they care a hoot about village life a hundred years ago in Transylvania, but they will certainly get the message that the scourges of Hungary are capitalism and the Jews. He predicts that reading Szabó will only boost their attraction to Jobbik. He claims that Szabó planted the idea into the heads of Hungarians that there is an “independent Hungarian road,” so to include Szabó in the curriculum will reinforce the current Hungarian isolationist tendencies and the fear of embattlement by antagonistic foreign enemies.

But there is another problem, and that is a weighty one. Szabó was not a good writer. According to Péter Nagy in the sixth volume of A magyar irodalom története 1919-től napjainkig (1966) “the overwhelming majority of Szabó’s novels and short stories are practically unreadable.” The list includes Elsodort falu, which most likely will be included in the high school curriculum. And then comes a lengthy description of the linguistic oddities of Szabó. It is this mannerism and artificiality that makes his influence practically negligible on the development of modern Hungarian prose. Instead, he had a considerable role to play in the development of Hungarian journalism and essay writing. Also, unfortunately his sway was strong on a certain stratum of Hungarian intellectuals: those attracted to extreme right ideologies.

Well, one could say that Péter Nagy’s critical appraisal was written in the late 1960s. Those communists didn’t like “the writer of right radicalism.” Therefore, I think I should quote a few lines, practically at random, from the autobiography of Dezső Szabó that was published in Budapest in 1965. The title of this two-volume work is Életeim (My lives). Here are a few lines in the original from vol. 1 (pp. 752-753) which I will not even try to translate.

És akkor ott, az erdők és hegyek emberfölötti latóhatárában előjött az a lelkem, mely később, életem tragikus változásaiban annyiszor nyújtotta kétségbeesett vággyal karjait a végtelenbe. Így élni a természet roppant pajtásai közt, nem látva embert, erdők és sziklák védelmében, benne élni az anyag kozmikus változásaiban, társául a világot járt fellegeknek, az Alpeseken lovagló szeleknek, a csendesen néző csillagoknak. Mintha a messzi ormokon átsuhanva egy végtelen hívás jött volna felém. Mintha sajátos zenévé mozdult volna a világ. Ettem mohón, és friss forrásvizet ittam rá. Mélyen elaludtam.

One is grateful that he fell into a deep sleep at this point. Unfortunately, he woke up and continued in the same torturous style. I feel sorry for those youngsters who must read Dezső Szabó. I also think that his ideas are toxic. In 1920-21 Szabó wrote more than forty op/ed pages for a right radical newspaper called Virradat (Dawn). A right radical of our day collected some of them and put them on the Internet.

What about this one entitled “Antiszemitizmus”? It begins thus: “The fish lives in water, the lungs are fed by oxygen, the Hungarian is an anti-Semite. Throw the fish out of the water, he will die. Take away the oxygen from the lungs, it will suffocate. Throw out the anti-Semitism from the Hungarian and he will die a most shameful death.”

I don’t know how Szabó’s anti-Semitism can be purged from the school books, but even if one could do it one still must ask: should such a mediocre or worse writer be taught in Hungarian schools? I very much doubt it.