József Nyirő’s prose

Saturday I was thinking of writing an article on the literary merits of those three or four writers who are being “rediscovered” of late by the “rightist, nationalist, and Christian” government of Viktor Orbán. The adjectives are not mine. Orbán himself described his ideology and government in these terms. But then I would have had to rely on the opinions of others to a large extent.

I read Cécile Tormay at the time that I was writing my dissertation on the 1919-1921 period of Hungarian history, but I viewed her so-called “diary-novel” Bujdosó könyv (1920-21) more as a historical than a literary document. Even as a historical document, however, it must be regarded with serious reservations because, although written in diary form, it wasn’t a contemporaneous account of the events described. It reflects a conservative point of view with plenty of anti-Semitism in the mix. Anyone who’s interested in taking a look at it can do so here.

I read Dezső Szabó’s two-volume autobiography Életeim (My Lives), which was reprinted in 1965, and found his prose pretty impenetrable. In 1957 his best short novel Feltámadás Makucskán (Resurrection in Makucska), which I did not read, was reissued. In contrast to my reaction, I just heard a literary historian claim that as an essayist Szabó was one of the Hungarian greats. In fact, the historian considered him the equal of Endre Ady.

As for the literary merit of the two most controversial writers of this literary revival I really cannot pass judgment because I read neither József Nyirő nor Albert Wass. Therefore, I was pleased to read an article by Júlia Lévai, one of the founding members of Galamus, on Nyirő. She took the trouble to read a number of Nyirő’s short stories in a volume entitled Fagyöngy (Mistletoe, 1937). I must say I haven’t had so much fun in the longest time.

Lévai begins by saying that she is not a literary historian. In fact, her background is in music. So she approached these stories as an ordinary reader of Hungarian prose.  First, she noticed some of Nyirő’s mannerisms. For instance, every verb must have an adverb. Someone not only “keeps vigil” but “broodingly keeps vigil.” Nyirő is fixated with darkness. Someone looks over to a child “darkly.” People of the wilderness in general are “dark” or “burned poor” or perhaps “frozen black.” One of his heroes speaks darkly, sees darkly, darkly moves in the snow, and even thinks darkly. Another Nyirő hero can even “sit darkly.”

Nyirő also uses words in unusual ways. Almost as if he weren’t quite aware of their meaning. Lévai found a short story entitled “Vihar” (Storm) in which Nyirő discusses the relationship of God and man on this earth. The man in the story is angry at God because his hay-wagon tipped over and he angrily “shook up his pitchfork toward the sky.” This expression is odd even in English but in Hungarian it is really strange. One usually shakes up a pillow (felrázni a párnát).

Lévai picked a few examples from a large warehouse of Nyirő’s descriptions of animals. “The mother-bear folds the hands of her little ones, saying ‘Pray nicely for God to turn his wrath away from us.'” The same mother-bear “darkly pants.” Another “mother-bear trembling cries to the dreary world: My Lord, have mercy on us! Her little ones nestle to her groan: Have mercy on us! Father-bear waves his hand in resignation and sinks his head down as if he were thinking about his last will.” Moving on to wolves, “The wolf is turning grey from the horror and in his rage he snarls.” Perhaps my favorite: “The fish are now mute and cold because of fright.” (Lévai adds: “As if they were warm and talkative otherwise!”)

Nature also behaves oddly in Nyirő’s work. For example, “The rocks began to wail.” Or “Only the rocks believe in themselves.” Or, “The storm’s last burst of fury has become even more horrific and once more knocked the heads of mountains together.”

And, as Lévai describes it, the icing on the cake. This time about a bird: “It is distressing to see how the warbler is running around tearing her hair out and is looking around the bushes while she is screaming half mad: Did you see my children?”

Lévai makes some not too flattering comparisons between the half-mad warbler and “half-mad politicians running around with Nyirő’s ashes.”

Meanwhile, on behalf of a writer whose prose doesn’t sound exactly sterling and whose political views are at best questionable the Hungarian government is risking a serious diplomatic breach with Romania. Victor Ponta, the new Romanian prime minister, is not in a joking mood and demands an apology from Viktor Orbán himself for László Kövér’s disparaging remarks about the Romanian government. I think Ponta can wait till doomsday. His namesake is not the kind who apologizes. And indeed, Orbán’s spokesman, Péter Szijjártó, made it clear that no such apology would be forthcoming.

Real madness!


  1. Some1 :
    So, it is not the communists and it is not the not-communists. Interestingly all anti-communists preach that all communists (or communists sympathizer) are jews. My point is that this hate towards each other has nothing to do with the various demographic groups, it is something that is entwined into Hungarian society. When you follow Hungarian history (or other countries history for that matter) you ca find that most “dictatorship” kept itself on power by diversifying the society. Sometimes it had to do with class in society, sometimes it had to do with ethnicity, religion or combination of any of these. Unifying a group against a “common” enemy always worked. This is a lesson that Orban certainly mastered, and currently uses or allowed to be used.


    (1) I would rather put it as follows: Most were Jew-haters among both the commies and the non-commies in the fifties, and the Jewish commies were among the worst, primarily because they could never reconcile the universalism of their proletarian internationalism with the particularism of their own inescapable Jewish identity. The ranks of the so-called “anti-fascists” on the left of Hungarian politics are to this day full of antisemites, and that is why the Hungarian left has never been able to bring itself to be simply and straightforwardly anti-antisemitic,i.e. openly pro-Jewish, because that would have alienated the majority of their followers.

    (2) It is not a question of “hate towards each other”, but that of the active Jew-hate of 30% of Hungarians, and the passive Jew-hate of anothr 60%. In other words, it is a one-way deal. Hungarian Jews on the other hand entertain a desprate, if unrequited love for Hungarians and all things Hungarian. That, too, is a one-way deal.

    (3) Grassroots Jew-hatred in Hungary does not need to be fostered by any particular political leadership, though of course it does help to have Fidesz on side in polite society and Jobbik in the not so polite. Hundreds of years of Judeophobic brainwashing by the Christian churches supplemented by a deeply absorbed ideology of 19th century race-based antiszemitism and a quarter of a century violent antisemitic agitation by Christian intelligentsia under Horthy have left an indelible mark on the mentality of the vast majority of non-Jewish Hungarians, who today no longer even need Jews around to be violently antisemitic. As a result, for the average Hungarian child, vicious antisemitism is suckled with their mother’s milk, picked up around the kitchen table, the playground, school and church, and these days there is also the avalanche of antisemitic media and internet portals for sucking up wholesale the poison of Jew-hatred. Orban and his coterie simply go with the flow, where in essence Jobbik dictates the direction and the ultimate goals.

  2. Nyirő József.

    Brings back memories of my dad’s library which had a complete collection of Nyirő works. Weird how my dad was such a great Hungarian patriot, having magyarized his name during the Great War and voluntarily taken up the Catholic religion, together with my mom, well before the Holocaust. On my dad’s prompting I did read Úz Bence and a few other of Nyirő books, but found them to be merely dead boring.

  3. Mike :
    Most were Jew-haters among both the commies and the non-commies in the fifties, and the Jewish commies were among the worst, primarily because they could never reconcile the universalism of their proletarian internationalism with the particularism of their own inescapable Jewish identity.

    I cannot agree with such a blank coverage. My father’s family become communists, but they did not hurt anyone I guarantee it. My grandmother was probably 40 kg. They became communists (I told this story before) because it was an alternative coming from the Soviets, it were the Hungarians who put them to the ghetto and wanted to put them on the train. It were the Hungarians who rounded up my grandfather and sent him to forced labour. It were the Soviets who actually freed my father’s family (My grandfather from forced labour was freed by the Americans.) THe Soviets did not harm my family. Yes, I do know about the rapes and all, but it did not happened to them versus what they got from the Hungarians. I was never a communist myself, very much the contrary, but to say that the Jewish communists were the worst is an awful statement, and only feeds the propaganda pr of the anti-semitism.

  4. Apologies.The generalization about Jewish communists is clearly far too sweeping and ought to have been carefully qualified.

    At the same time I do speak from some experience, as – among others – there were quite a few high ranking communists among my relatives who were just as acutely uncomfortable with their Jewishness as my “capitalist” parents. I myself was exposed to many years of nasty antisemitic bullying in school when I barely knew “on which tree grew Jews”, and when all around me Jewishness was something to be disparaged, dismissed as though it was no issue at all, and at all times to be carefully hidden. It was a sick situation which I thankfully escaped in 1956.

    I ended up in a wonderful overseas country, where I still live with my family, but also returned to the fold through living in Israel for many years, where I served in the army through three wars as a combat infantry NCO, first in the regular national service and later as a reservist, in a somewhat delayed response to the antisemitism I experienced in Hungary as a child and early teenager.

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