right wing newspapers

“National literature” in the making in Hungary

Last night when I read that Heti Válasz will be coming out with sensational revelations about how Ferenc Gyurcsány’s  infamous speech at Balatonőszöd in the spring of 2006 ended up in Fidesz hands, I thought that today’s topic was a given. I should have known better. It turned out to be a cheap journalistic performance. The so-called “crown witness,” that is the informer, was totally discredited within a few hours. Anyone who’s interested in the story should listen to György Bolgár’s interview with the informer on “Megbeszéljük” on Klubrádió. Actually, the whole two-hour program makes for worthwhile listening, including two other important interviews that Bolgár conducted.

But it’s just as well that I had to change topics because for days I have been contemplating turning to one of my favorite essayists, András Nyerges, for inspiration. I’ve written about Nyerges several times. He is a full-time novelist and poet, but on the side once a month or so he writes short pieces comparing the present Hungarian right to its counterpart between the two world wars. Nyerges must have combed through hundreds and hundreds of right-wing newspapers. Some of his findings are quite embarrassing to later greats of Hungarian literature. That’s why the subtitle of one volume of his collected essays is “Blasphemous Investigations.”

A couple of days ago it came to light that one of the most distasteful characters in Viktor Orbán’s entourage, Imre Kerényi, made another outrageous comment on a local television station serving the inhabitants of District V in Budapest. I’ve written about Kerényi three times, but perhaps the most revealing post was entitled “Imre Kerényi, the brains behind the ‘Table of the Basic Laws.'” Kerényi seems to have a free hand when it comes to spending billions of forints on kitsch art or a “National Library” that even includes a third-rate cookbook from the Kádár period.

There is only one good thing that one can say about Kerényi. He doesn’t hide the fact that  as “commissioner in charge of art” he divides all art forms into “right and left” or “national and international.” Good and bad. For instance, he views the history of twentieth-century Hungarian literature as a victory of the left over the right. In fact, he makes no secret of his belief that the literary greats of the right were actually suppressed. But, he says, from here on everything will be different. The current regime will develop its own “national canon.” Now that they are in power, they will make sure that those who have been successful both inside and outside the country, for example Péter Esterházy and Péter Nádas, will be pushed into the background.

Actually, it is unlikely that the Hungarian government can ruin the careers of these two particular writers because their international fame protects them, but others are not so lucky. Let’s take, for example, the University of Performing Arts whose president is not a favorite of the regime. In order to ruin the institution, the government simply cut back its support. With the National Theater at least they had the decency to let Róbert Alföldi, the current director, finish his term. But when he reapplied for the position, the powers that be made sure that their man, naturally someone with right-wing political views, got the job. Kerényi was one of the jurors. He admitted that the nomination of the new director wasn’t exactly cricket but, he said, sorry, “our time has arrived.”

Kerényi’s latest pronouncement on the local TV station was that from here on everything will be different in the National Theater. It will not be a theater of “fags” but of “loyalty” and “love.” Keep in mind that this man is a member of the Hungarian government.

And now to Nyerges. Let’s see how the Hungarian right saw the state of Hungarian literature in the 1920s and 1930s. A Hungarian member of parliament in 1920 expressed his view that “national literature went to the dogs and anyone who tried to follow the national or religious path was branded. A new kind of literature was born: the literature of Pest, an anti-literature.” And he went on to list the names of those “from whom the national feeling died out”: Ferenc Molnár-Neumann, Mór Szomori-Weiss, Sándor Bródy, Ernő Szép-Schőn, Lajos Bíró-Blau. “The time of reckoning has come. The time will come when everybody will be measured by our natural feelings.” Cécile Tormay, just lately elevated to the national curriculum, called Endre Ady, one of Hungary’s greatest poet, “the singing gravedigger of the nation.” These right-wingers bemoaned the fact that Hungarian literature seemed to be following Western models. Just as Kerényi in the same television appearance complained that the Hungarian National Theater’s performances are not Hungarian enough. The performances are indistinguishable from others elsewhere in Europe or North America.

At least in the 1920s some of the critics of the Western model admitted that Hungarian conservative literature didn’t really have outstanding writers “with the exception of Ferenc Herczeg and Ottokár Prohászka.” The latter, as you may recall, was the founding father of the idea of Hungarism later adopted by Ferenc Szálasi. Cécile Tormay’s “rehabilitation” as a great writer is especially amusing considering that her own conservative or right-wing contemporaries found her untalented. Dezső Szabó compared her to Renée Erdős, the author of light novels much favored by middle-class ladies of no great literary refinement.

Gyula Pekár, a mediocre writer and politician, was certain that there were “two Hungarian literary canons that are engaged in a life and death battle.” He, as undersecretary in charge of cultural affairs in the early 1920s, made sure that the “national side” would emerge victorious. The Hungarian writer Sándor Márai, recently discovered in international circles as a great writer, complained  in 1932 about “the ideological terror of a reactionary minority.” He added that “not liking Pekár but reading [Gyula] Krúdy is considered to be treason, but even then we cannot agree to make the mistake of mixing up Hungarian literature with national literature.”

The Orbán government’s cultural policy is practically a carbon copy of the Horthy regime’s attempt to force “national” literature on the country’s literati. The interesting thing, in my opinion, is that Kerényi most likely knows very little about what András Nyerges is talking about in this essay. His own instincts are simply guiding him down the same path. There is nothing new under the sun.