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Masks behind Masks

A Portrait of Miklós Szentkuthy

by András Nagy

The name is already a “mask”, a metaphorical incognito and a personal statement, the composition of Szent, “holy” (sacred, saint), and of kút, “fountain” (source of water, well), with archaic orthography (“th” at the end instead of a simple “t”) in Hungarian and with a reference to noble origins (the “y” instead of a common “i”). The somewhat grand pen-name was to be a substitute for the family’s German-sounding name Pfisterer (hard to pronounce in Hungarian due to the two consonants in the beginning), while its meaning had lost its concrete reference to its ancestral identity, which was not of noble origin either. This statement however created a very meaningful identity from the very first steps of the author Miklós Szentkuthy, one of the greatest in Hungarian literature and certainly one of the most original, most challenging, and most productive writers of the 20th century, with many aspects still to understand, to reveal, and to come to terms with, both in Hungary and beyond.

Relatively or absolutely “small” nations — like Hungary — can and do produce great works of art that make significant contributions to the self-esteem of the relevant nations, in aesthetic and spiritual dimensions, often opposing the turbulence of national history. This may also serve as “secret” knowledge about the real wealth of a nation deprived of material wealth. It may be even more important in those countries that were denied freedom and independence for a long time in history, thus their accumulated political frustration could have been compensated for in more abstract or more sophisticated ways. Szentkuthy’s magnificent oeuvre is a perfect example of a genius living through the most difficult and often highly tormenting historical times of the 20th century yet remaining untouched by the different totalitarianisms, by wars, and by revolutions; and it is his oeuvre which emphasizes the importance of ideas, values, and achievements which are far beyond everyday crises and conflicts, whether they be social, political, or economic. It recalls the archaic and paradoxical Epicurean wisdom that “they” can kill him but can’t really cause any serious harm to him.

The “secret” knowledge of national greatness is particularly true for Hungarian literature, as it is a basic ingredient of the national identity and self-consciousness (contributing greatly to national pride of the “Magyar” people), while it is nearly impossible to “communicate” it to those living outside its linguistic borders. The language is ethnically isolated, not Indo-European in its origin, hard to translate faithfully to any other language, however extremely fit for artistic use. All these difficulties become nearly “visible” in Szentkuthy’s texts, for in his oeuvre language includes everything, even if narration, metaphors, description, reflection and all possible (and translatable) poetic and rhetorical categories are substantial in his novels, yet the real medium is Szentkuthy’s language, used and paraphrased in an originally poetic way, which is deeply rooted in his knowledge and in his experience of the philosophy of language, while applied with a very personal and playful emphasis of artistic communication.

Miklós Szentkuthy, in his library/study, during the recording of 'Frivolities and Confessions', 1983. Photo Edit Molnár, with kind permission of the Fondation Miklós Szentkuthy (c).

Thus Szentkuthy’s literary individuality is created and presented by his characteristic use of Hungarian, deeply rooted in his own history, both in the given (inherited) and in the chosen (willfully obtained). He was born into a family in which significant ancestors on the father’s side already paved the way toward artistic sensitivity, mainly in the world of theater; that later also shaped Szentkuthy’s rhetorical patterns and helped in per-forming his texts, which sometimes were composed as “staging” different characters, conflicts, ideas, with their typical voice, role, influence. His artistic identity beyond writing was often manifested by theatrical features; once, for example, while dressed in a cardinal’s robe, Szentkuthy blessed Budapest, the sinful city; while in social situations, when arguing, talking, and entertaining friends, he was a remarkable master of performance. These ancestors were followed by Pfisterers who represented a typical Central European bourgeois life, based on modest professions that excluded any kind of “extravagance”, art included. In the case of Szentkuthy’s father, this resulted in the lack of appreciation of literature in general, as practically useless and uncertain for making a living. However, once his son showed signs of his enormous talent, this paternal rejection turned into an absolute devotion to the young Pfisterer’s ideas, wills, and choices, even if contradicting the ones the father shared. On the mother’s side, the Jewish historical and spiritual tradition was transmitted probably on a more subtle and suppressed way than the father’s inherited identity, influenced by the mentality of a lower middle class ancestry, thus religious and “racial” differences were further deepened by a social abyss. Finally, Mrs. Pfisterer represented the nearly maniacal “Victorian” avoidance and negation of anything sensual, erotic, thus absolutely excluding sexuality. Both parents were “madly” and unconditionally loved by their only son, prodigious in the respects mentioned above, and the offspring’s love accompanied his elders far beyond their presence in this world.

The schism between devotion to and negation of the family’s values, the ambiguity of unconditional love for the parents versus unconditional rejection of their mentality and preferences, created a tension that proved to be highly inspiring for the young writer, who soon devoted himself mainly to art, literature, and aesthetic joys; jointly and sometimes un-separately with his sensual “intoxication”, that included a constant and insatiable longing for pleasure, should it be carnal, aesthetic, physical, or spiritual. It originated in his extreme sensitivity, expressed also in Szentkuthy’s overwhelming eroticism, yet in the archaic sense of the world: Eros being the ultimate driving force for all that moves in nature, as those are being driven by pure desire. This schism soon concluded in his works with the simultaneous presence of polar opposites, in the constant oscillation of extremes, a dynamic switching between the two mutually excluding Weltanschauungen. All that became determinant for the author in his works to follow, in all levels of his production, from composing metaphors to building characters, from forming sentences to drawing conclusions, providing one of the most typical features of Szentkuthy’s oeuvre.

The sacred connotations of the pen name referred to the author’s chosen identity concerning both the nation (Hungarian) and the religion (Catholicism) that pre-determined the texts flowing from the “holy fountain”. The ethnic and linguistic identity was expressed by the use of the language, extremely “flexible” on the one hand, yet focusing on the difficulties of the messages to communicate, resulting in a distinct and highly recognizable style of the author. The “holy” mandate and the erotic motivation were permanently confronted in the young mind by all the challenges of life, serving as a permanent source of temptations, usually successful, thus concluding in failures and in sins that inversely demonstrate the power of pure and unconditional faith. All in this case reveals the somewhat encyclopedic approach of the author who, by creating an immense body of texts was consciously focusing on the reinvention of a Catalogus rerum, an inventory of all things. The emphasis on the fullness and the “Gargantuan” drive behind embracing totality was modeled more on medieval monks and on patristic and scholastic thinkers (hermits, heretics, saints, church bureaucrats, etc. — all familiar to Szentkuthy and often presented in his novels) than on the encyclopedia-champions of the Enlightenment, as for the author unconditional faith was needed, expressed also by daily rituals and supported by theological and philosophical revelations. Szentkuthy was one of the few great religious authors of the 20th century of striking originality, while his sincere and ardent Catholic belief included attending ceremonies as well as being absorbed in solitary prayer, obtaining contemporary theological and philosophical knowledge to face the immense contradictions of the contemporary world. Augustine and Pascal, Heidegger and Nietzsche, medieval mystics and contemporary physics contributed to the forming of Szentkuthy’s religious Weltanschauung, which did not exclude closely observed dogmas and the continuous study of the Bible, accompanied by the biography of saints — but also demanded regularly committing sins of different types, so as to repent afterwards and to have first-hand familiarity with the challenges and torments of the unconditional faith of a fallible human.

This dynamics of the heavenly and of the infernal often served for Szentkuthy as synopses for novels as well as for individual chapters, for shaping characters presented and for episodes to demonstrate, influencing metaphors, images, aphorisms — providing a complexly epic interpretation of his very own experiences, doubts, and revelations. His extensive knowledge and his intense religious belief together with his very special angle of observing the world, however, seemed inadequate in comparison to the inherited conventions of late 19th-century/early 20th-century Hungarian novel-writing, which was still dominated by realism and by psychology, even if more and more often questioned. While using a narrative structure for the novel was central for the young Szentkuthy, its dominance seemed to be somewhat dated when it came to writing about his experiences and his ideas, not to mention his overflowing erudition of story-telling, offering dozens of epical directions, angles, and scenarios, all leading to the same conclusion simultaneously. The complexity of the composition together with doubts about the linear and causal logic of narration, the questioning of the exclusive role of psychology, culminated in Szentkuthy’s radical renewal of the epic form, as expressed masterfully in his first break-through novel, Prae. The landmark book, published in 1934 (at the author’s own expense, or rather at his father’s) was preceded by shorter and less ambitious works of the adolescent writer (published mainly posthumously). These texts already revealed the author’s originality and his artistic power, together with the search for a method of writing which, in its extensity and dynamism recalled a historical type of identification, expressed in the title of the novel written when Szentkuthy was a teenager, Robert the Baroque. The time of his shaken and then renewed Catholic faith, the recreated totality of the world in the Baroque “passion”, with the universe permanently in motion described by overflowing metaphors, adjectives, events, and references remained characteristic of Szentkuthy’s prose in the decades to come.

Prae was incomparable, unparalleled, and unprecedented in Hungarian literature, and probably beyond. The inspiration for writing the novel came on a trip the Pfisterers, Sr. and Jr., took together in 1928 and had a fundamental impact on the author’s imagination, creativity, and writing method for years to come. Prae took the form of a monologue mainly, in thousands of pages, playing with voices, times, characters, identities, and events, enough for dozens of novels, in a text flowing without any interruption (avoiding any typographical or “formal” structure as well), reshaping the form and the very meaning of the novel for the 20th century. European culture and history was infiltrated through the mind of a highly cultured and visionary youth, applying masks as characters and as incognitos, focusing on the dual character of mind and body, of soul and flesh, of desire and fulfillment. The novel served also as an immense “inventory” of the intellectual sensitivity of the young Szentkuthy, filtered through an extensive knowledge obtained by every possible book he could lay his hands on and through the no less enormous amount of sensual experiences he had had by that time. The novel has no traditional narration, no psychologically motivated characters, and applies the most incredible settings, which seemed to be “monstrous” to some of the critics and to many readers as well, challenging the dogmas and conventions of prose-writing, creating a new “canon” for himself. Even if the book did not sell and remained unread for years to come, few contemporaries of the author revealed the new horizons that were opened up for the epic forms after the era of realism. Prae was a contemporary of Musil’s The Man without Qualities, not much “younger” than Joyce’s Ulysses (to be translated later by Szentkuthy himself), and it came on the heels of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time published less than two decades before. The Hungarian author could have been inspired by the renewal of the novel as demonstrated by his European contemporaries, yet his version of redefining epics, prose, and narration was different from the aforementioned writers. Easy to read and yet profound in its conclusions, Prae overflows with stories, ideas, and dialogues yet is strictly and masterfully composed, playing with the different layers of history, art, and culture, just as with various traditions of literature — despite appearing chaotic, it remains homogeneous as an entity. It is an early chef d’oeuvre while being “only” a draft for the “real” novel to be written afterwards – as indicated by the title Prae.

It is part of the ill fate of Hungarian literature rooted in the artistic and intellectual traditions of Central Europe that Szentkuthy’s novel remained substantially unabsorbed in its time, unappreciated, and sometimes ridiculed,  even if the best minds and the most sophisticated literary critics understood the magnitude of the undertaking and the importance of the originality of the novel. The lack of substantial coming to terms with Prae has a lot to do with the Magyar difficulties of collective identification, with the problems of national and literary self-consciousness, with the hopeless making up for lost historical time — and with many more factors that determined the fate of the novel and of its author in a country where literature was considered more than just one form of art. Szentkuthy fully understood the ambiguous critical responses, together with the basic indifference of the intellectuals, which was often emphasized by the sharp and often vitriolic criticism of colleagues, and even of friends. He had to realize that the traditions of the novel in Hungary would strongly resist his efforts to change the genre, that his renewal of the language, his method of composition, and the whole idea of the novel as redefined by him became more of an isolated episode than a new trend that others would observe and perhaps follow. It must have been a bitter pill to swallow, particularly for an ambitious and talented youngster who had sacrificed so much of his time and energy for the enormous undertaking. When Prae was published for the second time, nearly half a century later and finally appreciated by a larger audience (due in part to slight modification in the book’s composition, creating typographical metamorphoses in the text for easing its reception), it was already too late, both for the author and for the public, even if modern and postmodern novels were modeled on the “monstrous” masterpiece and were inspired both by the creation of Prae and by the understanding of its historic “failure”.

The promised and proposed future that was pr(a)e-pared by the young author had to take a different direction then, so in subsequent years Szentkuthy broke up his imagined greater composition of a novel into smaller pieces, as if to offer the audience, in a piecemeal fashion, the work that was too much to stomach in one go. The series of novels were composed as chapters for a larger body of text to be written consecutively, however obviously differing in their contextual meaning, as the larger opus was based on smaller segments created as autonomous entities. The vision of the author, together with his belief in the larger epic forms, took the shape of a Breviary belonging to the legendary St. Orpheus, unknown to the Catholic tradition yet clearly and exactly referring to the recreated identity of the author. Work on this project was interrupted for decades and was only completed by the older Szentkuthy.

The inspiration for writing The Breviary of St. Orpheus arrived again when travelling yet, strangely enough, it came from the direction of music and the visual arts, proving the complex and thorough sensitivity of the writer. It happened during a trip to Italy when Szentkuthy suddenly understood Greco’s technique of painting and his method of “compressing” visions, ideas, and narrative structure into one image, while the religious crisis expressed in the pictures culminated also in breaking with the conventions of his artistic contemporaries. The title was borrowed from Monteverdi’s Orfeo, for the composer was a hero of Szentkuthy’s novel and his famous musical piece was masterfully described in it. The protagonist Orpheus, the mythical poet and symbol of love and lyrics, did and could communicate with the whole world around him for he was both human and superhuman; he could even communicate with plants and animals, was loved by the gods, and could finally defeat death. The symbol of the artist later became a metaphorical image for Christ himself, as someone entering the underworld and returning from it, representing the “Good Pastor”, bringing His divine word as songs to this world. The beginning of the author’s name is identical with that of the title (Szentkuty: Szent Orfeusz) and indicates the autobiographical inspiration of the novel, the shaping and modifying this self-portrait, expressing also how the young writer was facing crucial issues of his life and of his time. However, both the composition and the poetic and rhetorical patterns were somewhat “domesticated” in this text as compared with Prae, for each segment included narrative histories and thoroughly described conflicts of different characters, building more upon the traditions of novel-writing than before. Episodes were unfolding based on a narrative structure, even if often on symbolic ones representing great saints and sinners, like the story of Casanova and of 17th- 18th-century Venice. The hagiography of different popes, the emphatic description of heretics and of inquisitors, determined the horizon of the novel, which was set mainly but not exclusively in history, seen from the contemporary world, and the author regularly and willfully (yet somewhat anachronistically) recalled many requisites and approaches of modern civilization.

History was not “only” the setting but also the context of the creation of the novel, and political events would soon interrupt Szentkuthy’s ambitious and outstanding undertaking for no less than 30 years. The flow of the segments of the projected novel first stops temporarily in 1942, then is postponed again and again, not to be continued until 1972. It is hard to imagine more active and more productive years for a writer than those of the three decades spent without the writing of the imagined opus magnum, which, however, he always kept in mind. The fatal interruption did not mean silence in any sense, “only” the suspension of the Breviary and a preference for different forms, as dictated by time and conditions. Szentkuthy started to write shorter epic pieces and composed studies and essays; later, translations were included in his oeuvre and when novels finally started to emerge again, they were more official commissions than self-conceived works. As is obvious from the years mentioned (1942-1972), history played the lead in determining the very conditions of writing, and sometimes even those of surviving. First Hungary’s pre-fascist cultural and spiritual context created unfavorable conditions for the young and radical writer who was even sued by the state prosecutor for defamation of religion and for pornography. Later the approaching war became devastating and hard to survive, while the Soviet liberation was utterly revealing and hardly less dangerous than the German occupationother. After some hopeful and productive years (1945-1948), the Stalinist dictatorship created unfavorable conditions for Szentkuthy, as the official cultural policy rejected the Weltanschauung and the style of the religious and bourgeois writer,  as a result of which his works were banned. When in 1949 the book Europa Minor was published, Szentkuthy clearly referred to a new stage in history that brought the openness of a cultural tradition to a bitter end. Szentkuthy’s character helped him not only to survive the most tormenting times but to keep his integrity, his intellect, his morality, and his sense of humor, not being tempted by any of the totalitarianisms or intoxicated by their ideologies, nor destroyed by them. He hardly touched directly upon current historical or political issues, but indirectly dealt with them in a critical fashion — an oblique reading of his novels reveals his ideas, experiences, and fears of the 20th century, with a great amount of criticism in an indirect manner and in a context that included metaphysics, theology, and the philosophy of history.

Besides his intellect and his character, an emotional shelter was also needed to survive the difficult years, and it was provided by his life-long love turned into a marriage at quite an early age. However, this bond “arranged in Heaven” did not exclude his constant need for new, inspiring, and controversial adventures on Earth, ranging from wonderful conquests  to the most vulgar services of prostitutes. It was a way of compensating for a fatally broken self-esteem – “another flower to the grave of the cross-eyed kid” as he reminisced about his many successful affairs once  –  yet there was the overwhelming drive  to both break the commandments as often as possible in order to repent and, thereby, to fight against the anti-sensual legacy of the beloved and betrayed Mother, defeating her maniacal shyness and chastity.

Miklós Szentkuthy, age 26, photographed in 1934, the year of the first publication of 'Prae'. Photo with kind permission of the Fondation Miklós Szentkuthy (c).

It is hard to know who was the real Szentkuthy: the devoted husband or the insatiable seducer. Probably both. The mask in general is an important part of the identity of the personality; paradoxically it may be even a synonym for it as the use of the borrowed “face” tells more of the person applying it than the features he is born with. The experience with identities was regularly developed into novels applying different protagonists, characters, and roles, yet Szentkuthy had to realize in the years to come that daily life must also be lived in different masks. A mask was needed to hide those features of his very self that were rejected by the more and more intolerant authorities that directly and indirectly attempted and partly infiltrated his life and even his works. However, with Szentkuthy’s intellect and unlimited free spirit, the attempts to control him regularly failed as he was happily using different incognitos and roles, while keeping deeply hidden what was behind the masks. These secrets were carefully registered and kept in a “giant-diary” as he liked to call it, hundreds of thousands of pages of the most authentic chronicle from his early age until almost to his death. It included significant entries for each day, obviously touching upon the most personal and the most abstract issues, being both extremely vulgar and extremely subtle, as well as ideas and recollections of people and events he came across, likely matching the same high artistic level and aesthetic quality as the rest of his work. Even if it will not be revealed still for many years to come, it is an important part, if not the most important one of the author’s oeuvre. Szentkuthy suggested in an interview that his whole oeuvre could be defined, described, and interpreted as a “giant-diary”, modeled on the textual corpus of Saint-Simon and of Montaigne. Stories, novels, studies, essays, etc. may turn out to have a wholly different meaning once read in the  larger context. It is easy to imagine then that once the diaries will be opened – this will occur for the first time in 2013 – readers will have to reinterpret all of Szentkuthy’s writings in a radically new way. Surprises, and even revelations, of literary history are to be expected in the years to come.

The diary’s ultimate frankness and uncontrolled sincerity probably assisted Szentkuthy greatly in accepting the sometimes strange roles he was offered, as he could be sure that his integrity remained untouched due to the psychological process of writing the diary day to day (recalling also the situation of confession). This helped him maintain his ardent belief that once new generations would come they would be able to reveal and to wholly understand what happened to him and to his writings. His focus on the next generations could well have been the conclusion of his praxis and devotion as a teacher, both a mask to wear for leading a “bourgeois” life (once he could not live from his writings), and also a happily accepted duty he spent many years of his life with. “Fityó”, as he was nicknamed by his students (importantly enough making fun of his family name Pfisterer [pronounced Fisterer] and not on the writer’s chosen identity), was a legendary teacher, a charismatic personality and an often capricious man to work with, a “larger than life” figure not only in virtue of his tall figure, but more importantly, in virtue of his enormous intellectual capacity and rhetorical skills, which seemed to be wasted on a world of undisciplined adolescents. Yet he could, on occasion, save important moments to be able to write, which might happen in a pub close to the school, in his studio, or in the lovers’ rescues.

Many years later Szentkuthy characterized his literary output of the difficult post-war years as a “self-portrait in masks” and a paradoxical way of expressing the unchangeable features of the personality in the process of permanent metamorphoses. Though the definition refers to novels written in a different tone from his early masterpiece, the created identities clearly reflect his outlook. Szentkuthy’s “voice” can also be clearly identified in those literary works he was translating, partly as a way of making a living and also of being present in the literary life, through masterpieces that were also windows to a continent that was not always “closed off”. Swift, Dickens, Twain, Joyce, and many other – mainly Anglo-Saxon – authors were interpreted by Szentkuthy in those years when his own works were not allowed into print. Translation however was never an “applied art” for him, but another creative way of playing with identities. The challenges for the translator were often enormous, like in translating Ulysses many years later, which practically became a form of co-authorship with the great Irish writer, whose novel was obviously untranslatable word by word. Thus, an emphatic and creative re-writing was needed to give back to Hungarian the sense of the radically new prose born close to Szentkuthy’s early masterpiece.

 Yet there is another mask that changed and influenced the writer’s and translator’s creativity: that of the essays and studies, sometimes inseparable from the fiction-writer’s work and often reflecting the translator’s challenges. Szentkuthy sometimes experimented with different ideas; in other cases he was commenting on and analyzing works of art, whether they be visual, musical, or literary. Starting already at a young age (for example composing an original and thought-provoking thesis on Ben Johnson after graduation), Szentkuthy wrote landmark studies throughout his life, dealing with contemporary issues “masked” as works of art, with trends and traditions to come to terms with, being very concrete and yet framing the argumentation by philosophy, theology, and/or the social sciences. Szentkuthy’s remarkable intellectual capacity, together with the drive to read as much as possible of contemporary literature, of art, of history, of philosophy, of theology and of different sciences resulted in a series of masterfully composed and passionately written theoretical treatises. All these reflect the style and eloquence of a writer, yet with the metaphysical depth of a great thinker. Accidental ideas and editorial assignments together with research conducted and summarized for his novels revealed the intellectual capacity of a writer, in the archaic sense of the word, for whom a real Catalogus rerum was the focus, behind the varying phenomena of existence.

Facing all challenges and temptations of his time, the writer’s drive was the strongest in Szentkuthy’s life, as the short segments that have since become available from the “giant-diary” suggest. His whole life was serving “only” the writer’s needs and passions, while experiences and influences supported “only” the forming of the artist’s identity. The hundreds of thousands of pages may reveal that the entire chronicle of a long and rich life was nothing else but raw material for the author. This became visible when the historical pressure somewhat eased following the 1956 revolution, when finally Stalinism was over and over time the terror became somewhat milder. At least one of the masks could have been removed then, so professor “Fityó” could ask for retirement. At the age of 50, while still full of energy and of accumulated strength to continue his authorship, Szentkuthy could finally dedicate all his capacity and time to further develop and to conclude all that he had started 25 years ago, hoping with good reasons that the different detours and literary role-playings might serve the author in him. The time hadn’t arrived yet to further compose the interrupted Breviary; however, in various ways the novels started to flow again. These books were auto-portraits also, in the forms of masks that finally could be published by the state-controlled publishing houses and thus it was possible to have some critical reactions and readers’ responses, which were important even for the most self-assured writer. The gigantic figures Szentkuthy would use as a template for his masks were mainly artists like Dürer, Haydn, Mozart, Goethe, Händel, and that turbulent ex-monk of the order of St. Augustine, Martin Luther. while popular and easy to read, these texts contained many elements of the artistic achievements of Szentkuthy’s novels produced by that time, all of which took the form of the so-called “artist biography”, and also paved the way for the genius’ final masterpieces, which concluded his authorship in the 1970s.

When the author was well over sixty, the artistic tolerance that partially characterized Hungary’s “soft dictatorship” opened the way for Szentkuthy not only to rejuvenate his creativity, but finally to throw away the masks he was forced to wear. While there remained enough of what he willfully created, the literary tradition he once established also became visible through a new generation of writers who were indirectly influenced by him through his Hungarian translations and publications of novels that broke with the novel-writing traditions the same way he had many years ago. Time thus “opened up” and the young Szentkuthy’s works were published, read, and discussed together with the texts of the old one, who could finally turn back to his most important and most ambitious project, the Breviary of St. Orpheus, no longer with any restrictions, and with no concerns blocking his inspiration or the very process of creation. His imagination, his sense of composition, the expressivity of his language and immense erudition remained the same as before, as it became obvious when one novel after the other was written, presenting the author’s all-encompassing vision of the world as he had found it and as he left it. Virtuosity and discipline, incorporation of contemporary novel-writing techniques and the polemical relationship with the conventions of prose shaped the masterfully written books that finally found their way to timely publication and provoked vivid and appreciative responses from readers, critics, and colleagues.

The time of “harvesting” thus overlapped with the rediscovery of the early phase of Szentkuthy’s authorship in which the “torso” of the greatest Hungarian modern novel – Prae – reemerged from the depths of the literary-historical memory and confronted the representatives of the renewal of novel-writing traditions with a glimpse of the opportunities that had been missed in Hungarian literature many decades ago. This was also the time when Szentkuthy’s presence and authority was of major importance for literary historians, writers, and intellectuals, thus interviews and radio and television programs regularly featured him, often  themselves resulting in books — since the author’s eloquence resulted in texts that were, though improvised, nonetheless ready to go to print. The later series of his books, when viewed as part of the collected works, clearly showed the magnitude of Szentkuthy’s oeuvre. At the same time, it shows the enormous potential which had emerged in Prae, yet which was not further developed the way it could have been.

However this may not be the last word. Szentkuthy’s masks will not be wholly removed until the giant diary is opened this year and we are confronted with the personality’s naked face. Or, we may be involved in another masquerade – could it be an eternal one in which life and death no longer matter, and to which Szentkuthy invites us along as participants?


Born in 1956, András Nagy studied humanities at the Eötvös Loránd University (ELTE) in Budapest, where he later became a research assistant at the University, obtaining a university doctorate on Kierkegaard, based on a research project in collaboration with the Hungarian Academy of Science. He subsequently started the Kierkegaard Cabinet, an independent research centre hosted at ELTE.  His first volume of fiction was pulished while still a student, and has since been followed by several books, including essays and scholarly contributions. He has also worked as a scriptwriter for film and theatre productions. In 1998, he was elected President of the Hungarian Centre of the International Theatre Institute (ITI); later, from 2004 until 2010, he was the Director of the Hungarian Theater Museum and Institute. He currently teaches as an Associate Professor in the Theatre Studies Department at the University of Veszprém, and lives in Leányfalu (near Budapest), with his wife and children.

(c) 2013 by The Berlin Review of Books.



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