Text: Maurice Levy, “Poe in Hungary,” Poe Studies, June 1974, Vol. VII, No. 1, 7:25-27


[page 25, column 2, continued:]


Poe in Hungary

Andre Karatson. Edgar Allan Poe et le groupe des ecrivains des “Nyugat” en Hongrie. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1971. 187 pp. $7.75 approx.

This is not so much a book on Poe as on the way in which he was received and rehabilitated in Hungary by the contributors of the Nyugat review (Nyugat meaning Occident). Quoting Mario Praz’ phrase that Poe was a “genio d’esportazione,” Karatson claims that Poe had a decisive influence on Hungarian poetry during the first decades of this century. Those who, during that period, stood in favour of literary quality and social progress, considered him as one of their ancestors and inspirers. The author’s demonseration is based on the study of a group of poets, critics and writers whose contributions to the Nyugat review seem to have been a determining factor in the evolution of Hungarian literature from 1908 to 1941.

The first part of the book is, as far as can be ascertained, an exhaustive review of critical comments on Poe in Hungarian literary circles, even prior to the publication of the Nyugat. Whereas Poe was considered with contempt by those who belonged to the “Deak party in literature,” for whom art was the idealized representation of reality, the “new critics” examined his poetry in a much more favorable light. Zoltan Ferenczi, Janos Vajda, Gyula Reviczky, Jeno Komjathy, Artur Elek and many others voiced their sympathy for a man who had been grossly misrepresented by some of his biographers and saw in him a kindred spirit, at least a “poete maudit” on whom they projected some of their own problems. What did it matter if Poe had led such a disorderly life? After all, a genuine poet should give up all claims to material safety and stability. Emile Lauvriere’s medical approach did not satisfy them: for Artur Elek, there is no clearly traced limit between normality and pathology, between illness and health. Furthermore, healthy people cannot dream. Only those who have the courage to live intensely, if abnormally, can [page 26:] produce works of art.

From a more political — at least cultural — point of view, Poe was the living symbol of occidental values which the writers of the Nyugat thought so much of: “il representait, independamment des qualites propres de l’ocuvre, une des incarnations de l’ideal de civilisation et de culture auquel l’esprit hongrois, sous peine de sombrer dans la sterilite, devait sans retard se conformer.” Karatson’s central argument is that Poe was used by the contributors of the Nyugat to develop their own ideas on art and life and promote a new interest in the Western world among their readers. Even Poe’s anguish and pathological obsession with death was presented in a sympathetic way, as an essential component of his artistic vision:

Seul un genie et un cardisque peuvent exprimer la peur inherente a la vie d’une maniere aussi authentique que Poe l’a exprimee, vue et vecue. Personne n’a possede a tel point l’art d’avoir peur. Comparees a lui, les angoisses celebres de la litterature mondiale ne vent que des enfants qui jouent. Maupassant fait des coquetteries a la terreur; Baudelaire la fixe avec fureur: Hoffman la terrasse. Mais Poe croft en elle et, a sa vue, grelottant et pleurant, il se cache le visage. Il a peur comme une jeune fillet Les battements brnyants et defaillants de son cocur executent le chant des changements houleux qu’il ecoute, pale et pantelant. Nevermore. . . .

In the second part of his book, Karatson discusses the various translations of The Raven made by Hungarian poets during that period. The main issue at stake among the contributors of the Nyugat was, whether the poetical devices used by Poe could be reproduced in a foreign language. While Dezso Koszeolanyi pleaded in favor of what he called “creative unfaithfulness” and defended the idea that literalness should be discarded to the benefit of the natural beauty of language and the reconstruction of an atmosphere, Artur Elek declared himself against arbitrary adaptations. In the light of this theoretical conflict, the author first examines the translations made by Karoly Szasz, Jozsef Levay, Zoltan Ferenczi and Arpad Pasztor, which he finds not very satisfactory because of their lack of preciseness and poetical rhythm. Then he compares the translations made by Deszo Kosztolanyi, Arpad Toth and Mihaly Babits, which are far more artistic, precise and suggestive. Even though none of them is quite faithful, they at least are beautiful Hungarian poems, the best of the three being that of Toth.

In a third part, Karatson traces the influence of Poe (who had become extremely popular in Hungary) on a number of Hungarian poets, like Vajda, Revicaky, Komjathy, whose poems offer occasional Poesque reminiscences. But those on whom Poe was most influential were Ady, Babits, Elek Turesanyi and Jeno Dsida. Through a number of convincing examples, Karatson clearly shows the debt of those four poets to Poe. Prose-writers, too, at a time when materialism was counterbalanced by serious efforts made to explore the obscure regions of the human psyche saw in Poe an obvious model:

Peut-on etre authentiquement ecrivan et artiste sans restituer les fantomes de sa propre ame? Reconnais-tu comme ecrivain et comme artiste celui qui, refusant de faire surgir de nouveaux per. sonnages des frissons et des profondeurs obscures de son ame, se contente de reproduire les poncifs du monde avec une certaine habilete de style? Nous avons besoin d’etre habites par le diable! [column 2:]

These words, uttered by a character in a tale by Viktor Cholnoky, are representative of the spirit of the age. Ghosts, haunted castles and dungeons, animated pictures and shadowy towers are to be found everywhere in the tales of Cholnoky, Elek and Babits. The “double” theme is treated by Kosztolanyi, Turesanyi, Jeno Heltai, and Tibor Dery in a very interesting manner. And Turesanyi, in “Halott Valdemar lelke,” dealt successfully with the Poesque theme of life in death and death in life. But however gruesome and disquieting these stories may be, Karatson adequately remarks that they are different from those written by Poe, because they paradoxically illustrate the Hungarian writers’ urge for life and vitality:

Tandis que Poe avait eprouve une attirance vertigineuse a I’egard de la mort et d’une hypothetique existence d’outre-tombe, ses heritiers hongrois moins exclusivement idealistes et plus sensibles aux bienfaits de la matiere, portaient dans leur coeur une immense nostalgic de la vie.

This leads Karatson to conclude with a general appreciation of those writers who, though they did much towards Poe’s rehabilitation, utilized him to their own ends, and projected on him their own views on art. Karatson’s scholarly book is well-informed, interesting, and clear; it sheds an exhaustive light on a field which had apparently remained unexplored to this day. It will obviously be useful to those who try to assess Poe’s influence in Europe.

Maurice Levy, Universite de Toulouse


Associated Article(s) and Related Material:

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[S:0 - PS, 1974]