Kulturális Folyóirat


"In a second I get home into my hometown, Györ!"

(Maria Georg Hofmann: A. Galajda, the left-handed poet appears)

It is not the first time that the public life of literature in Hungary can be proud of a prominent writer who is not really well known. This is the case concerning Maria Georg Hofmann, too. Or, at least it was. The year of 1956 resulted in a great loss for Hungarian literature: a good number of its representatives went into exile. Some of them went on writing in Hungarian, others composed in the language of the nations that received them. Hofmann’s choice was the latter one: he did not want to be a Hungarian writer in exile, but a writer, and because his chosen country is Austria, therefore he is a writer in German. As such, he is definitely successful, primarily as a playwright. Of course, he can be regarded a Hungarian writer with good reason, since Hofmann has preserved his identity and mother tongue in his everyday life even at the age of seventy-three. In addition, his first — and as for now, only — novel of great significance, A. Galajda, the left-handed poet appears is completely Hungarian in its theme and content. More precisely, it is based in Györ. Beyond that, it is totally European by nature. Sometimes it is a bit post-monarchic. But all in all, it is quite simply great.

The reviewer is in a difficult position when meeting Galajda. It is an accepted and reliable start to search for parallels: comparing the author to other authors, the novel to other novels, comparing the style and the development to anything else that has already permeated the common knowledge for a long time. However, in Hofmann’s case it just cannot be realised. Certainly one can refer to Joyce’s monumental work, his novel form producing a well-constructed text based on associations, or one can allude to the radiating episodes blending fantasticality and the petrous reality of a dreamlike quality that relates Hofmann to the writers of South-America. Nevertheless, he is a particular author, his novel is a special work, his style, development and everything else is specific. The most particular is his point of view. The viewpoint of a child, through which the author makes us see the "adult" world of the nineteen-thirties and forties. This point of view, however, is not articulated by a child’s narration; the childhood experiences are rather reconstructed as a text by a grown up man. These experiences are sometimes comfortably realistic, at other times uncomfortably surrealistic. The inconsiderate morals of the pre Second World War bourgeoisie and middle-class groups raise continuously appearing and unanswered questions in the narrating child who rises above his milieu from the point of view of his intellect together with his needs and inclinations from the point of view of art.

One of the central questions of the novel is the problem of identity. However, in this case it is not the national identity that is in the focus but the sexual identity among many others. In addition, as the problem emerges, it is not articulated as an explicit question; it simply permeates the texture of the novel. Its first sign is that it cannot be really told whether the child-protagonist — who is also the narrator — is a boy or a girl. The child — especially in emotionally better charged moments — is addressed as Gyurka [Georgie] by the father who would like to regard the child his son, while the mother, Dolores and the aunts hunting for husbands bring the child up as a girl. The child goes to the Benedictine Secondary School where the admittance is granted only by the intervention of father Heckenast, a generous and kind-hearted monk and teacher. The child’s elder male cousin, Boris phrases this ambiguity in the most palpable way: "Angel:" — said he once, — masculine, feminine, neutral. The mixture of these cubed and in three dimensions: it is you, Dzsordzsó [Giorgio]." The flow of the novel is intersected now and again by anecdotes and deviations. The most memorable of these is the scene of sexual intercourse in a group that raises the problem of sexual identity again. In this scene, the nanoid artiste — who puts on stage Galajda’s plays — mates with his landlady, her son and an unnaturally oversized eel in the pool of a bath out of use. In its grotesque, exaggerated, and deeply psychoanalytic way, this act — uniting the sins of homosexuality, incest and sodomy — displays the deviance that is absolutely unacceptable for the bourgeoisie morality. However, in the presentation of the narrator (this time that of the artiste, Monsieur Bell) it seems to be so natural that it rather questions "normal sexuality." In the course of reading the novel the audience is about to accept and make their own the narrator’s special viewpoint that — though it does not make everything relative — shakes our theoretical attitude and prejudices concerning sexuality, anyway.

Among the circumstances of the rigidly conformist and indifferent bourgeoisie, an additional crisis of identity is expressed by the intellectual exile of the child-narrator, and by the artist—bourgeois opposition being disclosed in Galajda’s personality and somehow mapping the narrator’s later fate, too. The protagonist of the novel earns his living as a playwright in his adulthood, and the figure of Alexander Galajda reoccurs in his plays time and again. In Hofmann’s novel, the minor clerk of Polish origin — having married into the family and living in Györ and who uses every effort to create a drama-cycle of the Seven Leaders of the Hungarian Conquest in the benevolent silence of the night — simultaneously represents and makes ridiculous the subject of the classic dilemma. He displays an ironic relationship to the artist—bourgeois problem, and he suffers of that at the same time. The same artist-archetype and the same dilemma is presented by Hofmann in his play, Ghiccho és gyermekei [Ghiccho and his children], thus it seems to be the case that Hofmann is animated by and interested in the role of Galajda and the theme.

Hofmann’s style is extremely complex, as the whole structure of his novel is. His narrative virtuosity displays the most remarkable achievements of European realism, and it is unscrupulously and naturally mingled with absurdity and surrealism that juxtapose it. His irony does not only exploit the excitements owing to ambiguity: Hofmann’s irony is polyvalent, every interpretation can be turned into its own inversion. While he makes one of his figures an object of derision, one can feel that he also loves that figure, however, he turns towards this attitude of love with irony as well. He works through a series of linked transmissions, whether consciously or instinctively — it does not eventually matter. The audience has to be on the alert because it is not always evident what is put in inverted commas by the author, and therefore he can continuously exercise influence on the sensitive audience. Of course, Hofmann, as a man of erudition of classical music, cannot miss those situations either which are latent in turning musical expressions into prose. The composition of his texts is strikingly musical; one can become aware of analogies of musical forms or solutions in many cases: duets, tercets, the rondo-form, the rhapsody, and divertimento. There is polyphony — not in Bakhtin’s sense, but rather as it develops between the interlocutors (as if musical phrases) of the dialogues on the level of the structure of the dialogues.

The characters of the novel are also adjusted to the narrative method. One can find among them quite realistic figures (Boris), definitely pathological, deviant egos (Monsieur Bell), and implausibly over-caricatured figures like the almost operetta-character Bello Cio. The snobbish mother, Dolores, for whom — as if she were a Hungarian Madame Bovary — the inevitable life-situation is below her dignity being bound to a mechanic-technician (that is, a man of manual labour!), and for whom (together with her sisters hunting for "a good match") the highest aim is the complete conformation to the comme il faut of a small town. Gyurka [Georgie], the father being existentially and sexually frustrated many times, who compensates for his being totally suppressed within his family with sadistic acts. Gabili, the uncle, being slightly abnormal in his mental capacities, whose utmost desire is to become a Carmelite friar, and in whose personality the "holy=simplicity" equation is made comprehensible by shaded humour in the author’s presentation. These are all unique figures whose presence in contemporary literature makes the text filled with unprecedented liveliness and wit. However, the suffocating social context — being charged by prejudices, ready-made and unconsidered expectations, morality of doubtful value and underdeveloped intelligence — is imbued with the rigid relations of possession (regarded as the cornerstone of the bourgeoisie) that are represented not in the objective external world only, but that are also articulated in interpersonal relationships and the life of the family. Sexual relations also represent relations of possession: who has got a right and to what. The wife has got the right to the necessary external forms of social life and honourable renown; in contrast, the husband has got the right of command in the bedroom and to assert his needs and satisfaction to the full. The narrator suffering from being an outsider and lonely, however, finds his own models and — if you like — his partners of the same spirit. Be that either the Catholic Father Heckenast (who was actually the teacher of the Benedictine Secondary School that time), or Doctor Lóránd, the Jewish paediatrician of socialist inclination. These people, however, as so many representatives of some value, are swept away by the war in an unintelligible and cruel way.

In the second third of the novel, the contemporary social relations are further detailed. Because of the funeral of his grandfather, the narrator arrives in Budapest right in the middle of the war, and finds himself among the rather well-off relatives of his father, and towards the end of the war one can also witness the decline of the anachronistic remains of feudalism in the manor of Novákpuszta. The scene in Budapest sheds light on the fact that the upper layer of bourgeoisie was not healthier (at least in the eyes of a child) than the lower layer of bourgeoisie in Györ. In the same way, these men and women are the captives of the relations of possession, the simplified and stupid ideas of politics and ethics, and — naturally — of pathological sexuality. One of the most suggestive examples is Neumann Jenő (Eugene Neumann), the immensely rich industrialist, who — with his sexual power — tries and forces his wife of an impoverished noble family to help him enter the highest spheres of nobility, thus into the circle of Horthy, and whose most favourable hobby is to make his slave-like employees play football after dark during air-raid in an illuminated football field being accompanied by the zooming of the British bombers roaring above their heads. Still, the family’s cosmopolitan Neumann (Newman) branch is more attractive for Gyurika [Georgie] having already been a matured liberal at the age of nine. It is especially Boris, who plants the seeds of the attitude of a cosmopolitan in the child with his friendship and instructions. In the later years of the war when the family moves to Novákpusztára from Györ being threatened by air raids to find security, and when Gyurika’s [Georgie’s] father has to join the army, our protagonist has to provide for himself and his mother, thus becomes an adult overnight. What is more: a man. In Budapest, during the period spent under the magic spell of Boris, and in the manor’s context, the protagonist’s sexual orientation becomes determined, and even the traces of the female principle become removed from his personality. At the same time, the dream-like attitude of contemplation — rich in fantasy, tending to be surrealistic, and through which the narrator perceives the world — becomes consummate.

In addition, one can find the protagonist’s relationship interesting as for the above-mentioned figures owing to whom his intellectual liberation becomes complete. Galajda, who opens his eyes for the arts; Lörinc [Lawrence], the family’s disgraced member, who makes him see the theatrical quality appearing in everyday events; Father Heckenast, who plants ancient and Christian ideas in his heart; Doctor Lóránd, who liberates him politically and morally; and finally, Boris, who initiates him into adulthood. The shared quality in these characters is that their sexuality is somehow either put into parentheses or made relative by the narrator, in whose mind (heart) all of them become a part of a personal mythology, as if becoming independent from their own real personality, if they had such at all. They can also be viewed as the actors representing and personifying the different components of the personality and scale of values of a grown-up M.G.H. ("OR G.M.H. — NOT REALLY A QUESTION"). For Gyurika [Georgie], the child, these persons of the imagination or those of reality mean the same escape from an unintelligible and fool world as the realm of uncontrolled fantasy and the arts (classical music, graphic art): an intellectual and spiritual take-off from the world of pettiness and frustration.

However taken-off, or rather elevated a spirit the narrator is ("the child," Gyurika [Georgie], Dzsordzsó [Giorgio], Mario, and the same character with a great number names), however all his portions protest against the reality surrounding him, still he is the one that can digest the war in the most appropriate way, the war that is present in the novel as a threatening, subterranean flow of incandescent lava. The worrying anxieties, the tensions of families, the society, politics, ethnics and existence in the thirties, the madness enslaving people, life-situations shaping absurdity, all these point to one end at the depth of which a war is awaiting that is cruelly destructive and ever more insane. In addition, in a strange way, Gyurika [Georgie], the rejected and weak child — of dubious origin with an abstract way of thinking — who is regarded incapable of living and lacking values in every respect, is the one that finds a solution for the problems of the family. Can all this be taken as the author’s attitude according to which the demented danse macabre of the world war can only be overcome by a chiselled intellect, openness, the arts, the freedom of thought, perseverance, and courage, these European and humanist ideas of ancient origin?

By the end of the novel, we can come to the conclusion that Galajda is presumably a great work of art. However, the relationship of the Hungarian readers to the novel is so particular from an emotional point of view that Galajda is taken for a foreign novel, and in a small and linguistically-culturally isolated country as ours, it is gratifying for us to read about our own country in a recognised work of European literature. Especially, if a reader lives in Györ, because Györ has not become the topic of such an accurate and tangible work of literature yet. The novel can also be read as a Baedecker of the thirties decorated with colourful and telling anecdotes. The primary scene of the novel, the centre of Györ has not changed much for almost seventy years; all its streets, squares, churches and corners can be recognised. This familiarity that has become the literary texture of the work and that has become alienated to some extent teaches the audience how to look at the city as an almost exotic place that is more interesting than a place where one lives day after day. The descriptions of the city with an almost cartographic accuracy (Duna-híd [Danube Bridge], Radó-sziget [Radó Island], Széchenyi tér [Széchenyi Square] and its neighbourhood, Teleki utca [Teleki Street], etc.), the representation of old shops (as the Salzer-kereskedés [Salzer Shop]), families, emblematic figures (like Father Heckenast) are not only the achievements of a writer, but also those of a man, for Hofmann has not been to his native city since his emigration in 1956. He has not — till now. As the guest of the Könyvszalon [Book Saloon] of Györ in 2006, after fifty years, he came home to visit us. Beyond the inevitability of a personal fate, this gesture has a symbolic significance, too: this excellent author can now — meritoriously — enter into the common knowledge of Hungarian literature, and we learn to look at him as our own both as a playwright and as a novelist.

(Európa Könyvkiadó, 2006)

Falvai Mátyás (Translation: Tóta Péter)