- Paperback: 426 pages
- Publisher: Oxford University Press; 1 edition (October 24, 1996)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1858660645
- ISBN-13: 978-1858660646
- Product Dimensions: 5.4 x 0.8 x 8.4 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
- Average Customer Review: 11 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #15,194,568 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Memoir of Hungary, 1944-48 1st Edition
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"A chronicle of political, social, and also spiritual change in the capital as the Communist Party tightened its grip on all phases of life ... the forced propinquity of the tall, elegant Middle European who spent his free time absorbed in Spengler's Decline of the West with Russian, Kirghiz, and Buryat peasant boys was an eye-opener to both sides." --Review 1 --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
Text: English (translation)
Original Language: Hungarian --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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The title of this book is somewhat unfortunate, given that it suggests a relatively narrow scope, limited to five years of the author's life in Hungary. While those five years indeed provide the ostensible framework for the book, they serve more as a platform for Marai's thoughts on some of the BIG themes and issues of the 20th Century, including the sterility and moral bankruptcy of Soviet Russia and communism, the threat posed to individuality by modern political and economic forces, death, and the civilizing and cultural value of the bourgeoisie.
MEMOIR OF HUNGARY is not uniformly superb. More than a couple of Marai's observations, especially in the first half of the book, strike me as silly or overly-stretched. Perhaps this is in part the fault of the translation (J.M. Coetzee, in a 2001 article on Marai published in "The New York Review of Books" characterized this translation, by Albert Tezla, as "poor"). Too often Marai seems to abandon logical or analytical precision in favor of stylistic effects, acerbic wit, and irony. He also exhibits a certain ruefulness or enlightened fatalism that at times comes close to cynicism; it is almost as if Marai is bound and determined NOT to be caught entertaining even a shred of hope or optimism. It all makes for a certain (Hungarian?) Weltanschauung. Still, MEMOIR OF HUNGARY is a deep font of ideas, many original as well as profound and incisive; it is extraordinarily humane; and, regardless of the merits of the translation, it is (with only occasional lapses) superbly written. Both the quality of Marai's writing and his intellectual perspicacity strike me as a sort of hybrid of Thomas Mann and Joseph Roth. In sum, despite its flaws, it is one of the best books I have read.
Because otherwise I could never do justice to the nature of Marai's thought and writing, I will quote two brief passages as exemplars:
* "[Humanism] was Europe's great gift to mankind's domain. * * * What is 'humanism'? The measure of man. It holds that the individual is the measure of all things. * * * The human attitude which does not hope for a supernatural reply to the problem of death and does not expect solutions to human problems from superhuman powers: a two-legged mammal abandoned and shaped by blind, accidental will in an indifferent and hostile universe, man is the only living creature who can find his way in the world independently of his instincts."
* "[Communists] appropriated private property, and since Communism regards individuality as private property, they one day set about appropriating individuality as well. * * * Ultimately the Nazis contented themselves * * * with the physical annihilation of their victims. The Communists wanted something more and different: they demanded that their victims remain alive and celebrate the system that destroys human sensibility and self-esteem in its victims."
Now, if only Marai's diaries were to be translated into English (inasmuch as I suspect the time allotted to me is not enough to learn Hungarian).
Finally, I should mention that there is a fine introduction by the translator Albert Tezla as well as helpful endnotes, and I wish to compliment the publisher, Central European University Press, for the very sturdy yet functional paperback binding.
What happened during those four years? In brief: the final tergiversations and collapse of Horthy's Regency government; its replacement by a desperate Nazi-backed Arrow Cross regime which was determined to go down in flames and take as many victims as it could with it in a final Wagnerian gesture of hatred; an uneasy period of "liberation" by the Soviet army (where liberation equaled successful military operations against the Germans plus looting and other depredations); the machinations of political parties and leaders who were making their moves in a shrinking circle of authority and responsibility, since all knew or suspected that their fate would be decided in Moscow; the return of exiled Communist factotums who had been winnowed and educated by Stalin's system in its period of purges, men who lived in fear and ruled by fear; the springing up of fellow-travelers and shape-shifters of every description, each fleeing guilt while feathering his own nest; the period of land-redistribution followed by nationalizations of industry and commerce, then the creation of collective farms; the debasements of the period of currency hyperinflation; and, what breaks the author's heart the most, the "treason of the clerks" (that portion of the middle class and its literary and artistic spokesmen who abandoned their humanistic ideals and threw themselves into collaboration with the new, all-powerful Party apparatus).
For Marai personally this was a period when he began to take serious stock of his career hitherto as a successful bourgeois author and came to the sad conclusion that both he and his work might have been nothing but caricatures of a dying way of life. And, in 1947-48, it is a time when he turns this reckoning, along with his truly depressing picture of Hungary's total spiritual compromise and abasement under both its previous and its new systems of rule, into a decision to leave his homeland forever.
In his judgments of failure of intellect and behavior, he is as hard on the Hungarian and the broader European middle class as he is on the Communists. After a year or so when he feels he must commit himself to a "neutral" evaluation of the Red Army and its political masters, he comes to truly detest Communism. He hates it for the anti-humanism of its official philosophy (which he characterizes as an outdated and culturally dead and deadening theory which might have been appropriate in Marx's day but was irrelevant to the problems Europe faced in 1945). He hates it for the phoniness of its leaders' attempts to convince his countrymen that they are "building socialism" while in fact they are knowingly establishing a Russian colonial satrapy which will prove to be as indifferent to the needs of workers and farmers as it is to the death of the middle class and the old Hungarian aristocracy - both the real one and the faux-aristocracy of the Regency. And he hates it because he sees its leadership and middle-men as untrained, incompetent bunglers and looters whose real purpose is mere political survival at any cost. Marai does not regret the fate of the old land-owning class, whom he feels was as indifferent to the hardships of life of the vast majority of his countrymen as the new masters will prove to be. But the decay and destruction of the middle class truly disturbs him, since he believes that the educated, politically liberal bourgeoisie was the only group which had a chance of representing cultural humanism and political democracy in a way that might have withstood fascism and communism. More painfully, he acknowledges that this decay and destruction was brought on by a lack of vigilance and vigor by the middle class itself, which was losing confidence in the older accepted rationales for its existence and way of life. He indicts this middle class for sacrificing its principles on the altars of political expediency and self-interest.
All of this leads him to a period in which his own mind moves slowly and inexorably toward the decision to break with his past and his country. Most disturbing to him is the notion that if he stays - whether as a practitioner of "internal emigration" or as an occasional "fellow traveler" and regime booster who will be allowed to publish his work in return for such compromises - he will lose his "Self", because it is the capture of the core of his identity that is the objective of the new system. He is more afraid of that system's intolerance of the silence of a member of the intelligentsia than he is of its crass desire to manipulate writers and other artists into the practices of "socialist realism". He has to leave in order to save his relationship with his own language and to protect that Self. (His reflections on this give rise to the title of my review.)
But this memoir is more than a series of gloomy meditations on social and political affairs and trends. It is also a sort of love-letter to the beauties of the Hungarian language (which is Marai's declared "homeland") as they were developed over several generations by belletristic writers. There are recollections of the careers of his fellow writers and a portrait of the atmosphere of literary ferment and creativity that permeated the cafes, bars, and news-rooms of periodicals and daily papers for whom many of these writers worked in order to keep themselves alive while they also produced poetry, short-stories and novels for a loyal cohort of sophisticated readers. There are generous comments made about the many talented writers of his own generation and the two generations that preceded it. There is a paean to the minor Hungarian writers (the "second set") whom he feels were every bit as talented and worthy as the major and more successful ones (he spends his final year in locating and reading increasingly rare copies of the works of these minor writers, since he thinks they will become inaccessible to him after he goes into exile; this knowledge and experience is the only thing he wishes to take with him as he leaves his land and culture behind). And there is the recurring lament of the Hungarian writer who looks to world literature for both influence and approval: "We are alone with our unique language that is surrounded by a sea of powerful and mutually supporting Indo-European tongues that constitute this world-literature in Europe. Who will appreciate our efforts and take the time and trouble to learn the great beauties of own painfully created literary tradition and to see where it belongs in this broader sea of humanistic achievement?" (The foregoing is the reviewer's weak paraphrase of a longing expressed powerfully by Marai.)
The book opens with highly particular observations of the situation in Hungary in March of 1944, and it closes with more general ruminations about the psychological, ethical and cultural state of Europe in 1948. The author is pessimistic, but he will not yield an inch on the overarching importance of a humanistic culture which he feels may be moribund, but without which he sees Europe and the modern world as bereft of rational ideals and purpose. It might be better to read two or three of Marai's novels which are now available in good English translations before turning to this memoir - in this way the reader will be exposed to sophisticated and moving literary portrayals of the world whose loss he laments here. The Corvina Books Ltd. edition of the Memoirs has a brief, cogent Introduction by the translator, who has also compiled very informative end-notes on Hungarian personalities and events alluded to by Marais. This book is highly recommended to anyone who wishes to learn what this historical period looked and felt like "from the inside".