On the night of the first of May in 1900 Mihály Munkácsy, the Hungarian painter, died in a private sanatorium in Germany. He was buried in Budapest nine days later. His funeral—like that of Victor Hugo in Paris fifteen years before, on another day in May—was not to be the obsequies of a dead man. It was to be the celebration of an immortal. The nineteenth century was to enter into history with the man who had echoed its enthusiasms and its passions.
The catafalque rose on Heroes’ Square in Budapest (Victor Hugo’s body had lain in state under the Arc de Triomphe), before the six Corinthian columns and the neoclassical peristyle of the Hall of Arts. The sarcophagus of Munkácsy rested on top of a catafalque, forty-five feet high. The sarcophagus was designed, and completed in haste, by a well-known Hungarian sculptor, assisted by his students; the catafalque by a famous Hungarian architect, an apostle of Magyar modernism.
This was odd because, except for a large bas-relief of a prancing stag in front, there was nothing either very Magyar or very modern in these designs. The sarcophagus was white, the catafalque velvet-black. Two enormous masts, draped with black flags, were crowned by white-painted laurel wreaths. There was a double row of topiary standards, with their black-green leaves. Amid these cascades of blackness another large white bas-relief in the lower center of the bier stood out, with Munkácsy’s profile in a gilded frame. Four bronze torches flamed and smoked around the catafalque. It was a cool, windy day in May.
There was one element of an asymmetrical and Hungarian panache above this monumental funereal mise-en-scene: a huge black veil, draped on one side from the attic peak of the Hall of Arts, sweeping down in a half-circle. It suggested something like a great national actress in the act of mourning.
There was the national government and the municipality of Budapest: ministers, the mayor, black-coated, top-hatted. There were bishops, hussars, four heralds in costumes copied from one of D’rer’s funeral paintings, three riders holding tall silver staves with black lanterns affixed to them. Incense and myrrh wafted away in the breeze. At half past three the funeral procession began to move: the hearse (decorated, too, in medieval style, by Hungarian painters) drawn by six black-blanketed, silver-caparisoned horses, and eight carriages packed high with wreaths.
The noise of the city died down. On the Pest side of the Danube the trolley cars had stopped. Black flags flew. The procession wended westward, on to the broad expanse of Andrássy Avenue. At that moment the sounds of the loud clip-clopping of the horses were softened, because Andrássy Avenue was paved with hardwood blocks. The Minister of Culture and Religion had ordered the schools closed for the day; the students were commanded to line the streets along the funeral route. The great procession flowed down that avenue, the pride of Pest, past the villas and the wrought-iron railings of the new rich, the consulates of the Great Powers, the May greenery and the young horse chestnuts.
At Octagon Square, a mile down Andrássy Avenue, a trumpeter halted the march, to direct the procession to turn leftward to the Ring. The bishops and the ministers stepped into their carriages. In front of the terraces of the coffeehouses gypsy bands played Munkácsy’s favorite Hungarian songs. Stiff in black stood the Carpenters’ and the Housepainters’ Guild, and the choral society of a factory sent the bass of their threnody up the afternoon sky. There was a moment of disturbance: the chorus of the School of Blind Children was told to step forward to sing, but the mounted policeman in front had not been alerted, he rode into their frightened ranks to push them back. But there was no other commotion, save for the fear of some people that the narrow ornamental balconies of the newly built monumental apartment houses might crumble under the weight of the assembled spectators. On the second-story balcony of No. 44 Elizabeth Ring stood a small white-bearded figure, the grand old man of Hungarian literature, Mór Jókai. He lifted his hat as the procession passed under him. Women curtsied; there were women who knelt. A mile down the Ring, then another turn, on to Rákóczi Avenue, toward the city cemetery. By that time the crowd was dispersing in the violet twilight.
The lights were coming on along the boulevards of Budapest. In their shadows the vinous nocturnal energy of the city sprang to life, with its raucous, vinegary sounds filling the gaps of the night air. There was the sense of an odd holiday just past, of a mourning after. Again there was a curious parallel with that day in Paris fifteen years before, when the British Ambassador wrote to Queen Victoria that “there was nothing striking, splendid or appropriate either in the monstrous catafalque erected under the Arc de Triomphe, or in the trappings of the funeral. There was nothing mournful or solemn in the demeanour of the people. . . .”
This was the second time in six years that such a giant funeral took place in Budapest. In March 1894 the body of the great exile, the national leader Lajos Kossuth, had been brought home. Kossuth and Munkácsy had been the two most famous Hungarians known abroad. Hungarians knew that. It was one of the reasons, perhaps the main reason, for Munkácsy’s apotheosis: the honor Hungary gained through his reputation in the world.
His path was the path of a comet. He was born in 1844, of German-Hungarian parents, in a dusty, backward town in northeastern Hungary: Munkácsy. Like many other people in his time, he would Magyarize his name—in his case, with an aristocratic flourish, appending the nobilitarian y at the end—from Lieb to Munkácsy. His early life was sad. His parents died. The orphan became a carpenter’s apprentice in the home of a relative. He was a poor, thin wisp of a boy, racked by illnesses. During his adolescence he showed a talent for drawing. A sympathetic painter took him as a companion to the provincial town of Arad. From there he went up to Pest, and then to Vienna (where he failed to enroll in the Academy of Fine Arts—whether because of lack of tuition money or want of accomplishment we do not know) and back to Pest and then to Munich and Dosseldorf, where he made some kind of living from sketching but failed to make an impression either on his Hungarian painter companions or on his occasional German teachers. Then came the turning point. In 1868 he painted a large canvas, Siralomház (“The Last Night of a Condemned Prisoner”). It is a dark and exotic painting, exotic in its theme rather than in its execution: a Hungarian brigand, in peasant dress, sits and leans against a table, surrounded by shadowy figures in anxious grief. The background is dark, the brushstrokes strong, naturalistic, showing considerable talent in composition and in the art of contrast; the style is reminiscent of Courbet. It was an instant success. One of the earliest American private collectors, the Philadelphia merchant William P. Wilstach, bought it for 2,000 gold thalers. Munkácsy was not yet twenty-six years old.
In 1870 this painting was shown in the Paris Salon. It earned the Gold Medal and celebrity for its painter. Munkácsy moved to Paris. He married the widow of a baron. Mme. Munkácsy had social ambitions. They had a palace built on the Avenue Villiers. Cabinet ministers, artists, ambassadors, Russian dukes and the King of Sweden attended their dinners. Munkácsy was handsome. He had dark eyes, a beautifully kept beard, there was a suggestion of an elegant bohemian in the lavallière cravat that he habitually wore. “Dieu, qu’il est beau,” a Parisian woman said. He chose a mistress, the wife of a Parisian painter. A powerful art dealer from Munich, Sedlmayer, became his agent—more, his factotum. He kept telling Munkácsy what to paint. Munkácsy’s paintings were sold for very large sums, more than sixty of them to rich Americans who had begun to collect art. They included Cornelius and William Vanderbilt, Jay Gould, William Astor, August Belmont, the financial genius Edward T. Stotesbury of Philadelphia, General Russell Alger the Governor of Michigan, Joseph Pulitzer the newspaper magnate (who was born in Hungary), Delmonico the New York restaurateur. His most successful enterprise was the large painting “Christ Before Pilate,” a subject that Sedlmayer had suggested. It was bought by the “Merchant Prince,” the rising department store magnate John Wanamaker from Philadelphia, for $150,000, the equivalent of nearly $2 million one hundred years later. It is still exhibited every Easter in Wanamaker’s department store.* Before it was shipped to Philadelphia Sedlmayer showed “Christ Before Pilate” on a European tour, for three years. At the time (1881-84) there were people, including critics, who wrote that Munkácsy was the greatest living artist, the creator of the greatest modern work of art in the world, the peer of Michelangelo and Rembrandt. We know this from a folio volume that Sedlmayer had printed and that included reviews of Munkácsy, who had become so famous that a letter by an American admirer, addressed to “Munkácsy, Europe,” was delivered to him in Paris. In 1886 Sedlmayer arranged for a triumphal tour in the United States. More of Munkácsy’s paintings were sold (including a sequel to “Christ Before Pilate” to Wanamaker). President Cleveland received Munkácsy in the White House, the Secretary of the Navy gave a dinner in Washington and Delmonico a festive banquet in New York. A “Hungarian” gypsy band played a “Munkácsy March” on the New York pier when he boarded the liner La Champagne for France.”
His success reverberated in his native country, to which he remained loyal throughout his life. He funded a modest purse for young Hungarian painters for their study in Paris. When “Christ Before Pilate” was shown in Pest there were 80,000 paying visitors; the chairman of the committee was Bishop Arnold Ipolyi, the most learned Hungarian prince of the church at the time. Around 1890 the Hungarian government commissioned Munkácsy to paint a monumental canvas for the new Parliament building, Honfoglalás (“The Conquest of Hungary”). Árpád, the founder, prime prince of the Hungarian tribes, sits erect on his white stallion, receiving the homage of the inhabitants of the Hungarian hills and plain. It is well beneath the standards of Munkácsy’s best work. But he was already a sick man. A disease, latent from his youth, probably syphilis, had affected his body and his brain. Few people in Hungary knew that. He was a national hero; a national treasure; the most famous son of Hungary in the world.
A comet: or, rather, a meteor. People speak of a meteoric rise when, in reality, a meteor is marked by its fall. That was the case with poor Munkácsy. He was a self-made painter, an artist of remarkable gifts, with a considerable talent for depth and contrast; but perhaps his best paintings are those surviving ones that are the least known—a few summer landscapes and a few portraits. There was a duality in his talent and, perhaps, in his entire personality. He could be profound, yet he was habitually superficial. He was obsessed with technique, yet he worked very fast. His masters, besides Rembrandt, were the late-Renaissance painters; yet he seldom visited Italy, and never traveled beyond Florence. He was a Francophile who never learned to speak or write French well. We may now see that his canvases—their subjects as well as their execution—are period pieces. At his best he could approximate the standards of Courbet, perhaps of Millet. But the Munkácsy meteor lit up the Parisian sky only briefly, and at the very time—in the 1870s—when the new generation of the Impressionists left the Salon well behind. Munkácsy execrated them. Before his death he wrote his wife that what he would really like was to start an academy “to do away with the exaggerations of the Impressionists.” Long before that the French critics turned away from Munkácsy. Dumas fils, who liked him personally, said to his Hungarian friend Zsigmond Justh: “Munkácsy is an inflated reputation who has both profited from his wife and been damaged by her.” Huysmans looked at “Christ Before Pilate” and wrote that Munkácsy had a taste for nothing but decor: “le rastaquouère de la peinture,” a dubious adventurer. Others called his house a “palais de poncif,” a palace of a hack. Two years before Munkácsy’s death the contents of the house on the Avenue Villiers were auctioned off: the gobelins, china, Persian rugs, antique guns, and some of his paintings went for almost nothing. A later generation was to find that the very material of his paintings was deteriorating. Munkácsy habitually used a black bitumen ground for his large canvases. This tended to fade his colors with the passing of time.
The pomp and the circumstance of Munkácsy’s state funeral obscured all of this; and in the grandiloquence of the Budapest newspapers in May 1900 there was no trace of a reflective tone. But it must not be thought that the recognition of Munkácsy’s limitations was the particular reaction of Parisian critics, of a culture five hundred miles to the west and many years ahead of Budapest. As so often in the history of Magyar intellect and art, worldwide fame was one thing, true merit another; and the two would rarely correspond. At the very time, 1873, when the Munkácsy comet reached its apogee in the salons of Paris, a Magyar painter, Pál Szinyei-Merse, painted a canvas, “May Picnic” (Majális), that eventually came to be regarded as the finest Hungarian painting of the nineteenth century. I write “eventually,” because its initial reception in Budapest was so inadequate that Szinyei-Merse turned away from painting for many years to come. Yet it is significant that both the composition and execution of “May Picnic” corresponds exactly with the time and the emergence of the vision of the great French Impressionists, the early Monet or Renoir. In Paris Munkácsy had a young Hungarian friend, László Paál, who died tragically young, but whose canvases, as we now know, represent superb individual variants of the Barbizon school. (Millet regarded him as the most promising of the younger painters.) In the Budapest of 1900, of every thousand people to whom Munkácsy’s name was a household word, perhaps one knew the name of Paál. Yet years before Munkácsy passed away painters in Hungary had already rejected the pictorial tradition that he represented. That tradition—despite Munkácsy’s Francophilia and his Paris residence and his Paris success—was essentially a German, a Munich one; but by the 1890s the best Hungarian painters had broken away from that. They withdrew, not into bohemian conventicles, but to serious workshops in the country, in Nagybánya, Gödöllő, Szolnok, to open their windows, to go ahead with a Hungarian school of plein-air painting, built up with colors that would not fade. The first exhibition of the Nagybánya painters took place in 1897; and by 1900 modern painting in Hungary had not only begun, it was in full development.
These painters were criticized, indeed, excoriated by some of the conservatives whose bastion was that Hall of Arts from where Munkácsy’s body was sent forth on his last journey, but no matter: these painters knew not only what they were doing but also where they stood—and sat. In 1900 in Budapest the painters’, sculptors’ and architects’ habitual coffeehouse was the Japan on Andrássy Avenue, with its tables that sometimes bore their penciled drawings on their raspberry-color marble surfaces (on one occasion a respectful art collector cajoled the owner of the coffeehouse into selling him one of these tables, which he then had carted home). The Japan was only a few steps away from the grandiose apartment houses of the Ring. That Elizabeth Ring—not only its buildings but its atmosphere, colors, sounds, and the language along its pavements—was typical of Budapest in 1900; but so, too, were the minds and the talk of the people in the Japan.
This city,” wrote Gyula Krúdy about Budapest, “smells of violets in the spring, as do mesdames along the promenade above the river on the Pest side. In the fall, it is Buda that suggests the tone: the odd thud of chestnuts dropping on the Castle walk; fragments of the music of the military band from the kiosk on the other side wafting over in the forlorn silence. Autumn and Buda were born of the same mother.” In Budapest the contrast of the seasons, and of their colors, is sharper than in Vienna. It was surely sharper in 1900, before the age of the omnipresent automobile exhausts and diesel fumes. Violet in Budapest was, as Krúdy wrote, a spring color; it was the custom to present tiny bouquets of the first violets to women as early as March. They came from the market gardens south and west of the city, sold along the Corso and in the streets by peasant women. In March, too, came the sound and the smell of the rising river. The Danube runs swifter and higher in Budapest than in Vienna. It would often flood the lower quays, and the sound and sight of that swirling mass of water would be awesome. By the end of April a pearly haze would bathe the bend of the river and the bridges and quays, rising to Castle Hill. That light would endure through the long summer mornings, lasting until the mature clarities of late September.
At night the shadows retreated, and a new, dark-green atmosphere grew over the city like a canopy of promise. This was not the acid green springtime of Western Europe: May and June in Hungary, even in Budapest, have something near-Mediterranean about them. The smoke from the myriads of chimneys retreated with the shadows (except, of course, the highblown smoke of the mills and factories in the outer districts). The chairs and tables were put out before the cafés and in the open-air restaurants. It was then that the nocturnal life of Budapest blossomed, a life with singular habits and flavors that began early in the evening and lasted into the dawn, in which so many people partook. There were avenues in Budapest which were more crowded at ten at night than at ten in the morning, but not because they were concentrations of nightlife, such as Montmartre or Piccadilly. The freshness of the dustless air, especially after the May showers, brought the presence of the Hungarian countryside into the city. Somewhat like parts of London in the eighteenth century (or Philadelphia in the nineteenth), this smoky, swollen, crowded and metropolitan Budapest was still a city with a country heart, with a sense that a provincial Arcadia was but an arm’s length away. By May the violets were gone but there was a mixture of acacias and lilacs and of the apricots, the best ones of which in Hungary were grown within the municipal confines of Budapest. There was the sense of erotic promises, earthy and tangible as well as transcendent. It penetrated the hearts of the people, and not only of the young; and it was not only a matter of espying the sinuous movements of women, movements more visible now under their light summery frocks. It was a matter of aspirations.
Summer was hot, hotter than in Vienna, sultry at times, broken by tremendous thunderstorms, but almost never damp. When the dark thunderheads convened high over the dry, dusty streets, they carried the promise of relief and the return of the long pleasant summer evenings, for the evenings were almost always cool. There is not much difference between a May and an August night in Budapest, except of course in the vegetation. Even on the hottest of days the trees were green, never sere. Summer was the recurrent feeling, the promise of pleasure in le bel, le frais, le vivace aujourd’hui; and a Budapest bourgeoise or a young gentry wife threw open the double-leaved windows and leaned over her geraniums with the same movement—and perhaps, too, with the same movement of the heart—as a Frenchwoman on the Côte d’Azur at summertime circa 1900, a little out of season but fraîche, belle, vivace, nonetheless. Surrounded by the yellow, powdery Hungarian countryside, Budapest then spread along the banks of the Danube like a green bower; or, perhaps (for those who prefer vegetables to flowers), rather like a super-large green cabbage whose outer leaves were edged, here and there, with the black rime of smoke from the factory chimneys. The crowded town, packed with people and rows of apartment houses, gave the impression—and the feeling—of a summer resort, perhaps even that of a spa. Few people complained of the summer in Budapest, except for those who employed it as the pretext to proclaim their departure to vacation places well-known. A profusion of fruit, greenery and fish spilled out from the markets to the sidewalks. Young people stayed up late, into the dawn. Older people, daydreaming on hot afternoons, turned their thoughts to the winter season to come, thinking of new circumstances, new quarrels, new flirtations.
Autumn can be a short season in Budapest; in any event, its beauties are unpredictable, like those of rapidly maturing women—or, perhaps, unpredictable like the melancholy of Hungarian men. It is not only that the owl of Minerva flies at dusk; it is also that the best writers of Hungary, living in Budapest around 1900, had autumn in their hearts. The instruments of their internal music were not springtime violins, or the summery bravura of the gypsy bands whose music in the summer mixed with the crunch of the gravel and with the clanging of the dishes in the open-air taverns and restaurants. The deepest, the truest sound of Magyar prose is not that of a canting and chanting violin; it is that of a cello.
March, not April, is the cruelest month in Budapest; and November the saddest. A century ago it was the only month when that great bell of clear air over the Hungarian plains became striated with damp fog. That fog swirled around the broad pillars of the Danube bridges, it rose to cloud the high hills of Buda. On All Souls’ Day thousands of people streamed toward the cemeteries of Budapest, with flowers in their hands, on that holy day which is perhaps taken more seriously in Hungary than elsewhere because of the national temperament. Temetni tudunk—a terse Magyar phrase whose translation requires as many as ten English words to give its proper (and even then, not wholly exact) sense: “How to bury people—that is one thing we know.” The greatest tragedies in the history of modern Hungary—the execution of thirteen martyred Hungarian generals after the collapse of the War of Independence in 1849, the collapse of the ancient monarchy in the defeat of the First World War in 1918, the collapse of the deeply torn and divided effort to free Hungary from its deadly alliance with Hitler’s Reich in 1944, the collapse of the great national rising in 1956, centered in Budapest—all happened in October or early November. For Budapest in 1900 the last three of these great tragedies were still unknown.
And then, one morning—it would come as early as in the third week of November, and surely before the middle of December—one of two new things was happening. A clear sky had risen over Budapest again, with the paler gold of a winter sun refracted by the crystalline cold. Or the sky was gray but rich, great flakes of snow were coming down all over Budapest: a celestial filling, like the goose down in the comforters of its bedrooms. In 1900 in Budapest winters came earlier than they come now. They were colder and snowier. There were still years (though not in the calendar year 1900) when the entire stretch of the Danube was frozen, and adventurous men could walk across the ridges of ice from Pest to Buda. There was a sense of feasting and of innocence in the air. Unlike in the snow-laden country, winter in Budapest was something else than a season of long rest and sleep; it was another season full of promise and excitement. The streets of the Inner City were filled before noon, with women and girls parading in their winter finery, and with promenading gentlemen in their fur-collared greatcoats. Girls without furs were equipped at least with a furry muff. They were stepping in and out of the confectioneries and the flower shops and the glove-makers with tiny packages wrapped in rosy, crinkly papers, hanging daintily from the tips of their little fingers. Among the horse-drawn carriages on the avenues in 1900 there still slid in and out a few sleighs—black-lacquered, drawn by black horses, and with silvered tackle, with the laps of their passengers wrapped in ancient fur-lined blankets. What the city offered was this agreeable and satisfying contrast of exterior ice and interior fire: of the diamantine, light blue, crackling cold climate of the streets only a few steps away from the inner atmosphere of the houses with the cozy warmth of their cosseted bourgeois interiors, with deep-red carpets underfoot and perhaps with crimson tongues of fire not only in the grates of the tile stoves but in many hearts. Even in the dark, grimy streets, with their forbidding doorways and freezing entrances, the white snow thick around provided not only a contrast in color but in atmosphere: gazing inside to sense the hot interior fug, or looking outside from their cramped interiors into the snowy streets was equally good. The crunch of the snow, its odd chemical smell, the roofs and the windowsills and the shop signs and the monuments of Budapest picked out in white gave the city a compound of secure feeling. Behind those windowsills the housewives patted the long square insulating bolsters between the double windows into place; and the few walkers along the quays or up along the deserted streets and parapet walks on Castle Hill must surely have been lovers.
It was the season of long dinners, of heavily laden tables with the roasts, sausages, bacons, fowl and game sent up to the families from the country; of the smells of wet wool and leather and pastry cream and perfume in the shops of the Inner City; of the anticipations of Christmas, of dancing assemblies and balls; and for the young, the chance of meeting on the skating rink of the Budapest Skating Club, on the frozen lake in City Park, under electric lights on weekday evenings. When the little blue flag of the club was up at Octagon Square it meant that the ice was sufficiently hard for the skaters—and for their flirtations, while the girls’ chaperones would gossip behind the windows of the clubhouse that was warm as an oven, aglow in the dark like the redness behind the isinglass of a stove, reeking of oiled leather, coal-smoke and the melted ice on the rough floors of that waiting room. It was a city of distinct anticipation and of distinct seasons, more distinct than now.
The year 1900 was the noon hour of Budapest, even in winter. Summer was galloping in its skies and in its heart. Foreign visitors arriving in that unknown portion of Europe, east of Vienna, were astounded to find a modern city with first-class hotels, plate-glass windows, electric tramcars, elegant men and women, the largest Parliament building in the world about to be completed. Yet the city was not wholly cosmopolitan. There was the presence of the Hungarian provinces within its streets and within its people, so many of whom had come to Budapest from the provinces where they were born. In another sense, too, it was less cosmopolitan than the backward, unkempt town of a century before, whose inhabitants had been a mixture of Magyars, Germans, Swabians, Greeks, and Serbs. Now everyone, including the considerable number of Jews, spoke and sang, ate and drank, thought and dreamed in Hungarian. This was a very class-conscious society: there was as great a difference between the National Casino of the feudal aristocracy and the Café New-York of the writers, artists and artistes as there was between the elegant clubhouse and the plebeian grandstand at the racetrack. These worlds were separate, yet they were not entirely unbridgeable. Certain aristocrats respected the writers and painters; in turn, most of the writers and painters admired the aristocrats, especially when these were to the manner born. They read the same papers, sometimes the same books, saw the same plays, knew the same purveyors. They dined in different places, their tables were set differently; but their national dishes, their favorite musicians, their physicians, and their actresses were often the same. In Budapest there was no particular vie de boheme restricted to writers and artists; indeed, the city did not have an artists’ quarter—no Bloomsbury or Soho, no Montmartre or Montparnasse, no Munich Schwabing.
It was a grand place for literature. The ancient Magyar language, the vocabulary of which was reconstructed and enriched with great care, sometimes haltingly, by the patriot writers and classicists of the early nineteenth century, had become rich, muscular, flexible and declarative, lyrical and telling. But the Magyar language is an orphan among the languages of Europe. It does not belong to the great Latin, Germanic or Slavic language families. Mostly because of this, Hungarian literature had no echoes, no reverberations, no reputation beyond Hungary. During the entire nineteenth century only one Hungarian writer, Mór Jókai, was frequently translated abroad; and by 1900 Jókai—as well as the style and scope of his novels—had grown very old. But in 1900 Budapest rang with the reverberations of literature. Every Hungarian writer knew that. During the literary, cultural and political revival of the nation in the nineteenth century none of the great poets and writers had been born in Budapest. In 1900 this was still largely true, but they all had gravitated there. They lived in Budapest not only because of the evident advantages of living close to the newspapers and publishers who would purchase their words. They needed the atmosphere of the city. This was true even of such fine writers as Géza Gárdonyi or Kálmán Mikszáth, who were truly provincial in the best sense of that adjective: country writers, saturated with the colors, odors and music of the countryside and with the speech of its people. But for the first time in the history of Hungarian literature, in 1900 there were writers who chose not only to write in, but of Budapest. They were not necessarily the greatest writers of that period, though some of them were. In 1900 Budapest, and Hungarian literature, had become inescapably intertwined.
So I am compelled to describe three writers who wrote about Budapest in 1900—in the ascending order of their talents. They were Tamás Kóbor, Ferenc Körmendi and Gyula Krúdy. The very title of Kóbor’s book book and the very date of its publication fit our theme exactly. The title of his novel was, simply and squarely, Budapest, written in the year 1900 and published in 1901. Portions of it actually appeared, seriatim, in 1900 in the literary periodical A Hét, which was the principal literary periodical at the time; Kóbor was one of its principal contributors. He was the very first Hungarian novelist who was actually born in Budapest. Kóbor’s Budapest is a period piece, largely forgotten now, but not without some merit, and of considerable interest for our purposes. What Kóbor attempted in Budapest was a Budapest version of Arthur Schnitzler’s La Ronde, the famous book published in Vienna as Reigen four years before.” It is surely possible, and almost probable, that Kóbor was influenced by Schnitzler. The theme of both books is a chain (in Budapest a sequence rather than a circular chain) of sexual liaisons, of love affairs. There is, however, a great difference between the two books. Schnitzler was a very talented craftsman; Kóbor’s writing is more uneven, cruder. Schnitzler’s main interest was sexuality; Kóbor’s the social portrait of a city. Schnitzler is a sometimes brilliant journalist, an exponent of that bourgeois neurosis within a culture that agitated and inspired the theories of Freud; but his portraiture of a place is definitely secondary to his main theme. Kóbor’s book is deeply pessimistic, whereas Schnitzler’s pessimism is implied: in almost all of Schnitzler’s writing one senses a cynical smile on his lips, whereas there is no smile on Kóbor’s face at all. In Kóbor’s Budapest the conditions of the sexual lives of kept girls and married women and their husbands are meant to illustrate his main concern, which is the immorality—immorality, rather than neurosis—of a city where misery and riches, servility and haughtiness, abjectness and power, the still strong presence of a feudal class-consciousness and the ever stronger, ever increasing influence of money live side by side. And it is the abjectness of moneylessness, the poverty-ridden lives of women and their daughters in the dark warrens of apartment houses with which Kóbor was so familiar, which shocks and moves us in his book. His description of the lives and the conditions of the upper class is much less successful. It is a book of miseries rather than of grandeurs, a somber book full of harsh smoke and strong, unrefined flavors. As Kóbor wrote in his Introduction in 1901: “I directed my light to the depths above which Budapest is being built.” He did not quite succeed, in part because its depth does not a building make. Yet Kóbor’s Budapest, with its dark wintry scenes, remains a significant corrective to that no less real climate of summer that in 1900 galloped in the skies of Budapest and in its heart.
Another book that illuminates that place and time, in a very different way, is the monumental novel of a writer who is largely forgotten, even in his native country, despite the fact that his A boldog emberöltő (“The Happy Generation”) had indifferent and abbreviated translations in Paris and New York. Ferenc Körmendi’s writing career in Hungary was very short, a mere seven years in the 1930s, after which he left Hungary for England and then the United States, where he wrote little. Significant of The Happy Generation is, again, its chronological condition—in this case, the lynchpin of Körmendi’s entire theme. It is the story of a man who is born in Budapest on January 1, 1900, on the first day of the new century. It is a great Budapest haut-bourgeois novel, even though, I repeat, it is not (perhaps not yet) so recognized. Körmendi was as much influenced by Thomas Mann as Kóbor had been by Schnitzler’s La Ronde. But there is an essential difference between Mann’s Buddenbrooks and The Happy Generation. Buddenbrooks is the story of the rise and tragic decline of three generations of a family; The Happy Generation is the story of a half-generation, the life and family of a single thirty-year-old man, a descent from a sunlit plateau of prosperity and security to the tragic collapse of his own desire for more life. It is entitled The Happy Generation because in 1900, when its protagonist is born on Andrássy Avenue, everything is suffused with the optimism of security, respectability, cultivation and progress; indeed, on one occasion his father says so. “The generation,” he tells his two sons, “in which you will grow up will be fortunate . . . there seems to be no reason why it should not be so.”
Of course this novel, unlike Kóbor’s Budapest, was written and inspired by retrospect, by the painful and melancholy retrospect of the 1930s (it was published in 1934, the year after Hitler had assumed power), when the world of 1900 seemed so blessed, so far away, so irretrievably lost. In this, The Happy Generation precedes Stefan Zweig’s The World of Yesterday by nearly a decade and is a novel, not a wistful memoir; but the respect for the secure standards and values of the world of 1900 is as strong in Körmendi’s novel as in Zweig’s nobly pathetic reminiscences written in his Brazilian exile. For our purposes, The Happy Generation is important because it shows the sunny atmosphere of the Andrássy Avenue bourgeoisie at and after the turn of the century: not only the sureties and the securities but also the presence of the solid bourgeois virtues of personal and civilizational probity, perhaps concentrated in the admirable doctor and father, the head of the Heged’s family. Their spacious apartment may be full of bibelots, their curtains may be heavy, but the sunshine of that summery Budapest of 1900 filters through. It is a world of protective affinities: of a few old family portraits, many comfortable armchairs, and the noonday scent of the forever first course of the Sunday family dinner. With all of this, The Happy Generation is not really tainted with nostalgia, while it is a nearly perfect rendition not only of the atmosphere but of the mental aspirations of a class of people, of a place, of a time. It is the greatest work of Körmendi (surely in size: 850 pages), who was not a very great writer; yet The Happy Generation deserves recognition not only in the annals of literature but also by historians who wish to know much about that place and time.
And now we come to the greatest writer of Magyar prose in the twentieth century, perhaps to the greatest prose writer in all Hungarian literature, and surely one of the great writers of Europe—even though he is seldom translated and remains largely unknown outside Hungary. This is Gyula Krúdy, who arrived in Budapest in 1896, when he was not yet eighteen, and whose first contributions had been printed by provincial newspapers when he was thirteen. He was one of those writers in the Hungarian provinces for whom Budapest had become a magnet. His father wanted him to be a lawyer. “I shall be a poet in Budapest,” the son said. (He never wrote a single poem there.) The father, a member of the old, impoverished gentry of his province and country, disinherited him, for more than one reason. It was a break not only between two generations but between two centuries. Again there is a chronological coincidence. The father died on December 30, 1900, the exact last moment of the old century. By that time his son was a published writer in modern Budapest. The first volume of his stories was printed in 1899, when he was twenty years old. His first long novel appeared in 1901.
Except for short absences, he remained in Budapest for the rest of his life. But for many years he did not write about Budapest. He wrote about melancholy provinces on the great Hungarian plains, about little towns in the shadows of the Carpathian mountains. It was not until later, about 1912, that he began to turn the magical searchlight of his memories on Budapest. Thereafter he would write often about the city, and about the city around 1900, in his own lyrical style, with a depth and with an evocative music, in ways in which no one has written about it either before or since, and perhaps—no, most probably—no one ever will.
For this introductory chapter of this book I must translate a few of his passages about Budapest at some length. This is inevitable, since he is the writer of colors, odors and sounds. His descriptions of Budapest were scattered in hundreds of places in his novels, sketches and feuilletons. Here and there some of them have been put together in small volumes, published decades after his death. In this fantastic profusion of his passages and writings about Budapest there is a duality or, rather, an evolution. Krúdy, who with all of his liberality of spirit and startlingly modern prose style, was a very historically minded writer, a reactionary in the best sense of that much abused word, would flail, on occasion, the loud, commercial, shamelessly eager metropolis of 1900—contrasting its spirit with its slower, calmer, respectable, near-provincial past. At times he wrote that the city lost its virtue around the time—perhaps in 1896, the year of the great Millennium Fair—when cannons boomed and the city glowed, celebrating the greatness of Hungary, the very year when he had arrived in Budapest. He wrote once about Franz Josef’s visit to Budapest in 1896, to this once town of “smaller houses and modest citizens, of young, rosy, patriotic girls waving their handkerchiefs, of a quiet and unrebellious antiquity.” But now “Pest had thrown off its mask of modesty; each year she put on more and more jewelry; the unassuming had become loud, the thrifty had turned to gambling, the virgins brought up in severe convents had begun to take pride in the fulness of their breasts. . . . Pest had become unfaithful. …”
This raffinée courtesan of a city had forgotten the triumphs of the young monarch at whose bosom she had once thrown herself, in the time of her fresh innocence. . . . Her shoulders no longer breathed the odor of holy water. Pest lifted her once downcast eyes; she was no longer satisfied with little presents of honey and gilded walnuts. She had become conscious of her developing charms; she discovered her new side that was both gamine and cosmopolitan; this once little wallflower had begun to appreciate herself; and the thrifty old gentleman was disturbed to find that the demanding cocotte that Pest had become no longer loved him. The naive virgin, who in the 1860s so happily imitated the crown-like hairdo of the thin-waisted Queen Elizabeth whom she had seen at the Merchants’ and Artisans’ Ball—she had become a wide-hipped, eager, unbridled female. The gentlemen, who at the time of the Coronation had begun to train their sideburns with the help of the Kishíd Street barbers, had become fewer and fewer; and now only old janitors, veteran soldiers and ancient civil servants wore the Franz Josef beard. . . .
The mythical hero of an unfinished Krúdy novel . . . saw that in the forest of the town the white-waisted, sentimental, virginal birches trembling in the wind had become fewer and fewer; he saw that those embroideries and needlepoints and laces that had been stitched by busy, light, feminine fingers were disappearing from the drawingrooms in the houses of the old citizenry; that the coiffures and the countenances of women no longer resembled the antique Madonnas in the churches of the Inner City or of Buda, but that the fashions were now dictated by infamous transient female personages, dancers and cocottes. . . . The tone of talk is ever more frivolous, the pursuit of pleasure ever more shameless as it whispers its selected phrases bending over the uncovered shoulders of the women in the theaters, or on the streets bending at the sides of their veiled hats, or even in the apartments of families where one can still smell the scent of the wax candles from a Christmas Eve hardly past. . . .
He saw, too . . . the blue-white towers and the endlessly rising roofs; the white ships multiplying on the river and the rainbow-hued Danube bridges . . . the coming and going of wrinkles on the faces of those ladies whom one could find out of their houses every time, and who keep a spirit from the Thousand and One Nights in their homes (in the form of a scrubby little maid who does all the work, who sews the torn clothes of the children and cooks the midday meal for the husband). He saw the proud gentlemen forced into higher and higher collars to hide the premature folds of their necks and the premature trembling of their heads; he saw those heart-rending days in spring when the new frocks bedeck the pavements like flowers in the meadows; and the lilting, snowy days in winter when the sun comes out at noon on Andrássy Avenue to encourage the poor office girls to step out with the gait of duchesses. . . .
Sometime during the darkening years of the First World War Krúdy’s flagellation of Budapest began to give way to a quieter, lyrical kind of nostalgia, a remembering of what was lovely and good in Budapest at its once noontime. And by 1920 and 1921, when Budapest—surely the spirit of Budapest—was under attack by a nationalist wave of sentiment and by the nationalist regime, “They are reviling Budapest in the Parliament,” Krúdy began.
Well, Pest has never been an agreeable town. But desirable, yes: like a racy, full-blooded young married woman about whose flirtations everyone knows and yet gentlemen are glad to bend down and kiss her hand. . . . No matter how we country people may have been irritated, it was in Budapest that Hungarian culture, about which so many of the old, blessed Magyar people had dreamed, received its hallmark. Here the dancing in the theaters is the best, here everyone in a crowd may think that he is a gentleman even if he had left jail the day before; the physicians’ cures are wonderful, the lawyers are world-famous, even the renter of the smallest rooms has his bath, the shopkeepers are inventive, the policeman guards the public peace, the gentlefolk are agreeable, the streetlights burn till the morning, the janitor will not allow a single ghost inside, the tramcars will carry you to the farthest places within an hour, the city clerks look down on the state employees, the women are well-read from their theater magazines, the porters greet you humbly on the street corners, the innkeeper inquires of your appetite with his hat in hand, the coach drivers wait for you solemnly during an entire day, the salesgirls swear that your wife is the most beautiful of women, other girls in the nightclubs and orpheums hear out your political opinions politely, you find yourself praised in the morning newspaper after you had witnessed an accident, well-known men use the spittoons in the cafe gardens, you are being helped into your overcoat, and the undertaker shows his thirty-two gold teeth when you take your leave from this city forever.
Yes, in those times:
How much is there to say about those blessed, peacetime years! Of the air of Budapest which, true, was often dust-laden in the wind blowing from the Rákos fields; but that air became that much sweeter in spring when the wind had turned and began to breathe from the direction of the Buda hills; dependable old gentlemen insist that one could then smell the violets from Mount Gellért within the city. . . . And listen again to the talk of these respectable men, because you will learn that in those times it was not at all shocking to wear houndstooth trousers in the spring, and a tiny bouquet in one’s lapel, to wait on a certain street corner as if one were the swain of the Swabian flower seller and not of the lady in the blue veil who would approach from Váci Street. . . .
Váci Street—the main shopping street of the Inner City:
The little squares of the Inner City were like confectionery boxes. There the breeze from the Danube was pirouetting with the rays of the sun, there gleamed the hired carriages at their stations from which countesses with their delicate feet had just descended; old pensioners sat on benches in their spotless clothes; the grocer with his wicker baskets and the baker smelling of his fresh kaiser rolls kissed the hands of the chambermaids in their black bombazine when these had rung the bell; the serpentine waists of the vendeuses, the white blouses of the millinery girls . . . and the silvery heads of the booksellers gave the tone to this district. Whoever settles in the Inner City will remain a distinguished person for the rest of his life. It was easy to dress well from its shopwindows, easy to learn how to be fashionable, and every purchaser could have credit. The famous shops that sold the best goods from London, suits, hats, gloves, were memorable like a grand foxhunt in autumn. The merchandise from Paris arrived directly, scented like women before a grand soirée. . . . The waiter in the coffeehouse put the recent Le Figaro in your hands. The barber had learned his trade in Paris; virgins embroidered initials on linens; the spiceshop had the odors of a great freighter just arrived from Bombay. Around the hotels shone the footwear of wealthy foreigners, the carriage curtains would seldom veil the adventurous demi-mondaines, the jewels blinded with their shine and the bank tellers paid out brand-new bills. Blessed Inner City years! Like youth—will they ever return?
And in other streets, too:
Women smelled like oranges in Japan. Rákóczi Avenue was full of women of doubtful repute; yet they were pretty and young enough to be princesses in Berlin. Around the Emke coffeehouse stiff lieutenants and fake country gentlemen kept reviewing them. . . . The youngest girls wore silk stockings, and white-haired women found their own brand of connoisseurs. The city was blessed with its cult of women. The eyes of men trembled, the women were so beautiful: black-haired ones, as if they had come from Seville, and in the tresses of the blond ones tales from an Eastern sun were playing hide-and-seek, like fireflies in the summer meadows.
The tone of the cello was deepest when Krúdy saw the duality of Budapest:
They kept on building every day, palaces topped by towers rising toward the sun; and at night it was as if there were endless burials—an everlasting row of tumbrils hauled the old broken matter out of the town, the cadavers of old people and of old houses, of old streets and old customs.
Perhaps from these translated excerpts English-speaking readers may be able to recognize, or at least sense, the particular tone not only of Krúdy’s language but of the Magyar literary language—and of the Magyar spirit—which is that extraordinary combination, the constant presence of a minor key within the basic key of a major.