On the 30th anniversary of the political transition we scrutinized the changes in various branches of culture. Whether the most fundamental change is to be seen in literature is far from certain, nonetheless, it is literature that is able – when it is able – to immediately grasp with words the small and great changes in life, the fate of a country and its citizens, and the phenomena of the world. Our overview is superficial by nature, the topic would merit a volume of essays. AN INTERVIEW BY ÁGNES MERÉNYI
Revizor: A literary commonplace regarding 1989 is that we were waiting for great opuses to emerge from desk drawers, but nothing did emerge. Why not? Does that force us to view the cultural politics of the Kádár-era in a different light? Has the secret novel or epic poem of Kádárism been written? Has the novel or drama of its collapse been written?
Sándor Bazsányi: One of the reasons no great works of art showed up after the shift in power is that often (albeit with some delay) they were allowed to be published, either in the controlled public space (Péter Nádas), or abroad (György Konrád), or in the form of samizdat (György Petri). The only opus magnum, Karnevál (Béla Hamvas) written in the sixties was also published in the eighties. In other words, with considerable delay and belated and distorted reception.
József Nagygéci Kovács: Perhaps nothing surfaced from the drawers, but that does not justify at all the cultural politics of the Kádár-era in retrospect, no dictatorship is made better by the fact that valuable works are produced during its time. Hungarian literature would not be the same without The Bards of Wales, but that does not make our 1848/49 failed War of Independence any less a failed one, and it would have been better to have won. And who knows what oeuvres would have been written in what way if the time period between 1948 and 1990 had been that of peaceful development, including literature of Hungarian minorities abroad, and the literature of „permanent residents“ outside the country instead of emigree literature. (In the Calvinist Library in Sárospatak the literary heritage of István Király and László Cs. Szabó are kept in the same room. A nice constellation, but it would have been even better if these two giants had been able to create in the same country.) From a literary historical perspective, it would have been advantageous if the oeuvres of 20th century authors had not been subject to political censorship, and if complete critical editions had been able to see daylight. Regarding the second set of questions: They have been written, and they are still being written. Which is fortunate. Writing has to be done as long as there are witnesses, and it would be for the best if we never again had to forgo various points of views.
Of Kádárism even the poetic position is very telling: it is impossible not to notice that the majority of writers see not only phases of Hungarian history, they finally have a holistic outlook. That was something „Homo kadaricus” could not and did not possess. Péter György writes in his volume, Instead of my Father, that this was the fundament of the "compromise” after 1956: to place everything preceding it in parentheses, 1956, 1944, everything. Which of course is impossible, without 1848 and 1867 we do not understand the First World War, without the Trianon Peace Treaty we do not understand the second, and without the Second World War, we do not understand the communist dictatorship, and as a whole we do not understand ourselves without the others. Some arbitrary examples: László Végel’s epic autobiographical novel set in Vojvodina, Temetetlen múltunk (Our Unburied Past), Gábor Vida’s great Trianon novel, Ahol az ő lelke (Where His Soul is), Zoltán Mihály Nagy’s upsetting novel set in Transcarpathia, A sátán fattya (Satan’s Bastard), Orsolya Péntek’s trilogy about country, family, monarchy (and the list could contain four or five more items), Norbert Vass’s short stories about the early 1990s, Endre Kukorelly’s TündérVölgy and Rom (Fairy Valley and Ruin), two books, the excerpts of which could be included in history textbooks. The books of Péter Nádas, Péter Esterházy, Pál Závada, Márton László’s Árnyas főutca (Shady High Street), all of them show that we have one single history that can and should be told in a language constructed from the same notes, albeit in various registers.
R: In what way was literature renewed in the past 30 years? What are the typical trends of the 90s and the 2000s?
S.B.: In the beginning the tendencies of the 80s went on almost without a hitch (so-called new prose, ironic poetry), and then new directions and viewpoints kept emerging: a new sensitivity with a demand to depict reality (e.g.: Ferenc Barnás), new sensitivity towards the underdogs and the humiliated of reality (e.g.: Virág Erdős), the epic cultivation of historical remembrance (e.g.: Pál Závada), the processing of the Kádár-era (e.g.: Balázs Györe), the rebooting of old genres (e.g.: the epic poems of János Térey), regional depiction (e.g.: László Szilasi), market oriented popularization (e.g.: Krisztián Grecsó)… A parallel process is the complete transformation of literariness, literary criticism, literary interpretation, the field of literature.
J.N.K: And to follow the same thread: grand narratives, epic reckoning became prominent. There were many complaints about the disappearance of stories, even though stories were just emerging. Fragmented? Yes. Striving with remembrance as an undefinable concept? Yes. Successful, nonetheless? Yes and yes. While our prose writers created worlds, the twentieth century crying to be dealt with were evoked within these worlds, even in the Ottoman-age stories of László Darvasi and János Háy. And also in texts seemingly only about the Holocaust. Even in texts on the peripheries of literature, such as Géza Bereményi’s texts written for Tamás Cseh. (On a personal note, these are by far within the boundaries of literature, and when talking about Nobel laurate hopefuls, alongside László Krasznahorkai and Nádas - both of whom would deserve it -, my secret favorite is Géza Bereményi. He will never get it, but I can’t stop hoping, even more so after his Magyar Copperfield (Hungarian Copperfield.) But even if these decades have been those of the novel, there was also a presence of excellent poets and dramatists with spectacular volumes, plays and oeuvres. Even the theatre with non-text-based performances – alternative theatre, more simply put – had a prolific effect, many brave experiments were carried out. Every year had its extraordinary volume, an interesting game of Jelenkor monthly a few years back was listing the 30 best/most important books of the past 30 years, starting from 1986. This included books of Péter Kántor, Zsuzsa Takács, Ottó Tolnai, István Kemény, János Térey, Lajos Parti Nagy, Krisztina Tóth, György Petri, Dezső Tandori and Szilárd Borbély among many others. They can be viewed as becoming part of the canon, but my list also includes Balázs Szálinger and András Visky, Zita Izsó and Ákos Győrffy. I will stop, I do not want to give the impression of trying to provide a complete list, these are merely my everyday readings. I would likely notice trends, if I looked for them, but I do not, this is the reader speaking.
R: How did the structure of literary life (book and journal publishing, the spread of online writing-reading-publishing) change in the past three decades? What are the new, important canon-factors, topics and actors that you see in literature?
S.B.: With the changing of the platforms the habits of the readers also changed: we read quickly with thematic, ideological, and political simplifications. These demands are met by certain tendencies or writers (e.g.: Dénes Krusovszky’s novel), but certain individual creators resist (e.g.: Imre Bartók’s novel). The so-called aesthetic viewpoint either lost its depth (became shallow artsiness) or retreated into the background. And instead of aesthetic canons, we now have canons organized by ideology or popularity.
J.N.K.: Like in the joke: „How are you? Fine. Care to expand? Not fine.“ How did it change? A lot. Care to expand? Not a lot.
Everything became publishable. In 1994, the poet István Baka said in an interview that too many poems were getting published, meaning that anything can get published, and there are too many poor volumes. He was/is probably right, nevertheless, I do not see it as a problem. If literature were a running race, would it not be better if the winner were selected via competition and not by limiting the number of athletes? The nature of gatekeeping has definitely changed, today anybody can enter, anybody can even build their own track, where they can pick the competitors. At the end of the day, who gets the laurel wreath (not of various organizations, but of immortality) will not be decided by political and economic intentions, likes and patterns of informal networks. There are many types of canon, and they are most definitely not formed, controlled, and critiqued by a select few academic seats (editorial offices, political positions, coffeehouse circles etc.). And this abundance, in my opinion, is good.
There are no new topics and actors, why would there be, we‘ve already had all of them for millennia, it is just that every new era looks at them in bewilderment, because they have forgotten about them. I did not read a single work of fiction in the past twenty years, to which I could not associate a Greco-Roman or Biblical precursor. And regarding the structure: the online world did not kill publishing, in my editorial experience, getting published in hard copy became a thing of refinement. Just like concerts and theatres (and cinemas) were not obliterated by the possibility of viewing/listening anytime anywhere, on the contrary: actual presence has become more valuable. Today, anybody can publish a text anywhere, but to appear in print is superior. We see relatively often that writings on various online forums are finally collected into an actual printed volume. Because nothing beats that.
Translated by Péter Papolczy