Hungarian Rhapsody

Right wing nationalists squeeze Hungary into an ever narrower definition of what is Hungarian. But history is not on their side

The courtyard where I have decided to die is on the Pest side of the city, the same side where I was born. It lies between the quiet precincts of Magyar Street, and the busy traffic of Múzeum Ring. I came across it first in 1985, on a private tour of the city guided by a relatively new good friend. He was relatively new because it was only my second visit to Budapest, the first having been the year before when, with the help of the Arts Council, I spent three weeks there. Those three weeks changed my life, but it was on the second visit that I discovered the place where I would wish to end it.

It was built in 1852 by one of leading architects of the era, Miklós Ybl. Entering it from the quiet side, as I did, it consists of three storeys in a blend of RomanticClassical-Venetian style with two storeys of narrow arched, colonnaded windows, the columns engaged with tidy Corinthian and Composite capitals like sprigs of flowers. There are Venetian motifs under the windows, and medallions above them. The whole is narrow and delicate, like a modest but perfect buttonhole. The glass is old and slightly buckled. The ground storey, also arched, is not well-kept. The stucco has faded or dropped away, and there are graffiti. Pigeons roost there, every so often launching themselves off the ledges with a muffled heavy sound, much like heartbeats. The floor of the courtyard is made up of wooden cobbles so the sound of your feet is cushioned. You are entering into a condition of near-silence.

Budapest is, in fact, two cities and was three. The oldest part of it, Óbuda, or old Buda — Aquincum in Roman times — has long been absorbed into Buda itself, the whole established on steep hills and cliffs, clustered around and spreading away from the castle and the old royal palace on the heights of the west side of the Danube. Buda is all villas and climbs: Pest, on the east side, is a slowly rising plain, all tenement blocks and major public buildings. Parliament, the major museums and theatres and opera houses are there. The three cities were only united in 1873, so Ybl’s building is not really Budapest at all: it is Pest. 1852 was only three years after the defeat of the great War of Independence. Hungary was still under the Habsburg thumb. The rebels were being hanged, the country was under ban. It would be another 15 years before the new Austro-Hungarian Empire allowed Budapest to develop its crazy elegance. 1852 was bad times. This small buttonhole of a courtyard, this delicate whisper, was a hidden breath of fresh air. The name of the quiet street is interesting too. Why, after all, should a street in the very heart of the Hungarian capital be called Magyar, that is to say Hungarian, Street? The nearby Serbian church in Szerb Street tells you why. It was the Serbian quarter. Magyar Street may well have been the border of the Serbian district. Hungary, its name suggests, starts here.

Pest is my side of the city. If I were to cross the courtyard of 10 Magyar utca, to give the street its Hungarian name, cross the ring road and bear left over one of the grand radial streets, Rákoczi út (or Way), I would find myself in the old Jewish quarter of district VII, known as Erzsébetváros, or Elizabethtown, which, in the latter stages of the Second World War became the walled ghetto from which half its newly accommodated and crammed population were deported to death camps. It’s less than five minutes walk. The great Dohány utca (Tobacco Road) Neolog Synagogue lies at one end of it, the Orthodox Kazynczky utca synagogue is tucked inside it. My father’s family lived in the VIIth district, and so did we as a family, right opposite the Liszt Music Academy, at the other end of it.

At 28 Magyar utca, an 1830s building, there was a restaurant named The Lamacs where an influential group led by the great early 19th century poet Mihály Vörösmarty (1800-1855) used to meet and where another great poet, Sándor Petőfi (1823-1849) often came to dine. Petőfi is the national poet par excellence. It was the verse he recited from the steps of the newly finished National Museum — just around the corner from Magyar utca — Talpra Magyar (Rise, Hungarians) that sparked the revolution on 15 March, 1848. He died, it is usually assumed, at the end of that revolution, on the battle field at Sighisoara (Segesvár as it then was and remained till the break up of the Austro-Hungarian Empire); died or disappeared that is, since his body was never fully identified and some believe that he was abducted to Barguzin in Siberia where he was either executed or simply settled down and maybe even married the postmaster’s daughter. The latter is the less heroic and less accepted version. The popular myth was painted in 1875 by Victor Madarász, in a work that shows the poet dying on a high hill. He is handsome, boyish, slim, moustachioed, with a sword, a broken bladed knife and some sheaves of paper before him. He is looking up at the twilight sky and pointing to a scarlet inscription on the ground, the inscription presumably written in his own blood: it says Hazám, meaning My Homeland.

The word haza has enormous significance for Hungarians. The German Heimat may be an equivalent but haza has an extra martial flavour. It is a word forged from adversity. Petőfi himself uses the word in his revolutionary work of 1848, typically in a verse like Készülj, Hazám! (Prepare, My Homeland) that begins

Készülj, hazám,

Készülj, boldog haza!

(Prepare, my homeland,

Prepare, O happy homeland.)

Hungarians are prolific and Petőfi was an extraordinary and hugely prolific poet. His legacy at the age of 26 was some 850 poems. His work, ballads based on folk tradition, love poems and patriotic verses, is full of brio, wit, new metres and natural objects. Many have become well-known songs. As a revolutionary he was both nationalist and internationalist. He sang the Hungarians into rising against their Habsburg oppressors but he also encouraged people elsewhere to rise, which is one of the reasons that he and his work remained of central importance under Soviet rule. It is from his statue in 15th March Square that marchers set in 1956 and again in 1989. It was the natural place to start. Being a British Council Scholar in Budapest for most of 1989, I was among them.

But Petőfi was not pure Hungarian. He was born Petrovics, into a family of Serbian or Slovak butchers, and wrote his early verses under this name. It was late in 1842, at the age of 20, that he first signs his verses with the familiar name. Despite there being nobody in either the paternal or maternal line who was Hungarian, his father declared himself Hungarian. In other words the epitome of patriotic Hungarianness is defined by a poet of Serbian or Slovak origin, a poet who takes on Hungarian identity and, in many ways, creates it.

National struggles produce national icons. Petőfiis one: Franz Liszt is another. Liszt’s life begins before Petőfi’s and ends long after it. Like Petőfi, Liszt was born in a village. Like Petőfi, Liszt declared himself Hungarian. Liszt had an Austrian mother and a German father who added the z to List in order to Hungaricise it. He wanted his son to consider himself Hungarian, albeit without speaking the language.

But Liszt didn’t spend long in Hungary: at the age of 12 he was taken to Paris where he learned French. Unlike Petőfi, he didn’t speak Hungarian, and it was at his first concert in Pest in 1840 that he announced to his Hungarian audience: Je suis Hongrois. And much later, in a letter of 1873, he apologised for his lack of Hungarian, writing (in German) “…im Herzen und Sinne, Magyar verbleibe” (In heart and mind I am Magyar), using the Hungarian word, magyar, rather than the German ungar.

Petőfi gives Hungarianness to the locals. Liszt, by contrast, offers Hungarianness to the rest of the world. He introduces Europe to “Hungarian music” through adaptations of the melodies heard at various Hungarian and Habsburg courts. These were melodies played by Roma virtuosi who had adapted them from the original Hungarian folk music of the villages. To some degree then “gypsy music”, a particular treatment, a kind of technique and attitude to source material, was, for all intents and purposes, accepted, even by Hungarians, as Hungarian music. Here then is a double irony: Hungarian identity, as accepted by Hungarians in verse, is produced by the son of a foreigner, and Hungarian identity, as accepted by Hungarians in music, is produced by social outcast Roma and then readied for the international stage by a man who could not speak Hungarian at all. The ironies do not stop there. Liszt’s book of 1859, Des Bohémiens et de leur musique en Hongrie — partly written by his antisemitic mistress, Carolyne von Sayn-Wittgenstein — idealises the free spirit of the gypsy, contrasting it with the meanspirited lack of originality of the Jews. Meanwhile, the form most associated with Hungarian music, the czárdás, was created by the Jewish violinist, Márk Rózsavölgyi, whose family name is likely to have been Hungaricised, much like Liszt’s. Hungarians, of course, embraced Liszt once he was a great success, to the extent that his name is one of the first to be associated with the country. Now highly fashionable, the square named after him in Pest, contains the music academy that is also named after him. It is in district VI but just a narrow road away from our own old block in district VII, facing his.

Liszt’s certainty that he was transmitting real Hungarian music was later questioned, most notably by Béla Bartók who, together with his friend Zoltán Kodály, set out to explore and record the genuine music of the villages. Bartók was another case of complex origins. He was born in 1881, in a town that was then part of Hungary but is now Romania, to a Hungarian father and a Serbian mother from Upper Hungary (now Slovakia) who was of Polish ancestry and spoke German. When Bartók’s father died his mother first took him to what was then Nagyszőlős in Hungary but is now Vinogrady in the Ukraine, then they all moved to Pozsony or Pressburg (once capital of Upper Hungary), which was then Hungary but is now Bratislava in Slovakia. At the age of 18 Bartók was accepted by the Royal Academy of Music in Budapest, which was then the capital of Hungary and still is. Bartók started with Liszt’s conception of Hungarian music but in 1904, while on holiday in Transylvania, he heard a young woman called Lidi Dósa singing folk songs that did not resemble the gypsy tunes he knew. It changed his life. The question Bartók — a provincial boy — came to ask was this: how far was Budapest truly Hungarian? Budapest was no help to him. As he wrote in a letter of 1905:

A real Hungarian music can originate only if there is a real Hungarian gentry. This is why the Budapest public is so absolutely hopeless. The place has attracted a haphazardly heterogeneous rootless group of Germans and Jews; they make up the majority of Budapest’s population…

To the country gentry of the time Budapest was a sinful irreligious metropolis that some referred to as Zsidópest, or Judapest. Where, they asked, was the purity, the pure clean heart of the nation? Where, asked Bartók, was its true music? His letter defines an early nationalist state of mind. As official Hungary moved ever further right in the twenties and thirties he distanced himself as much as possible from official roles and appearances. He would not perform in Germany in the 1930s and left Hungary in 1940. The German army marched into Hungary on 19 March 1944. Horthy was kicked out and the fascist Arrow Cross party was installed in power. Bartók died just as the region was returned to Romania at the end of the war. There may be a DNA test that can trace individual people back to the age of King Árpád in the ninth century but the chances are that there would have been intermarriage with Turks, Slovaks, Czechs, Romanians, Serbians, Croats, Russians, Poles, Germans and Moldovans, and indeed a good many common Hungarian surnames reflect that: Török, Tóth, Cseh, Román or Oláh, Szerb, Horváth, Orosz, Lengyel, Németh, and Moldova. There is, of course, room for the occasional Magyar or Hungarian — as in Magyar utca.

The leading 20th-century literary journal of the country, Nyugat (meaning West), was founded in 1908 and closed in 1941. Its first generation of contributors included some of the greatest writers of the time. The second, just as important in literary terms, split into two camps referred to as the népies (populist/ruralist-nationalist) and the urbánus (urban, intellectual, internationalist). The progressive népies aimed to break the power of the city as well as the power of the rural gentry and to promote the impoverished peasantry. The urbánus writers, like Attila Jozsef, (also claimed, by some, for the népies side) looked either to Marx or at least to an enlightened social liberalism. Urbánus writers did not believe that népies writers could represent progress: népies writers felt urbánus writers were incapable of understanding the true nature of the Hungarian nation. The division continued after the closure of Nyugat. Under Stalinist communism the népies side looked more promising if only because its writers couldn’t be categorised as “bourgeois individualists”, the charge levelled at urbánus writers. Népies writers could be brought out of the villages and educated: urbánus writers were already educated and could only be banned or imprisoned. Many writers tried to avoid being corralled into these camps but it was hard. Even when the terms were dropped or vanished these cultural lines remained deeply divisive.

Pre-war writers such as Miklós Radnóti, Antal Szerb, and György Sárközi, all of liberal Jewish background (all killed in the war) were naturally counted among the urbánus groups. All Jewish writers would be and were. After the war the same applied to survivors and those who became writers after 1945. The list of major Jewish postwar writers is long and includes the Nobel Prize winning Imre Kertész and internationally-known figures like Péter Nádas, György Konrád, as well as highly recognised nationally known poets and novelists like Zsofia Balla, István Vas, Ágnes Gergely, Péter Kántor, Ottó Orbán and many others. Most of them — apart from Kertész — were not working as overtly Jewish writers with specifically Jewish themes, they were part of the broad sweep of urban, internationalist, intellectual writing. And of course the same went for artists, musicians, composers, theatre directors, film directors, dancers and architects. Until 1989 the question of their Jewish identity was never discussed explicitly. There was no official outlet for such characterisation. Whatever antisemitism lurked in the hearts of Hungarian readers it found no public platform once the 1956 revolution was over.

The shape of Hungarian politics after 1989, when none of the pre-war so-called “nostalgia” parties succeeded in establishing themselves, was determined by these cultural loyalties. The liberal intelligentsia, in the capital at least, went one way; the rural areas including some of the smaller cities went the other. The intelligentsia tended to work at universities in cities and generally regarded themselves as internationalist liberals in the social sense. Middle Hungary in the provinces and the countryside tended to be conservative and patriotic. Neither group would describe itself in literary terms such as “népies” or “urbánus” but the cultural bases the terms imply remain, pretty well where Bartók was in 1904. So when Prime Minister Gyurcsány, a Budapest “urbanist” of the Socialist Party, eventually resigned after a 2006 leaked speech, the far right made every effort to find him Jewish ancestors, without success. But the instinct was there: urbanist = left-liberal = Jewish = not a proper Hungarian. That is the credo of the fascist party Jobbik, who polled 17% of votes in 2010. It is the credo of the current prime minister who is leading the country back into the 1930s where this credo prevailed in political as well as cultural terms. Hence the introduction of fascist writers onto the school syllabus. Hence the erection of statues of thirties figures, above all the Regent, Miklós Horthy. Hence the sacking of liberal figures everywhere, however notable, however brilliant. Hence the handing over of one of the main Budapest theatres to far-right control. Hence the excoriation of all liberal values. Hence also the persecution of the Roma and the desire for tradition. Hence the depiction of Hungary as a pure honourable country persecuted by shadowy international forces. Hence every appeal to the country’s sentimental, genuinely wounded heart.

Budapest is beautiful. The first time I returned in 1984, I wandered around like someone in a dream. The buildings still bore the marks of 1945 and 1956. There were bullet holes in the walls, shells had disfigured the countless sculptural figures embedded in, crawling over, and supporting the architecture. Their arms were missing. Their heads had been blown away. One could walk around putting one’s fingers in the wounds of the city. That is in fact what I did, and it was out of those wounds that a good deal of my poetry after that was born. I was transformed. The wounds were, in some way, part of what made Budapest beautiful. Grandeur had learned pain and humanity and come up nobler and more moving for it.

Returning now, the wounds are mostly patched up; the thirties city, which is also the 19th-century city — in other words the pre-Trianon Treaty, Greater Hungary city — reasserts itself. Modernity moves into postmodernity and beyond. To stand on one of the higher hills in Buda and look down towards the Danube is a ravishing sight. To leave Budapest, crossing the Erzsébet Bridge and looking down the river, is heartbreaking. It is, you realise, a deeply civilised city. Such thought and energy has gone into it. And the courtyards, now closed for security, are still sitting there, brewing their silences.

Much of the beauty of Pest courtyards lies in the silence. You walk in off a loud street and suddenly it is as if you are in a well. The depth of an entire apartment is behind you. You become aware of other sounds — a radio, a conversation, water running, someone whistling — but this comes to you slowly, as a gradual immersion. Directly above you sits a square of sky that the residents regard as their own: that sky beams or frowns, depending on the weather. The memory of the courtyards makes me shudder with pleasure and apprehension. In 1985 I wrote a sequence of poems titled The Courtyards. One verse from it might serve as a memento in the still open Magyar utca yard. No need to engrave it, just write it on a piece of paper and stick it on the wall.

As if the past could ever lose its teeth.

As if the eye could swallow everything

and leave the world in darkness, blundering

about the courtyards! As if all the words

not spoken here could congregate like birds

and block out the faint noises from beneath.

Faint noises, growing louder is the mood today. It may be thunder.

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