News – 17th August, 2008

Devoutly gossiping humanists

Antal Szerb and Miklós Szentkuthy

News–17th August, 2008


Antal Szerb was only seven years Szentkuthy’s senior but the lives of young men are such that with one aged twenty and the other twenty-seven the rift in knowledge, scope and erudition can appear insurmountable. At least this is how it seemed to Miklós Szentkuthy.

As a university student, he was amazed by the amount of knowledge that Antal Szerb and Gábor Halász had amassed, their vast wealth of information, their aptitude in literature, aesthetics and philosophy, their hold on the things of the world, and he did his best to catch up with them in all of these areas. According to a daring interpretation that has never so far been tested, we could claim that Szentkuthy’s first and most important novel, Prae, is a Bildungsroman of a mind growing stronger and richer under the influence of these two intellectual figureheads. 
Miklós Szentkuthy was nineteen when he started publishing on a regular basis in the periodical Napkelet. Contributors and editors included his lecturers at university; it was at the editorial meetings that he first met and gradually made friends with the exceptionally talented and educated colleagues Antal Szerb and Gábor Halász, as well as with László Németh and Béla Hamvas, two other figures of importance in 20th century Hungarian literature. Antal Szerb, Gábor Halász and sixteen other literary scholars founded the Kelemen Mikes Academy – in effect an island of the dissident intelligentsia under the Horthy regime.
Szentkuthy, intellectually open and thirsty for new experience, was amazed by Szerb and Halász. After their first encounter he decided that he would make up for his seven-year backlog in a single year and become a worthy partner in conversation to the two intellectual giants. A friendship which was to last until the tragic death of Halász and Szerb (both perished in early 1945 under the horrific conditions of the forced labour camp at Balf) proves that he succeeded at this seemingly impossible mission. At first, Szerb and Szentkuthy focussed their thoughts and enthusiasm on Geistesgeschichte, intellectual history, discussing works by the eminent authors of the age. Shared intellectual experiences included works like Wilhelm Dilthey’s Erlebnis und Dichtung, Herbert Cysarz’ Deutsche Barockdichtung, several works by Friedrich Gundolf on literary history and aesthetics, which in turn directed their attention to Rilke and Stefan George. Szerb showed Szentkuthy the way to a deeper knowledge of the 18th century. In fact Szentkuthy owes Szerb the subject matter for the first instalment in the series of novels The Breviary of St. Orpheus – the journal of Casanova. Szerb also directed him to William Blake and it was through him and Halász that the author became familiar with the way of thinking that characterised authors of the Times Literary Supplement. He was impressed by their
distant, English manner, their abhorrance of humbug, the way they steered clear of the arrogance of the Germans, the hysterics of the French, anything that is extreme, mystical or demagogic, anything that is pseudo-modern; their wise, critical attitude which seems to hover over all things and see all in perspective, accompanied by a light wave of the hand.
Szerb also introduced his friend to the Bloomsbury group – the works of Virginia Woolf, Aldous Huxley, Edward Morgan Forster, Christopher Fry, T. S. Eliot, David Garnet and Lytton Strachey. Szentkuthy was particularly fond of John Donne and even translated some of his work; as well as of 17th century English prose writer Thomas Browne. To the latter he devoted a lengthy piece of analysis near the end of Toward the One and Only Metaphor. Conversations with Gábor Halász made him realise that English literature, more than any other in the world, abounded in outstanding women writers – his first revelations came from Jane Austen, the three Brontë sisters, Charlotte, Emily and Anne, as well as Rose Macaulay and Virginia Woolf.
Upon entering university, Szenkuthy registered to major in English, French and Hungarian – an act he came to regret on the very first day of teaching. In fact he did not speak English and used a pocket dictionary to do his preparations, while all lectures were given in English – and at the French department they were given in French. In the latter he could just about make himself understood, while his German was good even before he started university. He found the lectures a huge challenge – this is precisely why he decided not to abandon his chosen course of studies but work very hard to make up for his handicap in foreign languages.
At the university, English literature was taught by Arthur Yolland (Hoylake, England 1874–Budapest, 1956). Yolland had translated fiction and academic prose into English; wrote a book about Hungary under the same title which came out in London in 1917 and was well received; and also published English-Hungarian and Hungarian-English dictionaries which Szenkuthy thought appalling. Nor did he think any better of the lectures given by this tennis trainer turned professor, who practically read out each of his lectures. At first the two of them were not particularly fond of each other, but Yolland, ‘who looked like a butler in an English film,’ still managed to awaken Szentkuthy’s interest in 17th century English literature. Through Yolland he came to know Crashaw, the great Catholic baroque poet Ben Jonson whose oeuvre served as subject matter for his doctoral thesis, the decadent Ernest Christopher Dowson, pre-Raphaelite Swinburne and many others.
As a would-be writer, Szentkuthy had no interest in speaking the language – he just wanted to be able to read anything. Thanks to this laziness, when in 1848 he had the chance to meet Dylan Thomas and T. S. Eliot with the mediation of the Countess Katinka Andrássy, wife of Mihály Károlyi, he decided to stay in the background, claiming that if someone did not speak English at the highest literary standard they should not speak at all.
Beyond a taste for the English Baroque, Arthur Yolland also introduced him to the reckless gastronomic habits of the English. After the two made friends, at a dinner party of four Szentkuthy was shocked to find that one could drink (and beer at that!) while eating dinner and that one could also eat cheese and butter at the same time – both of which were unimaginable forms of behaviour in the bourgeois household of the Pfisterers (Szentkuthy’s original name).
Szentkuthy wrote his doctoral thesis on the plays of Ben Jonson in 1931. He had plans for a grand, comprehensive work but the outline was rejected by his lecturers – in fact Szentkuthy himself knew that were he to become a priest he would have to start as a bishop otherwise he would never have the patience to trace his steps all the way up the hierarchy. ‘How I loathe this lie of a thesis – a pile of data and quotes; the repulsive futility of precision. I am only allowed to write if every syllable is substantiated by a syllable from Ben Jonson. A philological agony,’ he wrote in his journal. This was already amounting to no less than a rejection of German existentialist philosophy, then of German intellectual history and eventually of unfeeling French philology and to a yearning for the English freedom of the spirit. He complained of his dilemma to Antal Szerb, in London at the time, who encouraged him in his letter of May 17th 1930, ‘do not worry about your thesis! Make as bad a job of it as you can – the more you do that the more the potentates will like it.’ After its completion the dissertation gave rise to newer plans – Szentkuthy wanted to carry on the work in the form of a grand study of intellectual history which would also be his thesis submitted for the next rung of the academic ladder which would advance him to the rank of junior lecturer. In order to advance this project he was given a year’s grant in London and worked in the British Museum. However, eventually he was hijacked by the dynamism of contemporary English literature and instead of a thesis wrote his novel Prae. While working on his doctoral thesis he already construed a dichotomy which was to provide the structural frame for the intellectual edifice of Prae: on the one side an almost sadistic respect for reason, for which the ideal type was Gábor Halász; on the other side the striving to bring a decidedly human and humane harmony to the inhumanity of theory – the latter tendency best exemplified of course by Antal Szerb. At least, this is the case in Szentkuthy’s first novel and his later portrait of Szerb – between these two stages their friendship was interrupted by a minor intermezzo in 1941. The occasion for this was when Szentkuthy first began to attack, with the vehemence of a knight in armour, the methodology of a famous scholar of mythology, Károly Kerényi, a figure of unquestioned authority, in the context of a work by Kerényi on the history of religion entitled Die antike Religion. Eine Grundlegung. To put the matter quite simply, Szentkuthy detected in Kerényi’s work the lights and shades of ancient romantic German spirit and reproached him for an understanding of mythology which actually went back to Schelling’s romanticist agenda. Ignoring temporal, historical and geographical distances, the scholar depicted the god figures in a fashion stereotypical even in its many-faced fashion, as though they had not undergone a course of development spanning a thousand years and as though the nuanced complexity of the mythological characters had been there from the very start. It was Szerb who had introduced Szentkuthy and Kerényi to each other, and in the debate between the two he took Kerényi’s side as their friendship had a longer history. Thus Szentkuthy, when criticising Kerényi, was also indirectly addressing his critique to Szerb.
Even despite this intermezzo, the friendship between Szentkuthy and Szerb was weathered and trained by daily encounters throughout a decade and a half – in  fact they discussed every little detail of life. Szerb was practically the only one to know Szentkuthy’s secret that his mother, a practicing Catholic, was actually Jewish by origin, and thus Szentkuthy himself was also half Jewish. After Hitler’s anti-Jewish laws were passed in Hungary, the writer was terrified that he would also suffer at the hands of the regime, but he never feared that Szerb would betray his family secret. (The fact that Szentkuthy’s wife had assumed the Catholic religion only before their wedding and under Szentkuthy’s influence was a widely known fact and actually represented a far more direct threat.) This long, rich and inspiring friendship was summarised by Szentkuthy in an essay he wrote about Szerb almost two years after the latter’s death. He was fascinated by the literary challenge of describing how Antal Szerb had moved from the ‘pretty blue flowers’ type romanticism of Hölderlin and Jean Paul though the Geistesgeschichte of Gundolf, Dilthey and Cysarz to the Romanticism of the English
which transition process is actually identical with the process of “humanisation” and increasing melancholy in Antal Szerb. This is because the essence of German romanticism is to strive for metaphors as haughty as those of the religious founders and for comprehensive, all-solving mythical ideologies […]; while English romanticism let loose on literature the madness of the individual, the selfish hobby-horses of loneliness, the alienated lunacy of opium-smoking country curates and clandestine private lunatics. The German world is an exulted Olympus […], the English world (and this is the world of the mature Szerb) is one of the inner freedom of the lonely man who cares little about theory or synthesis; a resigned, humorous, eccentric world. This is the world that Chesterton (one of Szerb’s favourites) describes when he lauds the family home, saying that the best thing about home is that it is a place where anyone can live a life as anarchic or fantastic as they please. You are master there – the power of states and churches ceases on your doorstep…
In the same essay he lauds Szerb for being free of a servile admiration for sheer expertise and of professional obscurity – this he considers a very English trait. Szerb, he states, would never use more of his vast erudition than was required by ‘a cultured man with a heart’, thus he desired to be a ‘devoutly gossiping humanist’ rather than a scholar. Thus, in Szentkuthy’s view, Szerb inhabits the kind of world that Powys described in Pleasures of Literature – a world where the main rule is to oust any academic construct and instead immerse yourself in the dark and profound pleasure of reading and admire poetry to the death.
In The Breviary of St. Orpheus, the part entitled Canonised Despair, Szentkuthy impersonates his friend and intellectual mentor in the figure of friar Antonio Serbello. All of the above seems to show that we are not mistaken if we suspect that of the characters in Prae Halbert and his father, an Anglican vicar at Exeter, reflect in their spirituality the English-learnt eclecticism and sense of humour of Szerb; while in the figure of  Leville-Touqué we recognise Gábor Halász’s admiration for French raison. Naturally, Szentkuthy’s characters are not as stereotypical as Károly Kerényi’s god figures. Just as he himself was a composite of many persons, Halbert, too, had a dose of German precision about him, just as Leville-Touqué has about him a streak of Latin lightness.

József J. Fekete

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