Whether literature inherently carries at least some sort of social responsibility or not is as old a debate as the one aiming to answer the question whether or not politics could somehow be absent from literary representations. Can we depict something ‘innocently,’ or the narration cannot but have a political element to it, pushing us from mere perception to judgment? These are core questions that led literature through the boulevard of modernism to the wobbly alleys of postmodern aesthetics.
And these are certainly not questions Móricz would ever explicitly address, especially not in 1910, at the very beginning of his literary career, when he wrote Gold in the Mud. This was before his political disillusionment and the escalation of a bitter opposition between urbanist (urbánus) writers and those focusing on the countryside (népi). Gold in the Mud is a novel that does things with words; it is a novel which deploys its two main narrational strengths, an inexorable naturalism and a typifying, ballad-like exaggeration of its characters to express a clear message – serfdom is paralyzing for the aspirational and all-devouring for the ordinary. This is a message Móricz brought with himself from his own impoverished childhood. Hence, regardless of the somewhat stylized tone, his figures emerge from an immensely personal yet profoundly empirical source.
The bare bones of the plot could be mistaken for that of a ballad. A poor lad outwitting his social environment manages to gain respect for himself – – along with the most beautiful and loyal woman of the village – in spite of his originally low social status, only for a subsequent tragedy to take it all away from him along with his sanity and innocence. But the flesh of the story is quintessentially modern, showing the same person in repeated adultery and brutal marital abuse, as higher and higher hopes for the future coincide with pettier and pettier household conflicts, tensions and immoral acts. As the mutually caused emotional damage becomes irretrievable, Móricz also reveals the helpless and almost pathetic nature of the wife’s moral purity and religiosity. Thus the characters are both psychologically convincing and typified enough to allow the reader to see the story as a casting mould from which individual details could easily be erased. The story reads well both as a somewhat twisted modernist folktale and as a mythological battle disguised as a naturalist account in the manner of Zola.
The personal and the social tension between Dani Turi and his wife, and between him and the village mirror each other: restlessness and a frustrated need to grow clashes with a content, conservative idleness in both. Móricz shows not only how a calcified class system wastes human talent, but also how positive elements in this very system, like Erzsi’s humble loyalty, can become poisonous rather than soothing for a person who is doomed to outgrow his world. Equally unsettling is the damage the eruption of Dani’s cumulative frustration inflicts on the village and the accompanying realization that searching for responsibility is utterly in vain here.
Thus this passionately written classic of modern Hungarian literature carries with it the atmosphere of a bygone era, when sociographic depictions were seen as potential contributors to better social policies and greater social awareness. Depicting rural Hungary as a poverty-stricken place with suffocatingly narrow horizons was a remedy for the irrealistic idealizations of the previous era of romanticism, where peasantry was seen as a source of raw creativity, health and a kind of cultural richness that could be the basis of a blossoming national identity. Móricz, in spite of still using some clichés of that romanticism – like the fragile countess dreaming of the rough and healthy touch of her ‘peasant Don Juan’ – depicts a world that needs urgent change. It is a world in crisis albeit not a recognized one.
And this is why reading Móricz is not only great if one is interested in that specific time and place or a broader social history of Central Europe. Although the link between the delineated reality and the politics of this representation is so clear that for a contemporary reader used to more challenging narrative intricacies it could almost seem naive, Gold in the Mud is a poignant and timely read. Its vivid and intimate scenes have an evocative power matched only by a few, thereby allowing the reader to get absorbed in the personal struggles. Whether or not the novel is truly sociographic in a sense that it offers an accurate depiction of Hungarian serfdom despite its political program is a matter of longstanding dispute in Hungarian literary history. What is unquestionable though, is its power on the personal level: as Móricz drags his characters through ups and downs in this rural universe lacking any sort of teleology that could justify suffering, a psychologically extremely realistic portrait emerges in the text, told in a rich, distinctly regional language.
This might be the only aspect the otherwise rather sensitive English translation is lacking, as the translator chose to drop the archaisms and dialectical elements. Whether the text gains or loses with this strategy, is difficult to decide, and remains a matter of conviction in translational theory. Either way, making this novel accessible for English readers was a long overdue and crucially important task, so it was a great pleasure to witness it accomplished.
Zsigmond Móricz: Gold in the Mud
Translated by Virginia L. Lewis
Library Cat Publishing, 2014
Read translator's introduction here