Not long ago a right-radical “literary historian” complained bitterly that a new one-volume history of Hungarian literature made no mention of Albert Wass, Dezső Szabó, and Cecile Tormay. Surely, the argument went, liberal literary historians left out these greats of Hungarian literature because of their political orientation. It never occurred to these people that there might be another reason for the omission: they were not good enough writers to be included in a general literary survey.
I happen to have a large volume that contains the names and brief appreciations of writers and poets who were active between 1945 and 1981. There are literally hundreds of names, and I’d bet that even people who paid attention to the contemporary literary scene wouldn’t recognize some of them. Or, another example from the United States. I happen to be reading a travelogue by János Szász, a Hungarian writer from Romania, who received a scholarship to attend the Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa in 1976. He mentions an American novelist who made a big splash during his stay in the United States. Not exactly a household word nowadays. The author’s fame came and went. It can happen.
Of the three writers Rózsa Hoffmann felt compelled to include in the basic high school curriculum József Nyirő (1889-1953) seems to me the most talented. A couple of his works are on the Internet: a short story that was published in 1930 in the very prestigious periodical Nyugat (The West) and a novel, Mádéfalvi veszedelem (Danger in Mádéfalva). But this is just a small sample. As a result of renewed interest in writers who were neglected during the socialist period, Kairosz, a publishing house specializing in Catholic and/or right-wing literature and politics, has reissued his complete works in seventeen volumes. This set is nestled in the Kairosz catalogue alongside practically all the books of Zsolt Bayer, the anti-Semitic journalist of Magyar Hírlap; an interview volume with Krisztina Morvai of Jobbik fame; and another with Gábor Széles, the owner of Magyar Hírlap. György Bedő, the owner of Kairosz, is not exactly a moderate conservative.
Nyirő’s name has been in the papers lately, and not only because of his inclusion in the basic high school curriculum. Nyirő died in Spain, and his remains just arrived in Budapest from where they will travel to Székelyudvarhely (Odorheiu Secuiesc) for reburial. It seems that the idea of the reburial didn’t come from Nyirő’s home turf, the Szekler region of Transylvania, but from László Kövér, the speaker of the Hungarian Parliament. As far as I can ascertain, the expenses incurred will be paid by the Hungarian government. The reburial will be a fancy affair. A special train called the Blessed Lady Pilgrimage Train will make the journey, and between Csíkszereda (Miercurea Ciu) and Székelyudvarhely hussars will follow the coffin.
Not everything is going smoothly with the ceremony, however, on the Romanian side. The mayor (RMDSZ) of Székelyudvarhely doesn’t want to allow the organizers to use the town’s main square. Behind the squabble is the Orbán government’s interference in the political life of the Hungarian minority in Romania. So, Nyirő is a very controversial figure not only when it comes to literature but also in current politics.
Actually, even the Nyirő supporters admit that the once famous writer wasn’t exactly a master of Hungarian prose. Specifically, he couldn’t really put together a tight and coherent plot line when it came to novels. He was very good at writing short stories, but all his novels are basically no more than a series of short stories strung together and called a novel. He is often compared to Áron Tamási, another Transylvanian writer from the same Szekler area. But Tamási’s Ábel a rengetegben (Abel in the wilderness) is a real masterpiece. Apparently, Nyirő wrote his Uz Bence almost as an answer to Tamási’s novel, but the competition between the two clearly turned out in Tamási’s favor. I don’t know whether Tamási’s Ábel a rengetegben is in the curriculum but if it is, there is no need for an inferior version of it by Nyirő.
What is the real point of contention when it comes to Nyirő? It is his politics. After the Second Vienna Award (1941) József Nyirő became a member of the Hungarian parliament and on the side he was the editor of a right-wing weekly called Magyar Erő (Hungarian Might). In 1944 he worked for another right-wing publication called Magyar Ünnep (Hungarian Holiday). What really marred his reputation was that after the Szálasi take-over he remained a member of parliament and became one of those who followed Szálasi in his flight to the west. His critics call him a fascist while his apologists try to minimize his political involvement. But even his admirers had to notice that Nyirő’s ideas showed a close relationship to the Nazis’ racism. His critics talk about his confusion between love and hatred, between Christianity and paganism. They claim that he is even more confused and harder to follow than Dezső Szabó who naturally had a great influence on him. But there was one difference between the two: Szabó fiercely opposed both German Nazism and its Hungarian variety, Szálasi’s Arrow Cross movement.
Not so Nyirő who even in exile kept in close contact with those members of Szálasi’s inner circle who were not sent back to Hungary by the Allies. He was close friends with Albert Wass as well as “the court poet” of Szálasi, Géza Alföldi. He was also a good friend of Lajos Marschalkó, who was condemned to death in absentia in Hungary. Marschalkó was the leading light of those on the extreme right who supported the ideas of Ferenc Szálasi. He was a fierce anti-Semite whose most famous (or infamous) book is Világhódítók: Az igazi háborús bűnösök (World conquerors: The real war criminals). It must have sold well. I have the third edition of it. Marschalkó received the József Nyirő Prize in 1954, a year after the death of Nyirő. Birds of a feather. It is hard to imagine that Nyirő was not an avowed Hungarian Nazi.