József Lengyel Essay - Critical Essays

Lengyel, József

Lengyel, József 1896–1975

Lengyel, a Hungarian novelist and short story writer, spent the years 1937 to 1955 in Siberian exile and in labor camps. His novel Confrontation is banned in Hungary. (See also Contemporary Authors, obituary, Vols. 57-60.)

Mr. Lengyel is in some ways a paradox in Hungarian literature: something of a new writer at the age of nearly seventy. Not that he started late: his life took a tragic turn, inflicting cruel blows on the man but helping to mature a writer whose present stature is impressive and remarkable.

The outstanding experience of his life was prison and it is only natural that his most important work should describe prison experience.

Mr. Lengyel has lost all signs of his early dogmatism: his prose is simple, lucid, realistic and—after his long absence from his country—contains occasional strange phrases and picturesque Slav images. He is a writer of importance and stature, to be ranked with Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Tibor Déry.

"Other Days in the Life of Jozsef Lengyel," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd., 1965; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), January 21, 1965, p. 52.

Normally, no book from Eastern Europe published in the West ought to be read without preliminary suspicion of tampering or propagandizing on the part of someone—the author's Government, if it officially released the manuscript; the translator, whose relation to the politics of his homeland is usually obscure but necessarily complex; the emigré group that smuggled the manuscript through the Iron Curtain; or the Western publisher, who may well have more than art or even money as his motive for taking it. Oddly enough, none of these sober cold-war caveats seems to apply to Jozsef Lengyel's two novellas [contained in "From Beginning to End"]. Quiet and wise, they escape the push and pull that politics so often exerts on literature….

Since his release [from prison] in 1955, he has returned to his native Hungary and started writing again, but with a difference. Eighteen years of horrible privation purged him, left him with an almost religious feeling for things concrete and basic to life. Bread is the real theme of "From Beginning to End."

Unlike most personal records of concentration camps or forced labor, Lengyel's story does not shriek and rage at the undeniable obscenity he suffered for so long. The horror is all there, to be sure, and in expert detail, but the tone is detached and ruminative. Perhaps the sheer length of time he endured gave Lengyel a certain sophistication or connoisseurship about misery and a sardonic pleasure in its specific variations…. (p. 30)

Bread was the only salvation in such a world. And even outside prison Lengyel retained his reverence for it and for the other fundamental "things" that make life possible….

With Lengyel, for a welcome change, it is men, not ideas, that are at issue. (p. 31)

Raymond A. Sokolov, "Bread Is the Theme," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1968 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 14, 1968, pp. 30-1.

Joszef Lengyel, long considered a modern master in his native Hungary, has become known further afield as one of that group of Russian and Eastern European writers whose main concern is with the tensions and ambiguities of the individual spirit committed to the Marxist historical process—with, in Wilde's phrase, the soul of man under socialism….

Acta Sanctorum is a collection of 16 stories, divided into three groups. The first group dates from the Thirties, the second from the Siberian period, and the third—reflective and almost urbane in contrast to the lyrical intensity of the earlier work—from recent years.

Remotely compassionate, conceding not even the shadow of an illusion, Lengyel's vision presumes a machinery beyond justice and mercy and is never bitter.

Most contemporary English fiction pales in comparison. (p. 555)

Derek Mahon, in The Listener (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1970; reprinted by permission of Derek Mahon), October 22, 1970.

Lengyel is what would be called, were he Russian, an old Bolshevik. As a young man, an expressionist poet, he supported Béla Kun, whose short-lived communist coup of 1919 he has described in Prenn Drifting. After the collapse of the revolution, he escaped to the Soviet Union, where he worked as a journalist until 1937 when he was arrested, as much a counter-revolutionary as the peasant woman in Confrontation who gets 10 years for 'extolling Western technology' when she praises some Mecklenburgh horses seized from the Nazis….

Lengyel has claimed Stendhal as his model. This links him, like Solzhenitsyn and Tolstoy, to a 19th-century tradition of social analysis in epic format—Confrontation being, after all, only one chapter in the lost illusions of modern Hungary that Lengyel has set himself to chronicle. The two 20th–century writers, however, seem closer to each other than to their mentors, writing in what one sadly acknowledges could be described as a proliferating genre of prison-camp literature.

The whole notion of a confrontation, a debate between hack and heretic, is central to this genre. One may already recognise certain characteristic types: the man of integrity lacking the courage to protest, the mercenary wife, the thug turned cop, the hooligan become revolutionary hanger-on, the ideologically uncompromising youth who has never had to prove himself. Plot motifs recur, too, like the final pathetic glimpse of hope and humanity in the love between a man and a woman, swept together by a swell of sea they cannot control.

Susan Knight, "Breaking the Silence," in New Statesman (© 1974 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd), January 25, 1974, p. 122.

As a work of fiction, Confrontation is flawed; the shifting first-person narration is awkward, and some of the minor characters, on whom entire chapters are spent, seem irrelevant. What is worse, the interior monologue employed by Lengyel can become awfully troublesome. In place of a rich, Joycean flow of images and perceptions, Lengyel offers carefully manipulated free associations which invariably lead to the "right" realizations. It is only during the verbal clashes that the novel comes alive—but then it is quite exciting. In these passages Lengyel does not miss the nuances of human interaction behind the intellectual give-and-take.

Forbidden books always seem more daring inside the country where they are banned than when read abroad. In Hungary, where writers know pretty much how far they can go, Lengyel's novel is considered extraordinarily outspoken. But some of the shock value wears off in transit. Lengyel's unsparing analysis of power in a totalitarian state may seem shattering to Hungarians; to us it's old hat. Yet the book deserves our attention, mainly because it affords an insight into people who try to be communists and humanists at the same time. (p. 165)

Ivan Sanders, in Books Abroad (copyright 1975 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 49, No. 1, Winter, 1975.