In contrast with Western Europe, where the history of the modern novel had its beginnings with the rise of the Third Estate, in Hungary this genre appeared around the end of the eighteenth century, at the time when a sizable and nationally conscious native bourgeoisie did not yet exist. The most bourgeois of literary forms was thus championed by the more enlightened representatives of the privileged classes. Another peculiarity of late eighteenth century Hungarian literary life was that while nearly every intellectual realized the necessity to develop a sovereign national cultural atmosphere, imitations of Western European forms continued to prevail. In the case of the novel, the example of the English model, with its moderate, moralizing sentimentality, and of the French writers, with their cooler, rational detachment, were particularly strong influences. The German trends were also prominent on the scene, but, in part because of the uncomfortable presence of Habsburg domination, a number of Hungarian writers were reluctant to follow them.
In accordance with what many Hungarian intellectuals adopted as their motto, “The chief hope of a country’s happiness lies through knowledge,” the earliest novels were earmarked by enlightened curiosity and newly gained erudition. The various aspects of Neoclassicism were mixed with the baroque and rococo elements of the Habsburg culture, while faint signs of sentimental and Romantic attitudes foreshadowed the developments that were to take place during the nineteenth century.
Popular interest in the novel was increasing, but works of long fiction were available to Hungarian readers mostly in the form of poor translations (or, more often, adaptations) based on foreign works of questionable value. The term roman even acquired a pejorative connotation among some intellectuals, who criticized the genre as much for its “immorality” as for its lack of aesthetic standards. Among the earliest examples of original Hungarian novels, the most successful were those that catered to the sentimental outlook of the women readers and the nationalistic pride of the men. Thus, in a country where lyric and narrative poetry were traditionally considered the chief forms of literary expression, the novel was well on its way to becoming the new, modern national epic.
After the beginning of the nineteenth century, a small but determined group of intellectuals initiated a thorough reform of the Hungarian language. They emphasized originality, individuality, and new aesthetic principles, and they revealed their concern for the development of a less feudalistic and tradition-bound society by coining phrases and words to fit timely concepts, thus opposing the linguistic (and social) isolationism of their opponents. They may have broken some of the rules of grammar and “offended the spirit of the language,” as their critics claimed, but the majority of their linguistic innovations passed into literary and everyday use. Their campaign also brought literature to the center of Hungarian public life. Shrewd publishers offered more and more novels to satisfy popular demand. The quality of these writings improved rather slowly, and imitations and adaptations continued to prevail for decades; nevertheless, by the 1840’s a number of significant novels dealing with the social problems of the past and the present appeared. Exhibiting the positive influence of the French and English Romantics, Hungarian writers introduced well-drawn characters in fast-paced action, and their manner of depiction also became more convincing.
In addition to offering plenty of adventure and excitement to the readers, Romanticism was also in perfect accord with the birth or revival of national consciousness sweeping Europe during the nineteenth century. One important aspect of this process was that men of letters made the study of folk life and folk literature one of their aims, in order to depict better the lives of, and eventually to give voice to the long-neglected aspirations of, the commoners. In Hungary, this trend held out the promise of a more democratic approach to national characterization as well as to literary activity in general. Romantic philosophy was domesticated by equating the concept of True Man with that of the True Hungarian. During what came to be called an “era of the people,” populist aesthetic principles and practices came to prevail, and increasingly realistic elements were introduced into the essentially Romantic prose of the mid-nineteenth century. To a certain extent, this was true even in the case of Mór Jókai (1825-1904), the greatest and most prolific Romantic storyteller of Hungary, whose imaginative power, spontaneously allied with the prevailing sentiments of his countrymen, was supremely responsible for the creation of many national illusions.
Romanticism continued to dominate the Hungarian novel, even though there were writers, most notably József Eötvös (1813-1871), whose works approached in quality the best that European realism had to offer. The problems and contradictions of society, however, became the central...
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