József Lengyel

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Lengyel, József

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1,116 words.)