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Eletut. 3: partra vetett balna.

It was in 1988 that Lorant Kabdebo, a well-known critic and literary historian from Hungary, arrived at Wimbledon in England to spend several seeks in Hongriuscule, Gyozo (Victor) Hatar's friendly house or - as some will have it - mansion. The aim of his visit was to tape the story of Hatar, the Grand Old Man of Hungarian literature. In this he was supported by the oral-history section of the Petofi Literary Museum in Budapest as well as by the Soros Foundation; he was also intending to publish the taped material in book form. The result was Eletut (The Course of My Life), Gyozo Hatar's autobiography, first spoken on tape and then corrected and edited by the interviewee. So, although Kabdebo asks the questions, four-fifths of the book is Hatar's work, and in many cases he himself formulates the questions he will eventually answer; generally speaking, Hatar dominates the book in both content and style.

The first two volumes of this huge autobiography for two voices were published in Szombathely in 1993 and 1994 respectively and followed Hatar's story from his childhood, adolescence, and youth, through his double imprisonment (in 1944 as an antifascist, in the 1950s as an anticommunist), to his eventual escape from Hungary in 1956. The third and concluding volume is in some respects the most important one, for it deals with Hatar's life in England and the impressive unfolding of his creative genius. This has not been a time without strife and trouble, but it has also gradually brought the success and recognition which, in our view, Gyozo Hatar amply deserves. For a number of years he worked in the Hungarian section of the BBC, and though he was pensioned off in 1976, soon afterward he became a regular contributor to the Hungarian-language broadcasts of Radio Free Europe in Munich, a change of jobs that both financially and in terms of popular recognition in Hungary was most advantageous. It certainly did not prevent the quiet reappearance of his name in his native country, which already in 1987 was tolerant enough to publish Hatar's original work, embracing him with enthusiasm after 1990 when the dictatorship finally gave way to democracy. His triumphant reentry into Hungarian literary life peaked with the government's decision to give him the Kossuth Prize, Hungary's highest literary award.

Like the previous volumes of Hatar's autobiography, Partra vetett balna (The Stranded Whale - the title is borrowed from a poem by George Szirtes) is a book that is at once impressive, entertaining, and in parts rather annoying. As a Budapest critic pointed out last year, there is always something oversize or even gigantic about Hatar, whatever he writes. This "titanism" is a trait of romanticism, and it is perhaps not an accident that Hatar's favorite composer is Hector Berlioz, creator of The Damnation of Faust; in fact, our Hungarian writer also orchestrates his prose and plays in a manner that shakes the chandeliers. Whatever happens, happens either on a grand scale or is caused by demonic forces: a manuscript of his which he sends via a fellow writer to Brussels never reaches the publisher; a book of his is not published in French by Denoel because a reader "forgets" to write a report recommending it. Also, there is a Hungarian mafia at work in both London and Paris which constantly raises obstacles to his recognition, and this is the main reason why he is not as well known internationally as Gombrowicz or Kundera. Whether such a mafia really exists is more than questionable; if it does, it is certainly different from the "old Hungarian mafia" of Sir Alexander Korda which caused so much aggravation to Robert Graves, whom Hatar once met in Spain.

It seems that the author of Partra vetett balna thrives on conjecture. One such bizarre instance is his unquestioning acceptance of the delusions of the unfortunate Ferenc Fay (whom Hatar styles, to my mind quite undeservedly, as "the Prince of Poets") that Hatar might have had a good chance to be elected to the first Chair of Hungarian at the University, of Toronto. Hatar is a trained architect, and while he is an undisputed master of the Hungarian language, he holds no degree in history or literature; an application for this chair back in the early 1970s would have brought him only grave disappointment. Another conjecture (one squarely contradicted by facts) is his reference to the "40,000 dead of the Hungarian uprising of 1956." The real figure quoted in a recent popular work on the subject, Az 1956-os magyar forradalom (1991), is under 3,000.

These points (and one could cite quite a few more of interest only to the Hungarian reader) are, if you like, pockmarks on the sternly gazing self-portrait of Gyozo Hatar, which also has a malicious little smile at the corners of the mouth. This smile is reserved for literary enemies and rivals; it seems that none of the well-known modern Hungarian writers (with the possible exception of Sandor Weores) finds much sympathy with him. As for emigre literati, he intensely dislikes most of them, and only two or three poets, all resident in the United States, are praised fulsomely, for the right or wrong reasons. At any rate, the most gripping parts of these memoirs happen to be those where Hatar talks about the subject he knows best: himself and his immediate family. The sad story of his mother's last years in England and her suicide at a very advanced age belongs to the best pages of Partra vetett balna; the description of his life in the London of the late 1950s and early 1960s and the story of his "French temptation" are also memorable. Readers of Hatar unfamiliar with his single most ambitious work, Golgheloghi (1976; see WLT 51:3, p. 474), will find some interesting comments about the message and reception of this vast cycle of mystery plays. In the appendix the writer's wife Piroska Pragay tells her own story, and a variety, of personal documents (in facsimile) and photographs complete the fascinating life story of the author, who is now over eighty and still full of creative energy. The oeuvre which he leaves behind is certain to provide work for generations of literary historians.

George Gomori University of Cambridge
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Author:Gomori, George
Publication:World Literature Today
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1996
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