Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Author's Portrait: Dezső Kosztolányi

On a literary map of the world Hungary certainly isn’t the first European country that catches the eye. In fact, there aren’t an awful lot of Hungarian writers who managed to attract enough attention to be translated into other languages. Of course, there is Imre Kertész who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2002 (»»» read my review of his Kaddish for an Unborn Child), but who else? The names of Ágota Kristof, Sándor Márai, Magda Szabó and Pál Závada come to my mind. In the first half of the twentieth century Margit Kaffka and Antal Szerb earned fame outside their country along with Dezső Kosztolányi whom I wish to portray today. 

Dezső Kosztolányi was born in the small town of Szabadka (today: Subotica), Austria-Hungary (today: Serbia), on 29 March 1885. His father was the headmaster of the local high school as well as teacher of physics and chemistry there, while his mother brought some French spirit into the family through her origins. A rebellious mind from an early age, he was expelled from high school for his lack of discipline and sent to Szeged, Hungary, to continue his education as was proper for a boy of his class. Following more troubles with teachers he was only a private student, though, and during that time, in October 1901, he made his literary debut with a poem which was published in Budapesti Napló (a daily). He graduated from the high school in Szeged as an extern in 1903. 

In autumn 1903 Dezső Kosztolányi took up his studies of Hungarian and German philology at the University of Budapest, but moved on to Vienna a year later to enrol in philosophy and literature at the university there. However, already in 1905 he gave up altogether his studies because he got the opportunity to start a career as a journalist. From then on he kept writing all his life for different Hungarian newspapers.

In 1906 Dezső Kosztolányi became a regular member of the editorial staff of Budapesti Napló. In the wake of the Great War, more precisely after the disintegration of the Austro-Hungarian double-monarchy in 1918, the author joined a group of writers and other artists who supported the Communist government which was brought down the year after. He continued to write chronicles for Új nemzedék (New Generation) which were highly polemical. As from 1921 the author worked for Pesti Hirlap (Pester Newspaper).

All his life Dezső Kosztolányi also translated works of famous authors like Georg Büchner, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Joris-Karl Huysmans, Guy de Maupassant, Molière, William Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde, and Thornton Wilder into Hungarian.

The writer’s poems, essays and literary critiques regularly appeared in different journals, among them Hét (Week) and Nyugat (West), a renowned literary journal which Dezső Kosztolányi founded in 1908 and of which he was the editor. The author’s first compilation of own poems previously published in journals and papers came out in 1907 under the title Négy fal között (Between Four Walls). A szegény kisgyermek panaszai (The Complaints of a Poor Little Child) was his first volume of poetry and established him as a poet of great renown. Until his death he wrote an immense quantity of verse and brought out twelve volumes of it. 

Only in the 1920s Dezső Kosztolányi turned his attention increasingly to prose. The author’s first novel to appear was Darker Muses: The Poet Nero (Nero, a véres költő: 1922). It was followed by Skylark (Pacsirta: 1924) which in the German edition was supplemented by an introduction by Thomas Mann. Another two novels, Aranysárkány (The Golden Kite) and Anna Edes (Édes Anna), came out in 1925 and 1926 respectively. Along with the novels the author produced several short story collections, the most famous of them titled Kornel Esti (Esti Kornél: 1933). In German translation A kleptomán fordító (The Kleptomaniac Translator) from 1933 is considered to be not his best, but his most famous individual short story.

Available in English are only Darker Muses: The Poet Nero, Skylark, Anna Edes, and Kornel Esti, while the choice is wider in German and above all French.

The literary work of Dezső Kosztolányi is most noted for its unusual mix of humour and melancholy displaying subtle irony as well as tenderness. Up to this day the author is considered as one of the great masters of short prose for the purity and lucidity of his style. Moreover, his narratives are marked by a deep insight into the human soul torn between conscious decisions and unconscious urges as well as by a precise analysis of human relations. 

Dezső Kosztolányi died from cancer of the palate in Budapest, Hungary, on 3 November 1936. 

For want of a well researched biography in book form this portrait is based on the Wikipedia articles on Dezső Kosztolányi in English, German and French.

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