There are various reasons an author can be considered a classic. If the author lived sufficiently long time ago and his works survived and still read that’s one way. If the author writes about universal themes in a way that ‘s value and/or style is considered worthy by enough and the right people is another. I assumed that Mihály Babits (1883-1941) was a Hungarian classical writer because we studied him in high school. I vaguely remember some of his poems and this page that has citations from him in Hungarian certainly jumped my memory. But the only thing I read from him since I graduated high school was a novel (“A gólyakalifa”) that was published in English under the title “The nightmare.” (Here is a good summary and review in English about that intriguing book.)
My growing interest in the classics in general led me recently to seek out Hungarian classics. The only audiobook I found from him was a collection of short stories titled “Hatholdas rózsakert” (The six-acre rose garden) It contains 15 short stories, although the first one, bearing the title of the collection is more like novella considering its length. My overall impression and memory of the stories is that Babits managed to find and present unusual perspectives in all kinds of stories. Unusual in his case mean seeking out what makes a human tick, finding out what kind of thoughts and emotions drive people. Some of the stories are re imagination of older stories by other authors. As a result of this, his archaic, often biblical language, his focus on universal values (that do not depend on the circumstances) and care for all humans I think he can be categorized as neo-classical. Reading him made me realize that I like neo-classical literature. I certainly enjoyed both his form of prose and his insights. Here is a set of quick summaries:
- Hatholdas rózsakert (The six-acre rose garden) – A young man in Gádoros, a small town almost gets married when a woman decides he will be her husband. He simply cannot say no and gets more and more entangled until it’s almost too late.
- Harc az angyallal (Fighting the angel) – A doctor makes a visit to Angyal(Angel) a woman with a headache who is compared to an angel, an angel with a sword. She forces him to write a note in order to mislead and manipulate her husband.
- Kezdodik Éliás testvér hiteles története (The beginning of the authentic story of Brother Elijah) – a conversion story of a a monk, based on having a series of vision, told in the Hungarian equivalent language of the King James Bible.
- Az angyal (The angel) – Azaziel’s, an angel’s story soon after the creation, including his wanderings and struggles on Earth . He foresaw the future of his sons, also giants, born by his wife a human woman. It’s also a musing about human nature, “they don’t have big souls, but they live big lives.”
- Karácsonyi Madonna (Madonna at Christmas) – A member of a drunk company decides to check out the superstition whether Mary, Jesus’ mother, really walks in the church on her own Christmas night in the church is true or ot, despite the belief that whoever sees her dies.
- Mese a Decameronból (Fairy tale from the Decameron) – Retelling of one of the naughty stories from Boccaccio’s Decameron, where the originally simple and deceived woman is cast as a true believer who seeks and finds the miracle of salvation.
- Odysseus és a szirének (Odysseus and the sirens) – The encounter of Homer’s Odysseus with the sirens makes Odysseus keep thinking about them and not his beloved but remote Penelope. The essay explores his self-inflicted pain and guilt that he asked himself to be tied down.
- Szerelem (Love) – A man’s monologue to the object if his love with lots of going back and forth whether it would be better if he forces her to admit whether she loves him or not or whether it would be better not to force her in case she doesn’t. Similarly should
- Dzsonni, a tengerész (Johnny, the sailor) – Johnny is a sailor whose job is to feed the ship’s engine with coal is locked in the engine room during a battle and sinks and dies with the ships. The mermaid who are supposed to take care of people’s bodies who die on the sea are bit confused as they cannot get to his.
- A Jézust kereso kisfiú (The boy looking for Jesus) – A boy was not allowed to go up to the mountain where Jesus gave his sermon. Jesus’ disciples didn’t want to have kids around as they disturbed their studying. By the end of the story he dies and goes straight to Jesus in Heaven. A modern exegesis on Mark 10:14: “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.”
- A torony árnyéka (The tower’s shadow) – A magical realist story about a tower with a shade that was at unnatural angle to protect a sick person. Told in a first person narrative by a skeptic.
- György, a favágó (George, the lumberjack) – A musing on beauty and ugliness, inside and outside. An ugly old lumberjack catches and hurts one of the young, beautiful (and cruel) women who kept teasing him
- János és Péter (John and Peter) – Fictional theological debate in the court of King Matthias (15th century, Hungary) about whether God can barf? It is also a reasoning why Peter was chosen as the Christ’s governor and not John. (Peter learned from his mistakes.) The debate turns political and its real winner is a quiet observer, Beatrice, the King’s Italian born wife.
- Tó a hegyek között (Lake in the mountains) – A man moves to the countryside from Budapest to seek solace after his fiancee died in a boating accident. There at a remote lake he encounters a maiden whose fiancee was also killed. He also realizes that the real reason he left the city was to avoid the guilt he felt when he encountered his fiancee’s acquaintances. He felt guilty, because at the bottom of his heart he didn’t want to marry the woman.
- Egy biztos nyár (A secure summer) – A middle class family places an ad for the radio looking for an au pair for their child for the summer during the Great Depression. The hundreds of responses from desperate young women overwhelm them. The story is about the unwanted and undeserved power we have over other people’s lives.
These simple summaries of course overlook the nuances of the story by being short but will give you a sense of the book’s themes. Before ending this post let me quote the end of Babits’ most famous poem, “Before Easter”. (The translation is from here.) He wrote it in 1916, in the middle of the Great War and attest to his grand soul.
Oh peace! come peace!
we want peace again!
Let us breathe again!
The dead do not seek revenge,
the dead do not mind us.
Brothers, if we stay alive,
leave the past behind us.
Who was guilty? never ask,
plant the fields with flowers,
let us love and understand
this great world of ours:
some shall go their work to do,
some their dead to witness:
may God give us bread and wine,
drink up, to forgiveness!