Writing in exile: Hungarian authors in Paris and Berlin

abstract painting showing a number of portraits of a man overlaid with images of paper and writing

Literature is not only an author’s means of self-expression, but it can transform our perception of spaces and places. This blogs looks at a number of Hungarian writers who have lived and worked abroad, with their literature reflecting their perceptions of their new cities.

For those writers who, for any reason, feel isolated in their native cultural environment, such literary migration can be an option to experiment and explore.

Paris – in the eye of the beholder

Due to the technological circumstances, most readers in the early 20th century could only perceive giant metropolitan cultural cities through their literary representations. Hungarian authors like Endre Ady or Gyula Illyés gained their most influential experiences in Paris, for example.  However, the very same Paris made highly different impressions on the two poets.

EXPLORE MORE: Gallery: Paris, city of art

Ady immersed himself in the bourgeois nights of Paris, enjoying the city’s pleasures while lamenting on existential questions. One of his most famous poems takes the readers to the scenic boulevard St. Michel.

‘Autumn slipped into Paris yesterday, came silently down Boulevard St Michel
In sultry heat, past boughs sullen and still, and met me on its way.’

Autumn passed through Paris, Endre Ady (translated by Doreen Bell)

Ady’s passion for Paris derived from the cultural buzz of the urban scene. He famously described Nagyvárad (today this is Oradea in Romania), the town where he worked after coming back from Paris as ‘Paris on the banks of the Pece’. 

EXPLORE MORE: Digitised collections about Endre Ady

On the other hand, Illyés had a stronger emphasis on social issues. Paris – in his eyes – was rather the scene for the grandiose changes in French society.

blurry black and white photograph of a man wearing a suit
Portrait of the young Gyula Illyés who had to flee from Hungary for his collaboration with illegal communist organisations. Interestingly there is a Verlaine quote on the other side of the photo.

Illyés Gyula, 1922, Petőfi Literary Museum, In copyright

Moreover, his very reason for moving to Paris was more of a political necessity. He participated in illegal communist formations in the beginning of the century, which resulted in his subsequent political persecution. After amnesty was granted to Illyés, he came back to Hungary with the social experience he had in Paris, and the politically doctrines he acquired from the Marxist thinkers he met.       

EXPLORE MORE: Digitised collections about Gyula Illyés

This divergence in their gaze is both reflected in their representation of Paris and their poetic voice. Paris was seen as both a cosmopolitan cultural point of reference and a vivid scene for a potential social transformation.

Berlin – a stage for the open world

Sándor Márai, a Hungarian author who lived and worked in Berlin, representing his emigration and an image of the German capital – based on his particular and often biased perceptions.

Due to the geographical proximity, and more importantly, to Hungary’s embedded status in German culture (thanks to the centuries long history with the Habsburg Empire), Germany has been a popular destination for Hungarian artists and writers wanting to broaden their horizons. They spoke the language, and should be familiar with the culture.

EXPLORE MORE: Gallery of views of Berlin

When he moved to Berlin in the 1920s, Márai was initially shocked by the cultural differences. He had a hard time adapting to the cosmopolitan values. At first he found it confusing to deal with cosmopolitan gender roles that so highly differ from the conservative Eastern-European model.

‘The confusion of genders rule the fused city. I see women disguised in Prussian military uniform, wearing a monocle, smoking cigars, and some of them go so far that they keep military manuals on their bedside table. Men who are factory owners by day dress up as snake-charmers at night. Berlin wither is a long permanent masquerade.’

The Confessions of a Haut-Bourgeois, Sándor Márai

Though these descriptions fuelled the scepticism of Hungarian conservatives of the time about the strange, untraditional ways of cosmopolitanism, Márai finally asserts to his readers that development and civil values are the only means of progress, and it does not inevitably result in the distortion of regional customs. 

‘Always keep West. And never forget that you came from the East.’
 
– Sándor Márai

Márai was inspired by his German colleague, Thomas Mann, as both of them represented humanism and civil values in a menacing time. 

EXPLORE MORE: Digitised collections about Sándor Márai


Today’s technology can help us in getting a complex image on these cultural spaces. The Petőfi Literary Museum in Budapest is digitising exhibitions and collections relating to Hungarian authors who wrote aboard, and in Europeana, we find a large digital collection on migration and cultural life. 

By Zoltán Mogyorósi, Petőfi Literary Museum

This blog post is a part of the Europeana Common Culture project, which explores varied aspects of our shared cultural heritage across Europe.

Feature image: Ady arcai, Roland Szabó Lajos, Göcseji Múzeum, CC BY-NC-SA

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