When Viktor Orbán’s nationalist government published its National Basic Curriculum for literature a couple of weeks ago, citizens discovered to their amazement that Imre Kertész, who in 2002 became the first Hungarian awarded the Nobel Prize for literature, was no longer on the “required” reading list.
Kertész, who had been deported to Auschwitz and other Nazi camps as a teenager in 1944, is the author of Fatelessness, an ironic masterpiece based on his wartime experience. The book was largely ignored by the literary and political establishment in Hungary when it first appeared in 1975, and Kertész remained unknown to most Hungarians and his name was omitted from standard literary histories for decades thereafter. It was only when Fatelessness and several of his other works were translated into German in the 1990s that he came to the Nobel committee’s attention.
After he was awarded the Nobel in 2002, Kertész could no longer be ignored in his native country. Some nationalists and anti-Semites grumbled that the prize should have been awarded to a “real” Hungarian (i.e., not a Jew); but still, most Hungarians were proud. Kertész finally received the attention he deserved—and Fatelessness became required reading in Hungarian schools.
Fatelessness is a beautiful book, recounting with a kind of deadpan irony the teenage protagonist’s life in Budapest in 1944, at a time when Jews were already forced to wear the yellow star, his deportation, his close encounters with death, and finally his return home in 1945. It’s an odd, willfully provocative bildungsroman, bringing the young boy to adulthood in the most extreme circumstances. In many ways it’s a perfect book for high school students, and according to teachers it usually provokes much discussion in the classroom.
Hungary’s new national curriculum plan deletes Fatelessness from the list of required works (though it will be included among the “recommended” works, according to a government minister), along with several other classics of mid-20th-century Hungarian literature. Instead, the plan promotes a number of writers from the 1930s and ’40s who wrote nostalgic novels about the time before World War I, before Hungary lost two-thirds of its territory in the Versailles Treaty. Ferenc Herczeg (1863-1954), Albert Wass (1908-1998), and József Nyírő (1889-1953) are not exactly household names in Hungary today, though they were popular enough in their time. Herczeg was even mentioned for the Nobel Prize. But they certainly do not belong in the 20th-century literary canon, according to specialists.
What all three writers have in common, aside from being musty, is that they wrote ideological novels that glorify mythical ideas of “Hungarianness” and present Hungary as a victim of Western powers after the Great War; implicitly or explicitly, they call for a return to pre-1919 borders. All three writers espoused nationalist views, with Herczeg the most moderate; Wass and Nyírő were from Transylvania, a region that became part of Romania in 1919 and remains irredentist to this day. These writers have not been taught in schools until now, not even in Transylvania.
That all three were convinced anti-Semites goes almost without saying—quite a few other Hungarian writers were anti-Semites between the two world wars, including the uncontestedly great Dezső Kosztolányi. But Wass, and especially Nyírő, were not only mediocre writers, they went several steps further politically as outright Nazi sympathizers and supporters of the Arrow Cross, which is famous for its enthusiasm in having shot thousands of Jews into the Danube in the winter of 1944-45. Nyírő was an active supporter of Arrow Cross leader Ferenc Szálasi, and edited the party’s newspaper until the bitter end. Both Nyírő and Wass were condemned to death in absentia after the war. (Nyírő fled to Spain; Wass emigrated to the United States, where he lived to a ripe old age.)
The fact that their works were forbidden in Hungary during the Communist years doesn’t make them particularly unique, either. So were those of Sándor Márai, who left Hungary in 1948, after the Communists took over. Today, Márai enjoys a great reputation in Hungary, and for good reason—he was a world-class writer and a humanist. Yet Márai does not appear on the current national curriculum, nor do any number of other important 20th-century writers—not to mention contemporaries like Péter Esterházy, Péter Nádas, or László Krasznahorkai, whose works may be difficult for young students but who are considered among Hungary’s most distinguished contributors to world literature.
The government’s proposed curriculum provoked immediate negative responses in the press and among academic specialists. A letter published in an online newspaper just a few days after the plan became known, on Feb. 7, and signed by close to 50 university professors, made a point of not couching its criticism in political terms but in literary ones. The prescribed books by Herczeg, Wass, and Nyírő were hardly going to make enthusiastic readers of the schoolchildren who would be forced to read them, the signatories wrote. On the contrary, they would turn them off from reading. As a result, it wouldn’t be until they reached university that they would learn to read—if there were any students left who still wanted to study literature, the signatories added somewhat grimly.
A similar case was made by the heads of several university departments of literature, published a few days later, who pointed out that the proposed plan is arbitrary, devoid of literary merit, and crafted by bureaucrats who did not consult any specialists in the field; they demanded that the proposed curriculum plan be withdrawn. A friend from Budapest writes me that more than 15,000 schoolteachers have joined the fray, signing an online petition that demands the same thing. One of the last independent weeklies in Hungary, HVG, published a long article on Feb. 14 again arguing the literary merits (or rather, lack of any merit) of the proposed changes.
It is clear why the Orbán government wants to promote the likes of Wass and Nyírő: their nationalism and irrendentism are in keeping with the government’s current xenophobic rhetoric and self-pity about “Hungarians across the border.” Orbán knows full well that Transylvania and other pre-1919 territories have little chance of being returned to Hungary, but they make good talking points for those who are obsessed with advertising their dedication to the causes of ethnic and cultural “purity.”
The strong responses to the curriculum plan may be a hopeful sign, however. Even leaders with proven autocratic talent know when they have gone too far, and this may be one such instance. The hold of Orbán’s party, Fidesz, on Hungarian politics is not absolute, despite its supermajority in parliament. Municipal elections last fall brought opposition candidates into mayoral positions in major cities. There is some cause for hope that the current outcry over the government’s plan to substitute irredentist politics for aesthetic criteria in determining what makes literature great may signal another crack (however small) in its grip on power.
Susan Rubin Suleiman is professor emerita at Harvard University and the author, most recently, of The Némirovsky Question: The Life, Death, and Legacy of a Jewish Writer in Twentieth-Century France.