Home > 1950, 20th Century, Füst Milan, Hungarian Literature, Novel > Loneliness as a trait of character

Loneliness as a trait of character

L’histoire d’une solitude by Milán Füst 1956 (Egy magány története) Translated by Sophie Aude. No English translation found. (I even twitted to George Szirtes to ask if he knew any but he doesn’t)

Fust_Milan_solitudeI’d never heard of Milán Füst before stumbling upon this novel in a bookstore, which again points how much we need brick-and-mortar bookstores to discover new writers. Milán Füst (1888 – 1967) is a Jewish Hungarian writer. Imagine what he’s been through during his life: like a Frenchman a century before, he has lived under several political regimes. He was born in Austria-Hungary, after WWI, it collapsed; he lived through the 1920s, the 1930s, WWII and communism. I wonder how someone can cope with all the changes. For the record, Füst was friend with Dezső Kosztolányi and Frigyes Karinthy. (I haven’t read Karinthy but he wrote a novel entitled Reportage céleste (de notre envoyé spécial au paradis) in other words, Celestial Report (from our special correspondent in paradise). Doesn’t it sound marvellous?) Füst is famous enough in his country to have a literary prize named after him and be seen as a Nobel Prize candidate in 1965. Füst’s most famous novel is A Story of my Wife, which is available in English, unlikeA Story of a Solitude.

Vendel Probst is the hero of A Story of a Solitude. He’s our narrator and relates some events of his life during the 1910s. He lives in Pest, not yet united with Buda. As the novel opens, Vendel is living with his mother when a young woman knocks at their door. She says her name is Erzsébet Lakos-Lőwy and that she’s coming on behalf of a mutual friend. She needs money. The Probsts believe her and give her the money only to realize later they’ve been conned. However, the young woman was enchanting and her image lingered in young Vendel’s memory. At his age, he’s never been in love and he dreams of falling in love:

Il aurait fallu chercher quelqu’un que j’aurais enfin pu aimer vraiment, et sans tracas ni entrave…Je caressais le rêve d’un amour léger et vaporeux, qui ne pèserait pas, se répandrait au contraire dans un cœur comme touché par le rayon du soleil, d’un amour qui coulerait tout transparent et tendre comme le miel. Mais qui a jamais rien connu de tel ? je savais bien déjà que pareil amour n’existe pas. I should have looked for someone I could really love, no strings attached…I caressed the dream of a misty and light love, a love which would have no weight, which would spread in a heart as if touched by a sunbeam. I dreamed of a love that would flow crystal clear and sweet as honey. But who has ever experienced that? I knew already that such a love didn’t exist.

After graduating from university where he studied painting, Vendel works in a museum; he’s a specialist of Caravaggio. During WWI he joins the army and has not been sent to the front yet when he enters into a fight with a captain. Both are judged, the captain is sent to the front and Vendel is punished. As he fell ill, he’s transfered to the hospital. And, who does he find working there as a secretary? Erzsébet! Only she says she’s Teréz now. Imaginative as he is, he soon thinks himself in love and his feelings are returned since Teréz pulls strings to liberate him. They don’t get married but live together in Vendel’s apartment and he gets his old job back in the museum.

I think A Story of a Solitude is a coming-age-novel. It’s partly based upon Füst’s life – he was 22 in 1910; Vendel is the same age as Füst and there are probably similarities between young Füst and Vendel. In the foreword, Péter Esterházy mentions that Füst reported to a friend an incident with a young woman similar to the first encounter between Erzsébet and Vendel. The relationship between Vendel and Teréz is interesting but not in itself. It’s the Ariadne’s clew that holds the novel together. I thought that Füst mostly intended to relate how Vendel turned into a man.

Vendel has a formidable mother, both Jewish and German in her education. The mix is so powerful, especially in the absence of a father, that it’s almost lethal. When Vendel’s mother moves to Vienna with her new husband, Vendel stays behind in Pest and enjoys his freedom. She’s the usual Jewish mother in her way to keep in touch with her son but without the overwhelming love. She’s attentive, protective but her German side tempers her displays of affection. Her principles are rather rigid; falling in love is to be avoided; studying Caravaggio is not a serious occupation…She’s controlling and steps in if she thinks her son goes overboard according to her values. Vendel tries to break free and even if he’s in his twenties, he acts as a rebellious adolescent:

Il est vrai que je m’étais toujours plus à scandaliser ma mère, c’est un vice que j’ai depuis longtemps. Car elle savait bien, par-dessus le marché, que je vivais avec quelqu’un. Il était en effet impossible qu’elle ne sache pas tout sur moi, puisqu’elle me faisait en effet surveiller, se faisait envoyer des rapports à mon sujet, — mais j’y reviendrai plus tard. It is true that I always enjoyed shocking my mother, it’s a vice I’ve had for a long time. Because she knew very well, to top it off, that I was living with someone. Indeed, it was impossible that she didn’t know everything about me since I was under surveillance and she had someone send her reports about me, — but I’ll come to that later. 

Needless to say that Teréz is not marriage material in the eyes of Vendel’s mother.

During this formative decade, Vendel will also see his character settle. He knows more about himself, his likes and dislikes and forms an opinion about his personality. He comes to the conclusion that solitude and imagination are the two roots of his self.

Lorsque que je me suis assis pour écrire cette histoire, j’ai longtemps délibéré pour savoir quel serait son titre. Je voulus d’abord l’intituler Histoire de chien, mais je le remplace maintenant par Histoire d’une solitude, c’est ce que je viens d’écrire tout en haut, car c’est bien de cela qu’il est question, et de rien d’autre. De ce que seules la solitude et l’imagination, rien de plus, sont faites pour moi. C’est triste, mais c’est ainsi. When I sat down to write this story, I pondered a long time to find its title. First, I wanted to entitle it The Story of a Dog but now I replace it by The Story of a Solitude. It’s what I just wrote at the top, because that’s what it is about and nothing else. About how only solitude and imagination agree with me and nothing else. It’s sad but so it goes.

He refuels on his own and needs time to let his imagination wander. After he settled this, he’s more at peace and able to live his life.

I also enjoyed this book as it shows another side of Hungary than the one in Kosztolányi’s novels. In Skylark (1923), you’re in Hungary. People speak Hungarian, eat Hungarian and live among themselves. It’s a mono-cultural environment. In A Story of a Solitude, you’re in Austria-Hungary. Vendel’s mother is probably of Austrian origin and moves to Vienna with her new husband; the officers in the army are mostly Austrians. The dialogues are full of German words (not translated, and I suppose they were in German in the original Hungarian text). A few samples of his lively prose:

Was heisst das ? Seulement. Qu’est-ce que c’est seulement ? Vous avez de drôles de façons de parler, vous, Hongrois.  Was heisst das ? Only. What’s only ? You have strange ways of speaking, you, Hungarians.
Pouah ! Popanz ! Doch eine Schweinerei. Continuez à dessiner.  Pouah ! Popanz ! Doch eine Schweinerei. Keep on drawing.
Schon wieder etwas. Avec toi, il faut toujours s’attendre aux pires complications  Schon wieder etwas. With you, I expect the worse complications.

It gives back the cosmopolitan atmosphere of the city but also the domination of Austrian over Hungarians. You can imagine the sound of different conversations in the streets in German or in Hungarian. Beside the mixed languages, the text is also full of thoughts about life, spiced up with a good sense of humour.

Pour être plus précis, il semble que quiconque connaît bien la vie et y a bien réfléchi soit capable de rire aussi froidement, même si c’est à sa propre existence ou à sa propre mort qu’il pense. More precisely, it seems that anyone who knows life well enough and has thoroughly thought about it is capable of laughing so coldly, even if they think about their own existence or their own death.  

The fight between Vendel and the captain, the young woman reminded me of Lermontov. I had the feeling that Füst wanted to root his work in the Russian literary tradition. Furthermore, I know I’m more than obsessed but again, after reading this book written by a Jewish man from Central Europe, I can feel how much this cultural background influenced Gary’s writing.

Eventually, I’ll leave the last words of this billet to Vendel:

Et il y avait encore beaucoup d’autres choses. Mais ce n’est quand même pas possible de tout raconter. On n’aurait assez ni de poumon, ni de tristesse. And there were lots of other things. But it’s not possible to tell everything. One wouldn’t have enough lungs or sadness for that.
  1. April 20, 2013 at 4:07 pm

    With the connections to Lermontov and Dezső Kosztolányi I know I would like this. Too bad about no English translation…


    • April 21, 2013 at 8:29 pm

      Perhaps you can try A Story of My Wife. This one is available in English.


  2. Brian Joseph
    April 20, 2013 at 5:07 pm

    Great commentary Emma. This sounds like a great read.

    You comment on the importance of real bookstores is an issue that I think about. Though the online world has opened up opportunities to discover new authors and books, it will never replace the opportunities presented when one peruses the shelves of of both new and used books.


    • April 21, 2013 at 8:34 pm

      Thanks Brian.

      I don’t think I’ve ever bought a book on the spur of the moment on an online book store whereas it happens all the time in “real” ones.


  3. April 21, 2013 at 4:13 pm

    This sounds very good. It’s not even available in German which is surprising.
    I suppose Hungarian literature is very different whether the author is from the capital or from somewhere else.


    • April 21, 2013 at 8:36 pm

      Lucky you, you can read it in French! It’s published by Cambourakis. I’ve never heard of this publisher but they seem to have a lot of Centreal European literature.


  4. April 21, 2013 at 7:34 pm

    I understand there’s much more Hungarian literature in French than English, which is a shame. Definitely an author worth checking out, so I’ll look for A Story of my Wife.

    Georges Szirtes is charming isn’t he? I’ve always found him so anyway.

    Interesting point about the Russian literary tradition. The English language literary press tend to assume that English language literature is the pre-eminent global literature, that our tradition is the most important tradition, but it ain’t necessarily so. It makes sense that Central European writers would look East as much as West (and looking West would look much more to France than the UK).

    Nice point on bookshops, but the problem for them is people browse in them, then buy online. It’s that issue of course which Waterstones, for good or ill, is trying to address by its tie up with Amazon.


    • April 21, 2013 at 8:45 pm

      I wonder if there is more Hungarian lit in French than in English because we’re more open to translated books or if it’s due to something else. (more Hungarian immigrants or something like this.) I thought it was nice of Georges Szirtes to answer my question. It’s an enjoyable side of virtual life!

      Lermontov came to mind because of the fight, the army and the girl (and maybe a bit because of Vendel’s way of thinking) but in the foreword, Péter Esterházy refers to Tolstoy.

      Why buy online a book you have in your hands in a bookstore except if you want an ebook version? But you’re right, it’s a threat for bookshops.


      • April 22, 2013 at 4:24 pm

        There’s a one-word answer to that Emma, price. Books are discounted online, sometimes significantly so. They’re also commoditised products, which is the challenge bookshops have – they charge more for a commoditised product than their online competitors.


        • April 22, 2013 at 4:26 pm

          Oh, yes. I forgot you don’t have fixed prices on books in the UK. Here the book won’t be cheaper online, so why wait to buy it?


  5. leroyhunter
    April 23, 2013 at 11:47 am

    Nice billet Emma, like others I regret this isn’t available in English but I’ll look out for Füst.

    I think you’d like Gregor Von Rezzori.


    • April 23, 2013 at 10:22 pm

      Thanks for the recommendation, I don’t know Von Rezzori but I’ll have a look for his books. Any particular recommendation among his work?


  6. leroyhunter
    April 24, 2013 at 3:28 pm

    I’ve read two – Memoirs of an Anti-Semite and The Snows of Yesteryear. The first is a novel, based on his life, the second a straight memoir of his (extraordianary) family. Where he was born is now in Romania, yet he grew up considering himself culturally German and Austrian by nationality. That chimes (I think) with some of the issues you mention Füst raising.


    • April 24, 2013 at 10:41 pm

      Thanks, I’ll see if it’s available in French.


  1. April 27, 2020 at 12:12 pm

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