Mészöly Miklós, Családáradás (’The Generations Rise’)
A few years ago, one of our students wrote an essay about “Családáradás”, a very late novel by the Hungarian author Miklós Mészöly. The essay was also published in a volume (Elbeszélés könnyed lebegése) and while editing it I developed a strong inclination towards this novel. However, as it is often the case, other compelling issues prevented me from reading it. But now, steering in calmer waters, I, finally, have the time to get stuck into this fascinating novel.
Time travel was the first thing that came to my mind. Not only back in the age of the novel itself, but also to that period of Hungarian prose, when great epics were born back before the turn of millennium.
I am able to start it from a different point of view. The other day, I had to speak about Kölcsey in an interview and when I saw myself on the screen, I realized that I was breathing rapidly and nervously as if grasping for air, with a sharp wheezing noise. Are they the first symptoms of some pulmonary disease, or just the inevitable consequences of my hectic life? One thing is for sure, it is essential that we should return back to the proper rhythm of breathing, especially now, when the whole world is in a fatal and mad rush all around. It is of vital importance to find the proper rhythm of breathing when we talk, when we are silent and when we write.
Mészöly leads us back to that state. It is not by chance that he added the subtitle “beszély” (’A Tale’) to define the genre of his work. A Tale – that is told. A Tale that is not a narration proper, is not controlled by the completion of the narrative, but is formed by a continuous flow of ceaseless sentences.
The first sentence says: “Az őszi nagy vadászatok előtt az egész házban nagytakarítást tartottak, ami Matinka néni személyes kívánsága volt.” (“Before the great autumn hunts, the entire house was properly cleaned at the personal request of Aunt Matinka.”) It shows a sense of moderate proportion as well as profound mystery. It is not only because of the succulently old-fashioned female name, Matinka, which is just more modern by a slight stroke of irony than the female names used by Krúdy, but also because of the hunting, which recalls the atmosphere of Mikszáth’s short stories. Also, autumn hunting is a hardly veiled reference to the novelette Colonel Sutting, which represents an enchanting and dreamlike reality that can hardly be found in any other pieces of Hungarian prose.
Now let us take the conjunction “ami” (“which”). It comprises hidden excitement, since its use is not completely correct from the point of view of Hungarian grammar. The completely accurate word would be the pronoun “ez” (“this”). But what is more important than “this” is the fact that following the grammatical ’translation’ of the logical structure of the Hungarian sentence, it still carries a certain amount of ambiguity whether Matinka’s wish concerned the cleaning or the hunting. We can only deduce it on the basis of semantics that the connotative meanings of cleaning suit a female character. However this little inaccuracy makes us profoundly curious. What kind of clear cut connexions will gradually reveal to us in the course of reading the novel, (The Tale), in front of us, the readers. And this is only the first sentence. At the end, we have a little rest, and breathe in some fresh air.1
We may wonder what those autumn hunts were like, or meditate on what kind of female fate a special sounding name such as Matinka hides. And we are not mistaken, Matinka – the name recalls the tolling sounds of old times – will be one of the main characters of the novel, a point of reference in this maze of a family story, which thus proves to be highly realistic. Also the other female names such as Iddi, Júlia, Eszter or Aunt Hermina sound either special or poetic. They all play important roles because the main characters in this novel are women. There are only three male characters: Father is the breadwinner and governs the family; Uncle Emil lives his days getting farther away from the practical sides of life, and the little boy, Kálmánka is set to take over Father’s role in the future. Men are less important, they are only a necessary part of this world to enable women be women. Because it is the wildly changing movement of the female body and soul, the passionate melancholy and often helpless nostalgia as well as the lustful yearning for the lost and wasted days that provides a beautiful rhythm to the story, the history of a family through decades. Családáradás (’The Generations Rise’)? Is it only the narrator that considers this unstoppable process to be a kind of ’rising tide’, the tide of the female characters’ life of different generations flooding their environment, the ancient house at Bogárd as well as the garden with its botanical rarities and last but not least the entangled network of relations in the village? Events taking place in the real time of the novel are far from peaceful and unstoppable, like vegetation spreading over a scorched ground. The plot is centred around a crime and the exploration of that crime, but it is worked in such a clever way that the crime itself occurs only at the end of the novel. Until that point, we regard events in hindsight.
The narrator withdrawn behind the delicately painted background interprets the intricate, hardly perceptible events from a neutral point of view; however, with the most beautiful lyric enthusiasm as well as with the wisdom of an entire lifetime, like the motion when a hand opens a sunshade or reaches for the sponge or delicately brushes against the handle of a spoon. In his novel, School on the Border, Ottlik divided the narrator into two characters, and Mészöly does the same when narrating the story from different points of view: one of them belongs to Júlia, the younger female protagonist. It is this personal voice creating a sensitive yet deeply philosophical language that flows through our thoughts and beyond to our deepest feelings, washing over our inner world.
Do we need to praise Mészöly and his novel, though? I do not think so. What is more important is to call attention to him as well as to his well-paced sentences and to the proper rhythm of breathing.
Miklós Mészöly, Családáradás (1995) Jelenkor, Pécs 2008
(translated by Tamás Kovács)
1Translator’s note: This paragraph dealing with the peculiarities of a Hungarian sentence can, by and large, be considered untranslatable into English.