2 December 2012

Zoltán Szabó: An Outpost in the West


When ten thousand Hungarian refugees first set foot on British shores after the crushing of the 1956 Revolution they found out to their great disappointment that an important factor was missing from urban life in this otherwise hospitable country. There were plenty of pubs and tea rooms but no espresso bars. By 1957 this insufficiency was remedied, and continental type coffee houses were gradually opened in London. The first, in the Soho area, caused quite a sensation, and soon trendy South Kensington followed suit, a charming espresso bar called Hades was inaugurated near the underground station. It had a proper La Pavoni machine, and in the evenings the lights were dimmed, candles were placed on the tables, as the management hoped to attract lots of loving couples to chat over cups of coffee.


The revered Hungarian writer, Zoltán Szabó, a youngish forty-five year old at the time, lived nearby with his second wife Countess Judith Károlyi, in smart Roland Gardens, on the top floor of a Victorian red brick apartment house, and soon made Hades his favourite haunt. Once or twice a week he invited his friends, young Hungarian newcomers, to discuss the world situation. Often quite noisily. The calm of the place was shattered.

Why was he revered? Back in Hungary, at the age of twenty-four in 1936, Zoltán Szabó made a splash with an excellent little book Tardi helyzet (The State of Affairs at Tard), in which, employing the tools of modern social anthropology, he thoroughly examined a small village called Tard, and told his (rather shocking) findings about backwardness and poverty in a fine essay, in altogether eminently readable prose.This stylistic novelty became known as sociography, and thanks to Szabó’s book, and also to similar publications in the same vein, suddenly a large strata of young intellectuals became aware of the intolerable conditions still existing in semi-feudal Hungary. The revelations were disliked by the authorities, but made the young author a hero in the eyes of left wing intellectuals. And Zoltán Szabó did not stop just there. As Hitler’s Nazi ideology began to spread to Hungary, he established the column Szellemi Honvédelem (Intellectual Home-Defence) in the Budapest daily newspaper Magyar Nemzet to oppose its influence.

After the war, during the coalition period, that is: before the 1948 takeover by the communist one-party dictatorship, Szabó edited the literary and political monthly Valóság (Reality). A memorable incident during his editorship much enhanced his respect among liberal intellectuals. In 1946 he prepared for publication of a study written by the political thinker István Bibó (who was to suffer a long prison sentence after the 1956 revolution) on the crisis of Hungarian democracy. Two young communist editorial assistants working for Valóság showed the manuscript to their party boss, József Révai, who found the text an intolerable attack on government authority, summoned Szabó to his office, and banned the article’s publication. “I’m afraid you cannot do that”, said the editor, “I commissioned the article myself, and in any case it deserves a proper discussion, so we are going to print it. If you stop us, I’ll resign.” A scandal was brewing. Révai did not want to risk the resignation of a well-respected anti-fascist. Bibó’s article was published, condemned at a public meeting, Zoltán Szabó resigned, and the government put him into a less “dangerous” position. As he spoke good French and knew France well, he was appointed cultural secretary to the Hungarian mission in Paris. He much enjoyed his new job, staged a well-received show for the paintings of the newly discovered Hungarian genius Tivadar Csontváry Kosztka (1853–1919), and courted the envoy’s charming daughter (whom he later married as his second wife). In the meantime things turned nasty back in Hungary. The Muscovite communists gained absolute power through a rigged election and began to consolidate their leading position. To break the influence of the Catholic Church they arrested the Primate of Hungary, Cardinal Mindszenty and put him on trial on trumped-up charges. As a protest Zoltán Szabó resigned his diplomatic post, never to return to Budapest. After some difficult émigré years, in 1951 he became London correspondent of the newly founded anti- communist broadcasting organisation, Radio Free Europe.

With the sudden outbreak of the Hungarian Revolution in October 1956 the world’s attention focused on Hungary. For a few days it looked as though the freedom fighters would be able to reach a compromise on power sharing. Zoltán Szabó followed every moment of the Budapest happenings with the eager eyes of a seasoned political analyst, hoping that tragedy could be avoided (his fascinating notes on the events, together with their expert assessment, were published in 2006, in one of the volumes of his collected writings). Szabó’s famous fellow émigré, Arthur Koestler was also stirred to action by the unfolding of the revolution and asked him whether some old friends might arrange for him to receive an invitation to Budapest from the Writers’ Revolutionary Committee. He promised to try and perhaps it even occurred to Szabó to return for a fact-finding visit. But Moscow soon changed its mind and the Hungarian uprising came to a tragic end.

I first met Zoltán Szabó in Budapest. As a mere teenager I saw him coming to our house to discuss a book with my mother who ran a private publishing venture at the time. The planned book in question would have been a fine album of photographs under the title Hungarica Incognita, showing little known scenic beauty spots, ancient churches and pretty country houses in Hungary. Szabó was supposed to write the foreword. However, just about the time the book was ready to be printed, my mother’s small firm was taken over by the state, and the photographs were lost.

Arriving in Britain as a nineteen year old refugee in December 1956, I contacted Zoltán Szabó within weeks and he invited me to his home. He wanted to hear every single detail about the Budapest Revolution, of its outbreak, its atmosphere, the street battles, the behaviour of the state security forces and the Russian soldiers, and the reactions of the ordinary citizens. As I spoke he did not take notes, but everything immediately fixed itself in his head in a strict logical order.

He gave the impression of a somewhat bohemian bon viveur. Slender and elegant in tweed jackets and corduroy trousers, smoking a pipe or long cigarettes, driving a small and often dented or scratched MG, ordering his food from Harrod’s. He was paid well as a star contributor of Radio Free Europe, but sometimes he was short of money. Eventually Zoltán and Judith moved to a Victorian cottage near Kew Green, right on the bank of the Thames (the house was once flooded by an unusually high tide), and from then on he spent long hours every day restructuring and redecorating his home single-handed, plumbing, woodwork and electric wiring included. For this reason we thought that perhaps he was not writing enough. An émigré publisher advertised a novel to be written for the following spring by Zoltán Szabó. No one ever heard any more about it. But he was not lazy at all. He regularly sent his Letters from London to Radio Free Europe, and if these reached the rank of a good essay, the radio’s cultural editor, Gyula Borbándi, an admirer of Zoltán, printed them in his Munich based monthly Új Látóhatár. The refugee writers of 1956 started a new literary review Irodalmi Újság, and while it was edited in London, before moving to Paris, Zoltán Szabó was on its board, and contributed a number of articles and commentaries, also some excellent portraits of leading Hungarian writers whenever their birthday was celebrated or their passing required an obituary. With Hungarian émigré cultural life flourishing, he became a sought after speaker at conferences and literary gatherings, and his lectures or talks, full of interesting thoughts and ideas, chiselled to perfection, lent themselves readily for inclusion in future anthologies. When after Szabó’s death in August 1984, his friends Lóránt Czigány and András Sándor began to sift through the piles of manuscripts on the shelves of his study, they soon realised that they had come across a treasure trove. Some of the essays are rather Orwellian in substance, others have the freshness of texts written for radio audiences. That is why the chapters of the latest volume of Zoltán Szabó’s collected works, Nyugati vártán present such a fascinating variety.

The sorting and editing took some years to complete and the final result surprised even those who knew Zoltán well. The selection of his best writings filled five books, while the last needed two volumes. This should have silenced those who, over the years, constantly accused him of wasting his talents by spending too much time on interior decoration instead of writing. (Mind you, the care he took in finishing the wood panelling of his dining room had something in common with the way he composed his well-constructed sentences.)

The European Protestant Hungarian Free University, which is in fact an emigré intellectual organisation based in Switzerland and not an actual place of teaching, showed a keen interest in publishing Zoltán Szabó’s collected works, since he (a Catholic) had always made himself available to take part in their conferences as a popular speaker. The 1999 publication Diaszpóranemzet (DiasporaNation) contains his essays on the phenomenon of being Hungarian. This was followed in 2000 by Korszakváltás (The Beginning of a New Era), a collection of his writings on the 1956 Hungarian Revolution and its aftermath. The final two-volume selection, this time published jointly by the European Protestants and Osiris of Budapest entitled Nyugati vártán (Outpost in the West, 2011) is a lively mixture of essays, notes, articles and even a rarity, a full-fledged short story.

Zoltán Szabó had one motto every time he set out to write on a theme, a quotation from the 17th century Prince of Transylvania István Bocskai: “Of dialectics and rhetoric we know little, we look at our subject in its singularity, seeking nothing else but the bettering and upholding of the nation.” (According to some sources Zoltán first heard these lines from his good friend and contemporary, the political thinker István Bibó.) When he was working on an article or a lecture, Szabó shut himself up in his study, closing out the world and went on writing until dawn. “A bird is known by its feather, a writer by the nature of his sentences”, he remarked on one occasion.

His portraits of the fellow writers he knew well: Gyula Illyés, Áron Tamási, Péter Veres, László Cs. Szabó and László Németh are not only remarkable for their balance and structure but also show that Zoltán had a singularly excellent memory to remember conversations word by word.

One could say that apart from some 19th century Hungarian classics which he held in great esteem, his essay style was also influenced by George Orwell, always aiming for clarity, originality, refraining from padding and quite often arguing with passionate sarcastic wit.

Living in France and Britain for so many years Zoltán Szabó used his newly gained cultural references to comment on Hungarian literature. Describing the nature of one of Áron Tamási’s feature plays, he compares it to Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas, and he draws an interesting parallel between C. P. Snow’s theory of two cultures and the message contained in a drama dealing with the lives of the father and son duo of mathematical geniuses Farkas and János Bolyai, written by László Németh.

Let me quote just one example of Szabó’s talent for observation and his ear for words. During the 1960s the British Council invited some Hungarian writers to visit London, and after many years without contact Zoltán had a chance to meet old friends again, among them the novelist Áron Tamási, whom he showed around London. In the essay-like portrait he wrote of him afterwards, their conversations are recalled word by word. Tamási was keen to see the Regent Street Christmas decorations. “They are not very tasteful, just a kind of commercial paraphernalia”, protested Szabó, but found Tamási’s counter argument charmingly quotable: “Yes, my friend. You may be right. However, they have to be looked at differently. Through the eyes of a small child.”

Zoltán Szabó was a master of style and this applies to those instances as well when, for example in his series Pages from a Notebook, he needed to keep the format short and to the point. He was able to condense a lot even into a single sentence. The gentle mockery comes to my mind with which he once wrote about a theatrical performance: “The young soubrette, Miss N. N. chose not to apply any tools of the acting trade in her a portrayal of her post.”

The second volume of Nyugati vártán contains the important essay Hungarica varietas, in which we read:


Literature is a matter of public concern. Literature is made up of pieces of writing. It depends on the quality and quantity of these, to what extent they may serve the public weal. Quantity equals variety.

Quality depends on the talent of the writer. Talent is fed – to quote the words of László

Németh – by opportunities.

The talent-feeding opportunities rest within the opportunities of being printed. The intellect’s home is the book. This gives vitality to the artist’s capabilities. With its influence it awakens capabilities in others.


Zoltán Szabó married his third wife after divorcing the second and their daughter was born when he turned sixty-eight. Towards the end of his life they moved to Brittany, into a parson’s cottage next to the cemetery in Josselin. He bought a grave for fifty francs where he is now buried. His bronze bust stands in the village of Tard and the Budapest house where he spent his youth has been marked recently with a memorial tablet to celebrate the centenary of his birth. He did not live to see the day when democracy returned to Hungary, but died in exile. But now the opportunities have presented themselves for his writings to be printed. One can only hope that his influence will awaken capabilities in others.




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