Reminiscences of Lukács

Tibor Déry

T: I’d like to ask you to tell me your memories of some of your friends, to recall your meeting with them. First of all with György Lukács at whose funeral...

D: Were you there?

T: I was. I had the opportunity to talk to him twice, shortly before his death.

D: So you want to profit from my memory again, do you?

T: Yes, and I’d like you to start with a fairly early memory at that, when you became a contributor to Nyugat during the First World War, in 1917.

D: I did not know him then.

T: You didn’t? Didn’t you meet him in the writers’ directorate either?

D: No, I didn’t, I only met him when he got back from the Soviet Union. As far as I remember we first met at one of the meetings of Parliament. What I’m going to tell you is more or less unreliable, I’d need longer to really remember and to exercise some control over what I remember. Nothing one remembers is really right, that objective recall people talk so much about is a myth. A memory is always just a part of somebody else’s life or of an incident filtered through our own personality, selected by our own taste, so it’s always strongly subjective in character. But to get back to Lukács—I am sure we only met after he got back from the Soviet Union, and as I said, it was during one of the sessions of Parliament. If I were to give an account here of how this acquaintance later developed into friendship I’d once more need more time. The process was slow, if I remember right. At first it was a political comradeship rather than anything emotional or personal. You're a literary historian, so you'll know that in those times, after Lukács’s return, I took turns with Lajos Nagy in being ranked now as the first, now the second writer of the Party. Lukács the Communist, fresh from the Soviet Union, sought in the first place the acquaintance of those writers who were considered Communist. Our mutual approach to each other obviously began like this, and this seems all the more likely as I was then an enthusiastic, convinced Communist: it was the political interest both of us took in each other that brought us together. I think it probable, however, knowing Lukács, his aesthetic severity as well as his honesty, that first or second though I may have been in the Party’s rating, he’d never have distinguished me with his interest if what I wrote hadn’t met with his critical approval, if he hadn’t liked it. Presumably there were two reasons for our slowly maturing friendship: one, the political interest in the Party’s writer, the other the fact that he valued my work highly.

T: In other words a mutual attraction developed after you met?

* From a taperecorded interview given to József Tasi, published in Élet és Irodalom, No. 52, 1971.

[150]

D: Yes.

T: Lukács addressed an open letter to Andor Németh ŕ propos Németh’s essay on your Befejezetlen mondat (Unfinished Sentence).

D: Lukács’s view of me was on the whole favourable. He was sympathetic to what I was doing and, later, to me as a person as well, but his judgement, his appraisal of my works, varied pretty strongly. Varied as I said, never changed to its opposite, in the course of time. You just now mentioned his criticism of Befejezetlen mondat, I mean his reply to Andor Nemeth's article, which appeared in Forúm. If you remember the content of Lukács’s article, he was mainly expressing reservations. He thought Andor Németh’s praise of the novel excessive and tried—first for political reasons, I believe—to redress the balance, drawing attention to real or imagined faults of the book.

T: At the time there were objections to your picture of the workers’ movement in the twenties and thirties. Though I think it cannot be doubted that the picture you gave was the right one.

D: No doubt this is one reason why Lukács eventually modified his view of Befejezetlen mondat, and in later times he referred to it as a very good book. More than that, as my most significant work. I’m not sure I can agree with him on that, or, for that matter, with you.

T: You don't? If a writer can be asked to rank his works at all, which one, in your opinion, is your major one?

D: A writer always thinks his last book the best. Of course, in most cases, this is an error of perspective. I’ve recently published a short novel, Képzelt riport egy amerikai popfestivállról (Fictitious Report on an American Pop Festival), and in spite of its brevity I think of it as my most significant book right now, though, probably, I’m wrong. Before that—and I'd stick to this to some extent even today—I thought my Kiközösítő (The Excommunicator) my most successful work, meaning by this that in composition and execution it is the best-proportioned and the most harmonious in form. I should hardly want to change anything in it, although when I pick up my old books on occasion my pen begins to quiver: this or that ought to be corrected. With Kiközösítő I feel no impulses of this kind.

T: As regards the others, where your pen does quiver, you’ll obviously have the opportunity to make corrections for the collected edition.

D: I’m much too lazy for that.

T: We could perhaps talk about your new book...

D: Just a moment! Let me hasten to add, I’m too lazy, and take this to mean that I feel reluctant to carry out major surgery, even though I might think it necessary. But I keep making changes here and there all the time, not only for the collected edition. When I write anything, and transfer it into a typescript from my notebook, I start making corrections, then again when the proofs arrive, and the corrections continue in the published text. Always in terms of style, true, prompted, I should say, by a squeamishness, an oversensitivity to style. As I said before, I could rarely bring myself to perform more thorough-going operations.

T: Have you carried out minor surgery on the second edition of your Itélét nincs (No Verdict)?

D: Very little. An adjective here, a semicolon there. I don’t think I crossed out as much as half a sentence. If I did, it has no significance. As I just said, it was due to my fastidiousness over style that I cleaned up the text here and there.

T: After this little digression let’s return to the development of your friendship with György Lukács. We’re now somewhere in the early fifties.

D: I have no definite memory of the transition period when this more or less political comradeship changed into a personal friendship. The process I think was greatly assisted, particularly in the later years, by my wife, whom the Lukácses, both

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he and his wife Gertrud, had grown very fond of, and who had come to like them very in much; her womanly directness, social ease and tact went a long way to temper much of the austerity and rigidity of male friendship. Of this, however, as I say, I have no very definite recollection, all I can do is indicate, in a general sort of way, this slow process of transition. Our friendship did not come to an end during my long imprisonment. There was scarcely a week in all those three years that a the Lukácses did not see my wife three or four times, at our flat or theirs, spending New Year’s Eves with my wife, and on the day of my release they came over at midnight, the first of my friends. I should add, however, that almost from the start, below the emotional bond, the intellectual relationship of the two of us was, in the fashionable phrase of today, contradictory. We did not see eye to eye on a number of things. Perhaps this was one of the foundations of our friendship.

T: The motor so to speak?

D: Yes, that too. Anything we disagreed over we told each other. And it was in this way that a reciprocal, spontaneously sincere sympathy grew up between us, which had as one of its secrets that we never kept silent over anything either of us found exceptionable in the other, that is in the other’s views, it was never anything but views, literary and political views that were involved. I could not always follow Lukács in his steadfast Communist convictions and sometimes I felt at a loss watching his exceptional perseverance; a strategical immovability I would call it, because as you well know, as regards tactics, he too had a good many complaints. But I disagreed with him in a more profound way too over a number of literary and political issues, and so it happened, and I am perhaps a little sorry today, that occasionally I told him much too outspokenly, not brutally but perhaps rather bluntly, my objections, not to his person, but to his personal convictions. I am sorry about this today because I have a mental image before me—being a writer I visualize things in a tangible way—of the trembling figure of this very fragile old man, who, retrospectively and with the sanction of death, has become even more defenceless in my imagination.

T: As far as I know György Lukács was very fond of argument.

D: Very fond indeed. His was a polemical spirit; this, to my mind often unwarranted, predilection for argument, also sometimes roused my disagreement. I often thought that his attitude was wrong, and so were his approach and his standpoint. I am thinking of literary matters, on which his political attitude seemed much narrower than mine.

T: Were there arguments between you in the mid-fifties, or in 55‑56?

D: It’s good you reminded me. I once did an article on him, a reply or a rejoinder to a reply, I can’t now recall on what subject. But it was plain that my objection and his counter‑objection had been fed by the same source. The fact is that as far is one could see—for one can never quite see into another human being—but as far as one could see these so‑called disagreements on principle were never allowed to interfere with our slowly warming, and very deep, friendship.

T: Did György Lukács ever visit you at your summer house at Leányfalu or at Balatonfüred?

D: At Leányfalu? Yes, I think he came to see us at Leányfalu too but I can't remember definitely. He visited us every year at Balatonfüred, every year except the last.

T: Even in his last year he travelled a lot. Early this year [1971] he went to Telkibánya where with András Kovács ...

D: That was a sanatorium. No, he did not travel, after his wife’s death he stopped travelling.

T: I was not part of his circle, unfortunately, I respected him only from afar.

D: He received many invitations even after his wife’s death, and he declined all of them, saying he’d decided not to travel any more. He only took a three or four-week

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holiday in the summer and on these occasions he was usually with Ferenc Fehér and his wife, Ágnes Heller, or with members of his family. I don’t know if this is of any interest, but on one such occasion we rescued him from his holiday.

T: Oh, yes.

D: It may have a certain biographical interest. He was spending a holiday, wait a minute, where was it? In the Bükk Hills?* I forget now where it was exactly, I think he was staying in a small hillside village in the Bükk, together with the Fehérs. Coming up from Balatonfüred we paid him a visit there. We found him living in very poor circumstances, in a comfortless room, the house lacked a garden, and was right there in the centre of the village. It took a long walk to get from the village to the forest. True, Lukács liked to walk, he could go on for hours, it sometimes happened that he walked three or four hours in the morning and the afternoon as well; he was tireless. He did not work during his holidays, he preferred to talk and read. But there, in that village, he had to walk half an hour on the highway to reach the forest, in the blazing sun. In a word, his accommodation was very poor. Then suddenly that summer the rain began to pour down, for days on end, without stopping. We began to wonder how the old gentleman was faring in that rundown house in that village, having to make do with the poor food he got. When we had lunch with him there we could see for ourselves that the food he got from the landlady was not up to much. So my wife drove over, packed up his things and brought him, together with the Fehérs, to our place at Balatonfüred. Lukács was very pleased, he really could do nothing there.

T: How long did he spend with you?

D: I don't know, perhaps two or three days, until the Academy sent a car for him. It was very moving; he received my wife as his guardian angel, rescuing him from hell. For it really was hell for him, cooped up in that wretched room by the rain. . .

T: Could you say something about your last meeting?

D: I knew he had cancer.

T: Did Lukács know too?

D: I wonder. He did not tell anybody if he did. He complained of influenza, which, he said, had been plaguing him for months. He did have a stubborn catarrh, and he also complained of the feebleness of old age. He would often say, half in jest, that he felt senile, that his work was not worth anything, that he had to show his pupils what he wrote because he was unable to judge whether it was worth publishing. He was thinking of his Ontology. When I saw him last, on May 1st according to my notes...

T: That is, a month before his death?

D: …there was no sign of senility, I say none whatever. He argued and taught me with the same old touching teacher’s passion. I went along to take leave of him, we were preparing to go abroad, to the Cannes Film Festival where my film was on the programme, but before that I was to take part in a P.E.N. Congress at Piran, in Yugoslavia. I bade farewell to him with a heavy heart, I knew how ill he was, though he never admitted it to anyone, not even to himself perhaps, as he talked about his coming to see us at Balatonfüred after our return. It will remain an undiscoverable secret for ever now whether he was aware of the nature of his illness or not. He died three days after we arrived back at Balatonfüred, unaware that he was then in hospital. I never saw him again.

* Not in the Bükk but in the Bakony Hills. T. D.

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SOURCE: Déry, Tibor. “Reminiscences of Lukács,” The New Hungarian Quarterly, no. 47 (vol. 13, Autumn 1972), pp.150-153.


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