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G.W. Currier – Crisis and Wonder: Liturgy and Literature in Hungary [Essay]

Crisis and Wonder:
Liturgy and Literature in Hungary

G.W. Currier

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Outside the Great Reformed Church of Debrecen, Hungary, rests a park bench overlooking a multi-layered fountain and a statue of Kossuth Lajos raised on a plinth bearing his name. The church is painted Debreceni yellow. There, on the right half is the sculpture of a woman sitting, with a contented smile.

The statue is of Szabó Magda, one of Hungary’s most beloved and celebrated writers, once a resident of Debrecen [1]. Only a small portion of what she’s written has been translated into English, the unfortunate fate of many Hungarian authors. In the summer, the splash of the fountain’s arced streams and animated chatter fill the square. In the winter, it’s the rattle of small children warmly dressed pushing themselves on their plastic tricycles and the Christmas music patched over speakers hanging throughout the downtown area. If you pass close enough to some of the vásár stands, you can hear the forralt bor bubbling, smell the wine and strawberries, take comfort in a soft, warm scarf. 

I’ve been living in Debrecen for six months now, discovering more about my ancestry, poring over Hungarian authors and the language; teaching, traveling, and having that ever-so-American “crisis of faith” that accompanies international travel. 

I’m not offering an academic argument on these authors or my time here in Hungary; my language skills are too limited. Instead, I want to offer one particular trend I’ve noticed within these authors and share how my faith has been influenced by what I call “engraced suffering.”

*

Covid-19 interrupted my doctoral studies. Suddenly, my relationship to the small city of Stillwater, Oklahoma, changed. Spiritually and relationally malnourished, I sought a mentor to help me navigate the tumult of doctoral work. Like all good Midwesterners, I turned to my barber. He connected me with his own mentor, who rigorously vetted me before deciding to invest his time. It was he who encouraged me to apply for a Fulbright award, which I did, receiving the “alternate” position the day my grandfather died. After his burial, the start of grief, and the final stages of the doctorate, I only wanted to find full-time employment. I decided against applying again for the Fulbright. 

*

Very likely you have read a few Hungarian authors. You can’t be blamed for this. The few that have been popularly translated into English are monumentally difficult (see Krasznahorkai László or Nádas Péter). Almost all are emotionally brutal. Covering barbed wire with silk does not make a bed. The Hungarian-American writer John Lukács introduced me to the saying: Sírva vigad a magyar. Crying comforts the Hungarian. One of the other distinguishing marks of this nation’s literature is its resilience and its deep commitment to humanity. Part of this literature’s “failure” to take off is not so much the fault of the plane; the runway is crowded, delaying its departure. 

 

I think, however, the time the world recognizes the richness of Hungary’s literary heritage is coming upon us, due in large part to the translation work of George Szirtes, Ottilie Mulzet, and Len Rix. Hungary holds its artists in high esteem, and this is especially true after 1989 when the fresh air of freedom rushed through the Transdanubian Plains, making it as intellectually fertile as it is agriculturally. Street signs bearing the names of Soviet thinkers, generals, revolutionary leaders (or, as a synonym, power-lusting insurrectionists) were torn down, re-named in a cultural Baszd meg! to the former occupiers. Now, everywhere, streets and high schools bear the names of writers and poets. It’s actually difficult to get anywhere in Hungary without using some road or walking across some square that isn’t named after a poet, playwright, or novelist. Vörösmarty ter, Arany János utca, Jokai ter; a school—Fazekas Mihály Gimnázium. During a short and unexpected stroll through the backstreets of Dunakeszi, I stumbled upon three bronze busts, all dedicated to writers and two of them with fresh memorial wreaths laid at their base.

 

Symbolically, it makes sense to name streets after artists, if part of the role of artists is to show us how we arrived where we are and where we are going. Take a “social novel,” like Móricz Zsigmond’s Behind God’s Back. Written just before the outbreak of World War I and sometimes referred to as the “Hungarian Madame Bovary,” its focus on marital strife, self-obsession, and sexual guilt, could easily be dismissed as irrelevant to our contemporary world. Strife in relationships? Leave! Worried you’re self-obsessed? Post! Sexual guilt? Well, the only shame is that you feel shame at all. The novel, well under 200 pages, deftly moves válságról válságra, from crisis to crisis. These válságok, while small, are domestic, which means they are foundational. There’s no cataclysmic threat, but a family with a dry-as-vermouth husband, a beautiful and bitter wife, and a guilt-laden nephew—that’s true conflict.

*

Firmly against reapplying for a Fulbright, I woke from sleep in mid-August. I almost never wake during the night, but I was alert. God had business. A voice spoke to me, not in any audible way; its internal waves were quiet and gentle but firm. All it said was one simple sentence: Grant, for the rest of your life you will wonder ‘What if?’ And that was it. The night relaxed again into its Plains-state quiet and I fell asleep resolved to refine my application in the morning. Sparing some details, I received my acceptance letter in the DFW Airport, waiting to visit my parents on Spring Break. I dashed throughout the airport to find a printer so I could hand them the acceptance letter. The ensuing months were filled with celebration—I earned my Ph.D.—and grieving—the last of my grandparents died after an intense burst of baffling illness. And then I found myself in Debrecen, living in a small but sufficient apartment, juggling the responsibilities of a Fulbright grantee and costs of moving 4,627 miles from home. It’s not alienation but is like turning a corner from a bustling street to see a long and empty promenade at dusk. It prickles with nerves. 

 

Like fear and hope agreed, for a moment, to hold hands.

*

The oft-mentioned Nobel contender Krasznahorkai László has an experimental story collection, The World Goes On. Whether bleak and pessimistic, or ascetic without directed hope, this work confronts us with death’s immediacy and perplexity. It opens: “I have to leave this place, because this is not where anyone can be, or where it would be worthwhile to remain, because this is the place—with its intolerable, cold, sad, bleak, and deadly weight—from where I must escape[.]” Krasznahorkai believes, or at leasts writes as if he believes, that we are “languishing in one of the deepest shadows of human history” where “we have made away with gods and with ideals. [W]e produce works of art, but no longer even talk about how.” Krasznahorkai’s sentences meander like the Tisza in the shallows and depths of observation and then, like the Danube, turn at ninety degrees bringing about the unexpected. Everything fascinates Krasznahorkai and burdens him with the blindness and pessimism of our contemporary world: “the Whole had no aim, no meaning, since the Whole could not be enclosed within the causal web of goals and rationality, for then the Whole would of necessity become entangled in a narrative, whereas among other features a narrative has one characteristic, namely that it has to have an end.” And for Krasznahorkai this narrative end is death. 

 

I recommend his works if only for the beauty of their sentences. Deeper than this beauty, however, is the depth of their aim, or maybe even the aim of their depth. They seek to plunge into the human condition and do so with the characteristics of “engraced suffering.” While sounding unfairly Russian, engraced suffering is genuinely Central European. Even more so, it’s genuinely human.

 

There’s a brutal contemporary novel by Bartis Atilla, Tranquility (though nothing of the sort exists in this profound and mesmerizing work). The first of the author’s to appear in English, it will certainly not be the last. Bartis’s characters are unusually rich and complex, or maybe abused and abusing is more accurate. The mother-son relationship in this novel makes 2019’s Joker look like an urban Theodore and June Cleaver.

 

Set in the middle of Hungary’s Soviet occupation, Tranquility tells the story of Weér Andor, a thirty-something writer living with his mother, Rebeka, a once-famous stage actress who rules and batters her son. Andor falls in love with a woman named Eszter, contends with a priest, has near-taboo relationships with his editor and publisher, and reveals all his interior life with pellucid brutality that you can never be sure if you’re looking at a bruise or some fragment of a Hieronymus Bosch painting. Bartis’s prose captivates. Here’s an early passage of Andor driving along with the priest through the Gypsy quarter of a village,

“Here, half-naked children wear the same red sweater as I did, because five hundred of those had arrived in last week’s Dutch relief shipment. […] These red relief sweaters were more ominous than the windows covered with blankets, than the fires burning in the three-walled rooms, than the idle women sitting on concrete steps leading nowhere; a set of stairs leading nowhere is still something very human” (37).

 

Here psychology and detail are united. Understanding and sympathy, even a subtle bitterness at both, flow underneath the surface of Bartis’s prose. There are dozens of such passages where Andor displays the physical universe as intimately connected with our interior lives. Toward the conclusion, a marvelously prescient examination on the nature of freedom comes to a Dostoevskyian conclusion: “freedom is a condition unsuitable for humans” (232). Perhaps demonstrating more what such a conviction does to a person instead of advocating for such a position, Bartis forces us to ask what tranquility is. Even though its title is Nyugalom—peace, tranquility, serenity—it is an examination of nyugalom’s opposite. The tranquility of the title comes about when all wonder, when all awe is stripped from us. By strife, by suffering, by life.

 

 It moves csodáról válságra. From wonder to crisis.

*

After arriving in Hungary, and diving into census records of Borsod-Abaúj-Zemplén, from which many of my ancestors come, my family tree now stretches to the early 1800s. What I sense as I read the names of these long-dead predecessors, the locations of baptisms and ports of emigration, largeness and smallness confront me, like my fear and hope. They hold hands—kéz a kézben—because they understand they need each other. 

 

For several years now I’ve had a disenchanted faith with my own tendency to let Christ have my mind but not my heart. Not only has my genealogical investigation impacted me, but my own voracious reading of Hungarian literature has altered the way I see fear and hope as Christian practices. We are commanded regularly, do not fear, true; but proper fear is also advised repeatedly throughout the Scriptures. When hope takes hold of fear, even in its natural state, that fear becomes a friend. 

*

Engraced suffering is fine and good in literature, but in life it is something altogether different. We can’t close the cover on that kind of pain and are unlikely to keep it on our nightstands for distraction when we can’t sleep.

 

The exploration of my family tree was almost certainly precipitated by a gift I received from one of my aunts: all the remembrance cards my grandparents had kept from the 1940s until 2023, when we had to add theirs to the box. There were cards without a word of English on them, with the Hungarian name order and with churches that have long since shut their doors. There were cards from family members and the names of my grandparents’ friends, of their parents’ friends. Remembrance cards will continue to be added to this collection, each name becoming less and less known. It’s where all our names must go, for a time. 

 

Raised in a Protestant house, praying for the dead was like trying to un-pop popcorn. My grandfather, James, was not raised that way. Liturgy was a part of his life until well into middle-age, when he—reluctantly, I think—began attending a charismatic church with his daughters and their children. Our family tradition during prayer involved a time to pause and remember all those who had passed before us—surely each of us were remembering different people. Aunts, uncles, and cousins from different branches of the family, parents and grandparents with different shades of pepper in their hair. Inevitably, these moments of remembrance brought him to tears.  

 

Loving and lamenting composed those tears, I think. 

 

Back in October, I attended a Russian Orthodox service in Budapest, understanding at least the very basic belief that in the time of liturgy, the Church Triumphant and the Church Militant are united in worship. I’ve never experienced a thing like this, but I swear I felt the excitement of my grandparents, like they were waving to me from the front porch as I approached to spend a morning beside them. I’m still discovering what conversion to Orthodoxy entails and requires. I know I am not in the position of Móricz’s, or Batis’s, or Krasznahorkai’s characters, who reach after meaning, peace, and relationship only to find their hopes squashed by the contemporary world around them.

There’s the strong possibility that you can teach a person what to hope for by showing them what to properly fear. This, in part, is what Hungarian literature has taught me. It is decidedly not a literature of triumph. It is the literature of defeat and endurance, of seeing in rubble the ingredients of mosaic. 

 

The dead do not speak. But I am more and more convinced that the story of the Gospel is one that says the way to live is to die—not through some shamanistic ceremony or through literal sacrifice, but by meeting our suffering with grace. Suffusing it with grace. The question is not do the dead speak? It is only the living who speak. The true question is who are the living and who are the dead? They might not be whom I suspect. I may not be who I think I am.

 

Engraced suffering can be summed up nicely in two Hungarian words: válságról csadóra. From crisis to wonder. 

 

Or, fear and hope. I can sit on a park bench in Debrecen and see the cold hands of Szabó’s statue. They represent the hands that wrote some marvelous novels. Stunning, really. But it’s still only a statue’s hand I’d be holding. Separately, I honestly don’t know what to do with fear and hope. Together, they’re like the two hands of Christ, both equally pierced and equally healed. From work and overuse they might be callused, but I’d want no other companions on a journey. 

 

I’m not even sure I’ve been promised any others. 


[1] Space does not permit me to write of Szabó, but I heartily recommend to you everything she has written. There are new and marvelous translations available.

G.W. Currier

G. W. Currier currently teaches at the University of Debrecen in Hungary through the Fulbright Student Program. Rooted in his Hungarian heritage, his writing appears in Nimrod International Journal, The South Dakota Review, Waxwing, Grand Little Things, and elsewhere. A number of his reviews have been published by The Englewood Review of Books. More of his writing can be found on his Substack channel.


 
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