Eyes Like the Sea / translated by R. Nisbet Bain, by Mór Jókai

Chapter v

Olympian Strivings

22 This chapter is somewhat condensed.]

It was Petöfi who introduced me to my associates of the “Table of Public Opinion” (as the long table close to the counter in the Café Pillwax was called), and who got me a place there. “This is a true Frenchman!” said Petöfi, as he presented me to his young army of literati who were assembled there. In those days this was the highest conceivable praise. The face of every liberty-loving nation was turned towards France, and from thence we expected the dawn of the new era. We read nothing but French books. Lamartine’s “History of the Girondists” and Tocqueville’s “Democracy” were our bibles. Petöfi worshipped Beranger, I had found my ideal in Victor Hugo. . . . This school might easily have become dangerous to us had not its influence fortunately coincided with the opening up of a new and hitherto unexplored field — popular literature. Hitherto it had been the endeavour of Hungarian writers to write in a style which was distinct from the language of ordinary life. Our group, on the other hand, started the idea that it was just those very constructions, expressions, and modes of thought employed in every-day life that Hungarian writers ought to take as the fundamental principle of their writing; nay, that they should even develop the ideally beautiful, poetry itself, from the life of the common people. . . . As belonging to this camp of ours I must also reckon Sigismund Czakó, who acclimatized the modern drama to our stage with marked success; and finally Anthony Csengery, the editor of the Pesti Hirlap, who wrote nothing in the way of belles lettres himself, but whose immense erudition and thorough knowledge of literature enabled him to exercise a most beneficial influence over the whole of our group. Amongst our older writers also, Vörösmarty and Bajza watched over us with stimulating encouragement; but it was Ignatius Nagy in particular who befriended us, and of him I have the most pleasant recollections. . . . At this time he was a cripple. He was rarely to be seen in the street, and then only on his wife’s arm. He stopped at home all day at his writing-table, writing those life-like sketches of the little world of Buda–Pest which testify to such a serene good-humour. The first time I saw him was when I went to speak to him about my novel, “Hétköznapok.” He had a most embarrassing face covered with dark-red spots right up to his astonishingly lofty forehead, whose shiny baldness was half cut in two, as it were, by a bright black peruke. He had also an inconceivably big red nose, at which, however, you had no time to be amazed, so instantly were you spell-bound by a couple of squinting eyes, one of which glared as fixedly at you as if it were made wholly of stone. His voice, on the other hand, was as the voice of a sick child. And within this repulsive frame dwelt the noblest of souls, in this crippled body the most energetic of characters. From no strange face did I ever get a kinder glance than I got from those stiff fishy eyes, and that sick voice announced to me my first great piece of good news. Upon his recommendation, the publisher Hartleben agreed to publish my first romance, and gave me for it 360 silver florins. In those days that was an immense fortune to me. I had no further need to go scribbling all day long in a lawyer’s office at six florins a month. And his fatherly solicitude for me went still further. He introduced me to Frankenburg as a dramatic critic. The editor of the Eletképek had just parted with his dramatic critic (he had been a little too unmerciful to the artistes), and was looking out for a new colleague. By way of honorarium he offered me a free seat at the theatre, and ten florins a month. But my year of office came to an end the very first week. To make amends for the sins of my predecessor, I lauded every artist to the skies, according to the dictates of my youthful enthusiasm. And I can honestly say that I wrote it all from my very heart. It was then that I saw a ballet for the first time in my life. It was my solemn conviction that I was bound by a debt of gratitude to the excellent damsel who exhibited her natural charms to the public eye with such magnanimous frankness. And a pretty lecture Frankenburg read me for it too! “Delightful Sylphid indeed! A clumsy stork, I should say!” Still, that might have passed. But it was my magnifying of Lilla Szilágyi who took the part of Smike in the Beggars of London which did the business for me. I said of her that she was “a lovely sapling!” and promised her a brilliant future in her dramatic career. “Leave her where you found her! She has got no heart that’s certain!” said the editor. “Then she’ll get one!” said I. “But you’ll never get to be a critic,” said he.

And so, for Lilla Szilágyi’s sake, I laid down my rôle of critic, and yet I was right after all, for, as Madame Bulyovszky, she really did become a great artiste. Now, however, I bless my fate that things fell out as they did. Terrible thought: fancy if I now only had the reputation of a famous — critic!

A few days after that, a new career suddenly opened before me. Paul Királyi invited me to join his newspaper, the Jelenkor, as a correspondent. He offered me a salary of thirty-five florins a month. Of course I jumped at it. Newspaper writing was a very grateful task in those days. The paper appeared thrice a week. That was quite sufficient to give us all the news. It is different now. Nowadays more murders, suicides, and burglaries occur in the twenty-four hours than occurred in a whole twelvemonth then.

And a newspaper contributor was then a personage of some importance. Let me give an example:—

I lived with the dramatist, Szigligeti. In the summer we occupied a whole flat in a brand-new house in Pipe Street, and there I had a room of my own, with an exit opening on the staircase. The other flats were empty. The Szigligetis flitted during the summer to the suburbs of Buda. Thus I had the whole of the first floor of the new house at my disposal, to my great satisfaction, for I could work away quite undisturbed. In the autumn, however, the Szigligetis returned, and the adjoining flats at the same time got new tenants. The very next night I discovered, to my horror, with whom I was living under the same roof. It was the wife of the possessor of a flower-garden, who also kept a dancing academy. What afternoons, what nights I passed!

At last I could stand it no longer, and I implored Szigligeti to appeal most energetically to the authorities against the nuisance. Szigligeti fully shared my indignation himself, so he posted off at once to the Town Captain to lay his complaint.

“Sir,” said he, “the proprietress of a flower-garden has settled down in my immediate neighbourhood.”

“But flowers must bloom somewhere, I suppose?”

“But the people dance the livelong night.”

“That doesn’t injure any one, surely?”

“But after dancing they sit down to rest.”

“That is very natural.”

“But they take their rest and recreation very noisily.”

The Town Captain shrugged his shoulders, he could do nothing in the matter; it was a ticklish business to interfere in; it did not fall within his jurisdiction, etc., etc.

But when, finally, Szigligeti said: “My lodger, the correspondent of the Jelenkor, cannot sleep all night because of them,” then, indeed, the Town Captain suddenly leaped from his chair, set all his myrmidons in motion, and by the next day the whole flower-garden and dancing academy was transferred to another forcing bed. Such in those days was the authority of a newspaper correspondent. . . . I was therefore no longer a mere cipher. I was a something now. And, more than that, I was a somebody also. For it was in those days that I passed my legal examination, and became a certificated lawyer in the ordinary and commercial courts. My diploma, indeed, was not præclarus, but at any rate it was laudibilis. The oral rigorosum I passed through brilliantly, but in the scripturistik (there’s a fine dog Latin word for you!) my Hungarian style was not considered satisfactory.

The publication of my legal diploma in the county court was a sufficiently dignified excuse for a visit to my native town. With head erect I could now enter the presence of the fairy damsel with the sparkling “eyes like the sea.”

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Last updated Monday, March 17, 2014 at 17:11