Géza Csáth by Rhys Hughes

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Géza Csáth (1887-1919)

by Rhys Hughes

For those who speak not a word of Hungarian, which is the majority of the talking world, it may be helpful to point out that the author Géza Csáth is actually pronounced something like: GAYSO CHATTER! It may be helpful, or it may be pompous. He was a genius. He died a narrow physical wreck in the wake of a grand psychological mess. Quite mad, but the war was even less sane than he. The Hungarian nation has produced a number of supremely talented writers, in all genres, who remain virtually unknown outside that ancient furious land. Many were born when Hungary was much bigger than it is now. As a consequence, the contracting borders have sometimes left their birth towns stranded in other countries.

Mór Jókai, one of the truly great historical novelists of the region, grew up in Komárno, which is now just over the Danube in Slovakia. Géza Csáth entered the world in the south, in Szabadka, in present day Serbia. It was a cultured age, but Hungary was due to crumble, together with its cooler sister, Austria, and extremely lean times were written on the potshots of Sarajevo, 1914. Not quite a case of ploughshares into swords. It was worse than that, iron bedsteads and railings into bayonets and bombs. But before the mustard gas was brewed, Central Europe was swathed in coffee steam and sweetened with waltz tunes. Only its depths were properly agitated.

There were a few ominous ripples in Csáth’s youth. Disagreements with his conservative father; the early loss of his mother; the silencing of his hopes for a career in music. But he was more practical than his later history might suggest. He enrolled in the Budapest Medical School and took a degree in general medicine. He went on to specialise in neurology and even became something of an expert in mental disorders, first from the outside, and then with the addition of a growing opium addiction, from within. His years as a researcher with the renowned Professor Moravcsik also contained the bulk of his literary efforts. In his spare time, he wrote music reviews, a play and almost a hundred strange stories.

It was the twilight of Mitteleuropa’s Silver Era, an age whose absurdities, reflected in the fictions of Musil and Kafka, seem modern in their sense of the tense, in their dark frustration and boredom, more closely matched with our own anxieties than those of the period of reconstruction that exists between. It is one of the reasons why Kafka is rarely assumed to have lived so long ago as he did. Csáth is another writer, as incisive and terse as Kafka, whose concerns reflect our own fear of bureaucracy, a clear fear of the soulless control process that nonetheless remains vague in imaginary outline, its true shape doubtless locked away in a filing-cabinet lost somewhere in the guilty labyrinths of our own inefficiencies.

But for Csáth, the implacable and monstrous bureaucracy in question was never alien to the community. It was not a pointless system imposed on ordinary life from above. Rather, its cruelties were developed from the bottom up and include the awkwardness of sympathy and superstition. In his fantasies there are often no genuine oppressors. There are not even any mistakes to blame for the situations, which are barely tragedies but horrible all the same. Many of his stories do not consciously seek menace, or else caress it softly when they find it. The organic adjuncts of the art-nouveau movement frequently intrude, directly in the ophidian shape given to his work by the artist Attila Sassy, whose etchings inspired new tales as well as decorated those already written, or indirectly in the languorous loomings of his romantic passages, with their wise and cryptic heroines.

Conversely, many pieces have the detachment and brutal precision of a medical report. A few adopt both approaches at the same time, the two styles having decayed and fallen into each other. The dreamlike qualities in these tales and others are not used to provide escape from horror, but merely to embroider it, draw it out in swirls, like the smoky curlicues and gossamer tendrils of any fashionable interior. For Csáth, evil is the basic furniture of life. Our beings in this world are furnished with it, we rest on it when weary on the journey from womb to grave. The style of its design is less important, a minor quibble of aesthetics rather than ethics.

As his taste for opium grew stronger, and distaste for his own weakness deepened to a perilous level, Csáth sought a certain amount of redemption in the massive war that had just commenced. But his madness was amplified by his exterior conditions and duties. He survived the giant hell but returned to a more condensed nightmare. Unlike Jaroslav Hašek, that other sentimental cynic of the perfect page, Csáth did not embrace politics, satire or practical jokes. He shot his wife instead. His subsequent imprisonment in an insane asylum was terminated by a daring escape.

On the way back to Budapest, he discovered that the Hungarian borders had already shrunk beneath his feet. He was now in Serbia and had to cross a demarcation line guarded by soldiers. They refused to let him pass, warning him off at gunpoint. He backed away and then abruptly swallowed poison. The Hungarians are experts at suicide. Before they can graduate in this most serious of disciplines, there are levels to be achieved, stations on the route to nothingness, little termini, practice runs. For Csáth the most significant of these were opium and morphine. He reached the first promptly at the age of twenty-one and arrived beyond the last exactly a decade later. So in essence he will always remain a young man, the tales that survive him glowing abominably with the static energy of waste, frustration and ultimate doubt.

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