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György (George) Konrád (1933-2019)

 

Hungarian novelist and essayist. As an advocate of individual freedom Konrád was under a publication ban during most of the 1970s and early 1980s. His works began to appear in Hungary after the formation of multiparty democratic system and the ties to Soviet Union were cut. Many of Konrád's novels were semi-autobiographical. The author once described himself as "a bourgeois by nature and a dissident by compulsion."

"As the walls come tumbling down, what once seemed portentous becomes pitiful and ludicrous; the entire structure that supported the now crumbling Iron Curtain in public and private discourse is crumbling in peoples minds as well. When we see the heaps of rubble, when we see the barbed wire  symbol of so many labor camps  turning into rubbish or even marketable souvenirs, we feel a certain self-confidence. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, here we are, threading what was once forbidden and forbidding ground. We have prevailed. " (from Konrád speech after the partial opening of the Hungarian-Austrian Border in 1989, in The Melancholy of Rebirth, 1995, p. 2)

György Konrád was born in Berettyóújfalu, near Debrecen, into a well-to-do Jewish family. They were Cohanites, descendants of Aaron and the priests who guarded the Ark of the Covenent. His father owned a farm machinery shop and was able to provide the family a comfortable living during the 1930s. The family had a young German "Fräulen," who looked after the children and listened from the radio Hitler's speeches. Konrád attended the Debrecen Reform College. When the Germans occupied Hungary in 1944 his parents were arrested and sent to an internment camp.

During Admiral Miklos Horthy's reign, some million Hungarians lost their lives, half of them were Jewish. All of Konrád's classmates Berettyóújfalu were killed in gas chambers. Konrád escaped with his sister and two cousins to Budapest where he lived with his aunt. He experienced the siege of the capital by the Russians and was nearly killed by Hungarian Nazis.

After the war he returned with his sister to Debrecen. Konrád's parents survived their imprisonment, and started the hardware business again. His father's shop was socialized in the late 1940s and they had to leave their house in Berettyóújfalu. Konrád went to live with an uncle. At the age of fifteen, he began to read novels by Steinbeck, Hemingway, Martin du Gard, and Malraux, which he borrowed from a private lending library in Budapest; the library was eventually taken over by the state. Later, Konrád became familiar with Remembrance of Things Past and Doctor Faustus.

In 1951 Konrád graduated from the Madách Gymnasium in Budapest. His Hungarian literature teacher encouraged his readings, and lent him books. He never spoke to his family about wanting to be a writer. Konrád entered the Lenin Institute but transferred then to the Loránd Eötvös University, where he studied literature, sociology, and psychology, completing a degree as a teacher of literature. "I read Stalin's work and I realized that he was a quite bad author, and much worse than Lenin, although Lenin is also much worse than Marx, " Konrád later said. In 1955 he married his university classmate Vera Varsa. They divorced in 1963, and Konrád then married the  journalist and writer Júlia Lángh.

During the 1956 Hungarian Uprising Konrád carried a submachine gun. He did not shoot anybody, but read Erasmus and Tolstoy and wrote. When the Soviet tanks pulled out, Konrád buried the gun in the corner of a then still vacant Pannónia Street lot. For some time he was a teacher at general gymnasium in Csepel and a member of the editorial board of the strongly oppositional journal Életképek (Pictures from Life); this newly founded publication was not yet circulating. "Many friends of mine left after November 1956 because they believed only two extremes were possible in Hungarian politics: either Stalinist/post-Stalinist repression or the return of the right, which would open a path for spontaneus anti-Semitism." ('Writing along Borders: Contemporary Jewish Writing in Hungary' by Péter Varga with Thomas Nolden, in Contemporary Jewish Writing in Europe: A Guide, edited by Vivian Liska and Thomas Nolden, 2008, p. 170)

After a long period of unemployment, he became a social worker and editor for Magyar Helikon. From 1965 he was a sociologist at Budapest Institute of Urban planning. He also worked for several years at the Academy's Institute for Literary Scholarship. In 1973 he had a collision with the political system and lost his position. From 1979, Konrád lived with his third wife, Judit Lakner, a historian.

When Konrád was given permission to travel abroad, he started to spend more and more time in the West. From 1982 to 1984 he lived in Berlin on a stipend and in 1986 he was a visiting professor of comparative literature at Colorado Springs College. In 1990 Konrád was elected president of International P.E.N., the first Central European to hold this position. He was appointed in 1997 President of the Art Academy in Berlin. During his career, Konrád received several awards, including Herder-Prize (1984), Europaean Essay Prize (1985), Maecenas Prize (1989), and Mančs-Sperber Prize (1990).

Before turning to fiction, Konrád published a number of essays on both literature and sociology. Konrád's early fiction reflected his experiences as a social worker and a town planner. A látogató (1969, The Case Worker), his first novel, was translated into many languages and brought him worldwide recognition. The book depicted the life of a social worker and his daily activities. Konrád mixed with the story case histories and reports. His pessimistic view about the situation of the abandoned and abused, the urban physical and intellectual degeneration, received in his own country criticism but in the United States the book was praised for its realism. Especially Konrád's language, sociologically precise and at the same time lyrical, was noted.

With Iván Szelényi he wrote Új lakótelepek szociológiai problémái (1969) and Az értelmiség útja az osztáslyhatalomhoz (1978, The Intellectual on the Road to Class Power). It argued that proletariat is the most oppressed class and intelligentsia is the dominant force in society. The work was not published in Hungary where the police tried to uncover evidence of its circulation underground. Konrád and Szelényi were arrested, but as they had not circulated their manuscript, they could not be prosecuted. Instead they were released with a "procurator's warning" and offered "voluntary" exile; Szelényi left the country whereas Konrád decided to take his chance with the Party officials and continue the life he had led, "a life I considered neither fruitless nor disagreeable." (A Guest in My Own Country, 2002, p. 271) However, Konrád applied for a passport to be able to spend long periods abroad. His essays about censorship and liberty, notably 'A függetlenség lassú munkája' (1977) and 'Az állami ember és a cenzúra' (1981) reflected the limits of the freedom of speech in the most liberal country in the Eastern Block.

Konrád's royalties from works published abroad and various scholarships helped him to continue his career as a writer. His second novel, A városalapító (1977, The City Builder), was about a middle-aged Eastern European architect whose interior monologues reveal his family history and his disillusionment about Socialism. The builder was in his youth eager to sketch out the most daring visions but now he is only glad that repression has not dehumanized him completely.

In A cinkos (1982, The Loser), written while Konrád worked at a sanitarium, the hero recollects in a psychiatric hospital the historical upheavals in Hungary before and after the Communists seized the power. "I walk in stocking feet along a prison corridor and end up in the warden's office. 'I can't get used to being locked up,' I tell him. He puts his hand on my shoulder. 'You are a foolish young man,' he says. 'Try to think of this place as a temple of the mind.'" (from The Loser) The half-Jewish, aging ex-Communist is a composite figure, who is seen in his childhood, as an underground revolutionary, a prisoner, a cabinet minister, an academic, and a mental patient. At the age of 55 he is a loser, who finds himself as part of a world, where madmen are against idiots. A German translation appeared in 1980, before the English translation.

Semi-autobiographical Kerti mulatság (1989, Feast in the Garden) is the first volume of a trilogy entitled Agenda. The novel focuses on five different characters, among them the dissident David Kobra, Konrád's alter ego. David's childhood in a small town in the heart of Central Europe ends, when the Jews are put on trains to concentration camps. He escapes to Budapest, where he miraculously survives Nazi horrors and becomes a barely tolerated dissident intellectual. Agenda was continued in 1995 with Koóra (Stone Dial), a mosaic of nostalgic images put together from moments of the past and the present. The Stone Dial appeared in English in the spring of 2000. In the story, set in the post-socialist Hungary, a celebrated writer returns to his native village, meets three old friends and goes through painful memories from World War II and the 1956 Revolution.

"I think that Europe is the continent which is most interested in other continents and their cultures... I wouldn't draw any sharp borderlines inside Europe. Such borders are as artifical and temporary as the so-called 'iron curtain.'" ('György Konrád rutschar tillbaka in i barndomen' by Martti Puukko, Ny Tid, 3 mars, 1995)

In The Melancholy of Rebirth (1995), a collection of essays, Konrád examined critically the Post-Communist Central Europe. He saw that the old establishment has taken in the new order the important positions of economic power. The lot of the poor has not changed, they are still ignored. "Capitalism is the price we have to pay for democracy," he wrote. In The Invisible Voice (2000) he strongly defended human freedom – "European experience has proved that the dignity of the human individual is an unvanquishable virtue."

Like the Hungarian Nobel laureate Imre Kertész, Konrád was critical of liberals' open-arms attitude concerning Muslim refugees and migrants. Diffrering from the  vast majority of European intellectuals, Konrád backed President George W. Bush's war in Iraq. "Every fall of a dictatorship is a good thing," he argued. His inauguration of Berlin's controversial 'Forced Departures' exhibition in 2006 was accused by Polish politicians of historical misrepresentation. Konrád died at his home in Budapest on September 13, 2019.

For further reading: 'György Konrád' by George Gömöri, in Censorship: A World Encyclopedia, Volume 1-4, edited by Derek Jones (2015); After the Fall: Rhetoric in the Aftermath of Dissent in Post-communist Times by Noemi Marin (2007); History of the Literary Cultures of East-Central Europe: Junctures and Disjunctures in the 19th and 20th Centuries: Volume IV: Types and Stereotypes, edited by Marcel Cornis-Pope and John Neubauer (2004); 'Konrad, György,' in Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Vol. 2. ed. by Steven R. Serafin (1999); Új Magyar Irodalmi Lexikon, vol. 2 (1994); 'Konrad, György,' in World Authors 1975-1980, ed. by Vineta Colby (1985) 

Selected works:

  • A látogató, 1969
    - The Case Worker (translated by Paul Aston, 1974)
    - Vierailija (suom. Anna-Maija Raittila, 1976)
  • Új lakótelepek szociológiai problémái, 1969 (with Iván Szelényi)
  • Kitörés, 1975 (with Péter Bacsó and Péter Zimre)
  • A városalapító, 1977
    - The City Builder (translated by Ivan Sanders, 1977)
  • A cinkos, 1978
    - The Loser (translated by by Ivan Sanders, 1982)
    - Häirikkö: romaani (suom. Anna-Maija Raittil, 1982a)
  • Az értelmiség útja az osztáslyhatalomhoz, 1978
    - The Intellectual on the Road to Class Power (with Iván Szelényi, translated by Andrew Arato and Richard E. Allen, 1979)
  • Az autonómia kísértése, 1980
  • Antipolitika, 1983
    - Antipolitics: An Essay (translated by by Richard E. Allen, 1987)
  • Agenda 1: Kerti mulatság, 1989
    - Feast in the Garden (first volume of Agenda trilogy; translated by Imre Goldstein, 1992)
    - Pidot puutarhassa: romaani ja työpäiväkirja (suom. Taisto Nieminen, 1993)
  • Európa köldökén, 1990
  • Az újjászületés melankóliája, 1991
    - The Melancholy of Rebirth: Essays from Post-Communist Central Europe, 1989-1994  (translated by Michael Henry Heim, 1995)
  • Agenda 2: Koóra, 1994
    - The Stone Dial (second volume of Agenda trilogy, 2000)
    - Kivikello (suom. Taisto Nieminen, 1997)
  • Útrakészen, 1999
  • Mit tud a levelibéka, 2000
  • The Invisible Voice: Meditations on Jewish Themes, 2000 (translated by Peter Reich)
  • Elutazás és Hazatérés, 2002
    - A Guest in My Own Country (Part I; translated by Jim Tucker, 2007) 
  • Fenn a hegyen napfogyatkozáskor, 2003
    - A Guest in My Own Country (Part II; translated by Jim Tucker, 2007) 
  • Az író és a város, 2004
  • A közép tágulása: gondolkodás Európáról, 2004
  • Kakasok bánata, 2005
  • Csodafigurák, 2006
  • Inga, 2008
  • Harangjáték, 2009
  • Zsidókról, 2011
  • Vendégkönyv: tűnődések a szabadságról: naplóregény, 2013
  • Itt, Európában, 2014
  • 'The Special Quality of Europe is Culture,' 2016 (in Re:thinking Europe: thoughts on Europe: past, present and future, edited by Yoeri Albrecht and Mathieu Segers)
  • Falevelek szélben: Ásatás 1., 2017
  • Öreg erdő: Ásatás 2., 2018
  • Paměti, 2018


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