Review: The Cloak of Dreams. Chinese Fairy Tales by Béla Balázs
When this slim volume first appeared – in German, in 1922 – the renowned writer and critic Thomas Mann called it “a beautiful book” and “a splendid modern work”.
The story behind the stories
As highlighted in Mann’s commentary, reproduced in this new, English edition, the 16 stories were written to match illustrations in Chinese figurative style, also reproduced, by a then (and still today) relatively unknown artist allegedly of Greek descent, Mariette Lydis.
The Hungarian Balázs had been introduced to Lydis in Vienna not long after he fled Hungary following the collapse of its short-lived Soviet Republic in August 1919. Balázs, like other prominent figures in the literary and artistic world, had actively participated in the so-called Writers’ Directorate, established during Hungary’s Soviet period under the watchful eye of his friend György Lukács, a Marxist philosopher, literary critic and Communist Party member, who was a deputy people’s commissar of public education. When the Council Republic – as it is called in Hungarian – was overthrown, Balázs, Lukács and a host of others, fearing reprisals from the newly established right-wing regime, fled the country. Vienna was the initial stopping-off point for most of them.
The journeys of Béla Balázs would eventually take him beyond Vienna, to Berlin, Paris and for a long time to Moscow, before he finally returned to Hungary after the Second World War, where he lived until his death in 1949. He is often remembered today for his writings about film aesthetics but he also had a large output as a dramatist, both before and after 1919. He was, for example, the librettist for Béla Bartók’s celebrated opera Bluebeard’s Castle.
All this is told in a lengthy but highly informative introduction to the present work by its translator, the university professor and fairy-tale specialist Jack Zipes, who has clearly moved beyond his speciality and gained great insight into Hungary’s pre-1919 circles of radical artists and social critics, of which both Balázs and Lukács were members. He explains how the writing of this collection of Chinese-style tales was not something out of the ordinary on the part of Balázs, but rather dovetailed quite neatly with his search for meaning in life (and death), his belief in the power and imagery of folk tales and his attraction, albeit not conversion, to Taoism.
During the Council Republic period Balázs had established a fairly-tale department and encouraged the use of puppet plays and story-telling for children in schools and theatres. For this he was criticised by hard-line communists but his view was that folk and fairy-tales were part of the culture of the common people.
As for the mini-stories in this volume, they are delicate, short tales of imagination and fantasy, often with an ethical or moral message. In one a customs official is plagued by the skulls of his ancestors demanding he do contradictory things. In another a poor fisherman is greeted each evening by an image of shimmering beauty that turns into a loving woman before returning to silvery images at daybreak. In a third two beggars, unable to communicate with words because both are deaf-mutes, find a way of becoming the closest of friends such that their entire souls become interchanged. The moralising is gentle, implicit much of the time and even occasionally ambiguous. There’s room for readers to apply their own interpretations.
The stories themselves coupled with the story of their creator make for a fascinating combination.
The Cloak of Dreams. Chinese Fairy Tales
By Béla Balázs
177 pages, hardback
Princeton University Press, 2010