“The best thing in life was for there to be no complications. Secure job, good wife, nice home.” Thus ponders Aladár Vágrándy as he strolls towards his office to start his day’s activities as a middle-ranking civil servant in 1930s Budapest. Little does he suspect that by the end of the day the foundations of his peaceful life will have been shaken to the core because of an extra-marital affair, contemplated but not carried out.
Zsigmond Móricz, whose writing career spanned the end of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th until his death in Budapest in 1942, forged his reputation through his descriptions of the dark undersides of the Hungarian peasantry and provincial petit bourgeoisie. The countryside poverty in which he was born, and the boredom and corruption of small-town officialdom formed the backbone of much of the grim, realistic stories and novels that established him as one of the country’s leading writers.
Captive Lion, published in 1936, shifts the scene to Budapest and focuses on the near breakdown of one couple’s marriage, a break with previous themes whose timing is far from accidental: the book was written at a time when Móricz, himself on the verge of the breakdown of his second marriage, sought to rid himself of the memories of his failed first, 20-year marriage, which ended in his first wife’s suicide in 1925.
Torn by temptation
Writing as he neared 60, Móricz describes in minute detail the thoughts and feelings of a middle-aged protagonist who finds himself torn between allowing himself one taste of life’s charms or remaining faithful to his marriage. A “banal” enough storyline, as novelist György Spiró notes on the back cover, yet it is precisely in the depiction of the helpless humanity of ordinary people that the book’s appeal resides.
Captivated by the sight of a young woman in his office, Vágrándy teeters on the brink of a decision that could destroy the careful equilibrium of a life constructed with minimal space for emotional and social manoeuvre. He is the book’s captive lion, captive in the domestic harmony of a childless marriage, held in check by the hierarchical constraints of a position obtained through patronage. Vágrándy, the country bumpkin in the city, prides himself on being “a wild man from the provinces” yet his life is “a closed book”, devoid of ambitions in what he sees as the soullessness of Budapest life. Over the course of the day and those ensuing, the reader follows the tortuous flow of his ruminations as he and his wife fight with each other, throwing away the blanket of outward gentility to reveal the bleaker undercurrents of a marriage marred by unfulfilled hopes.
A view to Budapest’s past
If women, marriage and a touch of social politics figure prominently in the novel, the narrative gains a more cheerful side in its close intertwining of Vágrándy’s downfall with the background provided by a growing city. The first signs of his dissipation come as he walks home from the office, not rushing as usual by the shortest possible route but dallying to look at the fountain on Kalvin tér, noticing for the first time the beauty of Budapest street life.
He has hitherto lived his marriage in a two-room flat in a three-storey building in the (then) suburban street of Reviczky utca, just across from what is now the Szabó Ervin Library in District VIII, hurrying to and from the office, avoiding the parading ground of the Danube Promenade or Margit Island and its smell of excessive luxury.
But following that spring morning, as Vágrándy allows his thoughts to wander towards a little emancipation, the reader accompanies him in his fascinating rediscovery of the landscape of interwar Budapest, from the new, modern buildings of District XIII to the mysterious attractions of the City Park at dusk.
It’s a bleak picture of the downfall of a marriage and of the sclerotic environment of interwar Hungary, but the sympathetic, down-to-earth writing and translation make it a worthwhile introduction to the works of Móricz.
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By Zsigmond Móricz (Translated by Bernard Adams)
Corvina 2011, 312 pages