Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 15. Nr. August 2005

5.12. Narration in Literature and Writing History
HerausgeberIn | Editor | Éditeur: Gabriella Hima (Budapest)

Buch: Das Verbindende der Kulturen | Book: The Unifying Aspects of Cultures | Livre: Les points communs des cultures

Nostalgia as Virtual Reality in Gyula Krúdy’s Post-Monarchic Works

Ferenc Várady (Károli Reformierte Universität, Budapest)



Austro-Hungary was a country without colonies. In the nineteenth century the civilizations dominating the European cultural area used to have colonies ranging far and wide from Africa to the Far East. The forms of representation of oriental culture and the experience of meeting members of other civilizations were dominated by the methods developed by these empires. The main goal of the newly formed science called Cultural Anthropology was to create and maintain the highly profitable cultural connections between the parent state and the colony. It was the umpteenth attempt of European culture somehow to integrate these foreign cultures, which were generally so hard to rule.

In the process of self-development the Western societies had to create a completely new mythological and cultural system under their own power. These uncommon cultural patterns of the Eastern civilizations were also essential in the process of the self-development of the Western social phenomenon called bourgeoisie. In these processes of cultural selection, subtraction and integration, the selective powers of the dominating culture do not focus on the immanent functions of the chosen segment of the foreign culture. The main aim of this process is to find the appropriate segment of another culture. These chosen segments are those suitable to represent the culture’s curious and exotic character.

While the integration of a separate segment into a foreign culture is taking place, the element’s peculiarity remains the same and becomes its most important feature. Hence, the relation between the two cultures is not based on equality. There are always dominant and subordinate powers. When the dominant culture selects, subtracts and integrates a segment of another culture, it uses its own methods and systems during the process. The integration of this segment is carried out by the archetypal methods of the integrating culture. Its extraneous character becomes its permanent basic character and function. So the oriental becomes ornamental, but the essential function of the ornamental signs - such as their magical, symbolic, ritual and rhythmic functions - vanish. According to semiotic terminology, we can say that the former meaning of the sign perishes or something new becomes a sign and a new denotation is created. The newly formed meaning is mainly in connection with the origin of the sign and not with its former meaning. It will exist as a kind of a functional representation of the foreign system of signalization. The motifs integrated in this way will be parts of the stereotypical system, which represents the other culture. The structure of this system is determined by the archetypical foreigner image of the integrating culture. In this mechanism the universal methods of self-identification and distinction from the "others" are functioning as well as the inherent internal processes of the dominating culture.

Because of the huge cultural and geographic distances, the internal and the external cultures are clearly distinguishable in the colonial expansionist empires. From the point of view of the dominant culture in these cases, the internal and the external remain clearly distinguishable, too. The segments adopted from the other culture are called exotic.

At the end of the nineteenth century a new kind of ornamental art began to emerge in Europe. Its various forms have different names: "secession" (in Vienna), stil noveau, modernism, liberty style, Jugendstil or art noveau. Since the Renaissance, Western culture has made a rough distinction between the ornamental and figural functions of any work of art. The "secession", while consequently adopting this system, makes totally unidentifiable not only the function, but also the origin of its ornamental signs. Its process is parallel to the inorganic integration of the colonial cultures, but in this case there is no identifiable origin of the decorative motifs. The post-modern aesthetics call this type of cultural system simulacrum. Ironically, after the disintegration of the great European colonial systems, the great attempt of the "secession" to stimulate culture has also ended.


Local Flavours

Austro-Hungary was not one of the great colonizing empires. Yet, the cultural influence of those nations was rather remarkable in this area, too. In the Carpathian Basin for thousands of years there existed a deeply embedded cultural cohabitation, which was rather different than the systems connecting the colonizing empires and their colonies. So the cultures of this area were not able to use the same methods as the Western civilizations for describing their own transcultural existence. On the one hand, because of the close geographical positions of these small states the cultural interactions were much deeper and organic. On the other hand, the empire of Franz Joseph was a multicultural system, like the great Western empires - in miniature. In Austro-Hungary there were a few Slavic nations with similar languages but different cultural heritages. There was a strong presence of the German and Jewish cultures in the Monarchy, and there were nations with characteristics of non-European origin, like the Hungarian. This ethnic diversity went hand in hand with the diversity of cultures and religions, too.

In addition, the great variety of geographic structures of the Carpathian Basin and the surroundings made the complete integration or merging of these cultures almost impossible. Thus, there were great cultural distances between nations that existed relatively close to each other. There have been numerous attempts for centuries to describe this unique kind of cohabitation in the forms of cultural and artistic representation in a way, which is acceptable to all of the involved cultures of this miniature empire. Unfortunately, most of these attempts were not very successful. There was only one longer period of time, when the chances of creating a unifying aspect of these cultures increased. This was the longest of the peaceful periods of the Habsburg Empire, the years of the existence of Austro-Hungary. This period started after the revolutions of 1848 and ended with the beginning of the First World War. We could call this period the Last Golden Age of the Carpathian Basin, not only because there were sixteen years of prosperity and peace, but also because it was the era which served as the focus of the nostalgia that emerged among the people of these countries during the wartime years in the twentieth century. So, this Golden Age was virtually created by the cultural processes of the early twentieth century. The central decade of this period, the 1880s, are the most representative years and are also the period of the nostalgic trend found, for example, in Hungarian literature.


The Place of Gyula Krúdy

The above-mentioned Golden Age also included Hungarian literature. János Arany, Kálmán Mikszáth and Mór Jókai, the legendary writers of the nineteenth century, produced most of their oeuvre in those years. However, neither these artists nor the semi-canonized "secessionist" writers at the turn of the century around 1900 created the mythos and legend of the Golden Age. As Gyula Krúdy cites from the beginning of Pushkin's famous novel The Crimson Coach: "A múzsa csak a szerelemnek / Tüntével jött meg." (The Muse has just arrived with the disappearance of love.)

The opportunity to create this paradise-like cultural universe, the Golden Age of the Austro-Hungarian bourgeoisie did not occur until the first decades of the twentieth century. The leading writers of those years were the first generation of contributors to the important Hungarian periodical "Nyugat" ("West"). The title of this journal was intended to indicate that its writers were the most important advocates of Western modernism in Hungary. But the future-oriented character of modernism generally was not greatly involved in the nostalgically oriented representations of the previous decades, although the presence of the "secession" in the cultural life of the Monarchy was still very strong. Krúdy attempted the show the possibility of a special blend of these literary techniques and was able to create a virtual contemporariness and a unifying aspect of cultures by building the Golden Age of Austro-Hungary into his texts. His oeuvre is consists of larger novels and many short stories. Differentiating between his short stories and newspaper articles is rather difficult, especially in his late works. It can be an indication of a special method of creating texts that is peculiar to our author. On the other hand, the Sindbad-series of short stories, the most widely known part of his oeuvre could also be considered as a longer novel. This kind of generic flexibility is also a unique feature of his works, which shows that he is positioning his texts in distant future rather than as part of contemporary literature. The generic flexibility and technical freedom of his approach enables us to consider his texts both as offsprings of Romanticism and as predecessors of post-modernity. In the secondary literature, the most frequently mentioned features of his writings are the secessionist ornamentation of the texts and the imaging, which resemble those found in the novels of Marcel Proust. Since most of his prose works belong to the sixty-year period of the Golden Age, mentioned above, it can be assumed that there will be traces of the method which recreates a special kind of nostalgic structure that is suitable for representing the multicultural makeup of Austro-Hungary. Although half of Krúdy's oeuvre was written before the First World War, the structure of a virtual Golden Age is present in both periods of his works. Only the point of view changes with the time. What do these methods for creating nostalgia look like? To analyse this technique, we will use a late short story of Krúdy, entitled What Did Kaiser Franz Joseph Eat for Lunch Every Day? (1933). This story also illustrates the blend of two types of texts: newspaper articles and literary stories. In this short but highly compressed text we will find a number of examples for our research.

The main thematic level of this text is the introduction of a special dish of the Monarchy, called "Bécsi csonthús" - literally: Viennese bone meat: beef cooked in a soup, then served without the broth. We learn the following important facts:

- It was a popular dish all over the Monarchy, but after reaching its peak of popularity it disappeared from the restaurants.

- It was written on the menus in capital letters.

- The beef had to come from Hungary, but the cattle had to be processed in Vienna.

- Time and patience were required for eating it, since the parts close to the bones and between them were the most delicious.

- Going out and having a "Bécsi csonthús" for lunch was a special occasion. In the Monarchy - according to the storyteller - gentlemen gladly took a longer trip to have a good piece of this speciality. The most delicious "Bécsi csonthús" was of course available only in Vienna - just like other dishes and confections. In the majority of Krúdy's works, the positive values of living a human life are realized through the elements of nostalgia. The two most important focal points of this system are the joys of the relations between men and women and the pleasures of the table. It is evident - without overwhelming our presentation with philosophical terminology - that these two kinds of exhilaration are analogous. These sorts of experiences - eating or being together with a woman - are the meeting points of the primary, sensual, and the deeper, cultural, spiritual and magical forms of pleasures. In the case of love, the cultural, emotional and spiritual levels are the most important subjects of Krúdy’s texts. In the representation of other kinds of joy, the sensational aspects are more significant. Despite the dominance of either side, there is always a strict balance of the two forms of experiences.

The text, which will now be examined, primarily concerns the functions and connotations of the ceremonies of eating. The title of our short story is What Did Kaiser Franz Joseph Eat for Lunch Every Day? As noted, the text can function as the answer to this question, namely, he usually had "Bécsi csonthús" for lunch. The explicit question of the title is answered by the text, and there are two subjects in these sentences: the subject of the question is Franz Joseph, and the subject of the answer is the "Bécsi csonthús". The relationship of these subjects defines the ways of understanding this short story. It is not clear whether the main topic of the text is Franz Joseph (the King of Hungary and the Emperor of the Monarchy) or the Austro-Hungarian speciality called "Bécsi csonthús". There is no exact answer for this question, although this obscure peculiarity of the text can bring us closer to its hidden features. The emperor in traditional empires was isolated from everyday life. With the rise of the modern bourgeoisie, the need for an emperor or a king became slowly unnecessary. The traditional tasks of a feudal monarch were hardly understandable to the common citizen of the Monarchy. In this respect there is a possibility of changing the cultural and social functions of the monarch by changing his/her place in the mythological system of every day life. At the time Krúdy wrote this story, there was no monarch, king or Emperor at all - so ultimately it only remains a cultural construction. The opposite process is the apotheosis of a very common kind of daily dish, which can also happen in the nostalgic virtual reality of the Krúdy-text. The orientation of these fictionalising processes is opposed, and the movement of the systems of signalisation defines the dimensions of the system of post-monarchical nostalgia. There is a similarity between this virtual reality and the world of the reader of today, but its main function is to enable one to discern the present and the nostalgic world of the past. The principle of this opposition is to juxtapose valueless present - valuable past, the helpless sorrow of the lost opportunities and the aesthetic joys resulting from the perfection of the "ancient regime". Krúdy refills this basic structure with extremely colourful contents. As the represented reality turns from post-war Hungary's unromantic milieu into the virtual reality of the post monarchical nostalgia, the everyday life of Austro-Hungary (also) turns into a virtual dreamland: the oriental and ornamental Golden Age of the "secession" - mentioned above. The methods of this process can be easily traced in the text. The mentioning of the Viennese court, the House of Habsburg and the Emperor all emphasize the similarities between the Viennese court and the great dynasties of Europe. A telling example: "...Anyway, he preferably consumed only a little liquid, unlike the kings in the neighbourhood, like the Russian Zar, the German Kaiser of those days, Milan Obrenovics, the Romanian king, and other European monarchs. Rather he preferred the example of Victoria, the British queen, who led a perfectly good life..." In this quotation the great monarchs of Europe act as members of an exclusive and traditional club. Although they all have their particular weaknesses, they work in similar positions, and their habits are fairly alike, too. The author, as in many other points of the text, creates - with the sophisticated methods of irony - an uncommon, but still familiar field of interpretation. The quotation mentions the monarch's weaknesses to bring them closer culturally and socially to Franz Joseph, who reigns over only a smaller country but lives a healthier life. His lifestyle is nearer to that of the average citizen of the nineteenth century - from the Biedermeier to the late nineteenth-century bourgeoisie. These and other similar processes in the text bring the personified Monarchy closer and closer to the reader. We view these processes as attempts to trivialise the traditional foundations of the monarchical system, or they can be taken as the apotheosis of the modern citizen. While the text becomes more and more familiar to the reality of the contemporary - urban - reader, the virtual reality also remains suitable for integrating the uncommon - for example, oriental - subjects of other virtual realities. This process is common to the above-mentioned change-and-integrate method of the colonizing civilizations. The Krúdy story uses these methods for creating its own, aesthetically formed reality. In our case - as in the majority of Krúdy’s works - the author makes an effort to introduce this tiny empire as a multinational as well as a multicultural phenomenon. The occurrences of names in the text could be useful examples of this fact. The cattle are brought to Vienna by a company called "Sáborszky and co.". So the "Bécsi csonthús", made of Hungarian livestock in Vienna, is brought by a man of Polish origin. In Vienna the best soup meat is available in Szikszay's, which is an original Hungarian name, usually restricted to noblemen. The leader of the Hungarian bodyguards is called Ignác Fratisevics, probably a Serbian name. However, there are a few signs, according to which Austro-Hungary is not only a common, Western, mercantile-based mixture of European cultures. The empire of Franz Joseph has a strong oriental character in the texts of Krúdy. It is not the east of China, Japan or the Transuralian Russian areas. It is the east of India, and above all the world of the "Thousand and One Nights". So the foundation of Krúdy's recreated mythology is not an identifiable reality, but a universe of archetypical symbolic systems such as tales, myths and legends. The most legendary hero of the prosaic works of Krúdy is called Sindbad - his name and the hero himself make a direct connection between the monarchical-secessionist dream world of the Krúdy-texts and the tales of the Arabian Nights. There are many cross references in the present text, which introduces the Austro-Hungarian Monarch not only as one of the kings of nineteenth-century Europe, but also as one of the fabulous emperors of the ancient East. Since these images are almost totally incompatible, the meeting points of the two stereotypical models are the sources of humour. "...the Bosnian Mohammedans were always received at court with great attention. Just now they spend almost half an hour at the ruler's audience; finally they left after bobbing for a long time. (They bowed three times, and touched their forehead with their hands also three times.) - So, Pápay, is anybody still out there? - Franz Joseph asked the relict administrational chief." Here the storyteller describes the unusual traditional protocol of the delegation with great enjoyment. This episode certifies that our monarch can fully function as an Eastern emperor, but the manner of speech is full of irony. Great attention means only half an hour, and after that, the "Emperor and King" asks his administrational chief (with a Hungarian name) if there is still somebody in the lobby - like a doctor and his waiting room. Naturally, the most ironic feature of the text is that the aim in presenting the Viennese court's reality is actually to tell the story of the "Bécsi csonthús". This method can attract and focus our attention on the paradoxical nature of the virtual reality of Krúdy's nostalgia. Nostalgia can help to overcome the frustration deriving from the inconsistent nature of the reader's present world. The Krúdy texts create a world, which offers the possibility for different cultures to live together in peace and harmony, a complete and valuable way of life is being re-formed. This conception of the world is very similar to the consciousness of the child. And the middle period of the Golden Age of Austro-Hungary is the same as the childhood of Gyula Krúdy. So the archetypical and fabulous nature of the author's texts stand in close connection not only with the surrounding textual universes of the European cultures, but they are also deeply embedded in the writer’s own experience.

© Ferenc Várady (Károli Reformierte Universität, Budapest)

5.12. Narration in Literature and Writing History

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For quotation purposes:
Ferenc Várady (Károli Reformierte Universität, Budapest): Nostalgia as Virtual Reality in Gyula Krúdy’s Post-Monarchic Works. In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 15/2003. WWW:

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