Author's page

Zoltán JÉKELY
( 1913 - 1982 )

» Nights (1936)
» To the Dragon of Time (1975)
» Christmas Present (1978 )

Biography

1913 born in Nagyenyed, in Transylvania (today Aiud, Romania); his father was Lajos Áprily, the poet
1926 family moves to Kolozsvár (Cluj); goes to school there
1929 moves with his family to Budapest
1931 graduates from the Calvinist gymnasium on Lónyai Street in Budapest
1935 receives a diploma at the University of Budapest, writes his dissertation on the Hungarian literature of Transylvania after World War I
1936 unpaid trainee in the Széchenyi National Library
1938 librarian at the Széchenyi Library
1936 first book of poems is well-received by the critics
1937 first novel is published (on his childhood in Transylvania)
1939 Baumgarten Prize; spends five weeks in Italy and Paris
1940 moves back to Kolozsvár after Transylvania returns to Hungary
1941 librarian at the University Library of Kolozsvár (head librarian)
1942 marries the actress Adrienne Jancsó
1944 when northern Transylvania is again annexed to Romania, Jékely works for the most important Hungarian daily of the time, Világosság (Light), as a literary editor
1946 moves back to Hungary, works again for the National Library; the Communist censors prevent the publication of his volume Álom (Dream)
1957 after a long period of being banned from publication for political reasons, his collected poems finally appear
1982 dies in Budapest

His prizes include:
1970, 1979 József Attila Prize, 1990 posthumous Kossuth Prize

Nights
1936

Jékely was part of the third generation of the school of the periodical Nyugat. He was a born romantic, convinced of the reality our inner demons and magical dreams, using the archaic language and imagery he acquired during his Transylvanian childhood. He gained his characteristic poetic voice at a very early age, one quite different from that of his poet father; the latter wrote largely about nature, while Jékely explored extensively love, death and the fear of both. (Áprily once recalled that his son Zoltán was only a few years old when he composed his first poem, “Denevér-foly a vér” (Bat: blood is flowing), precociously exhibiting two of his main creative concerns: magical power and anxiety.) His first volume, Éjszakák, a mature, elegiac collection, is an organic part of his oeuvre and was well-received by critics. The most important of them acknowledged his talent; Antal Szerb, for example, wrote that Jékely was “the poet of extreme anguish” and at the same time “the examiner of reality...one of the few poets who writes down not words but facts”. Everyone observed Jékely’s inspiration, passionate poetic character, daring images and demonic humour. In the same year, 1937, Sándor Weöres wrote in Nyugat: “Finally, here is a book from the new generation that one can praise without any reluctance....Jékely has the most important poetical quality: that he can exert irresistible influence. His poems are not fit for critical examination, because they slip through our fingers like fish, his favourite animal. He does not speak to the critic or the literary gourmand, but instead he turns to the understanding man, the ‘sensitive soul’, as the one-time sentimental poets....The Jékely-poems are about his Transylvanian memories, childhood anxieties, dreamy loves, cemeteries and death—and death again. In death he only sees the final horror, negativity itself. Should I reproach him because his poetry is too singular in its tone? Because he only walks around in the worn-out house-coat of the iamb? It is precisely this monotony, the maniac repetition of the same topic that gives the special magic of this volume.” Another important poet, István Vas, thinks that Weöres’ praising words of praise are a bit double-edged, because he was wary of poets who wanted to win the public’s love (although Jékely for a long time was rather a poet’s poet). Vas saw Jékely as a special “dream knight”, a Krúdy-like “old-fashioned romantic” who wrote his poems with his “blood” instead of his intellect.

To the Dragon of Time
1975

Jékely’s poetry is the music of a sweet, melancholic, melodious violin. Perhaps for many it may seem too sweet, but only at first, if the reader succeeds in recognising his persistent readiness to fight the demons of aggression and oblivion. As one of his most competent critics, the poet László Lator, said: “Jékely’s greatness (let me make it clear: his indisputable, long-term greatness) is not easy to recognize.” Yet readers will soon learn to love this desperate and heroic voice trying to defeat the great dragon of time: From a gateway it belches into view, its huffing belly in full croak – I see it! Disgust and fury pursue me as I run, and I grab at a half-brick and smash it as hard as I can, into his horrible body – death to all such! – and I can still see its guts spilling out, how they ripple in coils in the half-light, and its monstrous eye keeps staring at me, I, who was born on the day of St George who once slew the dragon, and has again slain it. (“Dragon Slaying”, translated by George Szirtes) We are fortunate to have beautiful translations of at least some of his poems; his whole poetic oeuvre, however, is hard to translate, because it is resolute and romantic at the same time. “His voice is the golden voice of the great singers, at once translucent and voluminous, sweet and veiled, as if a northern tune sang in a southern baritone voice.” -Ágnes Nemes Nagy

Christmas Present
1978

This volume contains 14 selected stories written over 40 years, some of the best short stories of Hungarian literature: prose of dreamy intensity and strange, demonic logic. One of Jékely's critics, Gábor Albert, made an inventory of what he thought were the key words of Jékely's stories: dream, adventure, horror, dread, love, death. With the power of the great masters of the Art Nouveau (Géza Csáth, for example), Jékely holds a mirror that provides a reflection of our subconscious fears and desires, but in an unusual personal-anecdotal manner. The style of Jékely's prose was influenced by Gyula Krúdy and some modern French writers, Alain-Fournier for example, but, as he confessed in an interview, also by the archaic style and superstitious subject-matter of his Transylvanian heritage: "If I really have a personal style then it is due to Transylvania. My father's sentences had a slight Sekler cadence, but without using their special words; my grandmother and mother were using the rhythmical bourgeois language of Kolozsvár, and I was also influenced by the archaic Biblical language of Sunday church services, the artful vernacular of my Sekler classmates, the stories of maid-servants from Lower-Fejér County, and the magical 'once-upon-a-time' atmosphere of Elek Benedek's tales." The language of the stories is connected to their settings; they take place in Kolozsvár, little Transylvanian towns, high mountains and later in the writer’s new home, Budapest. There are many unforgettable stories about fishing (Jékely was a passionate angler). Jékely also wrote magnificent ghost and vampire stories, worthy of translation. He uses the romantic attributes of mad love and fencing in his stories about his favourite hero, Kálmán Gyöngyházy (very much resembling Krúdy's alter-ego Sindbad). The women appearing in Jékely's stories are strangely mad or madly strange (their names are strange as well, at least in a Hungarian context: Emília, Melánia, Carmen, Cecília, Lukrécia and Suzy). They are sexually overwrought witches and young girls, whose charm on men is too strong to be resisted. In an age when we desperately need romantic atmosphere and when Krúdy's and Márai's writings are so popular among foreign readers, it would be appropriate for Jékely's stories to also appear on many bookshelves, because his writings are nostalgic and ageless at the same time.

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