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( 1912 - 1990 )

» School at the Frontier (1959)
» Nothing’s Lost (1969)
» Prose (1980)
» Buda (1993)


1912 born in Budapest
1923-29 attends military academies at Kőszeg and Budapest
1931-35 studies Mathematics and Physics at Budapest University
1931 first stories published in Napkelet; contributes to Új Nemzedék
1933 editor of the bridge column in Budapesti Hírlap
1944-45 during the war shelters writer István Vas
1945-46 works for the Hungarian Radio; plans to revitalize Hungarian intellectual life by revitalising the Nyugat movement
1945-57 secretary of the Hungarian PEN Club; silenced; earns his living translating English (Dickens, Shaw, Osborne, Evelyn Waugh) and German authors (Thomas Mann, Keller, Zweig).
1960 receives grant from the British Government for his translations
1990 dies in Budapest

His prizes include:
1981 Attila József Prize, 1985 Kossuth Prize, 1988 Ernő Szép Prize, 1990 István Örkény Prize

School at the Frontier

Despite his limited oeuvre, Ottlik has proven to have had a decisive influence on post-war Hungarian fiction. He withdrew from the publishers the first version of this, probably the most popular of his novels, in 1948. The book has gone on to enjoy a cult-like status in Hungarian literature. It portrays the life of a military school in north-west Hungary, near the border, where the protagonists lose their youthful innocence and learn of the world s stupid improbability . They are forced to choose between autonomy and solidarity, or acquiescence and the obedience to others will. Ottlik prefaces the actual story with an introductory chapter on the difficulty of writing. He presents a dialogue of half-mumbled words between two of the novel s main characters, with a detailed explanation by one of the narrators, Bébé, of why no fully articulated sentences are needed for the one to understand the other. The story itself is related by two narrators. First is Medve, in the form of a posthumous manuscript, which provides a detailed inventory of the circumstances of their lives, the dormitory, the alley and all the details the boy at the time thought would be of enduring interest, against the background of his constant effort to depict thoughts and moods as precisely as possible. This is then commented on by Bébé, who supplements his friend s memories with his own, while pondering the difficulties of finding the precise words or the exact angle of a narration. The shifts in point of view and in time provide a dynamic but not dissonant read, as Ottlik skilfully merges the two voices into one story. It is Medve who takes life in the cadet school hardest: he is the last one to surrender to the discipline; the one with the strongest sense of morality and individual dignity; the one who writes a letter home but finally refuses to go with his mother; the one who manages to escape the school, yet walks back. His usual escape is into his imagination, trying for instance to visualize the atmosphere of the Gulf of Trieste, where he has never been, except perhaps in his readings, but which nevertheless means for him solitude and freedom. After his physical escape he is locked up for two days, giving him a chance to think about his life at length; he learns that he is an onlooker in this world and, ultimately, a free man. Medve and Bébé become conditioned by experience to survive in an alien environment. What they learn in the end is how to use their words sparingly and move with the utmost economy.

Nothing’s Lost

Ottlik strives for precision, his dialogues are neatly cut and nothing is left irrelevant. In his stories from the 1930s and 1940s, Ottlik perfected his particular approach and technique that can be described as an examination of various interchangeables: life and art, reality and fiction, the relativity of points of view and scales of value, the finished product and the recurring demand of interpretation and re-interpretation, and the tension between a whimsical chronology of events and a moral keynote. His stories written after World War II, together with the eponymous short novel, were published in Rooftops at Dawn, the central character of which is an unreliable swindler with an artist’s air, who nevertheless receives the writer’s sympathy and allows him a means of exploring the unfathomable richness of life. The novel was made into a successful film.


Underlying Ottlik’s fiction is a conscious and coherent system of thought articulated in this book of miscellaneous writings about the writer’s and the translator’s craft, about the role and potential of the modern novel, together with reviews of and essays on Hungarian authors, as well as personal memories and interviews. Noted Ottlik, “For me writing is a slow and painful process; even the shortest review or essay takes a bitter effort. For this, of course, you need a precious inbuilt instrument that very silently but stubbornly resents something you have written.”


The posthumous novel whose existence surprised the reading public continues the story of School at the Frontier and broadens the time-span considered. The first and last segments of the book are chronological; the core of the novel is almost random. In various episodes Ottlik depicts events in a film-like manner, at times digressing into essays (for instance on the limits of articulating any experience). As a psychological curiosity of writing, the autobiographical narrator can only cease his activity when the writer s life is ceased, thus creating the perfect integration of life and artefact.

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