Kaffka, Margit (1880–1918)

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Kaffka, Margit (1880–1918)

Hungarian poet and novelist, generally regarded as Hungary's first major woman writer. Born in Nagykároly, Hungary (now Carei, Rumania), on June 10, 1880; died of influenza in Budapest, Hungary, on December 1, 1918; daughter of Gyula Kaffka; married Bruno Fröhlich, in 1905; married Ervin Bauer, in 1914; children: (first marriage) son, László.

In novels and short stories, probed two pressing issues of her day in Hungary, the decline of the gentry class and the problems faced by women in an era of major social changes; having earned a reputation as a major writer, died of influenza during her late 30s (1918), her son László dying the next day.

Margit Kaffka was born in Hungary in 1880 in the provincial town of Nagykároly (now Carei, Rumania) in the Eastern Lowlands region. The daughter of a Hungarian mother and a father of Czech ancestry, in later years she would trace her restless temperament to her ethnically mixed parentage. The family on her mother's side was typical of the impoverished rural gentry, in that it claimed among its ancestors a member of Árpád's train, that is, with the very first Magyar invaders. Margit's father died when she was only six, leaving the family destitute. Her mother married again, but Margit was unhappy at home and was sent to board in a local convent, a horrifying three-year experience that she would describe years later in a short story entitled "Letters from a Convent." Determined to escape from Nagykároly, Kaffka aspired to a teaching career and was even willing to endure an additional year as a student teacher at the school run by the Sisters of Mercy, in whose convent she had gone through unpleasant experiences.

In 1899, her dreams were realized when she received a scholarship to study in Budapest for her higher diploma to qualify to teach on the secondary school level. After three years at the prestigious Erzsébet Training College for Women, Kaffka received her diploma in 1902 and began teaching.

In 1905, she married a forestry engineer, Bruno Fröhlich, and gave birth to a son László in 1906. The marriage, however, was dissolved within a few years. Supporting herself and László in Budapest by teaching, the single mother used every spare moment to write short stories and poems, the latter being published in the journals Hét and Magyar Geniusz. Kaffka enjoyed motherhood. Her poem Petike Jár ("Peter's First Steps"), an observation of a toddler's first steps, looks ahead in the last stanza to the day when the child, now a young man, pays a visit to a still-anxious mother who hobbles out to greet him. This poem remains a favorite in Hungarian anthologies.

Resuming her maiden name, Kaffka increasingly was to be seen in Budapest's most advanced literary and intellectual circles that met in opulent bourgeois homes and smoky coffee houses, including the avant-garde Sunday Society whose leading lights were Béla Balázs and Georg Lukács. She was one of the few women in this and other similar artistic cliques. Sometimes the writers and artists were invited to her small apartment on Márvány Street, where they would sit in a circle with an oil light flickering, "tracking the flow of ideas."

The most progressive writers among them, including Kaffka, published their poetry and short stories in the journal Nyugat (The West). The writers of the Nyugat circle, which also included such brilliant poets as Endre Ady and Árpád Tóth, were radical modernists who saw themselves as part of a new European generation seeking truth in all areas of life and art. In prosperous Budapest, which had a large, mostly Jewish middle class which was willing to support new ideas, Nyugat found many subscribers from a sympathetic audience who could afford to buy impressionist canvases, regularly attend the theater and concerts, and collect the novels of unknown young writers with bold ideas. From the start, conservative elements attacked the Nyugat circle for its alleged subversion of traditional Hungarian values, with one journalist charging:

It is treason and slander, what they do in Nyugat under the pretext of civilizing the barbarian Magyars. They want to ruin our morals, they want to disillusion us of our faith, and they want to crush to pieces our national pride. A storm of outrage should sweep away all those who commit such deep offenses against the nation.

Leading political figures like István Tisza, soon to be prime minister, entered the fray by labeling the new literature as "incomprehensible bombast [that] is nothing more than the chaotic exterior of spiritual anarchy and an emptiness of mind and heart." Uncowed, Kaffka and her contemporaries continued to write and publish in Nyugat, and by 1912 an editorial in that journal could proclaim with satisfaction: "We have our new literature, and a new audience for it."

After she published a significant body of poetry and short stories in this journal, Kaffka's reputation as a major writer was further enhanced with the publication of four volumes of short stories as well as two volumes of verse, Tallózó évek (Years of Search, 1911) and Utolszor a lyrán (For the Last Time on the Lyre, 1912). In her first novel Szinek és évek (Colors and Years, 1912), she presents an emotionally stark and technically sophisticated study of a miserable widow of 50 who remembers her happier days in a world of the rural gentry, now doomed and crumbling. With its polished prose, this work gave proof that Kaffka had mastered one of modern literature's most challenging forms of expression, and she won near-unanimous critical praise for the novel. By 1914, she was recognized as Hungary's most gifted and popular woman writer. Amid the satisfactions derived from her achievements, Kaffka found gratification in her personal life during these years. In the summer of 1914, after a whirlwind courtship, she married Ervin Bauer, a young physician ten years her junior. The marriage was happy, despite the couple's separation almost immediately following their honeymoon: World War I broke out and Bauer was drafted to work in a military hospital.

In her next novel, Mária évei (The Years of Mária, 1913), Kaffka probed the psychology of a so-called "New Woman" of the day who chooses a career and personal independence rather than taking the traditional path of marriage, motherhood, and domesticity. In what is doubtless a self-portrait of the author during one stage in her life (as is the case in all of her novels), the protagonist Mária is shown as supremely optimistic while enrolled at teachertraining college in Budapest, with a romantic

spirit fueled by the literature she loves. Life's realities, however, soon hit her like a sledgehammer when she starts her career as a schoolteacher in a suffocating provincial town. Correspondence with a famous writer in Budapest does little to assuage her growing misery, which is only made worse with the possibility of marriage to an uninspiring teaching colleague. A final, desperate attempt to find fulfillment in Budapest also crumbles. Eventually, the conflict between Mária's literary fantasies and the wretched world of reality reaches a breaking point, and she ends her life by jumping from a bridge into the Danube. This difficult, melancholy novel sold well, continuing to attract buyers even during World War I (it sold 372 copies between December 1915 and May 1917, making it the second most popular book sold during that period by the Nyugat publishing house). Many Hungarian critics regard Mária évei as Kaffka's most artistically successful novel, with György Király hailing the portraiture of its heroine as representing nothing less than "a feminine Werther."

Kaffka's third novel, Állomások (Stations, 1914, final revised version, 1917), is a roman-à-clef that presents thinly disguised portraits of the men and women of the intellectual circles she frequented. Budapest's literary life is portrayed in sharp detail, showing the great variety of backgrounds and personality types that made up this brilliant generation of artists. By now a master novelist, Kaffka captured the voice of the mostly Jewish individuals, preserving for posterity the idiom of their speech which gave occasional hints of German and Yiddish linguistic lineage. Unlike many non-Jewish intellectuals of the day who were infected by a growing spirit of anti-Semitism, Kaffka was strongly philosemitic in her views. In 1917, she wrote to a literary friend, "I must argue with my husband … and I must defend his own sect against him." In addition to her husband Ervin Bauer, most of her friends and literary colleagues were of Jewish origin. Increasingly attracted by the internationalist ideals of socialist doctrine, Kaffka went considerably beyond defending Jews against anti-Semitism, showing a growing sympathy for the aspirations of other ethnic groups that had been discriminated against within the Hungarian half of the Habsburg Monarchy, including the oppressed Croatians. Returning from Zagreb, she deplored the fact that even in wartime most Hungarians managed to know so much more about the literary and artistic life of Paris, London, or even New York than they did about the Croatian capital, a city with a vibrant intellectual life that was an integral part of the Kingdom of Hungary.

The immense suffering caused by World War I made an almost immediate impact on Margit Kaffka and her contemporaries. Alone one Christmas, she wrote a poem, "I Tried to Pray," to release some of her despair; in this work, she asked God to take pity on the suffering of the women whose lives were being irrevocably transformed by the war. Regarding support of the conflict as virtually a crime against humanity, Kaffka was horrified by the attitudes of some writers, including her Nyugat colleague, poet Sarolta Lányi , who hailed the coming of war in 1914 with jingoistic verse. Kaffka was radicalized by the constant barrage of official propaganda, which neither she nor her fellow intellectuals believed to be true, as well as by stories, relayed by her husband and others, of the carnage and suffering of the war.

She gave voice to her antiwar sentiments in the 1916 short novel Két nyár (Two Summers). In this work, her anger surfaces in a reflection on woman's fate, that of giving birth to a new life in pools of blood:

… and so a surplus of tiny bundles of steaming bodies; in order that some lives from the womb might always survive all those destined to be exterminated with most terrible weapons, in an infinite variety of bloody ways after twenty, a hundred, a thousand years to come. Thus there will always be an endless multitude of murderers and the accumulating dust of individual souls born to be destroyed in unimaginable numbers.

Increasingly radicalized by the utter lack of meaning of the war and the oppressive nature of the existing social order, Kaffka was more than a despairing pacifist. She empathized with the lowest of the low on the social order in Budapest, the women servants, and wrote with eloquence about the plight of illiterate workers. Kaffka became convinced that only a revolutionary upheaval could create a new order in which the subjugation of women was no longer central to the functioning of the system. These radical sentiments were expressed in a poem she published in Nyugat in 1912, "Sunrise Rhythms: 23 May 1912," after having been an eyewitness to the brutal suppression by the authorities of a peaceful socialist workers' demonstration:

"Men," I said quietly, and looked into their handsome bright eyes
"If anything should happen, don't forget to send for us too!" …
If only for a short while, you might untie the chains binding us.…
And, as in previous revolutions, thrust us onto your barricades again.

In 1917, Kaffka published what would turn out to be her last novel. Entitled Hangyaboly (The Ant Heap), it is clearly autobiographical and set in a convent school similar to the one in which she had been enrolled during her youth. The novel was written in 1916, while visiting her husband at his field hospital in Temesvár (now Rumania), with a motive as practical as it was artistic—she hoped to earn enough money from its sales to buy her husband a Zeiss microscope for his medical work. The themes in the novel include sexual awareness (taken as common knowledge in the school), as well as the temptations of the priests for their pupils and the nuns' passions for each other. Whereas some readers and critics have declared The Ant Heap to be a dogmatically anti-clerical and bitterly pessimistic work in which the dissection of religion and sexuality is little better than blasphemous and pornographic, others have come to regard the novel as essentially a work of considerable nostalgic charm, containing much that is affectionate and humorous. Charlotte Franklin , whose translation-adaptation of the novel into English appeared in print in 1995, suggests that through Kaffka's literary artistry the convent has become "a microcosm of life, portrayed refreshingly without sentimentality or vulgarity."

By early November 1918, four years of bloodletting ceased. Like many of her fellow intellectuals, Kaffka was optimistic about the future. She signed an appeal to the Hungarian intelligentsia which appeared in the Budapest newspaper Világ (World) on November 3rd urging support of a federation of all nations of the old monarchy—each an independent, equal nation, democratic and autonomous—based on the principles enunciated in Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points. In her personal life, too, there was much to look forward to. Her husband was released from his medical duties and returned to Budapest. But news of the ominous "Spanish influenza" was a dark cloud on the horizon, and Margit worried about Ervin, whose work at the hospital included performing autopsies on flu victims. She was also worried about her son László and the risks of contagion he was facing at his boarding school. In a letter, she voiced these concerns: "If we can survive the war none of us should succumb to a silly epidemic.… No more army, hospital, rural isolation, bug infested messy rooms, constant journeys in overcrowded trains. There will be peace and order. And work."

In late November 1918, Kaffka began to plan the research and writing of her next major work, a historical novel set in Biblical times. While discussing terms, advances and deadlines with her publisher, she began to suffer from headaches. Soon she was gravely ill with the dreaded influenza. Margit Kaffka died on December 1, 1918; her son László died the next day. Like one of the unexpected endings in the author's stories, her death was a profound blow for her husband, friends and literary colleagues. Mother and son were interred in a joint burial and the elite of Hungary's intellectual life appeared to pay tribute.

Margit Kaffka continues to be read by young and old in Hungary more than two generations after her death. Only in the 1990s, with the publication of a translation into English of The Ant Heap, has her work begun to be made accessible to the English-speaking world. Her powerful novel Colors and Years remains unknown to us, despite the fact that it has been translated into Czech, German, and Polish. Perhaps Kaffka summed up her life's work best in this novel, when the heroine turns to her suitor and says: "The word is the greatest human gift."


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John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia