the complete review Quarterly
Volume VII, Issue 3/4   --   November, 2006

John Pen, John S. Toldy, and Székely János
Another Hungarian author lost -- and found ?

Note: In keeping with our attempt to present author-names as they are written in their native countries/languages we write (or try to -- we haven't achieved complete consistency yet) Hungarian names with the family name first -- just as we do for Japanese, Chinese, Korean, and select other names (hence Murakami Haruki, Cao Xueqin, Ko Un, Ngugi wa Thiong'o, etc.; see also this explanation). Sorry if you find that annoying.

       The past few years have seen renewed interest in a number of Hungarian authors, specifically those writing between the two world wars. Szerb Antal's Journey by Moonlight and now The Pendragon Legend have been hailed as wonderful re-discoveries, but it's the Márai Sándor story that has really gripped much of Europe and America. His tragic fate -- living in obscurity in California for some four decades after World War II until finally committing suicide, only then to have his works re-published across Europe and the US to great acclaim -- adds to the story, and the books themselves (especially Embers) appear to have found a large audience. The English translations still lag (Casanova in Bolzano (UK title: Conversations in Bolzano) is the only other title currently available), but much of his output has been re-published in numerous other languages.
       In Germany Kosztolányi Dezső has also made a strong comeback, and while Anna Édes was published in English quite a while back he didn't really catch on at the time; maybe if the Esti Kornél-works appear, his talents will also come to be more widely appreciated.
       Meanwhile, however, another name has resurfaced in Europe (and proven especially successful in Germany): Székely János. And as in Márai's case, there's a great story to go with the name -- and some reason to believe it might be worth a publisher's while to get him back in print.

       Székely János is not unknown to American audiences. His two major works of fiction, You can't do that to Svoboda (1943) and Temptation (1946) both appeared in English translation before they came out in the Hungarian original. (Temptation was co-translated by a young Ralph Manheim (who went on to become far better known as a translator from the French and German).) Fairly widely and well-reviewed (Rose Feld said of You can't do that to Svoboda that: "it's a gem of a little tale" (The New York Times Book Review, 21 March 1943)), Székely did quite well with his fiction.
       An adaptation of You can't do that to Svoboda played Broadway, but it was in film that Székely achieved his greatest success, first in Europe and then in America. He even won an Oscar in 1940, sharing the Best Original Story-prize for Arise, My Love.
       So why isn't the name more familiar ? Well, Székely made it easier for himself to fall into obscurity by working under not one but two pseudonyms: the Oscar went to 'John S. Toldy' (his screenwriting-pen-name), while the novels were published under the name of 'John Pen'. (Indeed, Temptation was even published in Hungary under that name, but once the ruse was discovered the book disappeared from bookshops there.)
       'Székely' may sound and look foreign and unpronounceable, but the two pen-names are surely among the worst anyone has ever chosen ..... But it was the political climate that did him in and presumably prevented him from enjoying continued success: the McCarthy-era witch-hunt had its sights on him as well (leading him to apparently flee, at least temporarily, to Mexico), and with no hopes left in the US he returned to Europe in 1956, settling in (East) Berlin, where he died in 1958.
       There's barely any readily accessible information about Székely, and even if the works are no longer of interest his life-story is probably worth a closer look. But the works seem to have some lasting appeal as well -- at least to judge from recent German reactions -- and while it's fairly light entertainment, he does have a storyteller's touch.
       So: will any American or British publishers bite ?

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© 2006 the complete review Quarterly
© 2006 the complete review