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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


John Pen
(Székely János)

To purchase Temptation

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

Title: Temptation
Author: 'John Pen'
Genre: Novel
Written: (Eng. 1946)
Length: 616 pages
Original in: Hungarian
Availability: Temptation - US
Temptation - UK
Temptation - Canada
L'Enfant du Danube - France
Verlockung - Deutschland
  • Hungarian title: Kisértés
  • Temptation was published in the US in an English translation (1946) before it was published in Hungarian (1949)
  • Translated by Ralph Manheim and Barbara Tolnai
  • A new translation, by Mark Baczoni, is due out in February, 2020

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Our Assessment:

B+ : lively Dickensian tale of coming of age in Hungary between the two World Wars

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
FAZ . 23/7/2005 Walter Hinck
Neue Zürcher Zeitung . 4/6/2005 Adam Olschewski
The NY Times Book Rev. B 17/11/1946 Frederick Brantley
The New Yorker . 2/11/1946 .
Sat. Rev. of Lit. . 7/12/1946 Robert Pick
TLS* . 29/5/2020 George Szirtes

(*: review of new (2020) translation)

  From the Reviews:
  • "Trotz Székelys Erfahrung läßt sich die Erzählweise des Romans nicht als filmisch bezeichnen. In der Detailgenauigkeit und der Darstellung sozialer Konflikte folgt Székely eher dem Vorbild Zolas. Aber im Aufbau von Szenen und Dialogen verrät sich doch die handwerkliche Erfahrung des Drehbuchschreibers, mit der er den Leser ganz in den Bann dieses Abenteuerromans zu schlagen vermag. Selbst die Gleichförmigkeit des Elends setzt Székely in fesselnde Erzählung um." - Walter Hinck, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "Working within the picaresque fiction tradition -- representing, perhaps, the best form for the so-called socially conscious fiction -- Pen has written a novel which is most effective when it dramatizes the routine events of the peasant life in the country villages or the hounded existence of the Budapest workers." - Frederick Brantley, The New York Times Book Review

  • "There is a bit too much of everything in it, although it is by no means dull reading." - Robert Pick, Saturday Review of Literature

  • "The densely packed story is, in genre terms, a racy, filmic cross between a picaresque and Bildungsroman. (...) The structure is episodic, with each chapter full of sharply observed action and emotion, and strictly confined to one location. Yet read as a whole, the novel acquires great pace and scale. (...) All this might have come off as grandiose, declamatory and littered with cliché, but the book is neither a polemic nor a caricature. Nor is it simply a lesson from Zola applied to Central Europe. This is due to Béla, who remains intensely alive throughout and so animates everyone else around him. The writing, as translated by Mark Baczoni, is full of vigour, a product of the author's own anger, patience, truthfulness and wonder." - George Szirtes, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Temptation is narrated by Béla, born out of wedlock to a sixteen year old mother in the Hungarian countryside in 1913. The story covers less than the first two decades of his life (Székely intended this to be only the first volume in a trilogy, but never got around to continuing with volumes two and three), and it is a Bildungsroman of the hardest knocks.
       Béla's mom, Anna, almost immediately sets off for Budapest, taking advantage of the possibility of hiring herself out to nurse and thus earn some money, and she leaves the infant behind in her home-village, in the care of 'Aunt Rozika'. Aunt Rozika runs a sort of foster home (too old now to do any proper whoring, which is how she earned her money previously) and does good business, as Anna isn't the only one in a similar predicament. Anna sends money for her son's upkeep -- but she doesn't fare very well in Budapest, and so there's always too little money, meaning also that Béla is even more ill-treated than most of the kids stuck in this god-awful place. Without resources, Anna also rarely visits, and Béla barely gets to know his mom for many years.
       The period between the wars was a difficult time in Hungary, and abject poverty was widespread. Remarkably, Temptation reads very much like what one might expect conditions in the poorest parts of the world to be like (except with a worse climate). Béla's greatest ambition is to go to school (which evil Aunt Rozika keeps him from, despite it being mandatory that all children attend school), and when he finally gets to go he excels despite his late start, carrying off the school-prize five years running (and getting a fancy book as reward each time) -- but even so, by age fourteen he's never had a pair of shoes to call his own. When he heads to Budapest he lucks into an apprenticeship at a fancy hotel -- but it's an unpaid position (and it takes a while before he's even in a position to receive tips), and money is so short that he walks the four hours to and from his mother's apartment to work every day. Getting the money together for rent is almost always impossible too, and being tossed out a constant fear. Béla gets two meals at work, but because his mom is earning too little to feed herself he squirrels away whatever he can carry of his meal to help feed her. There's electricity, but they can't afford to use it. Hunger and lack of sleep constantly dog them. When times get really tough they pawn the bedding .....
       The hotel provides a stark contrast to the widespread urban poverty. Most of those who live in Béla's apartment building are good people, eager to work, but the economic situation means there are fewer and fewer jobs. (Székely offers some nice portraits of their various heartbreaking sob stories, including the cabinet-maker whose last piece of work is his own coffin .....) Meanwhile, the hotel is a decadent contrast. Still, the position offers some hope for his future -- and, of course, it opens his eyes to many things (as well as allowing for a variety of adventures).
       As liftboy he finds himself smitten with the daughter of a visiting American businessman, Patsy, the first privileged person who treats him decently. She also makes him aware that there's a world beyond Hungary, and after that America is his big dream. (He's sad not to be able to write her after she's left -- but he couldn't even afford the stamps .....)
       Béla also makes the more dubious (and more intimate) acquaintance of a longtime guest (and her dog), a true decadent who also likes it a bit rough in bed. (Here as elsewhere -- including much, much earlier in Béla's life -- sex is described fairly forthrightly; rarely, however, is it romantic, and often pretty ugly.) Temptation is hard to resist: aside from the sex it brings other privileges and comforts -- but eventually it causes as many problems as it solves.
       Béla is also taken under the wing by the one stand-out decent guy, Elemér, who has morals and ideals. He's also politically active, arguing that the current conditions are intolerable and working to change them. He doesn't push Béla too hard, but hopes to convince him to join the cause -- recognising both Béla's smarts, as well as that fact that he's going to have to make some mistakes for himself first, before he can see the light. But there are other influences in Béla's life too -- including another colleague who argues that the only way to go is to play along and succeed within the system. (So willing is he to play along that, even though personally not so inclined, he's willing to be the plaything of a male hotel guest, for example.) And then there are those who want Béla to inform on those who are politically active .....
       Béla's carefree father also shows up in Budapest, bringing his own unique style and approach to things. He also doesn't have a job, but he doesn't let that get to him so much. Ultimately, however, it can't go on like this, and catastrophe -- kept at bay for so long -- can't be averted. There's no more hope in this Hungary, and Béla flees to find his luck abroad.
       Béla is blessed with good fortune in bad. Yes, he lives in abysmal conditions, but somehow he is able to make the best of them (often through sheer luck). He goes astray occasionally, but deep down he is pretty decent. But the odds are overwhelming. It's a political problem, but Béla is no revolutionary -- and the revolutionaries don't fare well either. Székely's book is larger-than-life, but he's also coldly realistic: Temptation is Dickensian in scope and content, and almost all the decent folk are killed off (several -- including Béla's admirable schoolteacher, suicides).
       There are almost no bitter scenes in the book, despite how many sad events take place. The problem is almost too large to simply blame any few individuals or even the incompetent government. Béla and most of the others are just looking for small-scale happiness: being a family, being able to afford having a child, having some hope for the future. The system defeats them all; some perish attacking it, some are crushed by it -- and Béla simply flees, taking himself out of the equation.
       Temptation is a mix of Charles Dickens and Vicki Baum, and it is, in many parts overheated. Six hundred pages of hardship ! But there's enough humour (and Béla's almost constant good cheer or at least optimism), as well as enough of the other side of life (in the hotel)) to make for a fairly consistently gripping and entertaining read. And the local squalour-colour -- both in the village and in Budapest -- is impressive too.
       Not great literature, but a solid, entertaing read with quite a bit to it.

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Temptation: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Hungarian author Székely János (1901-1958) also wrote under the name John Pen (fiction) and John S. Toldy (film). He won an Acadeny Award in 1940.

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