Saturday, December 1, 2012

Kálmán: A Literary Ancestor


Among our ancestors, the earliest known to have published books was my greatuncle Kálmán Darnay (1864-1945). It so happens that he is also the latest to have one of his books (re)published, and I show it above. That book was originally written in 1929, but it was reissued again in 2010. The title is The Good Old Justices Socializing: Historical Jokes Depicting the Times. Brother Baldy received this book as a gift when visiting the Museum of Sümeg (Sümeg being an old family seat) this past summer. That title took me an enormous effort to translate. Of that more below. Remaining with Kálmán, he was an historian and novelist.

Here I provide a listing of his works with a translation or comment on the title:

Sümeg és vidékének őskora. 1899.
Sümeg and environs in ancient times.
Magyarország őskora. 1900.
Hungary’s ancient times.
Somogy vármegye őskora. 1913.
The ancient times of the Somogy castle region.
Gisimár. Kaposvár. 1913.                              
A history of ancient man in Somló region.
Tagisir. 1921.
A novel of ancient times.
Testőrszerelmek. 1926.
Guardsman’s Love Affairs (novel).
Elkésett csók. 1932.
The Belated Kiss (novel).
A bujdosó gyöngysor. 1928.
The Pearl Necklace in Hiding (novel).
Kaszinózó táblabírák. 1929.
The Good Old Justices Socializing.

The novels were popular and most are still available in print if in the “old book” category. Of the histories Kálmán’s last book is obviously valued. It is filled with very funny stories harking back into history. The title struck me as very odd. The first word translates as “casino-ing,” kaszinó meaning casino. That word in Hungarian also has the connotation of socializing, “clubbing” and so on; it is less narrowly attached to gambling than that word is for us.

It was the second word, táblabírák, which led into odd spaces and times. You won’t find it in ordinary dictionaries, but it has a suggestion of “board of judges.” Kálmán’s use of the word in the title, and elsewhere, however, strongly suggests that it was very familiar to his readers even if never used in any judicial setting. Trying to find something, anything about that word then landed me on a website. It holds the preface to a much more famous book by a much more famous writer, Mór Jókai (1825-1904). The book’s title is A régi jó táblabírák, rendered into English by others as The Good Old Justices.

That book was published in 1856. To understand things, one needs context. The Hungarian Revolution in the nineteenth century took place in 1848. It’s aim was to separate Hungary from the Austrian Empire. It failed. It failed, furthermore, exactly as the later, call it second, Hungarian Revolution failed in 1956. In both cases, Russia put down the rebellion. In 1849 Russia restored the re-conquered Magyars to Austria. In 1956, it restored the Communist hegemony. So, to return to our story, Jókai Mór (to put the sequence into the Hungarian mode, last name first) wrote in the dreary aftermath of a failed revolution. And, in his preface, he makes a point of explaining that word of his, táblabírák, used in his title. He does so by listing a number of situations all ending in a question. The first of these (link for those with Hungarian):

     If a public emergency arises, if acts of God strike the country, if the rivers overflow, if it was a terrible year, if hail, fire, terrifying plagues visit the people, whose heart calls on the people to make sacrifices in response? To whom does the public, lashed by fear, turn for solace?
     To the good old justices.

Four more such pairings follow. At the end Jókai sums it up. He defines “the good old justice” as the person who had charge of the commons, of the local administration, the engineer, the regulator, the legalizer, the judge, the lawyer, doctor, poet, scholar, the book printer, and the book buyer. Jókai, thus, creates a term to mean the culture’s genuine leadership—not at all restricted to the judicial branches but including them. His aim was to return to a kind of earlier time of stability, peace, and justice—and to an order in which the “good old justices” were heard and minded.

Thus our ancestor, Kálmán, echoes a much more famous work, with a definite cultural message—but he was in a more relaxed, expansive, and humorous mood. It was 1929. Little did he know that the times were about to give birth—to the Great Depression. It would come and visit, in due time, great terrors upon the people, also, of little Hungary. And good old justices would, once more, be very much in demand.
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Added later: The illustration shown was painted by a contemporary of Kálmán, Károly Mühlbeck (1869-1943), on commission, and also illustrated the first edition of this book. Mühlbeck was a well-known Hungarian artist, illustrator, and in his latter days a political cartoonist.

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