György Konrád grew up in a Jewish family in Berettyóújfalu, a village in eastern Hungary which at the time had a significant Jewish minority. His father was a hardware merchant. His mother was a descendant of a bourgeois family from neighbouring Oradea (in Hungarian, Nagyvárad), Romania. Before 1920 and between 1940 and 1944 the city had been part of Hungary. Berettyóújfalu Jews were deported and the majority of them were killed in 1944, but miraculously both of Konrád’s parents survived. He himself managed to survive in a Budapest house under Swiss protection. After the war, he became a student at the Reformed College in Debrecen. In 1947, he moved to Budapest to study in a renowned high school, the Imre Madách Gimnázium. In Budapest he was joined by his parents in 1950, when the state nationalized his father's business in Berettyújfalu.
Initially, Konrád enjoyed the democratic atmosphere of the high school, but after the Communist takeover this was lost, and indeed the school became quite the opposite of democratic. Students like Konrád, who did not toe the political line, were kicked out of the student association. Because of Konrád’s bourgeois background, he was not allowed to study Hungarian and French at Eötvös Loránd University. Rather, he was redirected to the Russian Institute. Many of the professors in the Instiute were old Russian emigrés, who had left their home country in 1917 and lived in one of the states that had become part of Yugoslavia. In 1948, after the Tito-Stalin split, however, they were unwelcome in Yugoslavia, but they were not allowed to return to the Soviet Union either, even though they were able to get Soviet citizenship. They ended up in other socialist countries like Hungary, where they often taught Russian. Inspired by them, Konrád developed a deep interest in Russian literature, and he wanted to write an entire monograph on Gogol. Konrád was particularly interested in how Gogol related to the state culture of the empire of Nicholas I and how he dealt with censorship. As Konrád explained in a 1988 interview, this choice was motivated by the analogies he discovered between the two systems. In April 1953, the Russian Institute was renamed after Lenin. It became a space for hard-liner Marxist-Leninists, who until then had taught at the Department of Philosophy. Konrád was dismissed, and he was also expelled from all institutions of higher education.
By autumn 1953, however, the political context changed. Imre Nagy had emerged as a principal political actor, and Konrád was admitted to university to pursue studies in Hungarian literature and linguistics. Konrád remembers these years as an interesting period, when political activism was on the rise among the youth, and he started to establish himself as a young writer and critic. This came to an end in 1956. During the revolution, he became a member of the National Guard, took hold of a machine gun he never used, and distributed flyers with his friends, one of whom was György Krassó. When Krassó was arrested in November 1956, the majority of their circle fled, including Konrád’s wife and sister. Konrád decided to stay.
As a result of his involvement in the revolution, Konrád could not find a permanent job until 1959, when he became a children's welfare supervisor in a lower class Budapest district, where poverty and alcoholism were widespread. Konrád’s experiences inspired a novel entitled A látogató (Magvető, 1969), translated into English as The Case Worker (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1974). Konrád’s book was also influenced by Endre Fejes’ Rozsdatemető (Magvető, 1962; English translation: Generation of Rust, McGraw Hill, 1970), which depicted workers not as heroes of the workplace, but as troubled persons. Konrád started to work on The Case Worker in 1964 and finished in 1967. Both the Generation of Rust and Konrád’s novel were rejected by Szépirodalmi Publishing House, one of the two major publishing houses in Hungary at the time. In both cases, however, Szépirodalmi’s rival, Magvető, decided to publish the works (Standeisky, Kőszeg). The Case Worker met with negative reviews in the mainstream communist press, but it was appreciated by many literary critics, and most importantly by its readers. It became a hit at the 1969 Book Fair. Domestic success was followed by a rapidly increasing international reputation. By the mid-1970s, the novel had been translated into several Western languages.
From 1960 to 1965, while working as a social worker, Konrád was also employed by the Magyar Helikon Publishing House as a part-time editor. He prepared the works of Gogol, Turgenev, Tolstoy, and Dostoyevsky for publication. In 1964, he was involved in publishing the short stories of Isaac Babel, a work that Konrád particularly enjoyed, in part because some of the short stories had not been published in the Soviet Union at that point.
In 1965, Konrád left both of his jobs to join the Urban Science and Planning Institute, where he worked closely with urban sociologist Iván Szelényi. The two published a number of essays and books together. In July 1973, however, Konrád was dismissed for his involvement in a political issue. The regime had refused to publish or allow the publication of Miklós Haraszti’s sociographical work Darabbér (‘Piece-Wage’), and Konrád assisted in a failed attempt to smuggle the manuscript to Yugoslavia. Haraszti was sentenced to prison, and Konrád was given a prosecutorial warning and lost his job.
After this, Konrád worked for a couple of months in a mental asylum in Doba, a small village in Transdanubia. This experience inspired his next novel, which he wrote between 1974 and 1978, A cinkos (The Loser). The Hungarian government did not allow it to be published, but it found its way to readers in samizdat. Meanwhile, by May 1974, Konrád and Szelényi finished their next sociological work entitled Az értelmiség útja az osztályhatalomhoz (Intellectuals on the Road to Class Power), a study which had no chance whatsoever, given its content, of being published in socialist Hungary, but which nonetheless irritated the political police. The police subjected both authors to harassment, and Szelényi decided to leave the country, while Konrád choose internal emigration. Until 1988, when a second edition of The Case Worker was issued, only two works by Konrád were allowed to appear in Hungary: a censored version of his novel A városalapító (Magvető, 1977; in English: The City Builder by HBJ in 1977) and an essay in the journal Valóság in 1982 (Mondatok egy képzelt regényről, or ‘Sentences on an Imaginary Novel’).
During these years Konrád emerged as a leading voice of the democratic opposition. His works were published in samizdat, and Radio Free Europe gave him the chance to reach a wider audience. Konrád also became the most renowned Hungarian writer in the West. His books appeared in translations, and their publication and sale were major sources of income for him, as he could not get a legal job in Hungary. He also spent a considerable amount of time abroad. In 1977 and 1978, he spent time in West Berlin, the United States, and Paris, and in 1982/83 he was a fellow at the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin. He then spent a year at the New York Institute for the Humanities before returning to Hungary in 1984. In 1987/88, he taught world literature at Colorado College in the United States.His mot significant work from this period, Antipolitika, or Antipolitics, quickly acquired world-fame. As the author of the biography on Konrád’s official homepage, Helga Balikó summarized the work: “portrayed the Yalta Agreement, foundation of the European bloc system, as the potential cause of a possible Third World War. The book’s subtitle was Central-European Meditations, and it was to become one of the voices demanding that region’s secession from the Soviet bloc as a requisite for peace in Europe.” In the mid-1980s, Konrád became part of a massive network of dissident intellectuals, East and West, and he played a major role in the debates and human rights movements in the period leading to the collapse of Communism.
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- Debrecen, Hungary
Author(s) of this page
- Scheibner, Tamás