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József Attila (1905-1937)


One of the greatest Hungarian poets of the 20th century, who spent his entire life in extreme poverty and suffered from depression. Although József's poems are melancholic, they also express the author's faith in life's beauty and harmony. József committed suicide at the age of 32. In the 1930s József was an unyielding critic of the government and the "Right Radicalism". His independent thinking and interest in Freud also contributed to his break with the Communist Party.

Be free to eat, drink, make love and sleep!
Weigh yourself with the universe!
I shan't hiss my inward curse to creep
and serve the base bone-crushing powers.
(from 'Ars Poetica', 1937, trans. by Michael Beevor)

Attila József was born in Budapest in one of the working-class districts of the city. His father, Áron József, an itinerant Romanian worker, left the family when József was three, originally planning to move to the United States, but ending finally in Romania. As a heritage his father left his son the name of the world-conquering King of the Huns, Attila. József and his two sisters were supported by their mother, Borbála Pöcze, a washerwoman. In 1910-12 József spent two depressing years with his foster parents in Öcsöd, where he worked as a swineherd. At the age of nine he attempted suicide. His mother died at Christmas in 1919 of terminal cancer and overwork. József's brother-in-law, Dr. Ödön Makai, was appointed his legal guardian.

Between the years 1920 and 1923 József studied at a secondary school in Makó, without graduating. As a poet József made his debut with A SZÉPSÉG KOLDUSA (1922); at that time he was then 17-years old and still attending the school. Foreword for the collection was written by the famous poet Gyula Juhász (1883-1937). József studied privately for a year, and then entered the University of Szeged in 1924 to study Hungarian and French literature. With the help of a mesenat, Lajos Hatvany, he acquired a good education in Austria (1925) and Paris (1926-27), where he studied France and discovered the work of François Villon, the famous poet and thief from the 15th-century.

In 1925 Jószef published his second collection of poems, NEM ÉN KIÁLTOK. He was expelled from the university because of a revolutionary poem, 'Tiszta szível' (With a Pure Heart) - the poem was attacked by he influential professor Antal Horger, who ended József's hopes to become a teacher. József wrote: "I have no father, no mother, no God, no country, no cradle, no shroud, no kisses, no love. For three days I have not eaten, neither much nor little. My twenty years are a power, my twenty years are for sale. If nobody wants them, the devil will buy them. I will break in with a pure heart: if need be, I will kill someone. I shall be seized and hanged and buried in hallowed ground, and grass that brings death will grow over my wondrously fair heart" With his manuscripts he traveled to Vienna, where he made a living by selling newspapers and cleaning dormitories, and then to Paris, where he studied at Sorbonne. During this period he read Hegel and Karl Marx, whose call for revolution appealed to him.

József's works were praised by such internationally known Hungarian researches and critics as Béla Balázs and Görgy Lukács. In 1927 several French magazines published József's poems. His affair with a middle-class girl culminated in a nervous breakdown. In 1927-28 he attended the University of Budapest, but he never finished his studies. After attacking the poet, novelist, and critic Mihály Babits in a review, the Baumgarten Foundation withdrew its support to József, which was no wonder because Babits was the curator of the organization.

József's third collection of poems, NINCSEN APÁM SE ANYÁM (1929), showed the influence of French surrealism and Endre Ady, Gyula Juhász, and Lajos Kassák. Next year József joined the illegal Hungarian Communist Party. DÖNTSD A TOKÉT (1931) was confiscated by the public prosecutor and in 1931 József's essay 'Irodalom és szocializmus' led to indictment.

In 1932 appeared József's KÜLVÁROSI ÉJ, his mature collection of poems. His most famous love poem, 'Oda', from 1933 took the reader for a journey around and inside the body of the beloved woman. József's last two books were MEDVETÁNC (1934) and NAGYON FÁJ (1936). With these works he gained a wide critical attention. Ideologically he had started to advocated humane socialism, and alliance with all democratic forces. József's political essays were later included in vol. 3. of his collected works (1958).

József had entered psychoanalysis in 1931. It inspired him to search synthesis between Sigmund Freud's theories and Marxism, but otherwise the psychoanalytic treatment did him no good. "See, here inside is the suffering, / out there, sure enough, is the explanation," he wrote later in 1934, viewing his own mental problems from a distance. Some of the leaders of the Communist party became alarmed when József advocated an united front with the social democrats - this was not accepted by Moscow-controlled comrades. In 1933 he was expelled from the party by Stalinists, who accused him of fascist views. In the same year Judit Szántó became his life companion.

When the Soviet Writers Congress was arranged in Moscow, József was not invited, which embittered him much. In 1935 he was again hospitalized for severe depression. During his decline he wrote: "My eyes are jumping from my head. If I go crazy, please don't hurt me. Just hold me down with your strong hands." Probably encouraged by his psychiatrist Edit Gyömröin, József wrote the confessional, defamatory text SZABAD-ÖTLETEK JEGYZÉKE KÉT ÜLÉSBEN. It was partly based on his psychoanalytic treatment and not published in Hungary until the 1990s.

The can tap all my telephone calls
(when, why, to whom.)
They have a file on my dreams and plans
and on those who read them.
And who knows when they'll find
sufficient reason to dig up their files
that violate my rights.

(from 'A Breath of Air!', 1936, trans. by John Bátki)

In 1936 József was given a job as editor of the independent left-wing review Szép Szó. In January 1937 József met the author Thomas Mann, but he was not allowed to read publicly his poem 'Thomas Mann üdvözlése,' in which he wrote: "You know this well: the poet never lies. / The real is not enough; through its disguise / Tell us the truth which fills the mind with light / Because, without each other, all is night." In the summer he was again in a hospital. However, during this period he produced some of his best poems. József committed suicide in Balatonszárszó on December 3, 1937, by throwing himself under a freight train. A lunatic from the village, a sales representative, and a conductor witnessed the accident.

"Kedvesem erösderekú, karcsú asszony,
ültem már repülögépen, magasból ö is kicsinek látszik,
de pilótalétemre is megbecsülném.
Maga mossa a ruhát, a hab álmodozva reszket karjain,
letérdel, mintha imádkozna, fölsikálja a padlót és nagyot kacag,
ha elvégezte,
kacagása mint az alma, melybe héjastul beléharap,
olyankor az is hangosan nevet (...)"
from 'Hajnalban kel föl, mint a pékek')

The central themes in Jószef's poems are poverty, loneliness, suffering, but on the other hand also love and hope for the more human world mark his work. In a confessional poem, entitled 'Attila József', he wrote: "I really love you, / believe me. Its something I inherited / from my mother." József's writing is exact and evocative in imagery. After WW II József was presented with his proletarian themes as a model for young poets. His influence is still far-reaching.

For further information: József Attila; József Attila's Selected Poems in English; József Attila homepage - For further reading: József Attila by A. Németh (1944); The Invisible Writing by A. Koestler (1954); Költõnk és kora. József Attila költészete és esztétikája by Ervin Gyertán (1963); Fiatal életek indulója. József Attila pályakezdése by Miklós Szabolcsi (1963); József Attila by László Balogh (1970); József Attila by M. Vágó (1975); József Attila-kommentárok by Gábor Török (1976); Érik a fény by Miklós Szabolcsi (1977); Columbia Dictionary of Modern European Literature, ed. by Jean-Albert Bédé (1980); A History of Hungarian Literature by István Nemeskürty et al. (1983); The Oxford History of Hungarian Literature by Lóránt Czigány (1984) - Suom: Runosuomennoksia teoksissa Vapauden tulet (1952), Unkarin lyyra (1970), Taivas irtosi maasta (1986) ja Viluinen kuningas (1992). Läpinäkyvä leijona (1999), toim. Hannu Launonen, esittelee runoilijan tuotantoa ja sisältää myös elämäkerrallista tietoa.

Selected works:

  • NEM ÉN KIÁLTOK, 1925
  • MEDVETÁNC, 1934
  • NAGYON FÁJ, 1936
  • ÖSSZES MÜVEI, 1958
  • ÖSSZES MÜVEI, 1967
  • József Attila: Selected Poems and Texts, 1973 (introduction by G. Gömöri)
  • Perched on Nothing's Branch, 1987 (trans. by Peter Hargitai)
  • Winter Night; Selected Poems of Attila József, 1997 (trans. by John Batki)

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