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Miklós Szentkuthy: Barokk Róbert [Robert Baroque]

This book was only published for the first time three years after Szentkuthy’s death. However, it was written many years before. It is clearly a juvenile work, not connected to his later work such as his St Orpheus Breviary ten book series. It is narrated by by an eighteen-year old young man called Robert Baroque (that is his name, not his nickname), clearly based on Miklós Pfisterer (Szentkuthy’s real name). Pfisterer claims to have jotted down all his thoughts and the events of his life at the time for this book and then completely forgotten it and not reread it. The book is set in 1926

Young Robert is at that awkward age when he is still dependent on his parents – they live together in a flat in Budapest – but, at the same time, he is struggling for independence. He looks down on his parents, particularly intellectually. He is still at school and does not really fit in with the other boys. He wants to be a writer and clearly has a fertile imagination. Even more obviously, he is taking an interest in the opposite sex.

His father works at the Ministry of Finance but seems to come home from work at around three o’clock when the family dines. They also dine late. We see this when young Robert has been to the theatre (he went to see Blue Bird) and his parents wait up for him after the theatre, even though they are both sleeping when he returns home.

Despite his growing up, he is, as he tells us, still a child at heart. At night, for example, he imagines a king of sleep to help him get to sleep (and then dreams about the pope).

However, as mentioned, he has a fertile imagination and is always thinking about writing stories. He wants to write stories inspired by cocaine. He wants to write a four-volume work, with each work of eight hundred pages, called Creta Polycolor (the brand name of his crayons). He has a plot about a story set in Venice and one set in Japan. He has several ideas for autobiographical novels, of which he gives us the outline. Indeed, he is continually coming up with ideas and trying to write them down into a coherent story. He even writes a review of his first (unwritten) autobiographical novel. If he actually wrote any of these books – and I suspect he did not – he would have been far more prolific than he actually was.

His cousin Giza, one of four sisters, comes to visit with his Aunt Emmy (his mother’s sister). While his father, to his mother’s chagrin, is trying to woo Aunt Emmy, Robert is having lustful thoughts about Emmy, despite the fact that she is engaged. He even fantasises that they will be in Nice together. He feels so guilty about his thoughts that he goes off to confession the next day. He will continue to lust after various women that he meets and feel guilty afterwards and head off to his confessor.

Things do not go well at home, as his father loses his job and his parents take in a lodger, a man learned in natural sciences, theology and sinology. More particularly, the lodger has a niece, Mici, who is a published poet and whom, of course, Robert lusts after.

The tradition in Hungarian schools is to have what is called a self-education circle, where the students make a presentation of their various works, writings and so on, while the other students comment on them. Robert is reluctant to participate but when he finally does, he badly misbehaves and is thrown out for his inappropriate comments.

Szentkuthy packs a lot into this novel. We follow his home life which is not always easy and has its ups and downs. We follow his youthful sexual yearnings. We follow his religious ideals which are constantly challenged by his sexual desires and other less than religious thoughts. We follow his desire to be a writer and the numerous ideas he has for novels, stories and even a play, none of which resemble St Orpheus Breviary ten book series and few of which he writes down, except in basic outline, during the course of this book. Above all, we follow his regular flights of fancy. He daydreams a lot in school, with his daydreams involving exotic foreign places, the books he is going to write and his sexual fantasies.

This is very much a youthful work, written by and about a young man who is still trying to grow up and struggling to do so. Nevertheless, it is interesting to read what the young Szentkuthy thinks, feels and plans. For a juvenile work, it is fairly well written and he never lets up, with his imagination running riot through most of the book, as it will in his later work.

Publishing history

First published in Hungarian 1991 by Jelenkor Irodalmi és Művészeti Kiadó
No English translation
First published in French by José Corti in 1998
Translated by Georges Kassaï