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Hungarian Connections

Martin Greene

Ulysses, by James Joyce, Vintage Classics, 672 pp, £10.99, ISBN: 978-0099511199
Joycean Unions: Post-Millennial Essays from East to West, eds R Brandon Kershner and Tekla Mecsnóber, Rodopi B V, 260 pp, £62.94, ISBN: 978-9042036116

In Ulysses, Leopold Bloom, a Dubliner of Hungarian descent, draws on stories about his Hungarian origins to construct an elaborate deceit aimed – apparently – at concealing his complicity in his wife Molly’s affair with Hugh “Blazes” Boylan. The characterisation of Bloom and Molly draws heavily on works by two Austro-Hungarian writers, Otto Weininger and Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. In the nightmarish Circe episode, Virag, Bloom’s long-dead Hungarian grandfather, preaches a doctrine of sexual excess. There is a suggestion, in the Cyclops episode, that Arthur Griffith relied on advice from Bloom when formulating his Hungarian-inspired strategy for Irish nationalism. And this is to mention only the most significant parts of the Hungarian material.

But how important is the Hungarian material for the text as a whole? The present writer explored this question in a series of studies in recent years – four published in the Dublin Review of Books and one in History Ireland. Following a brief review of Joyce’s connections with Hungary, the present article draws together the threads from the earlier studies and proposes some overall conclusions. There is also brief consideration of a 1962 intervention on this topic by Robert Martin Adams – then a leading American Joyce commentator. As will be seen below, the principal finding is that the Hungarian material constitutes a dimension of central importance for the text as a whole because it makes a significant contribution to some of the work’s most important events, characters and meanings.

Joyce lived in Austria-Hungary from late October 1904 to June 1915 and again, briefly, in 1919-20, but always on the Austrian side of the dual monarchy. After an initial period of less than a year in Pola (now in Croatia), he made his home in Trieste (now in Italy), in both cases working as an English-language teacher at the local Berlitz school. As far as is known, he never visited Hungary – but a letter he wrote to his brother Stanislaus in 1919 suggests that he considered visiting Budapest at that time for some unknown reason involving Rudolf Goldschmidt, a Hungarian-Jewish associate of his when he lived in Zurich during the war years.

His interest was clearly engaged with Hungary to some extent even before chance events brought him to Austria-Hungary. (He thought he had secured a job in Zurich but when he arrived there he was redirected to Pola.) One of his earliest known pieces of writing – written when he was seventeen years of age – was a review of Ecce Homo, a painting by the Hungarian artist Mihály Munkácsy which was exhibited at the Royal Hibernian Academy in Dublin in 1899. The discussion among the students in Stephen Hero (written 1904-06) about the part played by Hungary in the political problems of Austria-Hungary suggests that this issue caught his attention during his own student days – it was an issue which attracted international interest because of its implications for the European balance of power. Arthur Griffith’s United Irishman articles advocating a Hungarian-inspired strategy for Irish nationalism (published January-July 1904) clearly also caught his attention.

Joyce’s reasons for including so much Hungarian material in Ulysses are unknown – but some possible explanatory factors can be suggested. Bloom’s foreign (and Jewish) origins clearly facilitate his portrayal as an outsider in his home town – but Joyce responded evasively when asked by some of his associates why he had chosen Hungarian origins in particular. The fact that some of his closest associates in Trieste and Zurich had Hungarian (mostly Hungarian-Jewish) family connections is likely to have played some part in the choice. Ferenc Takács, noting Joyce’s well-known interest in national characteristics, suggests that he associated Hungarians with the physical as distinct from the intellectual aspects of life; Tekla Mecsnóber concurs, adding that he used this association to advance “his long campaign against the spiritualisation of literary characters”. His extensive use of Hungarian-language material suggests that fascination with the language – radically different from other European languages – might also have influenced the choice. 

The key question for present purposes, however, is not why Joyce included so much Hungarian-related material in Ulysses but how and to what extent that material contributes to the work as a whole. Turning, therefore, to the earlier studies, the first in the series shows that Bloom’s elaborately constructed deceit was almost certainly designed to conceal his complicity in his own cuckolding (“The Virags and the Blooms”, drb No 92, September 2017). The storyline is difficult to follow because the information provided is incomplete, presented out of sequence and sometimes hidden in obscure passages of text. It’s also difficult to interpret because it depends on the words and thoughts of Bloom and Molly – neither of them a disinterested observer.    

But close attention to the text shows that Bloom is being disingenuous when he implies that he is interested in attending a performance of the play Leah, the Forsaken at the Gaiety Theatre because its theme – Jewish migration from Hungary to Western Europe – is relevant to his father Rudolph’s migration from Hungary to Ireland; and that his reason for encouraging his daughter Milly to take up a job in a photographic studio in Mullingar is because she is following in a family tradition in photography established by her Hungarian antecedents. Subsequently it emerges that his talk about attending the production of Leah is most likely intended to signal to Molly that the way is clear for her adulterous assignation with Boylan; and that his interest in Milly’s move to Mullingar is because it clears the way for Molly to pursue the affair and makes it less likely that Milly will learn about her mother’s adultery. 

It also emerges that Bloom and his father, Rudolph, probably falsified the family history to conceal the true circumstances of Rudolph’s departure from Hungary. The impression initially given is that the  motivation for leaving Hungary was to escape religious persecution but it later seems likelier that his intention was to make a new start elsewhere unencumbered by his Jewish religion – thereby causing a family rupture because it was seen by his father as a betrayal of family and religious loyalties.

The compositional history shows how ambiguity was built into the storyline as it developed – a last-minute revision served not to make the outcome clearer but to increase the level of ambiguity that was already present. This suggests that Joyce was concerned to do justice to life’s uncertainties and confusions, with the consequence that the reader must work at the level of probabilities, not certainties.

The second and third studies show that Joyce drew on Weininger’s Sex and Character (1903) for his characterisation of Bloom and Molly as a “womanly man” and an “absolute woman” respectively; and on Masoch’s Venus in Furs (1870) for his portrayal of Bloom as having masochistic tendencies (“The Hardest Problem”, drb No 101, June 2018; and “An Idea Madder Than Usual”, drb No 103, September 2018, respectively). There is a high degree of alignment between Weininger’s concepts – concepts derived from an analysis which most people would see as misogynistic – and Joyce’s characterisations. As for masochism, Joyce evidently believed that the dynamics of sado-masochism were relevant to human psychology generally, not only to overtly sado-masochistic relationships. There are also indications that ideas related to masochism played a part in his relationship with his wife, Nora.

Contrary to suggestions made by some commentators, however, there is nothing to indicate that Joyce agreed with Weininger’s theories or that masochism played a significant part in his life. The ideas propagated by Weininger and Masoch were sources to be used, not propositions to be endorsed or rejected. But Joyce’s use of Weininger’s ideas undermines their credibility by highlighting the absurdity of some of the arguments underpinning them.     

The fourth study shows that both Ulysses and Bram Stoker’s Dracula engage with the stereotypical view – commonly held in Western Europe in the early twentieth century – that Eastern Europe was “backward” and a threat to the “advanced” western countries (“Stranger Danger”, drb No 110, April 2019). In the nightmarish Circe episode, Virag, Bloom’s long-dead Hungarian grandfather, threatens to undermine the Irish moral order by preaching a doctrine of sexual excess; and Dracula threatens to infect an ever-increasing proportion of the population of England with vampirism. But whereas Stoker accepts the stereotypical image as a given, Joyce implicitly challenges it. 

Further, as Ulysses is replete with references to popular culture, the absence of any mention of Stoker or Dracula is more conspicuous than its presence would be. Conspicuous also are the “near misses” in Ulysses – points at which it seems that Stoker or Dracula must be mentioned but it somehow doesn’t happen – and the exhortation in Finnegans Wake, published seventeen years later, to “root out Brimstoker and give him the thrall of our lives”. Thus Joyce may have sensed that there is more to Stoker than meets the eye and that we should therefore revisit (“root out”) his work and give it the respect (“thrall”) it deserves.

Readers will note that there is a close identification between Virag and Bloom – with potential implications for their understanding of Bloom’s character. In a surreal passage late in the Cyclops episode, Bloom seems to morph into his Hungarian grandfather as he escapes from his altercation with the Citizen in Barney Kiernan’s public house and sets off to find refuge in the land of his forefathers. The “illuminated scroll of ancient Irish vellum” he is carrying at this point is evidently the “roll of parchment” that is in Virag’s possession as he arrives in the Circe episode. In Circe, Virag’s comments are addressed exclusively to Bloom; and no one other than Bloom notices his presence.

But readers will also know that the events of Circe relate somehow – but not in any straightforward way – to the events of the rest of the text. Incidents from other episodes are recycled in Circe in grotesquely distorted form; and characters from other episodes are presented as distorted versions of their “real” selves. The reader will therefore have to consider to what extent – if at all – Virag’s ideas about sexual excess can be related to some of the more questionable aspects of Bloom’s behaviour in other parts of the text – for example, his dubious games with Martha Clifford and Gerty MacDowell, his masturbation in public places, his occasional traffic with prostitutes. 

Readers who previously saw these aspects of Bloom’s behaviour as the harmless foibles of a decent man may now see them in a more negative light. That is not to say that they will now see him as a sinister figure. The admirable qualities he demonstrates throughout the text – his broadmindedness and reasonableness, his capacity to empathise with other people, his readiness to stand up for his principles – ensure that this will not be the case. But there may now be a nagging doubt where previously there was none.        

The fifth study considers how well the fictional Bloom and the real-life Arthur Griffith stand up to the tests they face in Ulysses (“Griffith in Nighttown”, History Ireland, Volume 28, No 3, May-June 2020). Bloom has to defend his liberal principles in the face of the Citizen’s prejudice and intimidation; and Griffith is tested by a sceptical appraisal of the Hungarian-Irish “parallel” which is said to underpin his strategy for Irish nationalism.  

Bloom passes the test posed by the barney in Barney Kiernan’s public house. He is no match for the Citizen and his associates in the skills of public-house invective but he holds firm to his liberal principles. Further, his adversaries, having initiated the confrontation, can offer only derision, intimidation and eventually violence in response to his principled arguments. Thus he provides ample proof of his moral courage. As for Griffith, there is no such clear-cut outcome. The suggested parallel receives attention in both Cyclops and Circe. In Cyclops, the exchanges among the characters do not amount to a substantive discussion of its merits. In Circe, the treatment of the parallel is distinctly sceptical but as Circe offers only allusions, not propositions or reasoned arguments, the issue is left open for interpretation by the reader. But the tendency is towards scepticism.      

When all five studies are taken into consideration, the clear conclusion is that the Hungarian material has a central importance for the text as a whole. Without the Leah/photography storyline, the reader would not know that Bloom is almost certainly complicit in his own cuckolding. In this event, there would be a substantially different understanding of Bloom and Molly – the work’s central characters – and the dynamics of their marriage. The Leah/photography material also contributes to some of the work’s principal themes, for example loyalty, betrayal and complicity; and the compositional history relating to it provides important insights into Joyce’s compositional aims and methods, such as his concern to do justice to life’s uncertainties and confusions by avoiding clear-cut storyline outcomes.

The other parts of the Hungarian material also make a significant contribution to the text as a whole, including by adding further complexity to the characterisation of Bloom and (to a lesser but still significant extent) Molly. Bloom is shown to be morally courageous while also engaging in questionable forms of behaviour. Masochistic tendencies and a taste for deceit are also shown to be among his character traits. Molly is shown to have attractive and impressive aspects to her personality – humour, self-possession, even a sort of loyalty to Bloom – while also displaying a cavalier disregard for her marriage vows. Hungary, in a similarly complex portrayal, is associated with political instability, fraud, rape and imprisonment but also with food and drink, classical music and art; it is a place of danger and a place of refuge.  

Thus, the Hungarian material clearly makes a major contribution to the work as a whole. But it is necessary, before concluding, to give brief consideration to the contrary argument advanced by Robert Martin Adams, not because it is convincing – for that is not the case – but because it is a rare instance – possibly the only instance – of a leading international Joyce commentator addressing this topic. In Surface and Symbol: The Consistency of James Joyce’s “Ulysses” (1962), Adams claims that the Hungarian material makes no significant contribution to the text as a whole. “As a Hungarian,” he asserts, “Bloom has hardly any fictional functions.”

The most striking feature of Adams’s argument is that he takes no account of some of the most important parts of the Hungarian material, including the Leah/photography storyline and Virag’s performance in Circe. This is already enough to establish that his argument cannot be seen as credible. But his treatment of the material he does take into consideration is also questionable. He relies on two main points.

First, he highlights the implausibility of the suggestion that Bloom was Griffith’s adviser. Assuming that Joyce expected the suggestion to be taken as plausible, he concludes that this is an instance of Joyce’s trying but failing to give the Hungarian back-story some importance. But most readers would probably take it to be self-evident that rumours featuring in public-house gossip are not to be taken at face value. There is also Martin Cunningham’s qualification of his supposed confirmation of the suggestion: “That’s so ... Or so they allege” (emphasis added). 

Second, he argues that Bloom is not credible “as a Hungarian”: “He was not born in Hungary. He knows (from what we can tell) very little about the country, in fact he hardly ever thinks about it; and he has no Hungarian acquaintances.” But there is no reason to expect that a second-generation immigrant would necessarily remain close to his country of origin. Further, it’s clear from the material overlooked by Adams that his claim about Bloom’s disconnection from his Hungarian origins is an exaggeration at best. And finally, even if it could be shown that Bloom is disconnected from his country of origin, the Citizen’s xenophobia ensures that his Hungarian descent would nevertheless have consequences for his place in Ulysses.    

Hungarian commentators including Ferenc Takács, Tekla Mecsnóber and Marianna Gula have made important contributions to Ulysses studies which include – but are by no means limited to – giving close attention to its Hungarian dimension. They have not addressed Adams’s argument directly but their work implicitly demonstrates that it cannot be seen as valid.

All things considered, therefore, the Hungarian material in Ulysses has to be seen – contra Adams – as constituting a centrally important dimension of the work as a whole. It can be argued that alternative sources might have served Joyce’s purposes equally well. But when we imagine a Ulysses without its Hungarian dimension, we are thinking of a quite different Ulysses to the one we know.

Note on Sources
The Hungarian connection in Joyce’s writing is explored in Ferenc Takács’s “Joyce and Hungary” (1982, in Literary Interrelations: Ireland, England and the World, Volume 3: National Images and Stereotypes, editors Wolfgang Zach and Heinz Kosok); and Tekla Mecsnóber’s “James Joyce, Arthur Griffith, Trieste and the Hungarian National Character” (2001, in the James Joyce Quarterly, Volume 38, No 3-4, Spring-Summer 2001). The volume edited by Kershner and Mecsnóber – cited above – includes another piece by Mecsnóber (“James Joyce and ‘Eastern Europe’: An Introduction”) and a subtle assessment by Marianna Gula of Joyce’s review of Munkácsy’s Ecce Homo (“‘Reading the Book of Himself’: James Joyce and Mihály Munkácsy’s painting Ecce Homo”).     


Martin Greene is a former Irish ambassador to Hungary.