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Article by David McHutchon
The original legend of the stork caliph tells the story of an ancient ruler of Baghdad entering the kingdom of the animals as a result of a black powder hawked by a pedlar. It is not just a particularly Mesopotamian fatalism, but the fatalism and eventualism of all fairy tales that guides events to a predicable conclusion in which the Caliph, having been transformed into a stork, is then incapable of remembering the word that will return him to the kingdom of humans, until devising a plan to overhear the magician, they are reconfigured as caliph, vizier and princess and send the magician away to be hanged.
The links between this legend and Babits Mihály’s ‘The Nightmare’ (in Hungarian, ‘A gólyakalifa’) are fairly tendentious, and not particularly worth exploring, save that they provide the basic element of plot that a character may fall asleep in one life and wake up in another. Of far greater concern to the author is the signification of dreams, of sleep, of pasts and of selves.
Freud’s presence broods over the text, shockingly so as we discover in the unusually satisfying denouement. Characters allude to his writings both directly and indirectly.
Elemér and I, the chief protagonist(s), whose speaking voice forms the person of the narrative, lend the novel its realism by being far less accepting of the unlikelihood of his or their reality than the reader can imagine her or hisself being in a similar situation. There is nothing glib about his journey. Indeed, the ultimate social, moral and psychological collapse of the character is pitched perfectly.
The story has flaws. We are all too aware in the early chapters of how ridiculously contrived the pleasures of Elemér’s life are, and likewise how false are the petty oppressions of the master. As with everything that Babits appropriates for the purposes of the story, we cannot help but be struck by its inconsequentiality. Both characters share a resolutely Epicurean soul. They explore ideas for the pleasure that ideas bring them, rather than for the abstract truth that those ideas uncover. Here the author and his creations become increasingly confused, and as the novel progresses, after Tolstoy’s ‘The Sevastopol Sketches’ perhaps, you are left with the fog of waking or reality. It is possible to follow which character is awake as the novel reaches its climatic conclusion, but only as an exercise in concentration.
That Babits should have drunk so deeply from a Freudian well is perhaps surprising considering that at the time of the novel’s writing, most of Freud’s most famous works, with the exception of ‘Die Traumdeutung'(1900), were still to be conceived, written or published. Elemér’s very irreality, the impossibility of such a character existing, must act as exceptions that prove the rule in the eyes of Freud’s critics. Here is a character who happily changes in front of his nurse and yet shrinks from his mother as some Aphroditic vision of beauty. Here also is a character that thinks nothing of the social consequences of his actions, whose senses alone exist, and the reality of the sacrifices made on whose behalf are as nothing compared to the reality of the sacrifices that he is
willing to make in the realm of the psychological for the attainment of an impossible resolution.
Occasionally, the author stoops to a brilliant observation “Man can be master over everything except his own thoughts”, “Marriage would cure you” (reported by a rival and repudiated), of the saintly Auntily: “she has lived for the happiness of others. My God, if only I could be happy again” (the idea of happiness as irretrievable in its former form.) As the two characters coalesce, as the events described move from being an exercise in bad genre fiction, to the practise of high art, Elemér at last lives and breathes on the page in front of us. It is as though Babits has discovered the art of perfect characterisation: that one must write at least two characters into the words and actions of one protagonist in order to create a half-believable voice.
‘The Nightmare’ was recommended to be by a beloved Hungarian friend of mine. It shocked me how closely Elemér’s thoughts tallied with her attitudes and those of her fellow countryfolk, that there could be this national soul, a metaphysical national idea, and that it could prove to me so durable. Reading ‘The Stork Caliph’ at times was akin to listening to our old debates on a fuzzy cassette recording. How highly should we prioritise social capital, what importance ought we to give to pleasure and sensation, wherein lies propriety’s meaning.
Mihály Babits, The Nightmare, Budapest: Corvina Press, 1966