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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction by Emil Reich (1854–1910)

By Mór Jókai (1825–1904)

AMONG the numerous novelists and humorists of Hungary, Jókai was, in the opinion of his compatriots and the rest of his contemporaries, facile princeps. The number of his novels, articles, and sketches is legion; yet in all of them there is scarcely a dull page. Everything which he wrote swells and palpitates with the intense vitality of thought and sentiment so characteristic of the Hungarians. Like all nations with whom conversation or the living word is more important than written or dead vocables, they endow the expressions of their inner life with a power of spontaneity and wit that must appear to more book-ridden nations as elemental. As in their music the originality of rhythm and counterpoint, so in their literature we cannot but perceive a striking originality of ideas and framework. From the earliest dawn of Hungarian literature as such,—that is, from the seventeenth century onward,—a great number of Magyar writers have struck out literary paths of their own, thus adding materially to the wealth of modern European literature. Kazinczy, Berzsenyi, Kölcsey, and the Kisfaludys, who wrote in the latter half of the eighteenth century, and in the first three decades of the nineteenth century, not only labored at a close imitation of Greek, Roman, or French and German models, but also created new literary subjects and some novel literary modes.

The Hungarian writers have been able to lend their works that intimacy between word and sentiment which alone can be productive of high literary finish. The language of the Magyars is one of the idioms of Central Asia, related to Finnish on the one hand and Turkish on the other. It has no similarity whatever with the Aryan languages. It is sonorous and agglutinative; rich in verbal forms and adjectives; and unlike French, without any stubborn aversion to the coining of new words. It has a peculiar wealth of terms for acoustic phenomena, which is but natural with a people so intensely musical as are the Hungarians. And finally, the language of the Magyars is their most powerful political weapon in the struggle against the Slavic nations inhabiting Hungary. Hence the majority of Hungarian writers are at once poets and politicians. Petőfi, the greatest of Hungarian poets, was at the same time one of the most formidable of political pamphleteers; and all the more so because his explosives were generally wrapped in a few stanzas. One of his intimate friends was Jókai.

As Petőfi is the most prominent of Hungarian writers in verse, so Jókai is the most conspicuous if not the most gifted Hungarian writer in prose. He was born at Komorn in Hungary, on the 19th of February, 1825. From the very outset his life showed that union of literary and political activity which characterizes Hungarian and English men of talent. Two years before the great Hungarian revolution in 1848, he appeared as the author of a successful novel, ‘Hétköznapok’ (Working Days); and together with Petőfi he embraced the cause of the revolution with all the ardor and temerity of his genius. Nearly shipwrecked in the desperate attempt at defying the victorious Austrians, then Hungary’s oppressors, he was saved by his lovely wife Rose Laborfalvi, the greatest of Hungarian tragédiennes (born 1820, died 1886). He has been ever since incessantly at work, publishing volume after volume, over three hundred in all, in which he has laid before the world a true and fascinating picture of nearly all the phases of that strange semi-European and semi-Asiatic life of Hungary. Like the country itself, his novels are gorgeous with variety, and resplendent with colors of all tints. The mystic majesty of her Puszta (prairie), the colossal dignity of her Alps, the sweet charm of her lakes, the ardent temper of her men and the melodramatic spell exercised by her women,—all these and many more phases of Magyar life in the past and the present,—nay, in the future (see his ‘Romance of the Next Century’),—have been painted by Jókai in all the colors of the literary rainbow. His older novels are ripe masterpieces, elaborated during the calm of the period of reaction (1849–1861). Amongst them the most excellent are—‘A Hungarian Nabob’ (1856); ‘Zoltán Kárpáthy,’ continuation of the former, and if possible still more pathetic and humorous; ‘The Palmy Days of Transylvania’ (1851); ‘The New Squire’ (1862), exquisite in irony, humor, and scathing travesty; ‘For What we are Growing Old’ (1865); ‘Love’s Fools’ (1867); ‘Black Diamonds’ (1870); ‘Rab Ráby’ (1880); ‘The Poor Rich’ (1881); ‘Eyes Like the Sea’ (1890); ‘There is No Devil’ (1891); ‘The Son of Rákóczy’ (1892); ‘Twice Two are Four’ (1893); etc. Besides these works of fiction, Jókai has written a very interesting History of Hungary; his memoirs; the Hungarian part of the late Crown Prince Rudolph’s great work on Austria-Hungary; and other works.

Yet far from being exhausted by the composition of so many novels, he still found time for wide activity as a journalist. With the editing of great political dailies he managed to combine the publication of one of the wittiest of Hungarian humorous papers, the Üstökös, a weekly. And this is not all. Jókai was, from the time of the reopening of the Hungarian Parliament,—that is, for over thirty years,—a member of the Lower House; and being as consummate a speaker as he was an incomparable writer, he was heavily drawn upon by the party of the government, whose constant adherent he was. The joy of his country’s youth, the glory of its manhood, Jókai contributed, by the signal favor bestowed upon him by the Emperor-King of Austria-Hungary, but especially by Queen Elizabeth, very much towards an understanding between monarch and people; and when in 1896 the fiftieth anniversary of his literary activity had been reached, the whole country rose in one unanimous desire to express to the venerable poet its deep sense of his merits. Festivities were arranged on a scale so grand as to dwarf nearly any other ovation ever made to a country’s favorite poet. Official and non-official Hungary, monarch and people, aristocrat and peasant, all united to celebrate the event. An édition de luxe of Jókai’s works was made; and out of the proceeds the author was given the sum of $90,000. Finally, in January 1897, the great novelist was appointed member for life of the House of Magnates (the Hungarian House of Lords). His death occurred at Budapest, May, 1904.