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István VAS
( 1910 - 1991 )


1910 born in Budapest
1926-27 contributes to the expressionist Dokumentum
1928 enrols at the Institute of Commerce in Vienna, reads Marx and Freud; meets future wife, dancer Etel Nagy
1933 contributes to Nyugat, then to Válasz
1929-39 civil servant at diverse firms in Budapest, dismissed for his Jewish origin; his wife dies
1944-45 survives by hiding in his second wife’s flat and his fellow-writer Ottlik's cellar
1946 copy editor at Publishers Révai
1947 spends a winter in Rome with fellow-artists
1949-53 silenced; publishes only translations
1951 marries painter Piroska Szántó
1956-71 editor at Európa Publishing House
1991 dies in Budapest

Poetry before World War 2

One of the greatest presences in 20th century Hungarian poetry, Vas belonged to the "third generation" of poets contributing to Nyugat, whose poetry had its roots in the Avant-garde movement around the personality and the periodicals of Lajos Kassák, but later turned to classical forms and tones, influenced more by Kosztolányi and the body of the Hungarian tradition. Vas's poetry is characterised by a contemplative, autobiographical voice. He is committed to left-wing thinking but not to politics as such. Some of the dichotomies characteristic to his later poetry - a romantic nostalgia and a classicist discipline, revolt and resignation, action and dejection - are already present in his first volume, Autumn Ravaging. The idiom approaches everyday speech, but in the late 1930s it becomes increasingly meditative, centring on the poet's doubts. A relevant influence is Vas's contemporary, Lőrinc Szabó. In his Muse Fleeing, Vas finds the integrity he wants to live up to, and the rhetoric of his poetry parallels the structure of his thoughts. The title of A Double Whirl, poems he wrote between 1939-1944, indicates the double losses of his wife Eti's death and the country's deteriorating moral state.

Poetry after the War

After 1945 Vas's poetry became governed increasingly by the passion of thought. In The Rome Momentum Vas reaches a turning point, an understanding of history in terms of past and future, decay and survival, the threats of society as opposed to the happiness found in beauty and learning. Together with the best of his generation, Vas was silenced in the 1950s and turned to translation, in his case volumes of poetry and drama (previously he had translated Villon's Great Testament, poems by Apollinaire as well as several Metaphysical poets). In "The Translator Thanks his Art", he is grateful for the integrity he could preserve in difficult times. The poem appeared in his selected The Created World, a book of resigned hopelessness. The following two books are less pessimistic; both reflect the memories of journeys abroad, which offer the poet a different perspective from which to view home. A new theme in The Underground Sun is nostalgia for lost youth, and another, pursued in It Doesn't Count, is a summary of what life is worth in the face of death. This yearning for life is even stronger in his later volumes, while the tone is veiled, the rhythm staccato. There is, however, a new playfulness in the Anacreonian songs of "No Hurry".

Autobiography and Essays

István Vas was an equally gifted prose writer. After the loss of his first wife, he turned to write a lyrical autobiography, Lost Homes, where he follows their love and their background through the flats they lived in. The short novel became integrated in the longer Difficult Love, later to be extended to include Interrupted Investigation, Why Does the Vulture Scream? and Afterwards. "The novel of poetry," as the author calls it, mingles documentary, biography, literary history, and family history, as well as an intellectual mentality; a relevant example being Goethe's Dichtung und Wahrheit. Punctual, objective yet ironic, Vas depicts in the volumes the lives of Babits, Radnóti, Kassák, Illyés, Weöres and many of his generation of artists. Vas's essays, personal, full of wit and insight, belong to the best of the Nyugat tradition.

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