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Bródy, Sándor

(1863–1924), novelist, dramatist, and short-story writer. Born into a provincial Hungarian Jewish merchant family, Sándor Bródy grew up in the town of Eger. His father was typical of his generation in that he was imbued with Hungarian patriotism while remaining faithful to traditional Judaism. In the 1870s, the elder Bródy’s various business ventures failed, and he moved his family to Budapest. After a rather carefree childhood, Sándor Bródy got to know the seamier side of city life. As a young writer he was among the first in Hungarian literature to focus attention on the urban proletariat, and the first to introduce the coarse and pungent vernacular of the big city into literary works.

An enthusiastic follower of Zola’s naturalism, Bródy in his early works exaggerated the importance of biological determinism. In his first collection of stories, Nyomor (Privation; 1884), which created a sensation, the lives of poverty-stricken workers, tradesmen, maids, and prostitutes are ruled entirely by passion. In his mature short prose, as well as in the novel A nap lovagja (Knight of the Sun; 1902), the bitter story of an upstart journalist, both his characterizations and his social criticism are considerably more subtle.

But it was Bródy’s early, naturalistic stories that had the greatest impact. His liberal contemporaries applauded them, while conservatives derided them for their unvarnished language and lurid details. By the turn of the twentieth century, Bródy had become a fixture on the literary scene of the nascent metropolis, a celebrated—and often controversial—bohemian artist, whose stormy love affairs and well-publicized suicide attempt added to his notoriety.

Bródy’s literary output reflects his impulsive, unstable character. Almost all of his works contain carefully conceived and brilliantly executed passages, but many of the works themselves are verbose, unconvincing, at times dilettantish. His influence on individual Hungarian writers and on Hungarian literature in general can be said to be greater than the intrinsic merits of his literary achievement. His impact on writers of Jewish origin seems to be even more profound. One Jewish critic, writing shortly after Bródy’s death, pointed out that the tragedy of Bródy’s life was that he naïvely thought that all of Hungary had considered him a Hungarian writer.

There are students of Hungarian literature who still labor under the misconception that Bródy, in an attempt to affirm his Hungarian identity, eschewed Jewish subjects in his writings. Such themes may not be prominent in his oeuvre, but he presents Jewish characters and predicaments in a number of his stories, and one of his successful plays, Lea Lyon, is about a love affair between a rabbi’s daughter and a Russian grand duke. What is more, some of his outspoken social dramas evoke a recognizably Jewish milieu. An essay titled “Zsidókról” (On Jews; 1915) is especially noteworthy because it is a confession. What he describes here is the lot of Orthodox Galician Jews finding refuge in Budapest during World War I. Like the good liberal assimilationist he was, Bródy would make useful, Magyar-speaking Hungarians out of these newcomers. Emphasizing their strange appearance and stubborn ways, he nevertheless notes again and again that he and they are from the same tribe, and this kinship obliges him to help and understand them. It is also true that Bródy’s detractors saw in everything he wrote, in his modernity and his social and political radicalism, the hand of a subversive, anarchic Jew.

As he aged, Bródy grew more isolated, and his art became even more irregular. Though he continued to write plays and stories almost to the end of his life, the one work that stands out from his late period is a narrative cycle about Rembrandt, the only book of his that was translated into English (Rembrandt; 1928). In these poignant chapters from the life of the Dutch master, Bródy clearly identifies with the painter’s misfortunes, and tries to deal with the anguish of being an unappreciated artist.

Suggested Reading

Sándor Bródy, Húsevők, 2 vols. (Budapest, 1960); Sándor Bródy, Színház (Budapest, 1964); András Laczkó, Bródy Sándor (Budapest, 1982).