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Füst, Milán

(1888–1967), Hungarian poet, playwright, novelist, essayist, and diarist. The descendant of the illustrious Fürst family, he dropped the “r” from Fürst for the more poetic Füst, meaning “smoke” in Hungarian. Milán Füst’s early poems appeared in Nyugat, the premier modernist literary journal in Hungary. His fame as a poet rests on several dozen poems, and he was among the first to introduce free verse into Hungarian poetry, though his poems are a blend of both classical and modern qualities. He produced verses that are universal and timeless expressions of the tragedy of the human condition, conveyed in language that is alternately high-flown and quotidian.

Füst was one of those assimilated Hungarian Jewish writers who rarely referred to his origins in public, or in his art, yet some of the most powerful poems he wrote do touch on Jewish themes and his own Jewish background. “A magyarokhoz” (To the Hungarians; 1934), for example, is an admonition voiced by one who fears evil times, though the poet implies that he has seen it all before: “behold the age-old cedar tree / Of Lebanon, this virgin of three thousand years . . . I wandered here from there long, long ago.” He ends with a solemn warning: “Hear my word! / My ancestors were prophets once.” Indeed, there are admirers of Füst who hear the dark augury of a biblical prophet in all of his verses.

Füst grew up in meager circumstances; while still a child, he lost his father, and his mother made a modest living as a tobacconist. He received a law degree and taught in a commercial high school for a number of years. After marrying the daughter of a well-to-do mattress manufacturer, he was able to devote all his energies to his writing. However, when a series of anti-Jewish laws were enacted in Hungary, his life as a writer and as a citizen became difficult. But even during this period, Füst remained loyal to the nation. “I feel Hungarian,” he wrote in his diary in the early 1940s. “And though I am forbidden now to feel this way, I still do.”

It was during these years that Füst wrote his masterpiece, A feleségem története (1942; translated into English as The Story of My Wife; 1989), a novel far removed from the times and Hungary, about a Dutch sea captain who becomes insanely jealous of his young French wife. As was true of other famous works on the theme of jealousy, it is a psychological thriller, and also a profound exploration of the absurd paradoxes of human nature. The singular characteristics of Füst’s poetic language can be felt in his prose as well. The constant tension between the sublime and the grotesque, the provocative mixing of styles, the interplay of high and low art, may explain the novel’s lasting appeal.

There have always been critics who have considered Füst’s prose “un-Hungarian” and foreign-sounding. “The book,” complained an admirer, “is written in a Budapest idiom that is not a dialect of Hungarian, but of Yiddish.” Füst was mortified to encounter these words, but then concluded that there is nothing terribly wrong with a strategic use of Yiddishisms in a literary text.

After the war, he continued his literary activities. In the early 1950s, during the grimmest period of Communist rule, the “individualistic” and “bourgeois” Füst could not publish his own works, but he could not be silenced completely. He lectured on aesthetics at Budapest University, and these seminars became famous—bright oases in an otherwise drab cultural landscape. Eventually all of his works were published in new editions, including plays, short fiction, reminiscences, and a volume based on his university lectures titled Látomás és indulat a művészetben (Vision and Impulse in the Arts; 1948). He kept a diary for more than 40 years, large parts of which, thought to have been destroyed during the war, were published for the first time in recent years, along with his letters. These publications shed new light on the intellectual development of a highly original and prolific literary artist.

Suggested Reading

György Somlyó, Füst Milán: Emlékezés és tanulmány (Budapest, 1969).