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Karinthy, Ferenc

(1921–1992), novelist, playwright, and short-story writer. Ferenc Karinthy was part of a literary family whose members have been present on the Hungarian cultural scene for nearly a century. In a two-volume family history published in 2003, Márton Karinthy, a theater director and the oldest living member of the family, reveals that his great-grandparents, both of whom had hailed from observant Jewish homes, converted to Christianity in the 1870s before they were married, so that their children would be born Protestant. (This revelation put the lingering doubt about the family’s origins to rest.)

By far the best-known and most gifted member of the family was Ferenc’s father, Frigyes Karinthy (1887–1938), who as a humorist, novelist, dramatist, and poet became a celebrated literary figure, and is still ranked as one of the first truly modern, urban writers in Hungary. He did not deal with Jewish subjects in his works, but neither did he treat specifically Hungarian issues. His themes were universal, and he approached them with the enlightened rationalism and skepticism of an eighteenth-century philosophe. Frigyes Karinthy was also a satirist in the Swiftian manner, and his writings reveal a nineteenth-century humanist’s faith in—and a twentieth-century man’s fear of—modern science. At the same time, the tone and atmosphere of many of his writings reflect the manners and mores of the Jewish-influenced Budapest of his day.

Ferenc Karinthy may have been a less prolific and less original writer, with a predilection for conventional realist prose; he nevertheless was heir to his father’s sense of humor that always veered toward the absurd. He also lived through worse times. The fact that neither father nor son was born Jewish gave Ferenc some protection during the war; his mother (Frigyes’s second wife), however, died in Auschwitz.

Ferenc Karinthy was among the first Hungarian writers to describe, in a youthful novel about the liberation of his city (Budapesti tavasz [Spring Comes to Budapest]; 1953), one of the most dreadful episodes of the war: the shooting into the Danube of Jews rounded up by Hungarian Fascist thugs in the desperate final days of the siege of Budapest. Some of Karinthy’s best short stories (“Aranykor” [Those Were the Days], “Régi nyár” [Summer of Old]) are about this period and deal with the horrors of war and the atrocities committed against Jews. But even his grimmest narratives are lightened by a refreshingly colloquial prose style and characters brimming with life; they defy danger without being at all heroic about it.

Later in life, Karinthy became interested in, and in some ways influenced by, the style and spirit of American Jewish fiction. The “magic realism” of a story titled “Rio” is particularly touching and funny. It is about a “nebbish” from Budapest’s old Jewish quarter who chances upon an underground channel to the sea in his rundown neighborhood. He buys a raft and other equipment, and because he had heard that there was no racial hatred or prejudice in South America, sets sail for exciting and colorful Rio. The story is dedicated to Bernard Malamud.

Suggested Reading

Ferenc Karinthy, Összegyűjtött munkái, 9 vols. (Budapest, 1979–1989); Ferenc Karinthy, Napló, 3 vols. (Budapest, 1993); Károly Szalay, Karinthy Ferenc alkotásai és vallomásai tükrében (Budapest, 1979).