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Szomory, Dezső

(1869–1944), writer and journalist. Born Mór Weisz in the crowded Jewish quarter of old Pest, Dezső Szomory reinvented himself as an ivory-tower aesthete and a dandy who knew little about the world of crass reality. Of course he knew a great deal about it, and let his readers know this, though always in a teasing, suggestive manner. In 1890, to avoid being conscripted into the army, he fled to Paris, and stayed there for 17 years. In A párizsi regény (The Paris Story; 1929), he evokes the years he spent abroad with a mixture of lyricism and irony, which makes this his most consistently satisfying book.

Like most Jewish-born writers who became major Hungarian literary figures, Szomory had very ambivalent and contradictory feelings about his Jewishness. In one of his reminiscences he notes that for him the “ritual knife” of circumcision “cut the world in two.” He felt that in the society in which he lived, being Jewish-born was a burden, a curse. But he lived his Jewishness, and intimated his love–hate in various subtle ways, above all in his language. Szomory developed a lush and sonorous style, “literary art nouveau,” which he then provocatively overdecorated with flourishes and crescendos, only to be able to deflate and debunk these overwrought verbal arias with the kinds of pedestrian, off-the-cuff expressions and interjections that remind one of the essence of Jewish humor. His eccentric prose was adored by his devotees and reviled by conservative Hungarian critics who thought it insufferably mannered, unidiomatic, even ungrammatical, which it sometimes is. Szomory was indeed a poseur and social snob, but in life as in his art he mocked his own pretensions and affectations more ruthlessly, and with greater wit, than did his detractors. He wrote grand plays about Austrian emperors and Hungarian kings, but invariably took potshots at his idols and his aesthetic ideals.

Szomory made it appear that the world of refinement and distinction had to be Christian, and offered unflattering portraits of Jewish bankers and stock market speculators in his works, but his most heartrending stories are also about Jews. In his social plays, his most convincing characters are always lower-middle-class Budapest types whose real-life models were mostly Jewish. Generally speaking, Szomory stayed away from specifically Jewish subjects (the alienated artist is often the stand-in for the Jewish outsider in his writings), but interestingly enough, he considered his most significant work a never-staged and technically unstageable biblical play, Sába királynője (The Queen of Sheba).

In the late 1930s, the works of Jewish dramatists could no longer be staged in Budapest’s theaters; the only venue still open to them was the Jewish community’s great hall. Szomory was deeply offended by the restriction; but he needed an audience, and the money, so he himself directed one of his plays in the “ghetto theater.” By the early 1940s, all of his sources of income had dried up; the once celebrated author became practically destitute. He was still alive, though in failing health, when the Germans occupied Hungary in March 1944, and he died at the end of that year, weeks before Budapest was liberated.

Suggested Reading

Andor Kellér, Író a toronyban (Budapest, 1984); Pál Réz, Szomory Dezső (Budapest, 1971); Dezső Szomory, Az irgalom hegyén (Budapest, 1964); Dezső Szomory, Színház (Budapest, 1973).