ON THE DAYS OF THE EXILED PRINCE RÁKÓCZI – LAJOS HOPP ON KELEMEN MIKES

The author of this collection of studies on Kelemen Mikes is Lajos Hopp (1927–1996), renowned literary historian, who dedicated his life to the eighteenth-century Hungarian writer who not only renewed epistolary fiction but also developed it into real art. Research into Mikes has been carried out since the first publication of his Letters from Turkey in 1794, but it was Hopp who performed the most exhaustive work of investigation in the field. He edited the scholarly edition of Mikes’s complete works in six volumes (1966–1988); he dug deep into Mikes’s translations stylistically, linguistically and with regard to their sources, and drawing conclusions of key importance in various areas of Mikes scholarship.

The most important results of Hopp’s studies on Mikes’s life and work can be found in this volume in a comparative context: traditional and modern features of Mikes’s way of thinking and morality; the modernity of his masterpiece, his style and attitude with regard to literary creation and translation; aspects of originality and imitation; the question of his literary sources; his interest in other peoples’ cultures; the fate of his manuscripts. Ten papers of this volume were first published in Hungarian and later translated into French, and published in various journals and conference volumes between 1962 and 1987. Most importantly, there are two essays that had not been published at all before.

The introduction written by Gábor Tüskés gives a summary of the book’s intentions: the short descriptions of the lives of Mikes and Lajos Hopp, as well as their respective literary and scientific activity emphasise the significance of Mikes for comparative literature as well as the importance of Hopp’s results for international research. Kelemen Mikes – as Tüskés points out (Introduction, p. 8) – can be considered a key figure in French–Hungarian literary relations as he translated twelve volumes from French during his exile in Turkey, and Lajos Hopp can also be considered an emblematic figure of the international relations of Hungarian literary studies. The main merit of this collection is that it provides scholars interested in the study of 18th-century Central and Eastern European literature (and others) with staple material for further French–Hungarian and international literary research in an easily accessible form.1

Unknown artist: Kelemen Mikes. Kolozsvár / Cluj, Muzeul de Artă. End of 19th century

Although the book focuses on Hungarian–French literary connections and was written in French, the present review addressed to English readers may reveal some inspiring links. English epistolary fiction before Richardson was, as Robert Adams Day has shown convincingly, mostly inspired by translations from French.2

To take another example, in 1717–18 Sir Edward Wortley Montagu, husband of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, author of the Turkish Embassy Letters, was British ambassador to the Court of Turkey. The couple arrived in Turkey in May 1717, in the same year as the refugees of the 1703–11 Hungarian War of Independence led by Prince Ferenc Rákóczi II of Transylvania. Rákóczi and his chamberlain, Mikes, went there at Sultan Ahmet III’s invitation in the hope that under the protection of the Porte Rákóczi could help to fight the Habsburgs and regain freedom for Hungary and Transylvania. Edward Wortley’s mission was to promote peace between Austria and Turkey, while Prince Rákóczi’s last hope was war between these two powers in the interest of Hungary. Thus the Hungarian refugees would have been satisfied with Wortley’s inability to accomplish his mission. But Wortley was replaced: he and Lady Wortley left the Ottoman Empire in 1718. The Hungarians remained there for good. The Peace of Passarowitz ended their hopes and they were sent to Rodostó (Tekirdağ) where they lived as exiles under the special care of the Sultan. Kelemen Mikes’s life appears to have been somehow “touched” by Edward Wortley’s unsuccessful representation of English policy, although we can draw this conclusion only through literary associations: Kelemen Mikes’s Letters can be linked to Lady Wortley’s Turkish Embassy Letters as well as to many other writings of the same type – literature in exile, epistolary fiction, travel narratives, observation of the exotic space, etc.

Mikes maintained mostly French connections and was attracted by French culture and literature: he maintained mainly cultural relations with the French embassy in Constantinople and his Letters have been brought into connection with such French writings as Montesquieu’s Lettres persanes, Boyer d’Argens’s Lettres juives, César de Saussure’s Lettres et voyages – to mention just a few. Still, he indirectly came close to English as well: he read Addison and Steele’s journal in French, translated several anecdotes from their French version and included them in his Letters. He also translated Paul Ricaut (secretary to Charles II’s ambassador to the Porte) from French.3 Mikes’s Letters have been translated into English four times so far. The most recent and only complete translation is that by Bernard Adams.4

The present volume shows a variety of angles from which the Letters and Mikes’s literary work and life have been examined: genre, style, language, epoch, mentality, ways of thinking and cultural issues are discussed. The first five studies – possibly the most inspiring ones – deal with the question of genre. Kelemen Mikes’s purpose and style as a letter writer are discussed several times in these papers, as it is his special way of handling the genre that makes him excel in the history of epistolary genre. The context of the different stages in the development of the French epistolary novel is presented in full detail (pp. 11–17) and an ample summary of the Hungarian history of the genre is outlined (pp. 19–37). The question of imitation and originality is discussed further concerning the Letters from Turkey, emphasising Mikes’s unique style and the sources of its originality which can be deduced from an analysis of the relationship between imitation and originality with regard to literary creativity (p. 43). It is revealed that mostly the problem of genesis, literary conception and artistic form distinguishes Mikes’s work from fashionable epistolary writings of the time (pp. 39–43).

Mikes’s style and all that he allowed to be seen or, on the contrary, all that he covered by means of irony or mocking himself and his circumstances has made many scholars speculate on for whom Mikes really wrote. Simply for himself, to indulge in the beloved act of writing while thinking, as Hopp presumes, that the letters deserved publicity, or for the wider public of the exiles in Rodostó,5 or even, like Proust, living a life turned into literature?6 Several scholars have believed that he started writing around 1735, relying on earlier notes. According to Hopp, he embarked on his letter-writing when he entered Turkey and did so as a self-confident artist who enjoyed the act of writing, and most characteristically the delicacies of letter-writing piece by piece. Thus the idea of regarding his letters as possible material for a greater composition must only have come later. Each of Mikes’s letters is a masterpiece in itself with roots in his knowledge of French literature and epistolary writing, his innate talent and Transylvanian literary inheritance. His style and language and the question of sources and topic are summarised in the fifth study (pp. 53–77), echoing certain ideas from the previous articles as it frequently happens in anthologies.

The correspondence of Madame de Sévigné and Bussy-Rabutin was published nine times between 1697 and 1716, and thus may have been well known to Mikes – an issue, among others, long debated in the Hungarian Mikes research field: his ambiguous love for the dear fictitious addressee, his chattering, galant and subjectively familiar style clearly linked his work to the former (p. 43, p. 57), while the use of the Persian Letters as a direct source cannot be proved so clearly (pp. 45–52). Mikes’s modernity also lies in his outstanding expertise in weaving reminiscences of his readings into the Letters, which also makes it difficult to identify his direct literary sources. Yet, Hopp accomplished the most important part of work in this area as well. His research has led to interesting ideas about the history of the genre, which touch on the question whether or not the Letters can be read as an epistolary novel rather than a mere collection of letters.7 Most recently, seen from the context of the new international interpretation of the epistolary novel, Ilona Kovács has discussed the question: “How vital aesthetically is the fictitious or real being of the addressee when studying features of the Letters as a literary piece of work?” She dealt with the problem in the context of French “novelised correspondences”, travel literature and epistolary novels, focusing on the case of real correspondence that, in the course of writing, gradually shifts into the realm of the fictive.8

Cover of the 1794 edition of Letters from Turkey

The sixth study demonstrates Mikes’s literary and social thinking, his standpoint concerning problems of morality, patriotism, national culture and language, work and education – all questions of high priority for Prince Ferenc Rákóczi II and for renowned authors of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries like François Fénelon, Claude Fleury, Charles Gobinet or Antoine Courtin, all well known to Kelemen Mikes through his reading and translations. Further on Mikes’s critical view of society, nobility and court life is discussed, underlining his devotion to the “vera nobilitas”, as well as the peculiarity of his rationalism in studies in which Mikes’s connection to the new enlightened ideas is in the centre of attention (pp. 79–104, 169–174). Other studies focus on ethnographic and cultural themes, presenting the way in which seventeenth and eighteenth-century Hungarian writers (János Komáromi, János Pápai) observed the customs, rites, religion and interesting linguistic features of the Balkan people (pp. 105–119). In the case of Mikes, his attitude towards Turkish culture and that of other peoples living around him in the years of exile is studied in a separate paper as well (pp. 121–132). In this respect Lady Montagu’s free entrée to the world of aristocratic Turkish women and the harems – where she found opportunities for delightful conversation9 so much longed for by Mikes – could be examined possibly on a gender basis. It contradicts Mikes’s experience of Turkish men’s unfriendliness and his labelling Turkey as the country “where even the horses are dumb”.10

There are two studies that discuss the question of translation/adaptation. The study L’adaptation dans la littérature hongroise avant les Lumières handles the topic through Mikes’s translations/adaptations of seventeenth and eighteenth-century French writings (pp. 133–146). His translations had been unknown to literary scholars for a long time. Lajos Hopp gave special attention to them (consecrating to the topic a whole volume which was published posthumously11), as they are most interesting in that they reveal important aspects of Mikes’s attitude towards style and literary and philological work. As a case study, the next paper presents Mikes’s translation of Madame de Gomez’s Les Journées amusantes as Mulatságos napok – Mikes’s only translation (or rather, interesting adaptation) of a framed novella-type piece of prose fiction (pp. 147–154).12

The penultimate study deals with possibly one of the most interesting “Mikes-enigmas”: how did his manuscripts arrive home from Turkey? Lajos Hopp explores a lot of important data about the way the Letters from Turkey were first published (pp. 155–168). The key literary figures who surely or most possibly took part in the work of publishing are investigated, as Hopp draws attention to the fact that the publication of the Letters in those times of severe censorship could not have been achieved by only one person, István Kulcsár. Hopp hopes to close an almost century-long debate on how the manuscripts arrived home – although Ferenc Tóth’s recent research has reopened the problem.13

Present-day scholars who read Lajos Hopp’s studies are aware that a significant amount of all recent research in the field has its roots mostly in his achievements. However there remain many uncovered or half-covered areas of the Mikes research field. The reading of these studies can therefore be made more fruitful by the parallel study of the 2012 conference volume (see note 4), which presents many of the most recent results – of which we have referred to but a few.

* Lajos Hopp: Un épistolier et traducteur littéraire à l’orée des Lumières: Kelemen Mikes. Recueil d’essais. JATE Press, Szeged, 2014, 184 p. Under the direction of Gábor Tüskés, edited by Imre Vörös and Anna Tüskés, revised by Béatrice Dumiche and Krisztina Kaló (= “Felvilágosodás – Lumières – Enlightenment – Aufklärung”, vol. 3).


1 Firstly Olga Penke and Géza Szász salute the book (Avertissement de l’éditeur) in the name of the “Lumières Franco-Hongroises” Research Centre and highlight the fact that the present enterprise is the continuation of the cooperation between the Centre and the Eighteenth-Century Department of the Institute for Literary Studies of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences (p. 7). The book is the result of high-level textological work. Imre Vörös gives an account of this at the end (Remarques textologiques, p. 175). A list of bibliographic data of the first publications of the studies in question can be found on p. 176.

2 Robert Adams Day, Told in Letters. Epistolary Fiction before Richardson (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1966), pp. 27–47.

3 Letters 172–191 from the Letters from Turkey have as their source a shortened French version of Ricaut’s The History of the Present State of the Ottoman Empire (London, 1669) – Lajos Hopp, A fordító Mikes Kelemen [Kelemen Mikes, the translator], Gábor Tüskés (ed.) (Budapest: Universitas Kiadó, 2002).

4 Kelemen Mikes, Chamberlain of the Last Prince of Transylvania, Letters from Turkey. Translated and edited by Bernard Adams (London and New York: Kegan Paul International, 2000; revised edition: Budapest: Corvina, 2016). Also see: Bernard Adams, “The Letters from Turkey in English Translation”, in Gábor Tüskés (ed.), Literaturtransfer und Interkulturalität im Exil / Transmission of Literature and Intercultural Discourse in Exile / Transmission de la littérature et interculturalité en exil (Bern: Peter Lang, 2012), pp. 189–202.

5 Ágnes R. Várkonyi, “Az ismeretlen Mikes” [The unknown Mikes], in Liget IV, 1 (1991), pp. 57–70.

6 Áron Kibédi Varga, “Mikes mítoszai” [Mikes’s myths], in Áron Kibédi Varga, Szavak, világok [Words and worlds] (Pécs: Jelenkor, 1998), pp. 192–196.

7 See: János Barta, “Mikes Kelemen”, in János Barta, Költők és írók. Irodalmi tanulmányok [Poets and writers. Studies in literature] (Budapest: Akadémiai, 1966), pp. 7–41; Áron Kibédi Varga, op. cit.

8 Ilona Kovács, “Mikes et la tradition de la littérature épistolière française”, in Gábor Tüskés (ed.), Literaturtransfer…, op. cit., pp. 189–202.

9 Attiláné Ambrus Dr Katalin Kéri, “Életképek a 18. századi Törökországból. Lady Wortley Montagu levelei a török nőkről” [Insights into eighteenth-century Turkey. Lady Wortley Montagu’s letters about Turkish women] in Világtörténet [World History], Autumn–Winter (2005), pp. 46–60, http://kerikata.hu/publikaciok/text/ viltormontagu.htm.

10 See Mikes’s letters to his relatives in Transylvania dated 25 March 1760 and 19 March 1761.

11 Gábor Tüskés (ed.), op. cit.

12 From among Mikes’s translations it is the Epistolák… the source of which has been just recently identified by Gábor Tüskés on the basis of Lajos Hopp’s previous presumptions. (Gábor Tüskés, “Mikes Kelemen Epistolák-fordításának forrásához” [On the source of Kelemen Mikes’s translation of Epistolák…], in Irodalomtörténeti Közlemények, 103 (1999), pp. 1–26.

13 Ferenc Tóth, “Adalékok Mikes Kelemen Törökországi levelek című művének kézirattörténetéhez”[Contribution to the history of the manuscript of Kelemen Mikes’s Letters from Turkey], in Irodalomtörténeti Közlemények, 108 (2004), pp. 559–567.

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