Written in 1948, in a shattered Hungary, emerging from the war on the side of the defeated, School at the Frontier was not published until 1959, in a country whose satellization by the Soviets was now complete. Yet there are no references to the dramatic events of recent history in this melancholy work: Géza Ottlik, drawing largely on his own memories, describes the daily life of a group of students entering the first year of a military school in the 1920s. The institution, located near the newly established border separating Hungary and Austria, welcomed the country’s future elite.
In this enclosed, out-of-this-world universe, whose isolation evokes that of the young Hungarian nation in the middle of a continent with which it does not even share the origins of its language, children are preparing to become men. The rigor of instruction, the quasi-Kafkaesque discipline and the constant violence imposed on these still carefree spirits are designed to harden them. If the end of childhood means a break with the sweetness of family life, a break with the carefreeness of rural life and a confrontation with the brutal industrial world of war, it is because Hungary itself has embarked on a transformation that should enable it to catch up with its supposed lag. More than a metaphor for the advent of the twentieth century in a Central Europe brutally roused from its torpor, the fate of these children heralds the disaster to come.
In their own way, each of the young students embodies a figure of the Hungarian, a posture in the face of history and existence. Czako, whose indolence and phlegm in the face of vexations evoke the detachment of the artist or nomad; Medve, combative but naive, recalls the political activist who is revolted by the abuse of power, but whose illusions deprive him of clear-sightedness; Öttzvényi, attached to procedures, rejecting iniquity and concerned with respect for justice, appears as an allegory of the law. The tragic fate that awaits Öttzvényi, guilty of having reported an unjust punishment for the first time in the school’s history, is a reminder that when times get tough, the law can do no more. In this military institution, as in the upcoming dictatorial Hungary, force supersedes law, and authority takes the place of justice.
Told through the memories of a now-adult narrator, this harrowing school year allows us to appreciate, step by step, the slow march of free spirits called upon to see their moral judgment diluted by the strict observance of arbitrary principles. These rules, sometimes tyrannical, often absurd, need no legitimacy. They do not even need rationality. Their existence is their only justification, and is enough to compel compliance: “No one was trying to get us to admit that the aim of the stretching exercises was physical culture; it was simply to get us to start the day, every morning at dawn, with a half-hour bullying session.”
Beyond the Bildungsroman
The precision of the narrative and the meticulous style with which Géza Ottlik, without ever revealing the key to their real meaning, spins out the events that mark this long year, distinguish School at the Frontier from the classic Bildungsroman to which it has often been likened. Psychological developments are rare. Analysis is absent. Only the details of a dull, repetitive daily life allow us, through their subtle and slow alteration over time, to understand the depth of the changes taking place in these young boys. Less masterful than Musil’s The Confusions of Young Törless, more austere than the works of Herman Hesse, School at the Frontier nevertheless manages to depict the fate of this sacrificed European generation with the same cruelty.
Even more so than the fact that introspective reflection is replaced by bare facts, it is the work’s pessimism that sets it radically apart from the Bildungsroman established by the German-language authors of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In Musil, Mann and Hesse, leaving childhood involves its share of drama and wounds, which are the price to pay for true freedom. The post-romantic critique of the triumphant rationality of the Enlightenment remains no less reasonable: if the darkness of ignorance cannot be totally dispelled, it remains necessary to confront it and recognize one’s own imperfection, with the aim of surpassing oneself.
In Ottlik’s work, the pain of coming of age is not compensated for. Illusions dispelled and naiveté lost are replaced only by bitterness and resignation. The world for which the military school prepares its pupils is neither more rational nor more beautiful than the school itself. The same absurdity and violence prevail: growing up means accepting one’s chains and one’s condition: “Among the countless things we held dear, some were reduced to nothing more or less quickly, disintegrated or altered,” observes the narrator. As for the “little moments of pleasure” that endure for better or for worse, from a stay in the infirmary where books can be obtained, to a game of soccer played between two exercises, their brevity and uselessness ultimately rob them of all flavor. They are the last childlike respites the condemned man allows himself to live.
A Tragic Sense of History
In fact, as adults, the narrator and his friend Medve look back on their first year with pain. The vexations they endured have left scars perhaps deeper than the war itself. The sense of waste is heightened by the idea that it was all for nothing, and that there was no justice. The most perfidious of their comrades went on to brilliant careers as officers, or became half-robots. The weakest continued to suffer the ravages of life, even after renouncing their military careers. Once again, history imposes itself as a tragedy. Life kept its disappointing promises. The war, for which they had been prepared, took place. Everything that happened was already there, in germ, in the mind of a child and in the destiny of a country.
As the school year progresses, and in the face of the implacability of History, a question as absurd as it is obvious gradually emerges: what is the point of time passing? Another Hungarian writer, László Krasznahorkai, seems to reply in the opening line of Melancholy of Resistance: “It passes without passing. Like adults whose choices are merely repetitions of childhood echoes, like peoples condemned to reproduce the same acts from generation to generation, schoolchildren “grope blindly in a duration that has… lost its true consistency, and sometimes it [seems to them] to be trampling on, sometimes the events of a recent past seem extremely distant.”
Reflecting the cyclical vision of history so dear to Central and Eastern European literature, this pessimism reminds us that the past haunts the present and determines the future, on the scale of human life as well as major events. For the Hungarian society of the 1960s, which soon ranked School at the Frontier among the great classics of its national literature, this was no doubt self-evident. In many ways, the fate of these schoolchildren repeated the dramas of the defunct Kingdom of Hungary, just as much as they foreshadowed the misfortunes of the Communist dictatorship—with which Gézla Ottlik maintained a distance that, in the context of the Kadar years, was enough to pass for disapproval.
Alexis Bétemps is a Parisian Germanophile and deputy editor-in-chief of PHILITT, through whose courtesy this article appears.
Featured: Mátyás Hunyadi Military School in Kőszeg, in 1926. Géza Ottlik is in the back row, second from the left.