One of the best ways to guarantee a writer’s work will be overlooked is to write in a less-widely known language, especially if it’s thought difficult to translate. If, on top of that, the writer is a woman, the barrier to entry to a wider audience is even higher.
A good example is the work of Margit Kaffka, a Hungarian woman who published a number of novels before and during World War One that dealt with the constraints that her contemporary society–as with most Western societies at the time–placed on a woman’s ability to make her own life decisions. Her 1912 novel, Színek és évek, translated here by George F. Cushing as Colours and Years, is considered one of the great works of Hungarian fiction of the 20th century as well as a significant fiction of feminist fiction, yet it was only in 1999–eighty years after Kaffka’s death–that it was translated into English, and already it’s out of print. And so few non-Hungarians, occasional academics aside, are even aware of this fine novel.
Colours and Years is narrated by Magda, an “old” (early fifties) woman who looks back on a life marked by failures, tragedies, and countless reminders of the narrow set of roles and rights available to a woman of her time. The daughter of a family of waning gentility, Magda is barely eighteen when she is married to Jeno, a young lawyer from a family of some money and thought to have a promising career ahead of him. Having been raised with few skills aside from making decorative little things and reading romantic poetry, she quickly grows dependent upon Jeno but chafes as their domestic routine.
She dabbles in a bit of romantic fancy with a local cad, but mostly tries to be a faithful and supportive wife. Jeno runs for a local office, imagining it the start of the path to a post at the national level, but soon discovers that his naïveté is little better than Magda’s. He irritates a few local power brokers, is defeated, and finds his law practice evaporating before his eyes. He takes ill and dies, leaving Magda with a young son and debts, and she is forced to return to a family little able to care for her.
In fact, life is nothing but a series of setbacks for Magda, defeats made worse by her own lack of skills and her utter dependence upon the choices made for her by men. “I had no real understanding of the value of money or of the connection between life and work. While my husband was alive, no large sum was ever entrusted to me, but he provided me with everything; we never talked much about trifling material matters …. Small lovers’ tiffs and letters caused much more turmoil in me.” As her situation steadily deteriorates, she feels an ever-growing sense of weariness: “I lived a life, a miserably miniscule, creaking, dull, hard and grinding life.” It makes for some grim reading.
Although Magda is essentially a passive victim in her own life, the bleakness of her situation is relieved in the end by a spiritual, reflective outlook: “Life goes on at a great distance from me, problems, altercations, industry and application….” She achieves an almost-Buddhist sensibility. Old age, she announces, “is not as horrible as it may seem from a distance. You do not feel one state more acutely than another, nor do you feel the lack of things for which the desire has long since died in you.”
Published in 1912, Colours and Years is something of a novel of two centuries. With its rich set of characters and strong tragic narrative, Kaffka’s tale is one that could easily be placed alongside those classic 19th century novels of Balzac, Zola, or Perez Galdos. Yet Kaffka’s message about the fate of women assigned to negligible roles in a society controlled by men would soon find its echo in the work of Virginia Woolf and other 20th women writers.
Kaffka herself was something of a woman of her new century. She trained as a teacher, and although she married at the age of 25, she found she was not made for domesticity and separated from her husband after five years, taking her son with her to Budapest. There she was able to make a living as a writer, publishing poetry, short stories, and several novels, starting with Colours and Years. She divorced her first husband, took up with a man ten years her junior, a Jewish medical student, and married him. Her sales and critical reputation continued to grow with each book, and she had started on a historical novel when she contracted the Spanish flu and died on 1 December 1918. Her son died the day after. A few months before her death, Kaffka’s close friend, the poet Endre Ady, wrote of her, “Let us rejoice in Margit Kaffka because she has arrived and proves the triumph of Hungarian feminism: one need not be polite, pay false compliments to her. She is a strong person, an artist with an assured future: no criticism can hinder her true destiny, the path marked as her own.”