Szekely's Temptation

Temptation by Janos Szekely is due to be released as a reprint edition this month. I first read the book in German (Verlockung) – because it hasn’t been available in English since Szekely died in Berlin in 1958. Following an illustrious career in Hollywood, which included an Academy Award for best screenplay (Arise My Love, 1940), Szekely was black-listed during the McCarthy era and forced to leave the U.S. His works fell into disregard, including Temptation, though the novel makes clear his extraordinary gift for storytelling. It is epic in proportion covering the life of a young boy, Béla, who is coming of age in Hungary between the world wars: from his early life as an abandoned child in a small village to life in the big city of Budapest where he is reunited with his parents. He eventually gains employment as an elevator boy in a luxury hotel and learns the ropes about navigating modern urban life from a colorful cast of characters.

I found the novel hilariously entertaining. Szekely’s language is remarkably descriptive and witty (think A Christmas Story for central Europe), reflecting on situations that were often taken from his own life. The novel also takes the reader through all of the social and political struggles of the time without much historical distance since the novel was first published in 1946. Readers may be taken aback by the portrayal of “angel-makers” (those who terminated pregnancies for village women), the sordid sexual encounters that contradict all of Bela’s purported class struggle, as well as the openly anti-Semitic attitudes throughout the novel. However, for the novel to cover this time period and location in such epic fashion and not to depict these facets of central European life would make the work one of pure fantasy. And one has to wonder if addressing these issues in real life hasn't been thwarted by not allowing such explicit accounts as Szekely's to remain in print. I would argue that Szekely has written blueprints for covering up sexual indiscretion, keeping abortion underground, and perpetuating myths about political movements. And so, if his blueprints aren't available to everyone, they serve only those who have access. Perhaps that's the real reason for black-listing - to keep power in the hands of those who would like to perpetuate what they purport to despise.

From the plot outlined above, readers may also connect the story to the film Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson), and there are remarkable resemblances. Interestingly enough the film credits Stefan Zweig with its inspiration instead of Szekely.  Was Anderson scared off by Szekely’s status as black-listed? He can’t possibly have constructed that plot without knowing the novel. Or were other screenwriters aware of it, but didn’t share it? One can hope that the publication of the novel will shed light on multiple facets of Szekely’s life and work, and his influence on Hollywood.

Look for the book on July 25.

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