Home > 1910, 20th Century, Book Club, Hungarian Literature, K, Kaffka Margit, Novel > Colours and Years by Margit Kaffka

Colours and Years by Margit Kaffka

Colours and Years by Margit Kaffka. (1912) Translated from the Hungarian by George F. Cushing French title: Couleurs et années.

What a peculiar menagerie this world is!

KaffkaMargitt Kakfa (1880-1918) was a Hungarian writer. She was born in the provincial town of Nagykároly, now Carei in Romania. She was a schoolteacher by trade but turned to writing. She belonged to the circle of writers who ran the literary journal Nyugat. She spent time in coffee-houses and wrote stories about the condition of women in the Hungary of her time. She died of the Spanish influenza in 1918.

I usually don’t read foreign books in English translation but when I saw Colours and Years in a bookstore in Budapest, I couldn’t resist. What, a Hungarian novel written in 1912 by a woman who was acquainted with the Nyugat writers? I had to read this.

Coulours and Years is a first person narrative. Magda is over 50 years old, she lives alone, her daughters are grown up and live in another city. Madga lives modestly and remembers of her youth, her life. She will tell us about her childhood, her marriages and all the tragedies of her life.

She was born in a family of provincial nobility, the kind of nobility you find in Jane Austen’s books. They live in the country, are attached to the family tree and their little privileges and rank. Money was always a problem. Her father died when she was young, her mother was inconsistent, a flirt more interested in men than in raising her children. Magda’s grand-mother was the one to keep the household together.

I gathered that Magda was 18 in 1878 or something like that. Like European women of her time and of her status, her choice of “career” was: find a husband, a rich one if possible and make babies. She went out in the local society, danced and met young men. She was genuinely in love with Endre Tabódy but he wasn’t a suitable match. We follow Madga during her life journey until this little peaceful house.

Along the way, we hear about the society she lives in and it looks like other provincial towns in other countries. It’s narrow-minded, there aren’t many opportunities and life choices for women are limited. We see everything through Magda’s eyes and she talks about other women around her. Her mother who bet on men until she met one she liked well enough. Her grand-mother who had the kind of temper to run the show and depend on herself only. Her aunt Marika in Pest, who lives a boring city life. Her aunt Piroska who married a farmer and embraced farm life, always busy with housework or farm work but never missing the basics. Women around her who help their husbands build their career by being the perfect society/trophy wife.

While the theme of the novel appeals to me, I struggled with Magda and Margit Kaffka’s style.

I though Magda was a bit silly, a bit lacking in the courage department. When in financial need, she never imagines she could work. She lets her in-laws steamroll her. She has aspirations for grandeur that she cannot afford. She’s certainly the product of her childhood but she lacks the capacity to put it aside and do differently. If she were a character in Romance of a Shop, she’d be Fanny. Now that she’s older, she reflects on her life and see how ill-prepared she was to face the hurdles of life. She didn’t manage to go past her education and her environment.

Magda rejoices that the times have changed and that her daughters have different prospects and more freedom to choose their life:

Now, from the distance of three decades, I once again see the destiny of my own daughters and keep comparing it with my own. The youngest is eighteen years old now, preparing for her diploma, struggling hard, giving lessons and begging funds for herself, poor little thing. Yet all the same she writes, and sometimes I feel that she may be right, that her life is a more honest life, and her youth a more honest youth. She is still on the threshold, she can wait, make plans, rejoice in the future she feels has been put in her own hands. I suspect she has some exchange of letters and affairs of love, but as yet she has no plans or intentions to follow up on them; she continues them just for the sweetness of little thrills, festivities and tears. We folk of old knew nothing like this…

Young Magda didn’t have the guts to live her life like her daughter does. She wouldn’t have wanted to scrape by for freedom, to work for her independence. She was too willing to put herself under the protection –and the power—of a man, father, husband or uncle. She has admiration for her daughter, whose destiny resembles Kaffka’s own life. However, she’s also wise enough not to have regrets because the decisions she made at the time she made them seemed the best ones:

The years ground me down and wore me away. But would I not have grown old just the same in a life of refinement and beauty, quiet and gentle calm, I wonder? I should be exactly where I am! At this stage, I no longer ponder on what went wrong. Perhaps everyone’s life develops according to their nature; or their essential being adapts to their circumstances. Now I cannot imagine myself with a different past and present from those that became part of me and made me what I am.

Kaffka’s style is made of long sentences and lots of descriptions. It was a bit difficult to read sometimes, especially at night after a day in the office. It took me a while to read it and I guess my reading was too fragmented to really embrace the flow of Kaffka’s voice. So, perhaps it’ll be better for a native English speaker. I suppose it would have been easier in French, except that the French edition is apparently not so good. A friend of mine bought it and found  the translation clumsy and there were typos.

To be honest, I was also a bit lost in the family tree. Magda sure had a lot of aunts and uncles. Kaffka shows the life in a provincial town, full of gossip and of family interactions. Kaffka put in a lot of thoughts about women, marriage and life in general. She pictures the changes in this town at the turn of the 20th century and she based her novel on autobiographical elements. Like Krúdy, she gives life to the region of her childhood and left us a testimony of life in pre-WWI Hungary.

  1. June 6, 2016 at 11:03 pm

    Teffi had Spanish Influenza too. Lucky to survive.

    Is she a Madame Bovary without the lovers?

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    • June 7, 2016 at 9:33 pm

      No, I wouldn’t say that. She doesn’t fantasize about being in love. She’s really more like Fanny, the oldest daughter in Romance of a Shop. She can’t imagine anything else than being a wife.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. June 7, 2016 at 8:55 am

    Shame about the central character and Kaffka’s style as the topic sounds really interesting. I enjoyed reading about it though. Krudy’s on my classics club list, so I’ll see how I fare with his Sindbad.

    (Interesting Guy should mention Teffi as I thought of her too. I’ve been reading another of her books, a collection of short non-fiction pieces, Rasputin and Other Ironies. She’s a fascinating writer – I think you’d like her work.)

    Like

    • June 7, 2016 at 9:40 pm

      She got a bit on my nerves, that’s for sure. But it’s also unfair of me: I wasn’t born in her circumstances, I live in a different century and I don’t think I can really understand how trapped these women were and how difficult it was to shake their education. They were raised to be sheep, I shouldn’t be irritated that she behaves like one.
      At least she was smart in the way she raised her daughters.

      Krudy is a different writer, beautiful style.

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  3. June 20, 2016 at 5:46 pm

    Born in 1860 to the gentry I’m not hugely surprised it didn’t occur to her she could work. As you say, they were raised to be sheep, for most they might achieve better for their daughters but probably not for themselves. They were often extraordinarily poorly educated too, or randomly educated anyway (literate, but few practical skills or training).

    It sounds interesting, but I note your lack of engagement with it with a bit of concern. I’ll take a look since perhaps as you say it was a question of your having to read it in too fragmented a fashion (I’ve run into that problem myself a fair few times), but it may be too that it could use being a bit tighter in its execution.

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    • June 21, 2016 at 10:40 pm

      I agree with you about education. That’s why Flaubert is so sarcastic about Madame Bovary’s education.

      I can’t tell you if my lack of engagement is due to the book or not. It was a rather challenging read in English and I was busy with work (and subsequently rather chattered at night) It would be easier for you in that respect.

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      • June 21, 2016 at 10:55 pm

        Good point on Flaubert.

        This seems to be OOP in the UK presently and the prices on Amazon were those weird algorithm-driven ones – £30 to £40+ for second hand. If I do read it therefore it likely won’t be before there’s a reissue, if there ever is.

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        • June 26, 2016 at 7:37 pm

          I found my copy in a bookstore in Budapest. They had a small display of Hungarian books in English.

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  1. November 29, 2016 at 1:12 am

I love to hear your thoughts, thanks for commenting. Comments in French are welcome

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