The Ant Heap [Hangyaboly]


Just as elsewhere in Europe at the turn of the century, the Austro-

Hungarian empire was characterised by social, political and intellectual ferment. Change and modernisation also included a new and acute perception of women’s situation, and the modern woman was born, with her new moral, social, human and intellectual aspirations, and with the desire to have a professional career. This became a possibility with the 1895 Edict by the  Minister of Education, which opened up university education for women. These changes, and the general milieu of social progress  also brought along the emergence of a number of woman writers, who, for the rst time in the history of Hungarian letters, appeared not just as isolated talents, but as a group of talented authors, with a shared sympathy for the situation of women.

The best of these authors, Margit Kaffka (1880-1918), is perhaps the only Hungarian n-de-siècle woman writer whose achievement is comparable in major ways to that of the British new woman novelists. Women’s emancipation — legal, sexual, and professional — ranked high on her agenda, but her novels are not only political manifestos in the way the weaker New Women novelists’ ction is, but they all have considerable aesthetic value too.

Kaffka was one of the rst female authors to benet from the new opportunities for the higher education of women. The daughter of an impoverished gentry family, growing up in the Eastern part of Hungary, and educated in a convent school, she soon embarked upon a career as teacher and woman of letters in Budapest. She rst published poetry, subsequently a few novels Colours and Years (1912) The Years of Maria, (1913) and Situations (1915) and was part of the lively literary life of the Budapest intelligentsia. Her last novel, The Ant Heap, in 1917 was written and published a year before her premature death in 1918.

All of Kaffka’s novels are deeply autobiographical, and reect the experiences of self-reexive, single women, frustrated and dissatised with relationships, and preoccupied with the inevitable constraints of female lives, and the difculties of achieving professional status.

The Ant Heap is also a strongly autobiographical piece of ction, in the sense that it describes the life and relationships of women in a Catholic convent school in Eastern Hungary, and it summarises women’s wider position in society with transparent symbolism. The novel deals with the passions and choices of  nuns as well as mature schoolgirls, but its focus is not the Bronte-esque suffering of tortured heroines, rather, the complexity of relationships between women, their relationships with the heterosexual outside world, as well as their questionings of traditional women’s roles, and their intense attempts at self-discovery.

A ripened pear is ready to drop from a tree in the garden of the nunnery; the girls are tempted to eat it, but do not dare — this is the metaphorical opening of the novel, laden with sexual as well as Biblical connotations which subsequently unfold. The pupils of the convent — the mature Erzsi, aware of her charms as well as of the practical advantages the attentions of a middle aged married MP can offer, the Romanian Cornelia, whose self-awareness as a woman has been awakened by her cousin, and their other friend, the irty Marika Pavlik — have already begun to discover their own ‘sexual essence.’ The enclosed atmosphere of the convent does not suppress this interest but rather sharpens it, and sexuality, although never explicit, pervades the relationships between the nuns as well as the relationships between priests and pupils.

Yet sexual awareness and self-discovery, dreaming and planning represent only part of the girls’ development. A similarly important impulse is their desire to nd a social identity, the identity of a professional woman. This desire impinges upon the second large theme of the tale: the intrusion of the modern world into the isolated life of the convent, best shown through the power struggle between older and younger nuns, the founding mothers and the modernisers. The older ones, the original German-speaking nuns who went to Hungary with the intention of ‘civilising’ the peasants, are desperate to preserve a curriculum of ‘accomplishments’ for daughters of the landed gentry. The younger nuns, led by the willowy Virginia, want to modernise the school according to the requirements of the 20th century; they want to expand their teacher training programme, build a sanatorium for TB patients, and repair the dilapidated building in which they live, and which symbolises the dated nature of the old nuns’ expectations and mode of thinking. This power struggle reaches its peak after the death of the Mother Superior, as the election of her successor will indicate victory or defeat for new ideas of women’s education.

The novel, however, ends with a vote for gradual progress rather than dramatic and spectacular victory for either camp. The nuns’ attempts to secure the fortune of a young German girl for the convent fail, as she chooses to elope with her lover. The modernisation of the convent, therefore, is delayed for the lack of funds, while, at the same time, the elopement and the gradual intrusion of the outside world forces the older nuns to accept that change is inevitable, and they have to give way to new methods, new teaching programmes and new perspectives.This lyrical and perceptive evocation of six months of life in a convent during turbulent times, the struggle between tradition and modernity was received with shock, and the author was accused of blasphemy and pornography. These charges are particularly difcult to understand, considering the poetic understanding of religious life, and the enjoyment of beauty and colour, and the general joie de vivre of the main characters, the adolescent girls. The following quotation is taken from the opening chapter of the novel, and symbolises the poetic and lyrical quality of the descriptions of psychological awakening yearning and earthly desire. ZV


And now a large, over-ripe pear had dropped! But it had to be left there on the ground, or perhaps reported to Sister Kunigunda, and taken over by her. Then it would reach the preserving room or perhaps the kitchen. Maybe they would stew it with a little sugar, for the sick in winter; yes because that is the rule… and it was only the Devil putting temptation into people’s way…[…] Oh, dear! If only one could pick it up secretly — but three people had noticed, perhaps others, too.[…]

Slowly, trembling they got nearer the point of temptation. There on the grass all yellow… what a thrill, what danger, the precious promise of all earthly joys, sin of desire, temptation of the taste buds! Oh innocent fruit of the tree! How huge, swollen, what a maliciously poisoned mix of fantasy and prohibition! The seed of the tree, God’s fruit. Now truly Satan was smiling at the amber-coloured beauty… You have taken the sins of the world upon you! 33