Konrád György: Biography

György Konrád (Debrecen, 2 April 1933 – Budapest, 13 September 2019)

Kossuth Prize-winning writer, essayist, and sociologist. Founding member of the Digital Literature Academy from 1998 until his death.


Born in Debrecen, 2 April 1933. His father, József Konrád, ran a hardware business, and his mother, Róza Klein, was a member of a Jewish middle-class family from Nagyvárad. His older sister Éva was born in 1930. The family lived in Berettyóújfalu.

György’s parents were arrested and deported to Austria after the German invasion of Hungary, and György, his sister, and two cousins travelled to live with relatives in Budapest a day before all Jewish inhabitants of Berettyóújfalu were sent to the ghetto in Nagyvárad (Oradea), and then on to Auschwitz. Most of Konrád’s classmates died in Birkenau.

In February 1945, György and his sister went back to Berettyóújfalu, and in June their parents were released from the Strasshof concentration camp. The Konrád family were the only family among the Jewish inhabitants of Berettyóújfalu to survive intact. György started school in 1946 at the Reformed Secondary School in Debrecen, moving on the following year to the Madách Secondary School in Budapest, which he attended from 1947–1951. He left in 1951 to study literature, sociology, and psychology at the Lenin Institute of Eötvös Loránd University. In 1950, his father’s business and their house at Berettyóújfalu were appropriated by the government.

György completed his university education in the Department of Hungarian Literature and Language at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest. In October 1956, he became a member of the editorial board of Életképek. He was a member of the National Guard, made up mostly of university students, in October 1956. He was unemployed for years following the revolution.

He made his living doing ad hoc jobs: he was a tutor, wrote reader reports, translated, and worked as a factory hand. Beginning in the summer of 1959, he secured steady employment as a children’s welfare supervisor in Budapest’s seventh district. He remained there for seven years, during which time he amassed the experiences that would serve as the basis for his novel The Case Worker (A látogató, 1969). The book drew a vigorous and mixed response: the official criticism was negative, but the book quickly became very popular and sold out in a matter of days.

Between 1959 and 1965 he was a youth protection supervisor at the guardianship office. From 1960 he worked part-time as a reader for Magyar Helikon Publishing House. He was the editor of works by Gogol, Turgenev, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Babel, and Balzac.

From 1965 to 1973, he worked as a sociologist at the Institute for Urban Planning and Science of the Ministry of Urban Development. Together with Iván Szelényi he published several studies, the most important being On the Sociological Problems of the New Housing Developments (Az új lakótelepek szociológiai problémái, 1969) and two extensive works on the management of the country’s regional zones, as well as on urban and ecological trends in Hungary. His experiences as an urbanist provided material for his next novel, The City Builder (A városalapító, 1977), in which he radically extended the experiments in language and form that had marked The Case Worker. The City Builder was permitted to appear in Hungarian only in censored form in 1977. It was published abroad by Suhrkamp, Seuil, Harcourt Brace Jovanovitch, and Philip Roth’s Penguin Series, with a foreword by Carlos Fuentes. Konrád lost his job by order of the political police in July 1973. For half a year he worked as a nurse’s aide at the work-therapy-based mental institution in Doba.

Konrád worked in the mental institution collecting material for his third novel. In 1973–1974, together with Iván Szelényi, he wrote a study entitled The Intellectuals on the Road to Class Power (Az értelmiség útja az osztályhatalomhoz). Shortly after the completion of the study, the political police bugged and searched the apartments of Szelényi and Konrád. A significant part of Konrád’s diaries were confiscated and the authors were arrested for anti-state activities. They were placed on probation and informed that they would be permitted to emigrate with their families. Szelényi accepted the offer, while Konrád remained in Hungary, choosing internal emigration and all that it entailed. A smuggled manuscript of The Intellectuals on the Road to Class Power was published abroad and it remains on university reading lists to this day.

Konrád was published in Hungarian samizdat and by publishers in the West. From this period until virtually 1989, Konrád was a forbidden author in Hungary, deprived of all legal income. He made a living from honoraria abroad. His works were placed in the restricted sections of libraries. Naturally he was also forbidden to speak on radio or television. In 1976, Konrád’s three-year travel ban expired and he went to West Berlin, where he was awarded a one-year DAAD scholarship. From there he visited New York, San Francisco, and Paris, only returning to Hungary in March 1979. During this period he wrote his third novel, The Accomplice (A cinkos).

In 1982–1984, he again went on an extended trip abroad to West Berlin, New York, and Paris. In 1987–1988 he taught world literature at Colorado College. For a decade and a half, only the censored edition of The City Builder and his essay, Sentences on an Imaginary Novel (Mondatok egy képzelt regényből, 1982), were published legally in Hungary. At the same time, all of his works were published beyond the country’s borders (his novels were translated into some twelve languages), and he became the best-known contemporary Hungarian writer abroad.

From the early 1980s, Konrád was involved in the Hungarian democratic opposition movement, and most of his works have been made available in samizdat editions in Hungary. In the first years after the fall of the old regime, beginning in 1989, Konrád took an active part in public life in Hungary, and was one of the thinkers who paved the way for the transition to democracy. He was a founding member of the Alliance of Free Democrats (SZDSZ) party, and one of the founders and spokespeople for the Democratic Charter. In the spring of 1990, Konrád was elected President of PEN International, an office he held for the full term until 1993. He made strenuous efforts on behalf of imprisoned and persecuted writers and called the writers of disintegrating nations together to roundtable conferences in the interest of peace.

Between 1997 and 2003, Konrád was twice elected President of the Academy of Arts, Berlin. As the first foreigner to hold the post, Konrád was an effective contributor to the intellectual rapprochement between the East and West of Europe, and did much to introduce writers and other creative figures from Central Europe, and particularly from Hungary, to the West. His efforts were greeted by a receptive German public. During his presidency, he received the Internationale Karlspreis zu Aachen (2001) and the Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany (2003).

In the late 1980s, he began writing a new trilogy of novels, the first volume of which is a radically revised version of an earlier work, A Feast in the Garden (Kerti mulatság), completed in 1985. The second volume, Stone Clock (Kőóra), was published in 1994, and the third, Legacy (Hagyaték), in 1998. The novel Departure and Return (Elutazás és hazatérés, 2001), which is autobiographical in comparison with his previous, essentially fictional trilogy of novels, is a documentary in nature. Its sequels, Up on the Hill During a Solar Eclipse (Fenn a hegyen, napfogyatkozáskor, 2003), The Roosters’ Sorrow (A kakasok bánata, 2005), Pendulum (Inga, 2008), The Chimes (Harangjáték, 2009), and The Visitor’s Book (Vendégkönyv, 2013) present his philosophy of life with near-poetic density.

The diary fragments and reflections in Konrád’s books of essays (91–93 [1993]; Waiting [VÁrakozás, 1995]; Flowing Inventory [Áramló leltár, 1996]; The Invisible Voice [A láthatatlan hang, 1997]; On the Road [Útrakészen, 1999]; The Expansion of the Middle [A közép tágulása, 2004]) are mostly travelogues, reports, and observations on life and existence. They continue the aphoristic essayistic style of the 1980s, built up from fragments, but in these writings political interest is relegated to the background, pushing forward the fundamental questions of private life and human existence in general.

Konrád received numerous prizes and awards, including the Herder Prize (1984), the Charles Veillon Prize (1990), the Manes-Sperber Prize (1990), the Friedenspreis des Deutschen Buchhandels (1991), the Goethe Medal (2000), the Internationale Karlspreis zu Aachen (2001), the Franz Werfel Human Rights Award (2007), and the National Jewish Book Award in the memoir category (2008).

He received the highest state distinctions awarded by France, Hungary, and Germany: Officier de l’Ordre national de la Légion d’Honneur (1996); The Hungarian Republic Legion of Honor Middle Cross with Star (2003); and Das Grosse Verdienstkreuz des Bundesrepublik Deutschland (2003). He held honorary doctorates from the University of Antwerp (1990) and the University of Novi Sad (2003). He was an honorary citizen of Berettyóújfalu (2003) and of Budapest (2004).

Konrád was married three times. In 1955 he married Vera Varsa, with whom he lived until 1963, then married Júlia Lángh, with whom he had two children, Anna Dóra in 1965, and Miklós István in 1967. From 1979, Konrád lived with Judith Lakner, his third wife, and together they had three children, Áron (1986), József (1987), and Zsuzsanna (1994).

He died after a long illness in Budapest on 13 September 2019.


The biography was written by András Veres, translated by Benedek Totth and Austin Wagner.