Mészöly Miklós: Biography

Miklós Mészöly (Szekszárd, 19 January 1921 - Budapest, 22 July 2001)

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


Miklós Mészöly was born as Miklós Molnár in Szekszárd in 1921; his mother was Jolán Szászy (1898–1983), his father was Sándor Molnár (1888–1947), an engineer, and his brother Dénes Molnár (1919–2004) was a doctor. The author’s name is taken from his paternal grandmother, Hermina Mészöly, and has been officially used since the 1950s. He studied at the János Garay Secondary School in Szekszárd, and his interest in French language and culture is said to have been inspired by his Hungarian–French–philosophy teacher, Béla Hencze. In a 1995 interview about his life, Mészöly says of his literary experiments in the mid-1930s: „They were scribbles, which later, when I was a little more mature, I destroyed. They filled a suitcase. […] [Béla Hencze] encouraged me, he was a very strong critic, a completely justified critic. These early writings of mine oscillated between free verse and prose, which were a record of first impressions that really could not be described as anything other than proactive, and which had to be overcome quickly. But the period of this overcoming did require a period of active writing bankruptcies.”

He published his first works in the 1940s. Between 1938 and 1942, he studied at the Faculty of Law and Political Science of Pázmány Péter University, graduated summa cum laude, then became a lawyer’s clerk. He wanted to continue his studies at the Sorbonne, but the war prevented him from doing so. In 1944, the year he received his doctorate in law, Mészöly was drafted and trained as an artilleryman. At the turn of 1944 and 1945, he deserted with several fellow soldiers; he was court-martialled, escaped the death penalty, and was sent to a penal battalion on the southern front where he escaped again. The war caused a break in his early career, and his forced military service is recorded in several of his later works (Bunker [Bunker], Dark Signs[Sötét jelek], and the short stories of the volume Report on Five Mice [Jelentés öt egérről]). He was interested in the literary treatment of the subject for a long time, and he describes his attempts in his Dialogue Experiment (Párbeszédkísérlet), published in 1999: „I have often returned to it, I have struggled with writing about the war almost all my life. I have made seventy-seven attempts to put it all down in its entirety, in a more tabloid-like form, and from the point of view of my needs, all my attempts have proved to be a dead end.”

After 1945, he was a crop collector and mill inspector, and between 1947 and 1948 he was editor of an independent paper. In 1948 he moved to Budapest. In the summer of the following year he married Alaine Polcz (1922–2007), a psychologist-analyst, and their marriage lasted for the rest of his life. The events of their life together are detailed in a volume of correspondence entitled Let Freedom Be the Shackle (A bilincs a szabadság legyen), published in 2017. Between 1950 and 1954, Mészöly worked as a dramaturge at the State Puppet Theatre, which provided a living for several neglected writers and artists.

In his early career, Mészöly was forced to remain silent, but his uncompromising attitude and resistance to the pressures of power remained the defining part of his personality. During his forced silence, he published his works under pseudonyms; he wrote radio plays, puppet plays, theatre adaptations, and (often together with his wife) fairy tales. He appeared in several films as an extra, such as Miklós Jancsó’s Immortality (Halhatatlanság, 1959) and Cantata (Oldás és kötés, 1963), or István Bácskai Lauró’s short film Spell (Igézet, 1963). He later confessed that the fairy tales and children’s literature published during this period – The Sorrowful Bear (A bánatos medve, 1954), The Sleeping Little Basket (Hétalvó Puttonyocska, 1955), Black Stork (Fekete gólya, 1960), The Vain Tile-Princess (A hiú Cserép-királykisasszony, 1964), Az elvarázsolt tűzoltózenekar (The Enchanted Fire Brigade. 1965) – were created as a kind of compensation, and initially he had an aversion to writing fairy tales for children, but he persisted with the genre into later phases of his career: „My first stories I wrote more on persuasion than on inner impulse. This was back in the early fifties. Whenever I had a short story rejected, I wrote a fairy-tale as self-consolation. […] In fact, I really needed a substitute for medicine at that time.” The silencing of Mészöly by the state authorities was briefly broken by the publication of the short story collection Dark Signs (Sötét jelek) in 1957. This was only possible because Magvető Publishing House was left without supervision after the 1956 revolution was crushed.

In the early 1960s Mészöly worked on his novel, Death of an Athlete (Az atléta halála). His play Bunker was completed in 1962, but the text was rejected by the Kortárs literary journal. His play The Window Cleaner (Az ablakmosó) premiered on 15 March 1963, and in September and October of the same year Jelenkor published the text of the play with the author’s notes. After two performances, however, the play was banned, and Tibor Tüskés, then editor of the journal, was fired as a result of the scandal that erupted over its publication.

Mészöly’s first novel, Death of an Athlete, which was blacklisted several times, was first published in French by Seuil Publishing – the foreign publication in 1966 forced the Hungarian edition. In the years that followed, the author’s career took a positive turn. Mészöly travelled widely, he visited Austria, Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, France, the USA, and Israel. He established contacts with foreign authors and publishers. From the second half of the 1960s, several of his major works were published (e.g. The Report on Five Mice, 1967; Saulus, 1968), and his works were translated and film adaptations were made.

His volume Accurate Stories, Along the Way (Pontos történetek, útközben) was published in 1970, and it showed a prose-poetic approach that is less typical of his earlier works. The novel is an experiment in literary realism which breaks with the parable form and rewrites the stories of Alaine Polcz’s travels, recorded on tape. From 1971, Mészöly began working on the novel Movie (Film), which would shape the course of his career; he completed the manuscript in 1974 during a scholarship in West Germany. The novel, published in 1976, is a turning point, the radical nature of which is underlined by the author’s analysis, in line with its reception: „something that is a point from which there is no further road. […] To be clear: I don’t see Movie as a detour at all, but as a kind of terminus. From where I’m trying to find another junction for myself.”

In 1975, the Szépirodalmi Publishing House published a selection of his life’s work entitled Formations (Alakulások). In the following years, he published his essays and diary entries (The School of Spaciousness [A tágasság iskolája, 1977]), an expanded edition of Accurate Stories, Along the Way (1977), and in 1979 two of his plays (Bunker, The Window Cleaner) were published in book form. In the same year, he published the first stories from Winged Horses (Szárnyas lovak), which critics say belong to a new phase of his career.

In the early 1980s, his poetry started appearing (Evening Map. Highlights [Esti térkép. Kiemelések, 1981]). Forgiveness (Megbocsátás), which is considered to be the peak of Mészöly’s late period, was published in 1984, the collection of short stories The Splendour of Colonel Sutting [Sutting ezredes tündöklése] in 1987, Once Upon a Time in Central Europe [Volt egyszer egy Közép-Európa], which includes his short prose masterpieces, in 1989, and in 1995, his last major epic work, Family Flood (Családáradás).

The essential characteristic of his oeuvre is the rejection of schematism and insistence on the need to assert new poetic approaches. Mészöly’s epochal works and his ever-renewing career served as a model for future generations of writers.

Miklós Mészöly died in Budapest on 22 July 2001. Some of his ashes were laid to rest in Farkasréti cemetery on 23 August 2001, while others were scattered in the couple’s garden in Kisoroszi and on the shores of Trieste.

After the writer’s death, Alaine Polcz founded the Miklós Mészöly Association, an organization that handles the author’s legacy and supports research into the literary contexts of his life’s work. In 2004, the association established the Miklós Mészöly Prize, which has been awarded every year since then on the day of the writer’s birth as part of Mészöly Memorial Day in his hometown of Szekszárd.


The biography was written by Diána Horváth-Márjánovics, translated by Benedek Totth and Austin Wagner.