Book Review: The Baron’s Sons, by Mór Jókai

This is the second book by Mór (a.k.a. Maurus) Jókai that I’ve read, after Poor Plutocrats. I enjoyed The Baron’s Sons at least as much, simply because it is well written, with incisive words and a general strategy of understatement; and it is well translated (by P.F. Bicknell). The story of three sons’ fates in the Hungarian revolution of 1848 is absorbing and politically exciting.

In my continuing attempt to understand why I enjoy Hungarian literature as much as I do (and as I continue to enjoy it), I am beginning to detect, in addition to its appealing wistfulness, a certain focus on honor. It is by no means as obsessive (and pathological) as something one would expect in ancient Greek tales, and it may actually be a little tongue in cheek. In Miklos Banffy’s The Transylvania Trilogy (I forget which volume, though it could have been the first), the protagonist, Balint, is compelled to fight a silly and ultimately harmless duel with someone. In The Baron’s Sons, brothers Richard and Ödön have a contest of honor of sorts, which ends with a hug and with Richard telling Ödön, “I’m very angry with you.”

I hope I never run out of books by Jókai, and I’ll keep reading Hungarian novels, even if I never figure out why I like them.

Author: Harry Miller

I have traveled and lived in Taiwan, China, and Japan and am now a professor of Asian history and author of Southern Rain, a novel of seventeenth-century China.

2 thoughts on “Book Review: The Baron’s Sons, by Mór Jókai”

  1. It is a romantic novel after all, and in the time it was written, things like honor or chivalry were common things. People really believed in them. Especially in Hungary where the nobility and the romantic liberal youth believed that it is the characteristic of their nation.
    Many famous people in those times duelled. For example János Bolyai, one of the most important matematicians of the 19th century, duelled like 40 times, winning every duel, or Sándor Petőfi, the national poet, who demanded twice to duel with people who offended him, but these refused, accepting their defeat.
    Or the last Hungarian prime minister of the Austro Hungarian Monarchy, count István Tisza, killed in 1918 by the communists, duelled many times with his opponents, even with the next prime minister, Mihály Károlyi, who apparently played a role in his assasination. Maybe because of his earlier defeat in the duel with Tisza.

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    1. Thanks very much for your comment. I guess dueling does constitute an aspect of romance that I haven’t thought much about. As for honor, it does seem to me that cultures east and west assume that the love of life is antithetical to it. Writing this, an old Genesis song has become stuck in my head. One line goes: “a time when honor meant much more to a man than life.” I’m not sure where I stand on the question. I like Jókai, but I also like Antal Szerb and his neo-frivolism. On the other hand, Szerb refused to flee for his life…

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