Book Review: The Village Notary, by József Eötvös

The Village Notary is no great pleasure to read, for the compelling moments of its plot are scattered between cynical diatribes. 

The diatribes are telling, at any rate. Here’s one on democracy:

“It makes me laugh to think that the very men who now divide the county trace their origin as political parties to an idle controversy on the uniforms of the county-hussars. Hence the yellows and the blacks. I am sure your Excellency would laugh if you had seen their committee-rooms. Rety’s head-quarters ring with high praises of his patriotism, for his having at the last election fixed the price of meat at threepence a pound; while in the next house you find all the butchers of the county for Bantornyi, the intrepid champion of protection and threepence-halfpenny. Just now, at the café, I overheard an argument on Vetsöshi’s abilities, which are rated very low, because he is shown to be a bad hand at cards. In short, your Excellency can have no idea of the farce which is acting around us.” (vol. 1, p. 175)

And here’s a pithy specimen on prison conditions:

The county gaol at Dustbury was, in those days, free from the prevailing epidemic of philanthropical innovations, which a certain set of political empirics are so zealous in spreading. The ancient national system of Austrio-Hungarian prison discipline was still in full glory; but as coming events cast their shadows before, so this venerable and time-honored system was every now and then attacked by the maudlin and squeamish sentimentality of modern reformers….In the gaol of a neighboring county, so fewer than six prisoners were dull enough top permit their feet to be frozen by the cold; and though the county magistrates gave them the full benefit of their attention, though their feet were amputated with a handsaw, though only one of the patients survived, and though such things were known to have frequently happened without any one being the worse for it, yet (so great is human perversity) a cry of indignation was got up against the worshipful magistrates of the said county, for all the world as if those honorable gentlemen had made the cold. (vol. 3, pp. 67-68)

Less pithy but more bitter is this eulogy of the book’s namesake protagonist, which amounts to a mockery of liberal learning itself, for its cruel inability to alter the individual’s destiny as fixed by birth:

The poor curate’s library contained but few books, but among them was a great treasure; namely, a copy of Plutarch….Jonas passed many hours in looking at the solemn faces of the classic heroes, nor was it long before he knew their names and actions….He was happy; for there is no greater happiness than the delight which a pure heart feels when thinking of great deeds and generous men. The childhood of nations and individuals idolizes all heroes, and thus did Jonas.

A child’s perceptions of distance are very weak: it is the same in the moral world. Children try to grasp any shining bauble which strikes their eyes, no matter whether far or near. Life has not yet taught them to wait, to plod, and perhaps to be disappointed. The boy is equally ignorant of the bitter truth, that there is usually but one road which leads to the high places of the world, and that the ascent, though easy to some, is impossible to others, for from where they stand there is no path which leads to the top. (vol. 1, pp. 42-43)

The reader can perhaps detect in these lines the self-pity of the author, particularly if he too once imbibed the elixir of liberal learning, without heeding the country-club logo stamped on the cup.

Just as the romantic should avoid Don Quixote, the idealist should avoid The Village Notary.