Istvan Csicsery-Ronay: Writer and publisher who championed Hungarian literature in the West

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Istvá* Csicsery-Rónay started out as a politician and writer and became one of the leading publishers of Hungarian books in the West. In 1953 he founded Occidental Press in Washington, which published, as well as his own works, László Gara's Az ismeretlen Illyés ("The unknown Illyés", 1965) and the French essayist Gaetan Picon's grand anthology of modern Western thought, Korunk szellemi körképe ("Panorama des idées contemporaines", 1957), a book smuggled into Hungary which quickly became compulsory reading for the intellectual élite. Csicsery-Rónay lived much of his life in exile, but as soon as free elections were held in Hungary in 1990 he returned, spending the last two decades of his life in relative comfort.

Istvá* Csicsery-Rónay was born in Budapest in 1917 into a distinguished family. On his mother's side he could count among his ancestors Count Mihály Zichy, the famous 19th-century painter and illustrator. His father, also István, was a member of the Hungarian Parliament until March 1944. The younger Istvá* was educated between 1935-1943 at the Péter Pázmány University of Budapest, the Consular Academy in Vienna and Agricultural Technical and Economic University.

As an adherent of the policies of the conservative anti-Nazi Premier Pál Teleki, the younger Istvá* was also involved in the Hungarian resistance movement during the German occupation as deputy commander of the Rákóczi partisan brigade. Though for two years following the war, he was head of the foreign department of the then ruling Smallholders' Party, in 1947 he was arrested and charged with conspiracy against the new state. After eight months in confinement he escaped to Hungary and, via Austria, Switzerland and France, emigrated finally to the US in 1949; it became his home for more than 40 years.

It was in the US that the would-be politician found his real mission, asa resourceful publisher of Hungarian books. He worked as a librarian, first at the Catholic University of Washington (1954-56) and then at the University of Maryland (1957-79). He alsoedited for over a decade a Hungarian-language periodical Hírünk a világban [Our Image in the World] and worked as political analyst for the Free Europe committee.

In 1953, he founded Occidental Press in Washington. After editing and publishing Költok forradalma ("Revolution of the Poets") from 1953 to 1956, Csicsery-Rónay brought out an anthology of 14 Hungarian emigré poets Uj égtájak ("New Horizons, (1969). Its very positive review at the time by the poet Istvá* Vas in the Hungarian Communist Party's daily newspaper Népszabadság created a minor sensation.

Csicsery-Rónay published his own works, mostly in Hungarian. One of his rare English publications was The First Book of Hungary (1967). His Hungarian articles written in the US werecollected in Emigrációban ("OnEmigration", 1988), and after hisreturn to Hungary he edited a number of political tracts about and reminiscences of Pál Teleki such as Teleki Pál és kora ("Paul Teleki and his Age", 1992) and on the former Premier Ferenc Nagy, the latter being Csicsery-Rónay's personal friend (Nagy Ferenc miniszterelnök, 1995).

He was an avid traveller and, as long as his health permitted, he regularly took part in the annual congresses of the International PEN Club. In 1992 he received the Hungarian Pulitzer Prize for his journalistic activities and was awarded the Imre Nagy Memorial Plaque in 1994.

I first met Csicsery-Rónay in 1965 when I visited him in Washington DC, after which Occidental Press published several of my books, including an anthology of modern Polish poetry in Hungarian translation. I last met Istvá* two years ago in Budapest, when old age had already corroded his health, though his mind was still active enough to discuss current politics. Losing his wife, Erzsébet, in 1996 was a great shock to him and he took comfort in his daughter, a multilingual translator, who took care of him afterwards. He was a man of many interests, a great conversationalist and a man of incurable optimism – a characteristic feature which had enabled him to publish Hungarian books for decades in the US despite being able to count on only a limited readership.


István Csicsery-Rónay, politician, writer and publisher: born Budapest 13 December 1917; married 1945 Erzsébet Tariska (died 1996; one son, one daughter); died Budapest 22 April 2011.