When I was about eighteen I burned all my manuscripts. From then on I had a secret criterion for the limits of literature: anything I could write myself was necessarily bad. Literature began where I felt that something had been written which I could not emulate.
This recollection, with its odd qualities of subtlety, irony, dogmatism and dialectic, almost encapsulates the contradiction of George Lukács. Born into a family of the Mittel Europa Jewish bourgeoisie, and heir to the high culture of the turn of the century, he became Hungary’s leading Communist intellectual. Although he was often out of favour with the orthodox, he never felt comfortable as a dissident, and always sought to make his peace with ‘the party’. Although he did not actually burn his greatest work, History and Class Consciousness, he disowned it as ‘idealism’ in an apparently voluntary auto da fé, and discouraged its republication. By the time of his death in 1971, having declined the opportunity to emigrate, he had achieved a peculiar ‘double act’ in the mental life of Eastern Europe; virtual invulnerability from the regime and near-total, if passive, repudiation of it. There is evidence, presented in this enthralling and difficult book, that towards the end of his life Lukács began to suspect that the whole Communist enterprise had been a waste. But that was one act of repudiation which he could not make public.
This oral autobiography, which consists principally of a series of exhaustive interviews, recalls a world we have lost. The marxisant, cosmopolitan culture of Central Europe between the wars, which spanned literature, politics and psychoanalysis, and which included Walter Benjamin, Thomas Mann, Wilhelm Reich and Ernst Fischer, was ground to atoms