Letters from Hungary A Quiet Revolution: Hungarian Fiction since 1975

Context N°14

by Tim Wilkinson

Milan Kundera, in Testaments Be-trayed, sees the history of the novel as resembling the two halves of a soccer game, with the intrinsically digressive, picaresque art of the form up to the end of the eighteenth century (e.g. Laclos and Laurence Sterne) being supplanted by the dominant realism of the nineteenth century (Balzac and Walter Scott), and modernism of the post-Proust period (Kafka, Musil, Broch) representing a sort of third “half” in which the idea of trying to represent reality “as it is (or was)” is contested.

The conventional thinking in Hungary until not long ago was that the country had certainly missed out on the first half and its resuscitation (the third half), with the novels of its mainly nineteenth-century greats—the Transylvanian Zsigmond Kemény (1814-75), Mór (Maurus) Jókai (1825-1904), Kálmán Mikszáth (1847-1910), and Zsigmond Móricz (1879-1942)—at best worthy derivatives of the Western historical and realist novel. Hungary’s literary strengths were seen to lie in poetry and the short story, the latter in a heavily anecdotizing and punning form at that, which often hinges on an intimate knowledge of local background and the idiosyncrasies of the Hungarian language—aspects that do not translate easily.

It suited Marxist ideologists of communist Hungary down to the ground to ignore, underplay, or actively denounce as “bourgeois” or “reactionary” the proto-modernist prose writers from the turn of the century, such as Gyula Krúdy (1878-1933), or between the two world wars, such as Dezsö Kosztolányi (1885-1936), Frigyes Karinthy (1887-1938), and Sándor Márai (1900-89), in favor of works that painted the underclasses of peasants and workers in the prescribed positive light of “socialist realism,” portraying the stagnant waters of “real existing” socialism as a fragrant summer resort in which the “good guy” always wins. This straightjacket, “the world as we insist you see it,” forced even the better postwar writers, including Tibor Déry (1894-1977) and László Németh (1901-75), for all their different backgrounds, beliefs, and approaches, into uneasy compliance. The results were distinctly lackluster when set against those of almost exact contemporaries such as Faulkner, Hemingway, Steinbeck, Orwell, or Graham Greene, never mind Beckett.

Despite the difficulties, a late modernist generation, who had either barely started their careers before 1940 or did so in the three years of quasi-democracy allowed by the Soviet occupying power from the spring of 1945, performed an important bridging function. Among them were Milán Füst (1888-1967), with his semi-autobiographical exploration of insane jealousy in The Story of My Wife (1942); István Örkény (1912-79) with his acerbically witty, absurdist tales (often very short ones); and Iván Mándy (1918-95), with his surreal but more urbane nostalgia for Budapest city life. Probably more important was Géza Ottlik (1912-90), whose School at the Frontier (1959) was a model for many. This explored multiple time-planes through a memoir by one of a trio of school friends about their years in the closed world of a cadet school near the Austrian border in the early 1920s and the conflicting recollections it evokes from the narrator (the second friend), writing just after 1956. Two of Hungary’s many accomplished twentieth-century poets also opened up new vistas with significant conceptual pieces. In Psyché (1972) Sándor Weöres (1913-88) carried off the inimitable and quintessentially untranslatable feat of fabricating a poetic oeuvre and memoirs, complete with odd scholarly apparatus, for an entirely imaginary early-nineteenth-century poetess, Erzsébet Lónyay, setting this in counterpoint to the real oeuvre of László Ungvárnémeti Tóth, one of many poets whose works Weöres rescued from near oblivion. János Pilinszky (1921-81) enhanced the huge influence of his Celan-like verse with a number of hardly less gnomic prose works, notably his Conversations with Sheryl Sutton (1977), subtitled “The Novel of a Dialogue,” which sprang from an encounter with the black actress who took a leading role in Robert Wilson’s 1973 Paris production of Deafman Glance.

The above, admittedly a gross caricature, is about as far as readily available reference works in English will take one. Over the past quarter-century or so, however, a truly remarkable flowering of serious fiction written in Hungarian has taken place almost unremarked in the English-speaking world. Without any noticeable loss of traditional strengths in the field of poetry and short fiction, more and more Hungarian writers have put innovative energies into revitalizing longer prose forms. Along with that has gone a radical re-assessment of the writer’s function and place in society (he is primarily a writer, not a political opinion leader) and what amounts to a reassessment of the canon, most notably the long-neglected literature of Hungary’s “first half.” Its recurrent themes are the individual’s experience of the world, with a rise in the more or less explicitly autobiographical (first-person narration, diary, or journal form) and innovative approaches to the stuff of history. The real difference from the Anglo-American love affair with these genres is not so much in the types of events that are typically dealt with as in the way that the problematic nature of giving any accounts of these kinds is much more to the forefront—more intellectualized, perhaps, though none the less seriously playful for that.

There are good reasons for choosing 1975 as marking a turning point, though two important authors who had emerged by then are in many ways quite atypical in gaining readers’ attention but no obvious emulators. In the case of György Konrád (b. 1933), his first and best-known work was The Case Worker, a thinly disguised account of his own experiences as a social worker (“Suicides have been giving me a lot of work lately . . .”), which, somewhat surprisingly in view of its barely veiled challenge to socialist realism, was published in Hungary in 1969. As a result of his involvement in the growing underground opposition movement, however, perhaps complicated by the appearance of translations of The Case Worker in German (1973), then English (1975), further works did not appear in Hungary until the late 1980s. Though its follow-up, The City Builder (1977), aroused similar attention in the West, it would be fair to say that attention diminished as the less overtly political later novels—The Loser (1982) and A Feast in the Garden (1992)—moved on to broader intellectual agenda. However, interest has again been piqued recently by the two-part “autobiographical novel,” the first volume of which, Going Away and Coming Home (2002), dispassionately tells the story of the eleven-year-old Konrád’s narrow escape from deportation to Auschwitz (where virtually all his relatives were killed) and his hazardous life in Budapest during the remaining months of the war, while the rest of his life is laconically skated through in the recently published Up on the Hill at the Solar Eclipse (2003).

István Szilágyi (b. 1938) belongs to Transylvania’s Magyar minority but has still enjoyed critical succès d’estime in the “mother country” since the publication of his first novel. A Stone Drops in a Dwindling Well (1975) is a rare instance of an author finding a way to put a genuinely modernist gloss on the psychological approaches to the rural life of Móricz and László Németh. It is a dour tale (with an unexpected twist at the end) of unremitting class rivalry in a fictitious town by the name of Jajdon—“Woevil,” perhaps—during the early 1900s, offset by dazzling descriptions of the physical setting and the grind of manual labor. Heiress to a prosperous farm, Ilka Szendy, having initiated a passionate affair with married Dénes Gönczi, one of her hired agricultural hands, kills him when he announces that he is leaving to seek his fortune in America. The body is dumped in the well outside, which Ilka then fills with rocks gathered on obsessive nocturnal walks through the surrounding countryside. The story is told largely through interior monologues, but a wider interrogation of the past and the seemingly immutable mores of a small-town social hierarchy is opened up by Ilka’s reflections on a faded print depicting Prince Ferenc II Rákóczi, leader of Hungary’s first war of independence in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century, and closer family links to participants in the second of those wars (1848-49).

A more significant influence on other writers was the late Miklós Mészöly (1921-2001)—an author so far totally ignored in the English-speaking world. Throughout his career he pursued an aesthetic that could hardly have been more at odds with socialist realism. For nearly two decades he was able to work only as a children’s writer until the publication of a French translation of Death of an Athlete (1966). This and Saulus (1968) are rather abstract parables of the human condition, heavily influenced by Camus, that question the integrity of the personality. A marked stylistic change occurred with the “camera-eye” technique of Film (1976), a slow-motion account of an old couple on a shuffling stroll along a deserted city street as dusk approaches. In Mészöly’s own words:

The world, life itself, is a panorama cohering from a billion mosaics, atomistic events—incomprehensible in principle. On what, then, do authenticity and life-likeness depend? . . . I deliberately build from a non-cohering debris of facts so as to illustrate the inexpressibility of the material of events in the world.

He did this with an ever-changing set of techniques and subject matters, most typically in shorter prose pieces, though these increasingly centered around the milieu and history of the patches of southern Hungary and Transylvania with which he and his family were particularly associated. He explores the relationship between fiction and autobiography, techniques of self-quotation, and the older (seventeenth- and eighteenth-century) layers of Hungarian prose writing, which were all to be fruitfully mined further by younger writers. It is consistent with his aims that he should stitch together thirteen earlier pieces—all but one also included in the collection Once There Was a Central Europe (1989), ranging from the crystalline moral tales of “High School” (1956) and “Report on Five Mice” (1958), through “Morphoses” and “Map of Alisca” (1973), to “Magyar Novella” (1979) and the five pieces in the “Investigation” series (1971-88)—to produce Sham Novel (1995), where they appear shorn of their titles but essentially unchanged, with at most a bridging sentence to link one with the next.

The most obvious inheritor of Mészöly’s uncompromising style and moral stance is Péter Nádas (b. 1942). The trio of his books that have made it into English—The End of a Family Story (1977), the short novel Love (1979), and The Book of Memories (1986)—are perhaps sufficiently well known to need no further description here. Let me instead point to the larger body of works that are still not available, including some two dozen short stories and novellas, the extended essay On Earthly and Heavenly Love (1991), the self-explanatory Yearbook (1989), and Conversation with Richard Swartz: Four Days in 1989 (1992), his fascinating shorter essays and other miscellaneous writings (a few of which have started to appear in the journal Common Knowledge). The rhetoric of loss and regaining of identity explored in The Book of Memories, for instance, is given a further dislocating twist in Yearbook:

My head is now ripped from its place. How could one remember decently if even one’s head is not where it ought to be. But the surgeons are right now sewing it back onto my arm. I shall be able to protect it, coddle it. Fortunately, my writing hand has, in the end, been left free. Don’t alter your life, don’t let the idea so much as enter your head.

Be what you are.”

Important as Nádas’s example is, the undisputed star turn of contemporary Hun-garian literature has been Péter Esterházy (b. 1950), who made his debut in 1976 with the short-story collection Fannykins and Pinta and ever since Production-Line Novel (1979) has shown a prodigious ability to forge radical, philosophically (and politically) challenging and yet devastatingly witty major works of fiction with his pla(y)giaristic blend of personal, family, and national histories. Production-Line Novel is a satire that hilariously subverts approved socialist realist conventions through a carnivalesque story of the goings-on in a research institution, spiked with copious borrowings from nonsocialist Hungarian writing traditions, walk-on roles for the likes of Comrades Gregory Peck and Marilyn Monroe, and extensive footnotes on “the Master’s” life compiled by his amanuensis, Eckermann. A whole battery of approaches was adopted in the next half-dozen prose works, which initially appeared separately with the subtitle “Introduction to Literature” but in 1986 were collected, together with some sixteen completely new and equally diverse “sections,” in an omnibus edition that bore this as the sole title. Rivaling Joyce’s Ulysses in its complexity and accomplishment, this work defies a pat analysis, but one discernible theme is that of the multiple faces of love, from adolescent crushes (Depending, 1981) and unconsummated adulterous urges (Agnes, 1982), through Berlin’s transvestite nightlife (Daisy, 1982), a highly compressed and allusive prose-poem on violent earthly and sublime heavenly love from a young girl’s perspective (Fraioghaoters, 1983), and the perversions imposed by ideological “passion” (Little Hungarian Pornography, 1984), to a celebration of a dearly loved mother (Helping Verbs of the Heart, 1985). For that reason alone the umbrella title might more accurately rendered as “Introduction to Belles Lettres.”

At the end of Introduction, a list is provided of close to 900 Hungarian and 140 non-Hungarian writers who are quoted (or misquoted), usually without attribution, which makes it practically impossible to tell where the quotations stop and Esterházy begins. Thus, Depending can be described as a bildungsroman of some 50,000 words, rendered in a single sentence that runs together quotations from Kosztolányi (mainly his verse), Musil, Céline, Marina Tsvetayeva, Márai, Füst, Gombrowicz, Camus, Thomas Bernhard, Peter Handke, and Mészöly, to name just a few. Part of a deliberate strategy, derived from the writings of Wittgenstein and others on language, these “borrowings” range from single words to entire short stories by Kafka and Nádas. A quite different appropriation (possibly also a wry gesture to the samizdat culture of the Soviet bloc) was Esterházy’s copying-out by hand, on a single large sheet of paper, of Ottlik’s The School at the Frontier (memorialized by a photograph in the “Scooting in Prose” section, which opens Introduction). He writes in the short story “Life and Literature” (1993) his point of view for his work as an author:

With me, reality and sentence stand in inverse relation to the usual one. I measure a sentence on reality, so I do not observe whether a sentence is a good description of reality, but whether reality has a piece that my sentence will describe. . . . Even if it does not follow that I choose literature instead of life, because it is life (albeit another one: “art is longa than vita”), it would not be too much to say that I am most nearly myself when paper-thin, which I would naturally not wish to describe as a clear gain.

Since self-quotation, even recycling and transformation of figures, is one of Esterházy’s ploys, the absence of a full English version of Introduction makes it doubly difficult to get fully into the steady stream of later works—the record of his encounter with the Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal, to say nothing of Charlie Parker (in The Book of Hrabal, 1990) and his odyssey down the River Danube (in The Glance of Countess Hahn-Hahn, 1991). A further peak is Harmonia Cælestis (2000), a glorious two-movement paean of praise and simultaneous deconstruction of the history of Hungary and of illustrious Esterházy forefathers alike, his immediate father in particular—since rendered hugely distressing by Esterházy’s discovery, as the book was going to press, that his father had actually worked as an informer for the Hungarian political police, as recorded in painfully ironic detail in Revised Edition (2002).

Another playful milestone that appeared in 1986 was volume one (A-K) of Dust, by Ferenc Temesi (b. 1949), volume two of which (L-Z) came out in 1987 (the work was largely written before Milorad Pavic’s 1984 lexicon novel, Dictionary of the Khazars, saw the light of day). The entries under its headwords—a dazzling array of anecdotes, short stories, musings, borrowed documents, occasional photographs, snips of sheet music, etc.—form a huge “novel” telling 150 years of a family’s history in Porlód (“Dustlow,” a lightly fictionalised version of the southern Hungarian city of Szeged), much of it in local dialect and with a distinctly “beat” ethic (the title piece in Temesi’s 1998 short-story collection is How Come I Didn’t Get to Meet Allen Ginsberg?). The reader is invited to open at random and follow the cross-references, though whether this gets one through the maze is another question. An entertaining further twist on the format has been given by Péter Zilahy (b. 1970) in The Last Window-Giraffe (1998), which remodels the title, style, and contents of a reading primer widely used in Hungarian elementary schools during his own childhood (the Hungarian words for “window” (ablak) and “giraffe” (zsiráf) represent the alpha and omega of the Hungarian alphabet) to tell both a story of his own early years and, more particularly, his first-hand experiences of the anti-Milosevic street demonstrations that were a feature of Belgrade life during the Bosnian conflict.

Two decidedly less jocular voices also began to attract attention in the mid-eighties. The writing career of Transylvanian-born Ádám Bodor (b. 1936) was hampered by the Romanian state, because in 1952-54, while still a schoolboy—as recounted in the extended interview transcript The Smell of Prison (2001)—he served two years in prison for duplicating and distributing anti-state “fly sheets.” Although five volumes of short stories, starting with The Witness (1969), had appeared by the time he moved to Budapest in 1982, it was with the collection The Euphrates at Babylon (1985) that he began to attract wider notice. The seemingly self-explanatory nightmarish, multi-ethnic world of his tersely limned stories was expanded in the brilliant short novels Sinistra District (1992) and The Archbishop’s Visit (1997). László Krasznahorkai (b. 1954), on the other hand, pens apocalyptic visions of a godless world without hope of redemption. He first emerged with Satan Tango (1985), following it up with The Melancholy of Resistance (1989), a dour parable of the hysteria whipped up by the arrival in a small provincial of a traveling circus that proposes to exhibit a stuffed whale (some such specimen was actually displayed in Budapest during the 1950s). Other bleak visions are penned in The Prisoner of Urga (1992) and War and War (1999). Though one cannot help feeling that the protagonist of the latter, archivist Dr. György Karim, could have saved himself his convoluted journey to New York to set up a website carrying a strange manuscript he discovers that relates the flight of four men from war at different historical times and places (Crete, Venice, Cologne), the power of Krasznahorkai’s language and vision is unquestionable. (Krasznahorkai is also noted for his screenwriting collaboration with innovative director Béla Tarr on the films Damnation (1987), the seven-and-a-half hour Satan Tango (1994), and Werckmeister Harmonies (2001), the latter based on The Melancholy of Resistance.)

Writers, like their creative colleagues elsewhere in the Soviet bloc, used explicitly historical subjects as pretexts for articulating coded criticism of the régime, being able to count on a public with long practice in reading between the lines. To that extent The X-es (1980) by György Spiró (b. 1946) was nothing new. What was unusual was both the setting he chose—Warsaw’s fraught theatrical life during the 1810s, when a divided Poland was heavily under the hammer of tsarist Russia—and the formidable talents that he brought to bear in shaping a detailed documentation into a vivid cloak-and-dagger story of what is known about the life of Wojciech Boguslawski, the most dazzling Polish actor-theater company manager of his age. Subterfuges of this kind were still required to explore issues of the relation between art and politics (and theater politics) in Hungary.

László Márton (b. 1959) has explored questions of self-identity and consciousness, as well as the boundaries between fact and fiction, from his first short-story collection, Greater-Budapest Monster Chase (1984), on to the baroque complexities of Crossing the Glass (1992). The True Story of Jacob Wunschwitz (1997) marked a change in tack to stories with an important kernel of historical reality—in this case endlessly complex ructions in the Lower Lusatian town of Guben (more recently known as Wilhelm-Pieck Stadt) at the opening of the seventeenth century. In his next work, A Shady High Street (1999), Márton started from a genuine memoir and photograph collection to produce a highly compressed account of the contrasting “lives” and fates of two young women, Gaby Göz and Aranyka (“Goldie”) Roth, in an unnamed small town near the Hungarian border with Slovakia, as a haunting emblem for the events that led to Hungary’s Shoah and its still reluctantly addressed aftermath. A recently completed trilogy, “Brotherhood,” likewise blurs fact and fiction to explore issues of identity. Compulsory Liberation (2001) recounts how Baron Sándor Károlyi, a county high-sheriff who is wavering between fidelity to the Austrian emperor and a growing national insurrection, is invited to Vienna in September 1697 by Cardinal Kollonich, the imperial Hungarian chancellor, and there finds himself obliged to remunerate Kollonich for paying the ransom to secure the release of “long-lost” elder brother István Károlyi, who was believed to have died in action against the Turks in 1686 but is now alleged to have been held a Turkish captive. In Heaven’s Three Drops of Blood (2002) the newly liberated “István” is back home with Sándor and causing havoc with behavior totally at odds with his supposed identity, while the final volume, The Difficulties of Ambassadorship (2003), concerns the deliberations of the judicial body appointed to rule on the suit that Sándor initiates against the suspected imposter in 1698, which becomes mischievously entwined with the later diplomatic efforts to conclude the Treaty of Szatmár, which ended the first Hungarian war of independence in 1711.

This setting and era aligns Márton’s recent output with a now-growing body of work that is looking to Hungarian history and literature of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries—in fact, Kundera’s “first half”—as a fruitful field for a form of retrofitting. The substantial corpus of memoirs and other works written by Transylvanian leaders and scholars during that period have come to be seen not just as historical documents but as still-vigorous sources of an idiom as yet untainted by language reforms a century later. (Courtesy of the British translator Bernard Adams, several of the more celebrated examples have started to become available in English, including Baron Péter Apor’s Metamorphosis Transylvaniae and the Letters from Turkey of Kelemen Mikes, a late flowering written by one of Prince Ferenc II Rákóczi’s entourage in Turkish exile as a pastime rather than an actual correspondence.) This heritage has been tapped by Mészöly in his later work and by Esterházy, not least in the “archaic” idiom of Seventeen Swanns (1988), a novel that he put out pseudonymously under the name Lili Csokonai as the purported confessions of an identifiably modern young lady. The next step was the hugely imaginative melding of near-verbatim snippets from that literature made by Zsolt Láng (b. 1958) in the first volume—subtitled “The Birds of the Air” (1997), though the ambiguity of “Fowls of Heaven” would be even more apt—of his Transylvanian Bestiary. This embeds a tangled tale of a disastrous love-triangle in a series of twelve episodes that illustrate various aspects of the country’s troubled history, each featuring the emblematic real and imaginary birds of Láng’s bestiary. Probably wisely, The Beasts of Fire and Water (2003), the second and thirds parts of what is evidently intended as a trilogy, does not attempt to replicate this trick but integrate it within a wider framework. The focus shifts to neighboring Moldavia and the present-day life of a Father Eremie (or Hieronymus) in an Eastern Orthodox monastery. When he leaves to move in with a young librarian, Anna (or Fanta), and her parents, Márta and József, his capacity to project himself back in time via the imagination grows. He increasingly identifies with the seventeenth-century figure of Despotes Herodias, who, after a convoluted odyssey through the Mediterranean, France, and the Low Countries, ends up briefly as voivode of Moldavia. The kaleidoscopic shifts of the plot strands and their figures—a bit reminiscent of William Burroughs—are held together by Láng’s spellbinding language, his attention to tiny, richly physical detail, and discreet commentary (“Proust . . . , this nihilist writer, paints the dead globe of the Earth before our eyes, yet in what he infers he reaches to the heart of heaven’s laws”).

László Darvasi (b. 1962), already noted for his short prose, startled many with the truly epic The Legend of the Tear-Artists (1999), which has some affinities with the magic realism of García Marquez. Its myriad fragmented episodes are threaded together at most through the mysterious peregrinations around central Europe of a troupe of five “novelty artists” in a covered wagon decorated with a sky-blue teardrop, painted by a German dyer on the day in 1541 when Suleiman the Magnificent captured Buda Castle. This group of a Hungarian, a Jew, a Serb, a Croat, and a Bosnian, each of whom sheds tears with strange qualities (black grit, ice, spontaneously combusting honeydew, etc.)—“their wailing [is] one long story, alpha and omega, without a moment’s respite. . . .”—winds a path through an endless succession of legends and miracle-tales that play out in a different dimension from the history we learn from textbooks. Darvasi has gone on to produce two intriguing, yet very different, cycles of short pieces. Each of the sixteen loosely linked, bizarre fables of Getting a Woman (2000)—all set in the murderous tribal conflict of the Yugoslav civil war of the 1990s—is arranged around a different female figure. While they speak of mass graves, smuggling, white-slaving, and bar brawls, these stories in no sense constitute a history of the war itself, focusing more on the inevitable and usually unnoticed chaos that it threw up. That is equally the case for the suavely sinister group of stories from Ming dynasty China that make up The Dog-Hunters of Lo-yang (2002).

The turn of the seventeenth into the eighteenth century also provides the setting for two more self-enclosed novels, both marked for their strong handling of fine detail. István Szilágyi emerged triumphantly from two decades of near-obscurity with Raven Time (1992). This recounts everyday life in and around the fortified manse and nearby church of Lukács Terebi, pastor of the fictional southern Hungarian market town of Revek, as narrated by his scribe, called Téntás (“Inkman”), centering on the debates that the priest holds with his friend Illés Fortuna. After Terebi is captured by the Turks, then ransomed by Téntás, the latter joins a group of young men from Revek who, supported by Fortuna, are waging guerilla war on the Turks. A welcome female perspective is provided by Zsuzsa Rakovszky (b. 1950), who is already well established as a major poet. In The Shadow of the Snake (2002) she constructs the fictive autobiography of Ursula/Orsolya Lehmann, born to an apothecary father in what was then the mainly ethnic German town of Löcse (now Levoça, Slovakia) in the northern highland region of Hungary. Ursula, “in the days of [her] old age and misery”, commits her memoirs to paper in the year 1666 (which inevitably reminds an Anglo-Saxon of Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year). Having lost her mother during an outbreak of plague, she becomes the object of her supposed father’s sexual attentions; thus the snake not only represents the sign of the apothecary but is also an Edenic symbol of seduction and intrigue.

Real or suspected incest in another minority community—the Slovaks of southeast Hungary—but in a more recent period are the concerns of the two books so far produced by Pál Závada (b. 1954), both framed in diary form with parallel commentaries. A rare popular success for a serious novel in the last decade, Jadwiga’s Pillow (1997) is, to begin with, a diary started by András Osztatní on February 5, 1915, the eve of his wedding to Jadwiga Palkovits, his adopted (or maybe real) sister, continued and explained after his death by Jadwiga herself, and finally annotated by her son (born out of wedlock), Marci, by now in the days of post-war Hungary. Milota (2002) is an account of the life, family history, and loves of sixty-seven-year-old György Milota, as tape-recorded at Whitsuntide in 1997, interwoven with the comments of their addressee, a near-suicidal thirty-four-year-old Erka Roszkos, who may or may not be Milota’s daughter and certainly used to be the lover of his son, János. The garrulous lecher relates many aspects of the twentieth-century history of Hungary’s Slovak minority, not least the story of their expulsion in the aftermath of World War II, almost in the manner of a whodunit.

A hallmark of the texts already mentioned is that they go well beyond the modernist break with traditional realist conventions of linear plot and character development in favor of more “philosophical” concerns to interrogate the meaning or truth of any attempt at verbal representation of reality. It is no coincidence that Nietzsche and Wittgenstein, with their startling probings of the denotations of words, should figure as major jumping-off points for many of these writers, no less than such iconoclastic literary figures as Kleist and Rilke (moreover, the Rilke of The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brygge as least as much as the poems).

Endre Kukorelly (b. 1951), over the nineties, seems to have been switching from an established position as a poet of the front rank into more prose-based works. A pivotal volume is H*O*L*D*E*R*L*I*N (1998), which is a set of nine cycles of nine metrical verse or prose-poem pieces constrained by the acrostic discipline of using the letters of the poet’s name, in order, as the initial letter of the pieces within a cycle, with each piece taking the German title of one of Hölderlin’s works. Kukorelly’s handling of modern slang turns of speech has the quite unexpected effect of elevating the mundane little “stories” of his early life into an emotional sphere as mysterious as the German poet’s. Three 100 Pieces (1999) expanded and rearranged an earlier collection of short prose passages, while the twenty-three laconic and scathing but nevertheless curiously sympathetic sketches of Ruin: A History of the Soviet Union (2000) offset the decrepitude of the communists’ material and spiritual world with recollections of key stages in his own life: childhood; the obligatory spell as an army conscript; a three-week holiday in the fabled West (London, Paris) in 1978; and repeated visits to the USSR in the early 1980s. Much of this material has been magically remixed in the novel Fairy Vale, or the Riddles of the Human Heart (2003), which, like Ruin, takes its main title from a narrative poem by another arch-romantic poet, the Hungarian Mihály Vörösmarty. Its nine chapters, each of nine sections, circle around different aspects of the narrator’s life and love(s), with nine women condensed into a compound figure referred to as C. (who also stands for the Cordelia of Kierkegaard’s Diary of a Seducer, which, along with a Tolstoy novella, Family Happiness, is one of the motto works quotations from which are sprinkled throughout the text).

Fairy Vale is also a novel about the narrator’s relationship to his father, and likewise] a recurrent theme of the work of Györe Balázs (b. 1951), who has sketched out another Budapest-centered life in a series of spare, often harrowing yet hauntingly uplifting texts that chronicle the tribulations of being uprooted as a boy from Újpest across the river to Buda, in I Can Easily Fall Asleep on the No. 91 (1989), through nursing first a sick father, in Crisis (1998), and then a sick wife, in Happy-book (2001). The recent All Souls’ Dad (2003) attempts to grapple with the ‘ghost’ of the father as the narrator works through the dead man’s papers: dour and uncommunicative though he was in life, he is revealed to have harboured secret ambitions to be a writer.

Gábor Németh (b. 1956) is arguably the most radical of all the experimenters touched on here. Angel and Doll (1989) subsumes virtually all the extant fragments of Empedocles’ Katharmoi (‘Purifications’) in its three dozen elliptic musings, the centerpiece of which is a 49 (7×7)-day diary entitled ‘Katharmoi’. Book of Nothingness (1991) is a sequence of 119 (17×7?) brief paragraphs, each ostensibly a self-sufficient story (or story fragment) until one begins to notice tentative links between paragraphs and references to familiar-sounding paintings (e.g. ‘The Bride Laid Bare by Her Bachelors’) or literary works that are usually not explicitly identified. The description given by David Markson of one of his works seems rather apt here: “Nonlinear. Discontinuous. Collage-like… Obstinately cross-referential and of cryptic interconnective syntax.” More recently Németh has co-written with literary historian and critic László Szilasi (b. 1964) an epistolary spy thriller of John Buchan vintage, entitled Ready-Made Novel (2000). A cryptic correspondence of 28 letters between György Gabriely and Lénárd Poletti, two Hungarians who resume their student-day friendship during the 1930s, this is fitted with a spoof scholarly apparatus which tellingly references Gadamer’s Truth and Method.

Equally intriguing is (The One) Who Isn’t (1999), four sequences of (nominally) 99 short pieces and a fifth of 100 pieces, by András Forgách (b. 1952). These start out as what look like brief pastiche parables of the sayings and deeds of a Ch’an (Zen) Buddhist sage and monastic master by the name of Chan Chu, but they are increasingly used merely as a pretext to key in shorter and longer confessional fragments (one such fragment towards the end, entitled ‘Monaco’, is of novella length) that outline the very different, modern-day travails of the family life, work and loves of a would-be dramaturge split between Budapest and Warsaw of the 1970s.

The score of writers mentioned above represent but a cross-section of those whose works have contributed significantly to this burgeoning. The list could easily be doubled. Yet there is one gaping omission still to be redressed. The near-silence and incomprehension with which the English-speaking literary world reacted to the award of the 2002 Nobel Prize for Literature to Imre Kertész (b. 1929) in 2002 is a token of what English readers are missing. The Nobel Committee’s citation highlighted his novel Fatelessness (1975) – a highly controlled, almost offhand account by 15-year-old György (‘Gyuri’) Köves of his deportation from Budapest to Auschwitz then onward to Buchenwald and its satellite camp in the summer of 1944, his bare survival until the camp is liberated by US troops, and his eventual return to Budapest. This has a postscript, so to say, in Searching for Traces (1977), a little-noticed novella in which an anonymous narrator revisits Buchenwald (by then in the post-war German Democratic Republic) and the neighboring town of Weimar, but its true sequel is The Failure (1988), which sees Köves taking a flight from Hungary and landing in a Nineteen Eighty-Four-style dystopia that is, of course, a thinly disguised depiction of Communist Hungary in the 1950s. This is written rather like Fatelessness, but preceded by a framing story of the writer’s actual life in Budapest of the 1970s. Immured in a tiny apartment, he tries to hit on a subject for his next novel, leafing through his notebooks, distracted by the noise of the TV in the apartment above, musing on his concentration-camp experiences and on the difficulties he met in trying to get his novel about those experiences published.

Kertész’s style shifted again with the long-breathed, darkly elegiac yet profoundly ironical prose-poem of Kaddish for the Unborn Child (1990), in which the narrator launches into an impassioned explanation of why he chooses not to father a child (of Jewish descent, he has survived in turn the anti-Semitism of pre-war Hungary, in a boarding school not dissimilar to Ottlik’s School on the Frontier, then Auschwitz, then the suppressed anti-Semitism of Communist Hungary), even though he loses his wife (also Jewish) in the process. Kertész’s Beckettian genius for wringing humour from the bleakest of subjects through his choice of the mot juste is most obviously displayed in The Union Jack (1991), a novella which perfectly captures the hysteria of Stalinist Hungary that provoked the 1956 Revolution, but the most touching of his works may be the short story ‘Sworn Statement’, a tale of a attempt to make a day-trip to Vienna after the ‘change of régime’ which is foiled by a customs officer – a story conceived to be counterpointed by and co-published with Esterházy’s above-mentioned ‘Life and Literature’. A major aid to understanding Kertész’s concerns and the literature that he was in dialogue with whilst composing most of the above works is provided by the notebook jottings of Galley Boat-Log (1992), whilst Someone Else (1997) is a series of acid-sharp sketches of his life in Hungary and, increasingly, around Europe (notably the German-speaking countries) as he starts to make his mark with the wider world.

That really brings us to the nub of the matter. The approaches and types of subject encompassed by these contemporary Hungarian writers are not too many miles—perhaps not five miles, but not 5,000 miles either—from the general area of operations staked out by, say, John Barth, Robert Coover, Donald Barthelmé, William Gaddis, and David Foster Wallace. That is far from obvious from the extremely limited trickle of titles that ever make it into English, typically decades later. Then again, the standard of much of the translation leaves a lot to be desired: all too often a pale, if not grotesque caricature of the original. Goethe says somewhere that translators are like matchmakers singing the praises of half-veiled beauties, but he was not suggesting the aim would be to shroud them completely!

Whether through sins of omission or commission, indifference or incomprehension, then, much of the depth and variety of writing generated by the quiet revolution in Hungarian literature has passed the English-speaking markets by. We are the poorer for it.

Suggested Reading List:

Damagingly weak translations have been deliberately ignored (the year is that of first publication of the English translation).

Adám Bodor. The Euphrates at Babylon. (1991)
Péter Esterházy. Helping Verbs of the Heart. (1991).
—- The Glance of Countess Hahn-Hahn. (1994).
Milán Füst. The Story of My Wife (1989).
István Örkény. The Flower Show – The Toth Family (New Directions, 1982)
György Konrád. The Case Worker (1974).
—-. The City Builder (1977).
Dezsœ Kosztolányi. Anna Édes. (1991).
László Krasznahorkai. The Melancholy of Resistance. (1999).
Sándor Márai. Embers. (Knopf, 2001; N.B. From the German!).
—- Memoir of Hungary, 1944-1948 (Central European UP, 1996)
Péter Nádas. The End of a Family Story (1999).
—- Love. (Vintage, 2000).
—- A Book of Memories (1997)
Géza Ottlik. The School at the Frontier (1966).

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