The 7 Greatest Hungarian Novelists of the 20th Century
I imagine that sometimes, in his restless wandering, the mercurial Spirit of literature lingers a little longer in certain places, gracing them with strange intensity that finds flesh in language. This otherworldly urgency can inspire a whole generation of writers. It is as if this task, at this moment, in this particular place, is too much for a single human being to shoulder.
I feel this way about the work of the so-called Nyugat generation of writers and poets that came of age around the turn of the 20th century in Budapest. They were named after the Nyugat (Hungarian for “west” or “Occident”), a progressive literary magazine established in 1908, which published new prose and poetry and provided soil for literary careers to sprout and mature. Most of these writers are still practically unknown outside of Hungary.
Hungarian, completely unrelated to the Indo-European languages of Europe, with its larger-than-life reputation of being impossible to conquer (I disagree), and with only about 13 million speakers around the world, certainly contributes to the isolation of the prose and poetry that came into the world in its skin. Reading John Lukacs’ Budapest 1900 (Grove Press, 1988), I was glad to see that many more authors and works have been translated into English in the last twenty-five years. Today’s English speaking reader no longer has an excuse for his ignorance of Zsigmond Moricz, Gyula Krúdy, Dezső Kosztolányi, Frigyes Karinthy, Antal Szerb, Milán Füst and Sándor Márai (among many others).
The work of these seven authors is well represented in English. The writers knew each other, and, to a certain extent, I read their work as if eavesdropping on a nocturnal conversation about life, love, death, dreams, and alter egos.
Turn-of-the-20th-century Budapest, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, was the sixth largest city in Europe and one of its most enticing. The world’s second subway opened in Budapest in 1896 (the first one was in London), and the city boasted the largest stock exchange in Europe. There were over 20 daily newspapers, many of which included a regular literary page, and a number of literary journals. These printed not only Hungarian literature, but foreign fiction as well. Much was available in Hungarian because of earlier translation efforts, but in the 1910s an unprecedented number of foreign works was translated and published. The greatest writers of this generation are among the finest translators into Hungarian.
In his Memoir of Hungary 1944 – 1948 (Corvina in association with Central European University Press, 2000) Sándor Márai observes:
In Hungary reading was a voluntary task for writers, and an even more important one than writing, because the Hungarian language had not yet sunk into the layers of literary concsiousness as densely as the German, or Italian, or French language had in their homelands…. The Hungarian poet, when he dug up the deep layers of his concsiousness, didn’t always find perceptive concepts and appropriate words for the new phenomena; it seemed as if the language were day-dreaming, languishing some centuries further back…. Every Hungarian writer who knew a Western language felt duty bound to translate….. because they knew that the act of translation was an exacting task involving more than intellectual conversion of words into the Hungarian language. They knew that translating is like an undertaking in which someone deciphers a secret writing, a code.
It was only at the end of the 18th century that a group of Hungarian writers led an effort to reform and standardize the language. Until the middle of the 19th century, the use of Latin was still widespread in government affairs, while in Budapest German was widely spoken in everyday life. At last, In 1844 Hungarian became an official language of the nation. What was it like to wander the streets of Budapest at the turn of last century? Let’s follow Gyula Krúdy, whose observations of Budapest and its inhabitants are second only to his perceptions of women:
Pest, with its illuminated, desolate boulevards (for it was long past midnight) appeared to be a city that is afraid of ghosts, to have expended so much of the public funds on gleaming street lights. Did people have something on their conscience or were they simply superstitious?
Now the streets get darker and more deserted as we cross the Josefstadt district where butchers and bankers in shirtsleeves like to lean out of windows and spit on scribblers. From side streets come sounds of partying – from vine-trellised courtyards where unadulterated wine is served to delight the carousers who round about midnight like to recall every song they have ever forgotten…. Next the ambulance rattles across Üllői Road where an odor of yeast hovers in the air as a memento of the demolished brewery, and here we enter the Franzstadt district, alien and scornful, seeming to think itself superior to all other parts of the city. If you run up debts in this neighbourhood you’ll not only be despised but are liable to get beaten up by disappointed creditors. Women have thicker legs here because the market is thriving. And married couples are so roly-poly that it boggles the mind to imagine them in an embrace, should the mood ever seize them.
Yes, Bakáts Square, where sidewalk goes up and down amidst constant construction, buildings erected only to be torn down; where bored women lounge on balconies, wearing an underskirt and encouraging the passerby to come this way again; where, in front of the maternity hospital expectant mothers with eyes grown large contemplating the future linger in awkward, stilted poses, cleaned of their former lives and carnal desires, each secretly hoping her womb carries a savior under her heart. (Krúdy, Ladies’ Day, 1919).
1. Gyula Krúdy
Born in 1878 in Nyiregyháza in Eastern Hungary, Krúdy was the son of a lawyer and a chambermaid who married when Krúdy was 17, after they already had 8 children together. Krúdy’s first story was published two years prior, and by 17 he was a serious contributor to a provincial paper. The first volume of his short stories appeared before he was 20. He came to Budapest in the same year that the metro was opened, having been disinherited because he chose to become a writer against his father’s wishes. Krúdy drank too much, could not stop gambling, fought duels and often fell into poverty. He was always after money, writing many pages a day (in a disciplined manner never mind his adventures) and is said to have rarely corrected anything. It was Antal Szerb, 13 years his junior, who best expressed Krúdy’s extraordinariness cloaked in what looked like commonplace bohemian bubble when he said (as cited by Lukacs) that Krúdy was running after money, but wrote masterpieces instead. Like many writers of his generation, Krúdy wrote in coffeehouses. There were almost 600 of them in Budapest, some open 24 hours a day. For many they were second homes; you could spend hours there and even receive your correspondence.
…. the Café New York where newspapermen, actors and actresses camped out, wallowing bedazzled by each other’s fame while working on stratagems to get their names into tomorrow’s newspaper. Loony, freaky, publicity-mad, dreary-souled women whose names were bywords, and cynical, depraved, parasitic men lounged around at all hours of the night and day, drew hearts on marble tabletops, owed money to the waiters, loudly discussed their haphazard gleanings from daily papers and took care not to wrinkle their white linen trousers…. (Krúdy, Ladies’ Day).
The tables are made so that feet may freely touch, hands clutch unobtrusively and faces approach so close that, come April, you can see the first freckles of spring on a women’s cheek. Think of the desire and passion stirring in those who have worn these chairs smooth with their young bodies. (Krúdy, The Adventures of Sinbad, 1911)
Krúdy’s first marriage —to a fellow writer Arabella Spiegler (she wrote under the pen name Satanella), with whom he had three children—fell apart. Later, as he was flirting with the wife of a friend, a hotel owner, he eloped with her daughter, 20 years his junior. Perhaps it is a part of himself that he is talking about when he describes Sinbad (The Adventures of Sinbad, CEU Press, 1998), a hero from the Thousand and One Nights who awakens from the dead to revisit his former loves and lovers – with his memories putting him in motion across the lands:
He wouldn’t leave a woman in peace until she had fallen in love with him. And that was why he had spent one tenth of his life waiting under windows, gazing longingly, humbly, unhappily or threateningly.
Krúdy’s novels offer penetrating descriptions of women. Not a fallen hair escapes his attention. Portraying Sinbad as a man who “had a genius for observing women, for following them secretly and discovering their hopes, secrets and desires,” he gives himself away once again. I resist quoting any of these descriptions, as each one is unique and must be experienced in that sustained state of yearning that Krúdy awakens in you. His sentences are like long waves caressing you gently, yet incessantly. Then a different wind blows, and there you are running to catch these waves, gasping for air, unable to stop. I don’t know enough Hungarian to savor Krúdy in the original, but I wonder about the phonetic dimension his works must have in the original. I imagine you must be deafened by the sound of those waves.
In the Ladies Day (Corvina, 2007), Krúdy shadows a character and his alter ego. János Czifra, the owner of the Cypress Funeral Parlor, who “was a most respectable citizen who always paid his taxes on time, had no debts, did his share for the poor… was never bothered by the weather or depressed by anxiety… paid no heed to an afterlife he did not believe in; drank his wine in moderation, went to bed early, never knew insomnia… ignored politics, was not finicky about his food, avoided ambition… occasionally… fell in love, but only with a lovely young corpse” is visited by a dead widow, finds himself at a wedding by chance, and meets the Dream, his alter ego. Together they visit a brothel located on a street notorious for the greatest number of suicides in Budapest. They peek unseen into its various rooms (and its inhabitants’ and visitors’ unsuspected lives) with Krúdy secretly chaperoning both the master of funerals and the Dream.
Somewhere in the middle of this journey, or more precisely, in a brothel, I grew weary. I closed the book several times. I needed a pause, then another one. The brothel visit was a modern version of the Thousand and One Nights, with stories unfolding within stories, the maelstrom of human follies, fantasies, and tragedies taking me right into life’s havoc, senselessness, and dead-end-ness. I felt the familiar tautness of life’s respectable façade concealing the charnel house. As the Dream reads the dreams of Natália (one of the brothel’s dwellers), who is in labor and revisiting her whole life in her mind, I thought of Borges’ idea that “we dream the world, that while we sleep here, we are awake elsewhere, and that in his way every man is two men.” I wondered if Krúdy somehow managed to bring these two states together, being simultaneously awake here and elsewhere, dreaming the life and living the dream, knowing that both come to an end. Perhaps, as you stop dreaming others, they also cease dreaming you, and the past dreams and lives continue as stories.
Other works of Krúdy available in English include Sunflower (New York Review of Books, 2007), The Charmed Life of Kázmér Rezeda: A Novel of Budapest in the Good Old Days, (Corvina, 2011), Life is a Dream (Penguin Books, 2010), Krúdy’s Chronicles (selections of Krúdy’s journalism) (CEU Press, 2000), and The Crimson Coach (Corvina, 1967). The last one was translated by Paul Tabori, whose father Cornelius Tabori was a friend of Krúdy’s and accompanied the writer on his rides across Hungarian lands. Krúdy wrote 60 novels, 3,000 short stories, and over 1,000 newspaper articles. The first edition of his collected works came to twenty volumes and the complete edition is projected to be fifty.
In his Memoir Márai mentions that at the end of his life Krúdy was publishing his works at his own expense. Márai describes Krúdy: “A man has walked the streets of Pest, with his head turned sideways, cane on his arm and almost always tipsy, and he saw everything that was “Hungarian” in the past and present. His words were so magically accurate, as they matched the force of a very great poem in which words express meaning beyond reality.” Márai adds a few pages later: “His hand never shook while writing, not even if he was tipsy.”
Krúdy died in extreme poverty in an apartment without electricity—he did not have money to pay the bill—in 1933, and was temporarily forgotten after his death in his native Hungary.
Knowing that tangible reality is only a part of one’s world, I still thought about the times in which Krúdy and the Nyugat generation lived as I was reading their work. The Austro-Hungarian Empire collapsed after losing the First World War. The liberal Hungarian republic was formed under Count Mihály Károlyi in 1918. Two months later came the short-lived, 133-day-long Communist Republic of Councils under Béla Kun, which was defeated by the Romanian Army. The government fled the country, taking with it the national treasures and gold. In 1920 the government of Admiral Miklós Horthy, the former commander-in-chief of the Austro-Hungarian Navy, came to power. Horthy is said to have ridden into Buda on a white horse. He took the title of Regent. White Terror followed. Many former communists were executed, Jewish pogroms were widespread, and the first numerus clausus limiting university admission “of certain races and nationalities” was issued. Under the 1920 Treaty of Trianon, the Kingdom of Hungary lost around 70% of its territory and over 60% of its pre-war population, becoming a land-locked country. The port city Fiume, today Rijeka, became part of what is now Croatia. Transylvania became part of Romania, while other lands went to what is today Slovakia, Slovenia, Serbia, Austria, Croatia, and Ukraine. Much has been written about the political and economic consequences of this division, but think of the very personal ones, on the smallest scale. Suddenly, your birthplace and your family are no longer in Hungary and you can’t visit them freely. You might not even be sure who is in power or what they stand for. Troops, looting, and death have raided your life. It’s not just that the world you knew does not exist anymore. You knew several, and all of them are gone, terrible dreams promptly replaced by new nightmares.
Krúdy was rediscovered thanks to Márai, who belongs to the second generation of Nyugat authors. In 1940 he published Sinbad Comes Home (unfortunately not translated into English yet), an imagined account of Krúdy’s last day, which brought the latter out of oblivion.
2. Sándor Márai
Sándor Márai was born in 1900 in Kassa (now Kosice in Slovakia) to a middle class family of German descent. He spoke excellent German—he lived in Germany for some time, studying and later working for Frankfurter Zeitung—and even considered writing in this tongue. He translated Kafka’s work and was a member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. He left Hungary in 1948. In his introduction to the English edition of Márai’s Memoir, translator Albert Teszla cites the writer:
… the moment arrives for the writer when he must decide whether he must relate what he has to say with perhaps corroded words in the linguistic sense but freely [in exile], or to lie in his pure native language with gasping circumlocution.
Márai lived intermittently in Italy, Switzerland and in New York, eventually settling in San Diego, California, where he continued to write in his native Hungarian. In the 1950s and 60s he worked for Radio Free Europe. Márai never went back to Hungary. Teszla mentions that when he was approached in 1988 for a permission to have his works published in Hungary, Márai declined. Shortly before his death he made a note that “it will always be a great honor for me if my books are made available to Hungarian readers, but I shall agree to a new edition only if the occupying Soviet military forces (in the entirety and with all their armaments) leave the country, and, following this, a multi-party system is restored with the force of law, and democratic, free elections are held with trustworthy foreign observers.” Suffering from cancer and depression, Márai shot himself in February 1989. Upon his exile Márai largely disappeared from the reading public until the 1990s, but since then his work has been rediscovered in his native Hungary and translated into over 15 languages.
Time runs slowly in Márai’s novels. “Eventually, after ten or twenty years have passed, years in which you have never felt fully comfortable, when the furniture and the space available for it seem to have been at odds for ages, you suddenly see how it should be, you spot the mistake, you understand the secret inner dimensions of the room, push the furniture a little this way or that and find, or so you think, that everything has finally found its place.” His novels are essentially first-person monologues. They are chronicles of feelings, times, and people that do not coincide, yet of connections born out of this lack of synchronicity that withstand Death itself. They are stories of waiting, of rumination, of running away, of meeting, and of parting again. They have the intensity of a Soul’s auto-da-fé:
Love, true love, is always fatal…. Nature has gifted us with passion, but it insists that the passion be unconditional…. I don’t believe in love that begins like a picnic, a holiday excursion complete with rucksack and singing and sunbeams breaking through the boughs…. You know, that flood of spring-is-here feeling most people experience at the start of a relationship…. I am deeply suspicious of it. Passion does not celebrate holidays! It’s a dark force that builds and destroys worlds and waits on no answer from those it has touched, nor does it ask them whether they feel good as a result. It gives everything and demands everything: it is that unconditional passion of which the deepest stratum is nothing less than life-and-death…. It is no accident that history has regarded great lovers with the same awe and veneration as heroes, as brave pioneers who have risked all by voluntarily embarking on a hopeless but extraordinary human enterprise…. Behind each lover’s embrace stands the figure of Death, whose shadows are no less powerful than those wild flashes of joy. Behind every kiss looms the secret desire for annihilation, for an ultimate happiness that is no longer in the mood of argument but knows that to be happy is to cease entirely and surrender to feeling. (Portraits of a Marriage, 1941 & 1980).
Interestingly, the General, a hero in Márai’s Embers (Vintage Books, 2002) observes that “in Hungarian our words for killing [ölés] and embracing [ölelés] echo and heighten each other.”
Portraits of a Marriage (Alfred A. Knopf, 2011) is a story forged from three monologues: Ilonka’s (the wife, then ex-wife), Peter’s (the husband, then ex-husband), Judit’s (a servant of Peter’s mother, his second wife, then ex-wife), and an epilogue in a voice of the late Judit’s lover. The women die. Having escaped Hungary after World War Two, in a twist of fate, the men chance upon each other in a New York pub on 46th street frequented by writers, where dead Judit’s lover who used to be a drummer back home is now a bartender. He sees that “the patrons here in New York are not that sort of writer. They don’t actually write anything, but immediately sell what they haven’t yet written. They earn a mint from books.”
I wonder about the Budapest Márai mostly remembered in his exile. Was it the old Budapest or the city destroyed in the siege in the winter of 1944-45, when over eighty percent of its buildings were ruined or damaged? It was only 15 years after his departure that the last of the wrecked bridges between Buda and Pest finally stood anew. As for Krúdy, for Márai Budapest was inseparable from its inhabitants. Let’s travel along with Judit:
Here was the occupied, burnt-out town still reeking with smoke, full of Russian burglars and criminal sailors who robbed people in crowded streets, and there was I, in a shop on the boulevard, bargaining with the shop girls for French perfume or nail-polish remover, just two weeks after the siege…. For those few weeks there was no law, no nothing. Countesses sat on the sidewalk selling cheap, greasy lángos. A Jewish woman I knew had gone half-mad. She walked the streets all day with crazy, glassy eyes, searching for her daughter, stopping everyone until she found out her daughter had been killed by our own fascists and thrown into the Danube.
I shuffled along in the queue, over the bridge, over the yellow, dirty, end-of-winter Danube. The river was high. There were planks, blasted remains of ships and corpses washed along the tide. No one paid any attention to corpses; everyone looked straight ahead, carrying things in backpacks, bowed under the weight. It was as if all humanity had sat out on a long, penitential march.
The books remained on the pile of rubbish in the bombed house and rotted away. It’s interesting – people were stealing all kinds of things in Budapest at the time, anything from cracked bedpans to Persian carpets and dentures, whatever they could lay their hands on. But nobody stole books. It was as if books had been taboo. It was bad luck to touch them.
In Budapest, even if books were in shreds, the manuscripts didn’t burn.
Other works of Márai’s available in English include Casanova in Bolzano (Vintage Books, 2005), Esther’s Inheritance (Alfred A. Knopf, 2008), and Rebels (Vintage Books, 2007).
3. Antal Szerb
Márai’s contemporary Antal Szerb did not survive the War. Szerb was a great scholar of languages and literature. At age 32 he was elected President of the Hungarian Literary Academy. He is the author of the History of Hungarian Literature (1934) and the still-respected History of World Literature (1941). He translated Huizinga’s The Waning of the Middle Ages, Maugham’s Theatre and the travel journals of Christopher Columbus into Hungarian.
Born into an assimilated Jewish family (he was baptized Catholic) Szerb could not openly publish in Hungary in the 1940s. He was taken into forced labor in 1944 and murdered in Balf in 1945. As Horthy abdicated in 1944, a new government headed by Ferenc Szálasi, the leader of the Hungarian Fascist Arrow Cross Party, came to power. In the last months of Horthy’s regency almost 2,000 houses in Budapest were marked as “yellow star houses”: the Star of David had to be displayed at the building entrance. Jews of Budapest were forced to move there within three months. The Arrow Cross regime set up two ghettos and carried out mass executions on the banks of the Danube. According to Yad Vashem, more than half a million Hungarian Jews were murdered during the Holocaust; most were from the provinces and perished in Auschwitz.
If I tell you the storyline of Szerb’s 1937 Journey by Moonlight (Pushkin Press, 2006, reissued 2013), I am afraid you might never bother to read this novel. But I will take the risk. A marriage, concluded after a year-long affair (she was married to somebody else) falls apart during a honeymoon in Italy. The couple from Budapest, in their mid-thirties, takes the train from Venice to Rome. The man steps off for a cup of coffee at one of the stations, and in his hurry gets on the wrong train to Perugia. He decides not to return, and travels in Italy. She goes to Paris. In the end, she comes back to her former husband in Budapest, and he returns to his father’s firm and the milieu he loathes. But the triviality of the story brings into focus a universal, yet solitary struggle. It shelters a meditation on life and death, part detached, almost scholarly, part – a scar. Death is not a Grim Reaper. She lures men. He draws in women. Szerb does not talk about death from violence, disease or weariness from life, but about an ever-present, lively force in the fragile equilibriuim we call life, commiting the sin of synechdoche extending the part of this equilibrium to mean the whole. In this translucent shade dying is an erotic act, and the yearning for death is a mortal passion. One can imagine the loss of equilibrium if death tips the scales. But what if life does? Have we forgotten about the equilibrium and why?
Several of Szerb’s other works are published by the Pushkin Press: The Pendragon Legend (2006), Oliver VII (2007), The Queen’s Necklace (2009), Love in A Bottle (2010) and The Third Tower: Journeys in Italy (2014), all translated by Len Rix, who bought his first Hungarian grammar book in 1989.
4. Dezső Kosztolányi
One of my treasured lifescapes is Dezső Kosztolányi’s last, five-page-long chapter of Kornél Esti (New Directions Books, 2011) “in which he gives an appalling description of an everyday tram journey and takes his leave of the reader.” I dare reducing this chapter to a paragraph:
The tram screeched along the rails. It took a slight bent and stopped in front of me. I was about to get on, but scarcely had I reached for the handrail than unfriendly voices shouted at me, ‘Full up!’ Bunches of people were hanging from the steps…. I hesitated for a moment, then with sudden decisiveness jumped aboard…. My situation at first was more than desperate…. It was a long time before I was able to get onto the platform…. There was no longer any need to be afraid of falling off…. My existence had been noted as a sad fact, and after a heated exchange no further attention was paid to me…. My obstinacy paid off. I got hold of a hand strap and hung from it…. People came and went, got on and off. Now I could move freely… a powerful surge of humanity swept me inward too and—at first I couldn’t believe my luck—I was in there, right inside the tram: I had ‘arrived.’ In the process someone hit me on the head and a couple of buttons were torn off my overcoat, but what did I care about such things then? I swelled with pride at having got so far. There could, of course, be no question of a seat. I couldn’t so much as see the distinguished company of the seated…. At that moment, though, I caught a sight of a woman…. It seemed as if she too thought as I did, as if she knew what I thought of that tram and everything to do with it. This consoled me. A quarter of an hour later I actually found a place on a bench…. A few stops father on I obtained a window seat. I sat down and looked around. First I looked for the blue-eyed woman, but she wasn’t there – she’d obviously gotten off somewhere while I’d been engaged in life’s grim struggle. I’d lost her forever…. I consoled myself as best I could. I decided that I had ‘fought a good fight.’… I looked at the buttons missing from my coat as a warrior contemplates his wounds…. Now the desire came over me to enjoy my triumph. I was about to stretch out my cramped legs, finally rest and relax, at last to breathe freely and happily, when the conductor came up to my window, turned around the destination board and called out, ‘Terminus.’ (1933).
The hero, Kornél Esti, is Kosztolányi’s doppelganger, introduced as a friend whose eccentricity wore the author out and with whom he did not have contact for ten years. But now let’s open the book and read the first sentence: “I had passed the midpoint of my life, when one windy day in spring, I remembered Kornél Esti.” The friendship returns and the book comes into being. The writer puts his name as an author, and the friend’s name becomes the title. Kornél Esti is a book of gentle inversions. In one chapter Kornél comes into a vast inheritance and is unable to dispose of his wealth by giving money away, so it does not serve any cause, and in another he talks to a Bulgarian train conductor without knowing any Bulgarian. Each chapter is a parable that inverts some levelheaded presumption, and common sense suddenly evaporates, allowing new meaning to come forth. As a reader I always feel in midpoint when unraveling Kosztolányi, a midpoint between fleeting impermanence and persistent absolute. British translator Bernard Adams won an American Pen Translation Award for his translation of Kornél Esti.
Dezső Kosztolányi was born in 1885 in Szabadka (now Subotica, Serbia), a city that is a model for Sárszeg in his 1924 novel Skylark (New York Review of Books, 1993). “Sárszeg is a tiny dot on the map. Apart from small conservatoire and a third-rate public library, it boasts of no curiosities at all.” Kosztolányi was a poet and a novelist, and worked as a journalist and critic all his life. In his Memoir, Márai notes that Kosztolányi wrote a feature article almost daily and that “what he wrote hurriedly with his left hand was always perfect.” Like Krúdy he was simply trying to make ends meet. He was the first chairman of the Hungarian PEN, forced to resign after splitting the Lord Rothermere prize between Krúdy and Zsigmond Móricz, causing the fury of other writers. Kosztolányi was a serious and a prolific translator. Hungarian translations of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and The Winter’sTale, Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, Wilde’s The Portrait of Dorian Gray, The Florentine Tragedy and The Duchess of Padua are his work. He also translated Goethe, Maupassant, Moliere, Calderon, Byron, Balzac, Verlaine, Baudelaire and Rilke among others. Kosztolányi died of throat cancer in 1936 after much suffering.
In his Memoir, Márai reveals that the building where he lived in Buda, not far from Kosztolányi, served as a model for the house in Kosztolányi’s 1926 novel Anna Édes (Corvina, 1991), and the porter’s wife there as a model for the title heroine. Kosztolányi is a master of first sentences. Let’s open this novel too: “Béla Kún was fleeing the country in an aeroplane.” The Red Terror, the Romanian Army invasion, the White Terror and the Trianon frame the story, which ends in 1922. The storms of history offset the continuous routines of ordinary lives, full of constant complaints about servants, career ambitions, feelings of self-importance, and buried loneliness. After much quarreling a husband and a wife hire a new maid, Anna Édes, an otherwise perfect maid with one weakness: She cannot kill live chickens. She has to ask the neighbor’s maid to do it for her. Otherwise, she cleans, cooks, and has no life of her own. She is a convenient tool for the couple, and she becomes the instrument of their murder. As the neighbor, an old doctor, observes during the trial, she wasn’t really a human being for them—they did not see her humanity of being of the same kind as their own. Did they murder her first, killing her soul? The storms die down, the victims and the murderer disappear from memory, and everything goes on as before. Kosztolányi’s 1922 novel Darker Muses: The Poet Nero, (The Books Service LTB, 1990) is available in English as well. Thomas Mann wrote an introduction to its first German edition.
5. Frigyes Karinthy
Kosztolányi had a life-long friendship with Frigyes Karinthy. Born in 1887 in Budapest, Karinthy is a humorist with a shade of darkness. He topples typecasts with piercing sarcasm and dashing flair, never sparing himself. Karinthy wrote plays, poetry and essays and was a great translator as well. He translated several works of H.G. Wells into Hungarian, and is responsible for bringing Milne’s Winnie the Pooh to Hungarian children (and adults). He also created Hungarian translations of Dickens’ The Tale of Two Cities, Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author. After translating Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, Karinthy wrote Gulliver’s fifth and sixth voyages: Voyage to Faremido and Capillaria (Living Books, 1966).
In Fa-re-mi-do, Gulliver, Karinthy’s alter ego, finds himself on a planet inhabited by machines whose language is music. His mentor Mi-do-re explains that solasis (denizens of Faremido) view Life as a disease, and Man, or do-si-re, as a germ, a parasite that infested the Earth, or Lasomi. In his tender and affectionate introduction, translator Paul Tabori, who knew (and exasperated) Karinthy as a little boy, notes that Karinthy wrote this short novella in 1917, before any other published or staged mention of robots in literature. Capek’s play R.U.R. which introduced the word robot, appeared in 1920.
In 1921 in Capillaria, Karinthy’s hero experiences a naval catastrophe and finds himself in a country ruled by Women at the very bottom of the ocean. Nothing gives a sense of this work better than Karinthy’s own epigraph:
Men and women – how can they ever understand each other? Both want something so utterly different – the men: women; and the women: men.
In 1920 Karinthy married psychiatrist Aranka Böhm, who later perished in Auschwitz. The storms of this relationship were legendary, and to this day are part of Hungarian literary folklore. The “co-existence” of the sexes in Capillaria is rendered with acerbic irony both to the other and to the self. But I sense that this journey to the bottom of the ocean and this double vision is only possible for someone who surrendered himself to the storm, perished in it and was brought back to life in this great incongruity we call love.
Written in 1937, A Journey Round My Skull (New York Review of Books, 2008) is Karinthy’s account of his suffering from a brain tumor and the surgery on his brain by the famous Swedish surgeon Olivecrona. Upon publication of this book Karinthy referred to himself as a tumorist. The book is much more than a story of the disease, or “a journey of insight, of symbolic stages,” with some faults such as “digressions, philosophical and literary, where one might want a tauter narrative,” as Oliver Sacks suggests in his introduction. It is an intense, high-pitched, acutely ironic meditation on life, mind, and death. As in Faremido and Capillaria, the futility of life is (and one cannot but laugh to tears at Karinthy’s description of human preoccupations and activities) somehow incompatible with Life. As Karinthy feels the first sensations of his tumor—he hears trains running—life doesn’t let off:
On leaving my publisher’s I called at the newspaper office in quest of a subject to write up. In the waiting room I met B., who told me that it was time we got on with that review of ours…. Before I left I was handed a note from a literary society, asking me to lecture to them. Good Heavens, if only I could get all those unanswered letters of my conscience! For the present, this was out of the question. There was that talk with the manager to be arranged, then I had to call at the Ministry on somebody’s behalf, and after that I had to find a job for my good maid Rózsi’s husband.
Not many pages later, there’s a chapter titled “The Ostrich Defends Itself,” and the struggle between life, Life, and Death, just like a peacock’s tail, shows its iridescent colors. Changes in Karinthy’s perceptions (sound, visual, and temporal) and motor function (handwriting and fainting), both slow and sudden, offer more than medical observations or insight into human experience. The author does not limit himself to acknowledging and reflecting upon human condition, but points to its impossibility. A master of paradox, Karinthy once again asks how it is possible to be human in the universe, and why.
No, my brain did not hurt. Perhaps it was more exasperating this way than if it had. I would have preferred it to hurt me. More terrifying than any actual pain was the fact that my position seemed impossible. It was impossible for a man to be lying here with his skull open and his brain exposed to the outer world – impossible for him to lie here and live. It was impossible, incredible, indecent, for him to remain alive – and not merely alive, but conscious and in his right mind.
Karinthy had his brain surgery when he was 47. He died four years later from a stroke thought to be unconnected to the surgery.
His Please, Sir! (Corvina,1967) is a collection of 13 stories written in 1916 in what seems, at first glance, to be a voice of a school boy. But they are not about pains of growing up, or viewing the adult world through innocent eyes. Parodying authenticity, Karinthy catches the reflection of us in the generation that follows. In “My Diary” the young hero makes an entry about Shakespeare:
Have read Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” today; it is a very good tragedy from the great British poet’s pen. Been in the dumps all day today. Couldn’t even feed the silkworms. Why, when you come to think of it, does one live anyway? “To be, or not to be: that is the question,” as Shakespeare says, in “Hamlet.” I was thinking that it is a shame how youth is slipping by, and that I should never again be so contented and happy as I was in the third form.
Karinthy famously said about himself that in humor he knew no jokes. Yet his humor often has a note of mourning for the silkworms that never made it, that were sacrificed to something we think of as maturity. Karinthy never lost the child in him. It comes across in the playfulness of his language. He loved verbal puns and games, and created Eszperente (not be confused with Esperanto) – a Hungarian language in which only the words with the vowel e can be used. It has become a form of national leisure – you can look up Eszperente websites.
6. Zsigmond Móricz
Perhaps no voice is more different from Karinthy’s than the voice of Zsigmond Móricz. Móricz was born in 1879 in Tiszacsécse, a small village on the Great Plain, the eldest child of a peasant and a daughter of an impoverished Protestant minister. He moved to Budapest in the early 1900s and began working as a journalist. He was a correspondent during the First World War. Móricz is one of the so-called folk (népi – “of the people”) writers, writing about ordinary people. He travelled to the countryside collecting folk material and observing life. His voice feels as if it comes from somebody of an older generation. It is unadorned, grounded, clear-cut, and is after an eternal question of individual in a society. I was of two minds when reading his 1920 novel Relations (Corvina, 2007). I had a feeling that I had read it before, yet I did not. It was predictable, yet that predictability was one of the seasons – you know that autumn will force the trees to bend in the storm. You feel the crisis coming, and you know that Chekhov’s gun will fire. And as you take your eyes off the pages of Relations, you start looking at your own life.
Móricz’s other works available in English include the 1917 Torch (Alfred A. Knopf, 1931) and the 1920 Be Faithful Unto Death (CEU Press, 1995), an autobiographical story of an artist growing up. Be Faithful Unto Death, along with Kosztolányi’s Skylark and Krúdy’s Adventures of Sinbad, was published in the Central European University Press Classics series. The founding editor of the series, Timothy Garton Ash, assembled the list of potential works to be published by following the tradition of the coffeehouse culture almost a century later. Over conversations in the cafes of Budapest and Prague, contemporary writers from Central Europe introduced their ancestors to him.
7. Milán Füst
A friend of Karinthy and Kosztolányi, Milán Füst, was born in 1888 in Budapest. He was a poet, writer, scholar of aesthetics, doctor of jurisprudence, and teacher of economics, who published his works at his own expense. At the end of his life, when he taught aesthetics at the University of Budapest, Füst became a true legend. Füst is said to have been nominated for the Nobel in 1967; he died in July of that year. Being Jewish he survived World War II in the state so poignantly expressed by George Kongrad in the preface to Füst’s novel—in “inner exile.” He spent these years rarely leaving his house in Budapest. By then he was married to a well-off former student of his. Füst worked on The Story of My Wife: Reminiscences of Captain Störr (Vintage Books, 1989) for seven years, finishing it in 1942.
The Story of My Wife is a monologue of a husband known as the Captain. Has my wife cheated on me? That is the question. He is sure she did, but he is unable to find the proof that would put an end to his doubt in her infidelity. He doesn’t question her fidelity; it is her unfaithfulness that he probes. Or maybe it is his own. But his investigation yields nothing. The deeper his rant plunges us into his mind, the more ethereal his wife Lizzy becomes, and the less we know about her life. Is the Captain mad? Or is it a human mind touching one of love’s edges? What is this edge? The Story of My Wife is often said to be a novel of jealousy, but I would not limit it to this feeling. The Captain’s jealousy is the Ariadne’s thread that lets us not lose ourselves in the labyrinth of his mind. Or of our own? Is his jealousy a reflection of the Captain’s tragic search for himself in another? “Is my wife cheating on me?” asks the Captain while rushing to his next amorous rendezvous.
It took Ivan Sanders three years to complete the translation of The Story of My Wife after Füst’s widow approached him. He notes that it is one of those rare Hungarian novels that has nothing to do with Hungary; the only Hungarian name in it is spelled in an un-Hungarian way. The novel is set in Paris, London and Holland – places the writer never travelled to. Its real location is the human mind. I asked Ivan Sanders what the most difficult part of the translation was. He told me that Füst was a most unusual writer because he invented his own Hungarian: His language is full of archaisms and colloquialisms, tortuous constructions and flippant aphorisms. He goes from lofty to pedestrian, from eloquent to vernacular. It was through this language that Füst brilliantly conveyed the contradictions and ambiguities inherent in the main character. Füst was on the verge of parody, but he never crossed the line into it, which is very hard to recreate in English. Sanders reminded me that Füst grew up in Budapest that was still largely German-speaking, particularly among its assimilated Jewish families. He mentioned that Füst’s critics often said he was “yiddling” (from Yiddish), making fun of his Hungarian. Sanders disagreed, telling me that the writer’s cadences and sentence structure reflected his multi-lingual heritage and presented a riddle to the translator, who too had to invent a whole new language to be able to translate Füst.
What is ultimately gained in translation, especially when writer and translator coincide in one human being? When Nyugat writers slipped on their translator capes, bringing a foreign soul into the native body of their language, they transformed the native soul and body as well. But often the translation of their work into English has a whole other layer. Many of these translations (our gain) are reverberations of one fundamental loss: exile. Three major contemporary translators left Hungary after the Revolution of 1956: John Bátki, a U.S.-based poet and recipient of O. Henry Award (translator of Krúdy); British poet George Szirtes, honored by many prizes both for poetry and translation, inlcuding T.S. Eliot Prize (translator of Krúdy, Kosztolányi, and Márai); and Ivan Sanders, Columbia University professor and cultural critic. Paul Tabori, a Hungarian-born novelist (translator of Krúdy and Karinthy) has resided in England since the 1930s. Even though the translators do not belong to one generation (Tabori was born in 1908, Szirtes in 1948), I wonder if their work is partly about bringing the native soul into a body that is both foreign and native. As a reader of these translations, for whom both Hungarian and English are foreign, I felt the restrained intensity of what I sensed was also a recollection. I wondered if the loneliness of Hungarian, this remote and peculiar language, called for an experience of loneliness to serve as a bridge for translation. Curiously, in the spirit of Kosztolányi’s gentle inversions, reading these novels transported me into a state of tender solitude and made me feel much less alone in this world.
- Based in New York, Leo Kepler writes art criticism. He keeps a blog and writes about art for other publications.