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Stories of RomeStories of Rome by Alexander Lenard

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A memoir in two parts. The first is set in 1938, from his arrival in Rome to his discovery of a means of living there. The second part is set on 13th August 1943, the day the Americans bombed the San Lorenzo railway station. After Mussolini’s dismissal three weeks earlier, many had assumed that the war was over for Italy. That hope died in the raid.

I enjoyed the first part more, it is a natural narrative set in an pre-war milieu that reminded me of Between the woods and the water. The second narrative is more structured, reminding me of Ulysses as Lenard moves through a twenty-four hour period, using his daily interactions with his neighbours as a platform to sort through his memories of Rome under Mussolini in wartime, and his hopes for the future.

I enjoyed this book this immensely, because I found Lenard such sympathetic company. A polyglot who fully recognises the difficulty of learning languages: “A simple man will get his full vocabulary back relatively quickly, once he’s managed to master the grammar, but woe betide the man who has to relearn all the words from prep school, secondary school and university!”: he is fascinated by politics – “If you don’t understand gonorrhea, you won’t understand politics”; and by religion – “Not even God was satisfied with just creating the world, he had a book written about it…”, but humorously cynical about both.

Like me he looks at the world through the eyes of an exile, an exile from both Hungary and then Austria, whereas I am merely an exile in Hungary. I had to wonder how much his experiences of one culture influenced his perception of another. His observation about the Italian family; “the core of the community is your immediate family, which presents a unified face to the world while waging its own internal struggles” seems to me an equally valid observation about the Hungarian family.

Perhaps though the real clue to Lenard’s Hungarian origin lies in his attitude to food – the foundation of Hungarian family life. The two parts of the memoir are pinned together by the experience of slow starvation. Firstly through his lack of an income, and secondly through the lack of food in wartime Rome. This kind of hunger is described as a turning point in a person’s life as significant as first love, or the loss of talent; “…during times of famine, something breaks in the mechanism of the mind, or of the stomach, or in that mysterious “cavern under the bedroom of our brain” – the hypothalamus, and from that time on, the immemorial fear of starvation stubbornly turns into fear”.

Luckily, Hungary has always been a rich agricultural land. This has made the Hungarian fascination (obsession?) with food seem strange to me. But Hungarians like to say that they can always rely on their families, perhaps what they really mean is that they can always rely on food.

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The End of a Family StoryThe End of a Family Story by Péter Nádas

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

For fiction there are two roads to translation: the low road from bestseller-dom, and the high road from literary-ness. Knowing nothing of Nádas’s sales in Hungarian, my hunch is that this book took the high road.

In my time in Hungary I’ve seen books on both roads. Hungarians waste much time translating and even reading rubbish like Bridget Jones (presumably on the basis that sales in English = sales in Hungarian) even when they have own exemplars of the genre like Állítsátok meg Terézanyut. I have to wonder what Hungarian singletons make of Bridget; femininity is done so much more seriously here.

In the case of Imre Ketész the road his work took was so high that it was simply out of sight for most Hungarians, and curiosity more than pride was their reaction to the news that he had won the Noble prize for literature. As a result his work must have become widely available in Hungarian and in English at the same time. I watched amused as Hungarians bought, struggled with and then abandoned Fatelessness. Abandoned in part, no doubt, because of the one, two, three page long paragraphs. I note they haven’t bothered for Krashnahorkai, the Mann Booker doesn’t have much currency here.

Which brings me back to this book, ever since Joyce, who adopted Hungarian quotation marks for his own work, playing about with punctuation has been a sure sign of literary high-roadedness. And this book, being the first person narrative of a growing child, owes a lot to the opening chapters of portrait of the artist as a young man – though for Nádas the quotation marks are not an affectation, maybe the stream-of-consciousness passages are.

My own thoughts are so staccato and disconnected. Indeed writing things out in sentences and paragraphs is the only way I come to understand what I think. So it has always eluded me why the absence of punctuation is seen as representative of the stream of consciousness. e.e.cummings does a better job, and he often seems to have more punctuation than words. Nádas is Joycean in this respect, though, and we have twenty page slabs of words. With a deep breath, twenty page slabs are just about manageable and thankfully, the sentence punctuation is traditional.

Inside these slabs one can find – or at least I found – a book in three parts. The first part is the child’s point of view on adult goings on; for example his father climbing in through windows late at night, or his friend’s mother parading about in the nude. Any connection between these events – though it seems possible now – entirely eluded me while I was struggling with the child’s perspective and the slabs of words.

The second part was much more satisfying, as it was a series of stories told to the child by his dying grandfather about their ancestors. This being a Jewish family, it starts in Jerusalem as the time of the first millennium, and the follows the generations around Europe as they are buffeted from pogrom to pogrom eventually finding some security in Budapest in the 16th century. All of these stories are reported to us by the child and appropriately garbled and truncated. The result of all this garbling and truncating is that I wished I was reading Book of the Fathers again, where the same material was covered by a writer at the height of powers and not by a pre-pubescent kid who spends his time trying a get a peek at his friend’s mum in the buff.

It was interesting that the third part of the book, in which the family story is brought to an end, is not set in 1944 – the year the brought the end to so many Jewish Hungarian family stories. In fact how the family got through that year, given that they were of Jewish origin and living the countryside, which was quietly but completely cleansed, is not discussed at all. Instead, it’s the 1950’s and  following a show trail, the father is imprisioned, the grandparents die, and the boy is shoved into an orphanage. There he is punished by being made to be silent.

I realise that the child’s account is intentionally garbled and truncated, but I really can’t be bothered to go back and sort it all out, especially as I have to struggle through the same point of view and the same lack of paragraphs. Sometimes such literary affects (Absalom Absalom) really help the reader to realise the significance of the story, and sometimes they simply disguise the absence of a significant story.

One of the major problems of reading Hungarian literature in translation is that so much of if travels the high road, and because there is so much English traffic on the low road, Hungarian bestsellers are rarely translated. It not’s just that I’m not reading Hungarian, I’m not reading what Hungarians read.

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Magyar Angol Nagyszótár =Hungarian English DictionaryMagyar Angol Nagyszótár =Hungarian English Dictionary by Laszlo Orszagh

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is an excellent dictionary, offering a wide range of the different uses of Hungarian words translated into idiomatic English.

But…

There are 26 letters in the English alphabet and 26 letter divisions in English dictionaries. There are 40 letters in the traditional Hungarian alphabet including 9 accented letters and 8 digraphs and 1 tri-graph. So you would expect there to be 40 letter divisions in a Hungarian dictionary. No! There are 35!

First off, there are four letters only found in foreign words, q,w,x and y (40+4=44). Then the long vowels á, é, í, ó, ő, ú and ű are combined with the ‘synograph’ short vowels a, e, i, o, ö, u and ü.
However, ö and ő are not combined with o and ó, nor ü and ű with u and ú. In any case this brings the total down to (44-7=) 37. The final discrepancy is that dz and dzs are combined with d, making just 35. Needles to say z and zs themselves are not combined.

Because the Hungarian digraph ‘Zs’ is regarded as one letter, it comes after ‘z’ +’z’ so ‘vízzsak'(waterbag, ‘víz’+’zsak’) comes before ‘vizslat’ to seek out. Given the Hungarian enthusiasm for ‘s’ and ‘z’ (and I haven’t even mentioned their treatment of double letter combinations) I am too frightened to work out the consequences of this, and just hope I don’t need to find too many words like this.

Now if this was English you could just shrug your shoulders and say “Really, what do you expect, logic?” But this is Hungarian and I do expect logic. I suspect the logic is attached to the perverted assumption that Hungarian is a phonetic language. But please could someone spell it out for me.

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