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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Portraits of a MarriagePortraits of a Marriage by Sándor Márai

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This review was written in 2012, before I wrote Between the Barons and the Comrades, which somewhat supercedes it, but I will be coming back to Márai soon so it seemed useful to post it now. 

Márai is a great writer, I’m not so sure he’s a great novelist. I have sixteen flurorescent tags sticking out of this volume. These highlight things I thought were worth looking at again, but I usually only do this in books for study. My friend, Balázs has Márai’s “Füvés Könyv” (literally grass covered book) always close to hand. This is a book of short thematic pieces – “On Sadness” being the one he most recently quoted from. Balázs is not so familiar with the five translated novels I’ve read.

Marai’s complete diaries are also generally available in Hungary, as I discovered while scouting for the Hungarian version of Portraits of a Marriage in my local bookshops. This book is available as one volume in Hungary, but the Hungarian version is much clearer about the structure and history of this book. It is actually a novel and a sequel published almost forty years apart. The first novel “Az igázi” (the real one), published in 1941, is two first person narratives; one by the ex-wife, and one by the ex-husband. The sequel published in 1980, “Judit … és az utóhang” (Judith … and the epilogue) is again written in the first person, Judit being the other woman in the earlier marriage, and the voice in the epilogue being Judit’s last lover. This form reminded me much of Absalom Absalom though it is not as demanding of the reader. The Epilogue is set in New York, so in two ways this is the first book of Márai’s I’ve read that reflects his time in America.

This is a big thematic work and we are not dealing with the failure of a marriage, but with the failure of bourgeois society in Hungary. This makes the novel immensely relevant to the current political situation in Hungary, where the government is self-consciously trying to recreate a Hungarian middle class, while holding the post-communist opposition responsible for the destruction of middle class values in Hungary. At the time Márai wrote “Az igazi” Hungary had not been ‘liberated’ by the Soviet Union’ nor had a Communist state been established here. So his decision to write a sequel after these events suggests that Marai felt that the bourgeoisie was foundering by itself even when he wrote the original, and that is somehow illustrated by the husband’s disaffection with his excellent bourgeois wife and his obsession with the servant girl, Judit. It’s worth noting that Hungarians – or at least Balázs – distinquish between bourgeois writers (like Márai) and peasant writers (like Zsigmond Móricz). I think this is false distintion and an overhang from the Communist view of Literature. In the sequel, we have Márai narrating from the perspective of two self-consciously ‘proletarian’ characters.

A constant refrain of these two voices is that even after the rich have been stripped of all their worldly possessions they retain something that cannot be taken away from them – “Little by little, step by methodical step, they were deprived of everything, all their visible goods, and later, with supreme skill, of their invisible goods too. And yet these people remained as serene as before” (pg 259). This resonates with me; the loss of material goods Iron Curtain the Crushing of Eastern Europe, the loss of invisble goods Banished Families. I would suggest that what remains was what Pierre Bourdieu called habitas, and that that too was destroyed with the passing of Márai’s generation.

The first part and the epilogue are beautifully written, combining narrative panache with authentic voices; the problem is Judith, and the problem is compounded in that Judith is the heart of the combined stories. Far too much of her narrative is given over to her later relationship with the husband’s best friend, a writer. And so it seems like Márai’s further musings on what it is to be a writer – I really have no time for literary solipsism (though it can be handled deftly – Sweet Tooth). Márai has past form on this – Conversations in Bolzano, but here it is thankfully much shorter, and in migitation may be a form of self-defence; the backdrop to this monologue is the Seige of Budapest, the true awfulness of which is better addressed in Krisztian Ungvary’s The Battle for Budapest.

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Colours and YearsColours and Years by Margit Kaffka

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The most ‘English’ of the Hungarian books I’ve read in translation. At first I thought this was because of Cushing’s exhaustive translation: there are no Hungarian terms and phrases to remind you where you are, just proper nouns. But then I realised that the shades of Austen and Wolf were there because of the tight domestic round which circumscribes Magda’s life. There really isn’t much local colour to cleaning the house and raising the children. There was however sharp psychological realism. I paticularly enjoyed the last part of the book detailing a love match collapsing under financial pressures and the demands or raising children. There is so much mental illness in Magda’s family – alcoholism, suicide and even psychosis – that you have to wonder about her sanity. To what extent she is reliable narrator? And to what extent is she the architect of her own destruction? Also interesting that in a literature full of sexually manipulative women, Magda, who delights in her own attractiveness, refuses to use her sexuality to advance herself, realising that men often hate the object of their desires. A note on the translation of the title, yes ‘színek’ does mean ‘colours’, but it also means ‘scenes’ which seems to suit the narrative better as it skips with increasing pace through the years to the scenes which illustrate Magda’s life.

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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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Behind God's BackBehind God’s Back by Zsigmond Móricz
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Since I read Ulysses I’ve been fascinated by the influence of Hungary and Hungarian on Joyce’s book. Most the google results on the topic highlight the parallels between Hungarian and Irish Nationalism, but I am more interested in the literary influence of Hungarian on Joyce. On reading Behind God’s Back this curiosity is again pricked. The publisher’s blurb highlights the book’s precocious modernism: “It is scarcely credible that this very modern novel – with its subtle observation, profound understanding of the sexes, faultless construction and authentic internal monologues – was … before the First World War”.

For ‘profound understanding of the sexes’ I’m reading ‘candid treatment of sexuality’; and as in Ulysses, we have adolescent sexuality, prostitution and marital infidelity though much more tightly woven together in Móricz’s novella. It’s worth reminding ourselves that Ulysses was banned in the UK until the 1930s because of its obscenity not its politics. Once again my English expectations of what pre WWII writers can do with sex are confounded. Interestly, I did not experience that reading Madame Bovary – the apparent model for this story – in my early 20s. Either I’m grown more sexually conservative through the years or there is something harsh about the way Hungarian writers treat sex, even Móricz who I usually find a sympathetic guide to the Hungarian experience.

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In Praise of Older WomenIn Praise of Older Women by Stephen Vizinczey

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I first read this as smut when I was a teenager, and was very surprised to see it again in a ‘Penguin Modern Classics’ cover, so I re-read it though this time as a study of Hungarian manners. I suppose it comes as no surprise that this book would be written by a Hungarian. I even have a close friend who claims that he has only had affairs with older women – it’s not true, but he obviously finds the idea attractive. The fictional memoirist’s, Vajda’s interest in older women starts from his involvement with his widowed mother’s circle of female friends. From an Anglo-Saxon perspective mothers play a disproportionate role in the affairs of people in Hungary. And tellingly, the only time Vajda cries for a woman he has left, it is for his mother, after his flight from Hungary in 1956.

What engaged me this time was the role played by the other men in the lives of these older women. For the majority of Vajda’s older women there was one, but only in Anglo-Saxon Canada did he feel the need to hide his interest in their fiancées and wives. In the main part, these men had a ‘best of luck to you’ approach that I had some experience of here in the 1990’s. At the time, I speculated that this might have some connection with Communism in a way alluded to the The Unbearable Lightness of Being. But thinking back over the Hungarian books I’ve read since, a relaxed approach to sexual immorality was well established here well before Communism: Gyula Krúdy made a whole ouevre out of it. But the pattern would seem to be that sexual transgression is diverting rather than dangerous. I’ve yet to read the Hungarian equivalent of Thomas Hardy or D. H. Lawrence. As a result there is the realisation that Vajda is some sort of sexual parasite, exploiting women whose lives and relationships have gone wrong, but not offering himself as a way of making them right. I’m just not sure that the writer sees it that way, there are observations about Hungarian history and patriotism here that seem quite sincere and serious. It’s just sex that deserves this superficial, sensual approach.

Vizinczey is a fine stylist, and manages to write about sex without vulgarity. One sentence I recognised from my first reading; “Paola behaved more like a considerate hostess than a lover: she raised and twisted her body so attentively that I felt like a guest for whom so much is done that he can’t help knowing that he’s expected to leave soon.” What effect that had on my emergent sexuality, I have no idea; but the whole story of Paola is positive, where sex seems to solve problems rather than simply provide some distraction from them. However, this book would not be on my list of classics, modern or otherwise. It simply doesn’t tell me anything interesting about the human condition, though I can understand why it would be popular among those looking for an angst free attitude to sexuality – teenage boys for example!

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Homo HungaricusHomo Hungaricus by János Lackfi

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is the fourth anecdotal study of the Hungarian national character I’ve read, and really, we’re not getting any closer to the mark. The mark is George Mikes’s anecdotal study of the British national character How to be a Brit.

An important element in a successful national character assassination should be the intent to kill. I remember how disappointed I was on reading The Xenophobe’s Guide to the Hungarians and finding it was not nearly as murderous as The Xenophobe’s Guide to the Swiss. I put this down to the fact that TXGTTH was actually written by Hungarians, and reflected that this in itself was very Hungarian – in the revolving door aphorism kind of way.

Two books later, my high hopes of Englishmen taking up the challenge and doing in Hungarian self-satisfaction were disappointed. Bob Dent’s Inside Hungary From Outside never even sets out with vicious intent, he was obviously very happy living here. And although he had read the pages of the master, Colin Swatridge’s criticism in A Country Full of Aliens was only intended to be constructive. He was obviously sympathetic to the historical plight of Magyar Man (though I suspect the “very special Human Beings” he dedicated the book to were more likely to be Magyar Women, which led to further suspicions about why they couldn’t be acknowledged openly). But this latest read, Homo Hungaricus, IS murderous in intent. So much so that it had me wincing on occassion. The best piece in this vein is “Peacetime Antics” in which he points out that Hungary isn’t actually under foreign occupation at present, so all the subterfuge and sabotage is actually hurting themselves and not the oppressive powers that be.

But this suggests a explanation as to why TXGTTH was so anodine and HH so sharp. The former was published outside of Hungary and its intent is to present a good impression of Hungary to foreigners – Hungarians love that (cf. Russians, who don’t give a damn what foreigners think of them). HH was published in Hungary, to let other Hungarians know what a bunch of toerags they are. Hungarians may think that collectively they’re great, but individually they don’t really like each other. They get around this conumdrum by claiming the individuals they are presently disparaging are not really Hungarian at all, but in fact Jews, or Gypsies, or, in extreme cases, a mixture of both. All in all I’m surprised that HH made it passed the Hungarian amour propre censor into translation.

So full marks for the energy of the blows, but somewhat lower marks for choice of targets. It goes on to cudgel things Hungarians think are important, but foreigners not. There are three whole sections dedicated to Hungarians’ foreign language skills, and all of it spot on, but who cares? There is nothing on the vexed subjects of sexuality, gender roles or family life, topics which I still struggle with after 20 years residency. Most frustrating of all are the sacred cows that have still not been sent to the butcher; a) Hungarian contains an amazing number of curse words and constructions, and b) Hungarians are heavy drinkers. It doesn’t and they’re not. It seems one day I’ll just have to write my own national character assassination.

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