Colours 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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Behind 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 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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