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.

View all my reviews

What Was Left: Stories and NovellasWhat Was Left: Stories and Novellas by Iván Mándy

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I must have bought this book by mistake. I read Hungarian Quartet and enjoyed the short story ‘Logbook’, but it was dedicated to Ivan, not written by him. I should have been more careful, flicking back through Hungarian Quartet, it quite clear that Mandy’s short story ‘Left behind’ is written around the writer, ‘János Zsamboky’. I hate fiction about writers – “Write from experience” must be the least productive literary advice ever given. The author struggles to avoid autobiography rather than write fiction, and what results is an avatar not a character. Géza Ottlik, he’s your man; not Mandy.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed the sequence of stories about Mandy/Zsamboky’s trip to London, from which I have gleaned the following (of cultural significance if not of literary merit):

An allusion to ‘The English lawn’ joke, a significantly different version of which I have heard in conversation. In this book, an English lawn tended by an old Hungarian lady in exile is turned into a moment of self-loathing – “the cultivation of wretchedness”. As an middle-aged Englishman tending a Hungarian lawn I can empathise, but more about that later.

Also satisfying was Mandy/Zsamboky’s contrast of 1944 with 1956. The former a scene of physical and moral horror, “lost in a filthy sky”; the latter something that could be slept through. Last Wednesday I discovered another of my friend’s grandfathers had been sent to a Soviet labour camp. As Mandy points out Hungarians like to celebrate sadness, “Drinks and conviviality. But never a loud word spoken! Instead a deep pervasive sorrow.” but they don’t celebrate 1944 – too much misery, even for the Magyars.

View all my reviews

Ballpoint: A Tale of Genius and Grit, Perilous Times, and the Invention that Changed the Way We WriteBallpoint: A Tale of Genius and Grit, Perilous Times, and the Invention that Changed the Way We Write by Gyoergy Moldova
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“There was a time when I also used to think that there was order in the world, but since then how many times have I seen manipulation and intrigue emerge victorious and genuine achievement go unrewarded?”

So remarks Andor Goy, the less well remembered Hungarian developer of the ballpoint pen. It seems a fair conclusion to draw from this, another story of Hungary’s exhausting 20th century. Moldova wants to us realise that Laszlo Biro lost his rights to the ballpoint through manipulation and intrigue under the rule of law in a free market economy, and Andor Goy lost his likewise under a communist regime; neither system rewarded ‘genuine’ achievement, both rewarded manipulation and intrigue.

It is not clear though, whose ‘genuine’ achievement the ballpoint pen is. As German manufacturers remarked – there didn’t seem to be anything essentially new about the pen Laszlo Biro was touting to them in the 1930s. It took incremental steps in development of the product – Goy’s refinement of the ink feed, Biro’s discovery of an appropriate ink, and ultimately György Meyne’s public relations and advertising campaign – to make the ballpoint pen the everyday item that it is. Further evidence for me against a ‘winner takes all’ economic system. The weakness of this book as history is that it doesn’t look critically enough at who did what in the development of the ‘biro’.

But written by a Hungarian novelist, I don’t think that was one of the intentions behind the book. It seems to be addressing the “Should I stay, or should I go” question which must have haunted Hungarians all through the 20th century. A question that Hungarians are again asking themselves.

The focus is on the characters of Biro and Goy, as they deal with both the demands of the ballpoint project and the vagaries of Hungarian history. I prefer Goy, and find his incredible stoicism and commitment to ‘genuine’ work inspiring. He strongly reminds me of his coeval and co-professional, Kadar. Biro is too flighty, and Moldova’s delicate analysis of his response to Hungarian anti-Semitism, suggests that he was damaged in way Goy wasn’t by his own persecution as a class-enemy of the communist regime.

It also contains yet another portrayal of Hungarian refugees living in France before WWII – as treated fictionally in The Invisible Bridge, and somewhat less fictionally in My Happy Days in Hell. I’m increasingly intrigued by this community.

View all my reviews

Background to English PronunciationBackground to English Pronunciation by Ádám Nádasdy
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book excited me. Hard to credit I admit, and perhaps most easily explained by the free seminars I was able to attend. It was written by a Hungarian academic who had taught my closest Hungarian friend and colleague, so the reading of it was accompanied by many long and detailed discussions in the pub.

That being said there were three other good reasons why this was such a good read for me. One, it was written for Hungarian teachers of English and so gave me good insights into both teacher training and language education in Hungary. This challenged, but ultimately affirmed the notions about language and how it should be taught that I have garnered from my own training and teaching experience. Two, it contained the most detailed information I have seen about spoken Hungarian, and that in itself was manna for a struggling student of Hungarian. And three, it added immensely to my knowledge of English speech, strangely reaffirming my beliefs both that even ordinary speech is complex and beautiful, and that poetry is the ultimate expression of language. In the rest of this review I will limit myself to a discussion of language education.

In the debate that contrasts skills with knowledge, Hungarian education is definitely in the knowledge camp. So here the trainee teacher is presented with many rules and detailed lists of exceptions. Though frequently given the advice that we can choose what we should teach, the understanding is that we should know all this ourselves. Coming initially from a more skills friendly background I was shocked that there was very little instruction of how to get the student to articulate the sounds of English. I thought better of this, remembering the Hungarians are schooled in the production of speech early in their education. Nádasdy obviously felt that this ground wasn’t worth going over again. There are plenty of ad-hoc tips on how to get Hungarians to produce English like sounds, and detailed explanations of why it is occasionally difficult for them to do so.

A more lasting worry is the presentation of language as a system of rules, and those rules as a series of binary contrasts: voiced/voiceless, soft/hard, short/long, weak/full, tense/lax, free/covered, stressed/unstressed, neutral/non-neutral. It is worth pointing out that each speaker of a language has his own realisation of that language – an idiolect. And although I am pretty much a speaker of standard English with received pronunciation, there were many of his examples which simply didn’t work for me. In the classroom too, teaching simple phonetic and intonation exercises, often results in lack of conviction on my part because the recorded examples simply don’t illustrate the teaching point they’re meant to. I’ve resorted to teaching through my own voice to avoid confusion. Corpus linguistics has shown us that language is a question of more or less rather than yes or no, teaching otherwise simply flies in the face of our own and our student’s own experience.

Likewise I object to the characterization of everyday language which doesn’t conform to the ‘rules’ as ‘exceptions’: I believe there is a reason for everything. The ‘exceptions’ really do expose the inadequacy of the ‘rules’, and not “prove” them (From the proverb which is itself misunderstood due to the change in the meaning of ‘prove’ over time). The issue of language ‘rules’ really comes to a head for me in Násdasdy’s treatment of spelling. He believes that if students manage to learn a strikingly complex set of spelling rules and lists of exceptions, it is possible for learners to predict the pronunciation of an English word from its spelling. I do not, and Nádasdy’s long account of tense and lax vowels does not convince me otherwise. If he had produced some statistics to support his arguments – e.g. the percentage of words that are actually are pronounced regularly, they might of carried some weight. He doesn’t. There is an important difference here to highlight, the difference between a rule and reason, there are reasons why English Words are spelt the way they are, and to be fair he mentions some of the most important; conservatism, foreignism and morpheme identity, but these cannot be used by learners to predict the pronunciation of the word – they don’t know how a word was pronounced in the past, or where it was borrowed from, or its morphology – this is information they don’t have. To find it out, they would have to go to a dictionary, they can usually find the pronunciation there too.

Later on, Nádasdy remarks that “advanced learners [and native speakers] are generally able to place the stress on words they have never pronounced before. Obviously they possess some knowledge which enables them to do so”. Generally, but not completely true, I still encounter new words that my intuitive pronunciation of is different to the one given in the dictionary. It may be difficult for a Hungarian to grasp, because they are given lists of rules in primary school, but native English speakers generally are not. The ‘knowledge’ Nádasdy writes of isn’t a knowledge of rules, its skill in assigning written words to models of pronunciation, these patterns I was given in primary school.

In the absence of statistics, I would hazard a guess that the more unusual a word is, the more likely it is to be spelt regularly – the converse of Nádasdy’s observation that the most common words in English are the mostly spelled irregularly. The most common words in English also have multiple pronunciations (strong and weak forms). Nádasdy describes this thoroughly without reflecting on why it should be the case. I suggest that there are two things going on here: language is not homogeneous, but an amalgam of discrete systems which have to interact for language to work. The interaction of these systems can often result in conflict – therein comes the other thing, a language has to have a system of preferences so that compromises can be made. This makes language much more of an engineering problem than a logical problem. A discussion of this sort of interaction in the context of language evolution can be found in Selfish Sounds and Linguistic Evolution.

So in any language there are lexical systems, and syntactical systems and phonological systems, and so on. For example, lexically a word consists of a particular vowel but in some utterances it is difficult to realise that vowel within the syntactical and phonological constraints that are placed on it. Sometimes it can be realised with the full vowel, sometimes with a reduced vowel. Hence the formation of strong and weak forms of the same word. Obviously, English doesn’t give a very high priority to the pronunciation of vowels, so they can be changed within a word without any loss of meaning. Regional accents are another example of this, and perhaps the low priority given to vowel production is one of the reasons for English’s international success. In Hungarian vowels are given a much higher preference, so my sloppy pronunciation of Hungarian vowels does lead to the breakdown of communication. Nádasdy is aware of the sort compromises a Hungarian speaker of English has to make in making his phonetic systems conform to English, but is often wrong about what is and what is not acceptable to other English speakers. The issue of preferences within a language is not one I’ve ever seen discussed, yet it is one that would seem to be very important to language education.

View all my reviews

The 1956 Hungarian Revolution and the Soviet Bloc Countries: Reactions and RepercussionsThe 1956 Hungarian Revolution and the Soviet Bloc Countries: Reactions and Repercussions by János M. Rainer

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Fills a gap left by Twelve Days Revolution 1956. How The Hungarians Tried To Topple Their Soviet Masters by looking at primarily reactions to the Hungarian uprising of 1956. Longer term repercussions are given much less coverage.

The most dissappointing paper is the one from Poland, and a consequence of the successful reform movement known as Polish October. Most of the Polish security apparatus had been dismantled at the time of the Hungarian uprising, and was unable to compile reports on how the Polish populace reacted to events in Hungary. The way in which Poles and Hungarians may have seen themselves travelling on a common path is more fully treated, albeit fictionally, in Under the Frog.

The most interesting aspect in these papers for me was how differing Communist regimes responded to events in Hungary in the light of their historic national conflicts with Hungary and the presence of ethnic Hungarian minorities in their own territories. In Czechoslovakia and the Subcapathian Soviet Union, the regimes actively utilised Hungarians as translators and emissaries to Hungary to promote the pro-Soviet line. In Romania, by contrast, the Hungarian minority was actively surpressed, and the borders firmly closed. The Romanians feared that they were going to find themselves caught between the Hungarians and the Soviets, should the ethnic Hungarians in Transylvania join a ‘Nationalist’ rebellion in Hungary.

When student demonstrations were planned both in Transylvania and Bucharest the regime anticipated them and arrested their leadership before the demonstrations took place. One can’t but wonder what would happened if Ernő Gerő had been able to similarly nip the October 23rd demonstrations in the bud. The problem was that he didn’t have control of the country at whose head he stood, Hungarian soldiers and police brought in to disperse the crowds ended up handing over their weapons to the demonstrators. I suppose the flip side of having a minority in your country that may be disloyal, is that you also have a majority willing to keep them in line.

View all my reviews

Twelve Days: Revolution 1956. How The Hungarians Tried To Topple Their Soviet MastersTwelve Days: Revolution 1956. How The Hungarians Tried To Topple Their Soviet Masters by Victor Sebestyen

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Sebestyan is best in the middle section of this book. A fast-paced but heavily detailed narrative presented on a day-by-day structure that was well suited to events. I enjoyed the little journalistic flourishes that brought the personalities to life: Cardinal Mindszenty tucking up his cassock so that he wouldn’t be identified as a priest; Defence Minister Maléter patting his holster as he remarked the uprising didn’t mean end of Socialism in Hungary. This sort of detail is either imagined or researched, the cross referencing of accounts suggests it is researched. Excellent.

The problem is in the Prelude and Aftermath sections where he tries to replicate this one day at time approach. It doesn’t work: the causes and effects of the uprising can’t be distinctly packaged into events. What’s more trying to squeeze them into a diary format means that some important things have been left out.

For example, many of the Hungarian combatants were teenagers and would have been small childen when Budapest was besieged in 1944. During that time over 48,000 Axis, 70,000 Soviet and 76,000 Civilians were killed. Afterwards 400,000 Hungarians were sent to the Gulag, and 30,000 were raped. It makes the 2,500 combat deaths, 2,500 executions and 22,000 arrrests of 1956 pale into insignificance. Would the uprising have happened at all if a generation of Budapest’s children hadn’t been utterly brutalised? For a blistering fictional account of this time see Under the Frog, for the facts see Battle for Budapest.

The Aftermath is a mere sketch, mostly concerned with the immmediate implications for Hungary and the conduct of the Cold War – America is of disproportionate interest to Sebestyan. He remarks that in 1989 the post-Soviet republic was created on October 23rd, yet there is no analysis of the how current Hungarian politics is caught in the shadow of ’56. Which is strange seeing as I found his research enlightening here.

The uprising was spontaneous and leaderless, or at least conducted by small groups whose only common ground was a hatred of the Russians. At one stage the teenage rebels of the Corvin Cinema were exchanging fire with the patriotic soldiers at Killian Barracks. There was a strong element of civil war that Sebestyan doesn’t linger on. Yet, the hatreds of the civil war are apparent today in the frequent disorder that occurs on the anniversary of the uprising, and the attempt by the current Government to rewrite the 1989 settlement. 1956 is still a very divisive event in Hungarian politics, and I can’t even guess why it is given the prominence it is. If we want to celebrate a national tragedy, shouldn’t we be looking at ’44 instead?

View all my reviews