Tag Archives: 1956

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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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.

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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?

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