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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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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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