As it joins the EU, Hungary can teach us to dream of new possibilitiesby Julian Evans / May 20, 2004 / Leave a comment
Book: Leopard V: an island of sound Author: ed George Szirtes and Mikl?s Vajda Price: Harvill, ?14.99
The passport, a document about which there is a lot of fuss these days, is younger than powered flight and only just as old as the first mass-produced car. Introduced in Britain by the Asquith government as a temporary measure in 1915, it was a novel means of interfering with human mobility. Before 1915, Britain had not required a passport for departure, nor had any continental European country required one for admission. But emergency regulations stick. By 1934, when Patrick Leigh Fermor was walking to Constantinople, passportless travel was finished. Wandering across a field in eastern Austria, he found himself abruptly hailed by a man in uniform who wanted to know where the devil he thought he was going: "’You were walking straight into Czechoslovakia!’ the official said reproachfully as he stamped my passport."
Nevertheless, Leigh Fermor was at home all over Europe. In Holland, he had benefited from the Dutch welcome that promised the humble traveller free overnight shelter in a police cell; and in Germany, though harangued by brownshirts, he repeatedly found himself on the receiving end of German hospitality. Meanwhile, in Britain, the publishers Chatto & Windus had refused an invitation to translate Du C?t? de chez Swann into English, on the grounds that any British reader who wished to read Proust’s novel would be capable of reading it in French. When Gallimard, the French publisher, distributed the book in London, the printing rapidly ran out.
Today, that easy permeability between cultures seems oddly quaint. The European political entity we inhabit, increasing on 1st May to 25 states, is as peaceful now as it was not then, and politically and economically closer: a Europe of open internal frontiers and liberal outlook, a Europe discussing a common constitution. Yet we may have forgotten some of the virtues of that earlier porosity. The difficult relations then were those between governments, not people, and though the impetus for the founding of what later became the EU was the desire to rebuild Europe after the second world war, one consequence of political union has been that the mixture of cultural individuality and commonality between us has faded. Italian novelist Alberto Moravia’s delightful description of Europe as "a reversible fabric, one side variegated, the other a single colour rich and deep," no longer applies. It is enjoyable, these days, to drive from one country to the next without being shouted at by a man in a uniform. But living in the shrunken simplifications of the present euro-Europe, we have grown dependent on packaged experience: on a ready-made cultural Europe of cappuccino and city breaks, a political Europe whose ideals and ambitions are principally economic.
Feelings like these prompted me, a few years ago, to make a journey of my own. Writing a series for Radio 3 about the roots of the European novel, I travelled from La Mancha to St Petersburg, from Reykjavik to Kiev. I was fascinated by the traffic in stories and ideas carried by the novel across the continent since the Renaissance. It may be the most mongrel of the post-Renaissance arts, but it is still the most perfect in its claim to tell us about the enigma that is dearest to us: our selves. The novel also tells us what kind of connected Europe we have lived in since the age of Rabelais and Cervantes, connected despite its wars and misunderstandings. It is our storytellers who constitute our best idea of Europe, narrating local and universal itineraries.
Can we be enriched by the literatures of the new states joining our political union? It is a feature of what we call central and eastern Europe that the novel arrived there late, some time in the 19th century. More interesting is that when the region’s novelists made their mark – Kafka, Musil, Gombrowicz – they succeeded better than most western writers in overthrowing accepted ideas of reality, in making visible the modern era. It was as if, just as the novel was getting normalised in the west, it took off again elsewhere.
A curiosity in the roll call of innovators is the absence of any Hungarian literary figure – not only because of the country’s development but because of its dominance, with Austria, of the 19th-century central European circus. A new anthology, Leopard V, seeks to redress that balance of neglect, devoting itself to Hungarian fiction and poetry "before and beyond the iron curtain." The anthology’s editor, the poet George Szirtes, attributes the relative obscurity of Hungarian literature to an anxiety on the part of Hungarians themselves – of language, of territory, of politics – that has prevented its becoming better known. The Hungarian language, with its Finno-Ugric roots, is an "island of sound" in a sea of Teutonic, Slavic and Romance tongues; its consonants, arriving in the 9th century, "flat, clear and unremitting" (Hungarian writers often express unhappiness at the ugliness of their language). Hungary’s borders have been more subject than most to traumatic shiftings. After long redrawing by Turks and Habsburgs, the country was cut by the 1920 treaty of Trianon to one third of its prewar size and half its population. Soviet takeover, communist rule, and the 1956 rising displaced hundreds of thousands of Hungarians.
It’s at this point of post-second world war self-definition that Szirtes’s anthology begins, with a beautifully detailed memoir by S?ndor M?rai – all snow and ice, and the rich ironies of "liberation" of his country by the wartime Soviets. M?rai’s work is followed by other gems that tempt the reader to seek out more of this resilient and lyrical literature – Ferenc Juh?sz’s poem, much admired by WH Auden, "The Boy Changed into a Stag Cries Out at the Gate of Secrets"; extracts from G?za Ottlik’s Buda and Gy?rgy Konrad’s The Case Worker; short stories by P?ter N?das, Gy?rgy Spiro, Lajos Grendel, P?ter Zilahy and many others.
Yet for British readers, I wish that Leopard V had started 25 years earlier, when, after the dramatic and poetic statements of the 18th and 19th centuries, the Hungarian language, and novel, finally broke away from their defensive past. Mentioned in the anthology’s introduction, although not in the text, is the ringleader of that break: Dezs? Kosztol?nyi, novelist and reformer of Hungary’s literary outlook. M?rai, in this case, was the pupil; Kosztol?nyi the master.
A dazzling boy-poet who became a novelist in his forties, Kosztol?nyi (1885-1936) is still regarded by many Hungarian writers as a Merlin of their language. The written Hungarian prose he fashioned during the 1920s, which in translation is as clear as Stephen Crane and as melodic as DH Lawrence, remains their touchstone. Anna ?des (1926), his last and greatest novel, is an overlooked masterpiece, in which he begins with a satirical portrait of the hollow world of the postwar, post-imperial middle class and ends with a shocking crime of passion. The very good English translation is by George Szirtes. In this passage, Mrs Vizy, snob and lady of the house, is interviewing her new maid Anna:
"Mrs Vizy stepped over to the maid. She stood so close their faces were practically touching. Frightened, Anna raised her big tired eyes. Her eyes were blue without any sparkle, a milky blue verging on violet, like the waters of Lake Balaton at a humid summer dawn.
It was the first time they had met Mrs Vizy’s. A tall pale icy woman was staring at her who for some reason reminded her of a strange bird with a mess of bright decorative feathers. She backed towards the door.
Anxious to calm the girl after that earlier moment of sharpness, and because she wanted to hear her voice… she asked her in a conciliatory manner what her father had been.
‘What kind of servant?’
‘A hired man. At the squire’s.’
‘A day labourer. Does he have anything? A house? Some land? Some pigs?’
‘No doubt he gets wheat. Ah, you’re better off than we are. And your mother?’
‘Mama…’ she began. The word caught in her throat.
‘What’s the matter?’
‘She died. I have a stepmother.’ Anna replied."
Kosztol?nyi – admired by Thomas Mann – has had two of his four other novels, Nero: the Bloody Poet and Skylark translated into English, although inexplicably the surreal stories of his alter ego Esti Korn?l – a picaresque hero of our untrustworthy era – have never been translated.
He was co-founder of the Budapest literary review Nyugat, whose title ("West" in English) says much about the commitment of its contributors. When 1956 dashed their ideals and "committed literature" came to mean that which was loyal to the party, Kosztol?nyi’s successors, such as Magda Szabo and P?ter Esterh?zy, reacted with allegory, irony, parody. (Incidentally, the omission of Szabo from the anthology requires explanation.) Kosztol?nyi would have been proud of them; beyond language, he said, there was nothing. No meaning, no protective divinities, only words, from which we make everything we have: love, family, memory, destiny.
The stories of Hungary, as of central Europe as a whole, may seem strange to us. Their history, temperament, fictional aesthetic seem to come from a landscape apart. The aesthetic is, however, one of discovery, of plunging into the unknown – and to that degree it is our ancestral Europe, the Europe that once sent us out to explore our possibilities, to venture everything. A couple of years ago, I asked P?ter Esterh?zy – whose novel of family history, Celestial Harmonies, is also published in English this month – what he thought novels were for. He replied by saying that they had "a bottomless curiosity to find out…" and then he paused, momentarily stuck, waving his arms, before finding the words he needed, "…what the fuck this is all about!" Which, as the politicians’ Europe enlarges, is a good reason to embrace Hungary’s literature, and those of the other nine states joining us.