Category Archives: Hungarian Literature

a better, fairer future

Satantango, by László Krasznahorkai and translated by George Szirtes

Normally I hate writing reviews weeks after finishing a book. It tends to make the task much harder, as details start to blur and impressions fade. In the case of Satantango those concerns don’t really apply. Firstly, because the impression this book made will take a lot more than a few weeks to fade; and secondly because there was never any way that Satantango was going to be easy to write about however quickly I’d written my review.

Here’s the first sentence of the novel:

One morning near the end of October not long before the first drops of the mercilessly long autumn rains began to fall on the cracked and saline soil on the western side of the estate (later the stinking yellow sea of mud would render footpaths impassable and put the town too beyond reach) Futaki woke to hear bells.

I was going to quote the first paragraph, but the book has no paragraphs, just some 270 or so pages divided into twelve dense chapters. I suspect that makes it sound unapproachable, and I won’t lie, it’s not the most accessible book out there. It’s a book that requires effort on the part of the reader. It’s also though easily one of the best works of fiction I’ve read this year and one that more than repays the reader’s dedication.

The first six chapters describe a small Hungarian village. Once an industrial estate, the factory the village served is long since closed and now only a handful of inhabitants remain. They exist in a slum of mud, spiders and decay; in a landscape that psychologically as well as physically has a post- (or perhaps pre-) apocalyptic feel to it.

Rumour reaches the village of the return of two men long thought dead: Irimiás and Petrina. Irimiás is seen as a messianic figure, his arrival will mean a chance of escape, renewal, at the very least change. The first six chapters of the novel count up, I through VI, towards the arrival of Irimiás and Petrina and the remaining six count down, VI to I, from that arrival. Here Godot turns up, but it’s questionable whether he was worth waiting for.

The people of the estate live in a condition of mutual despair and loathing. The local teenage girls sell themselves in the disused factory, but have few customers. Futaki, whose perspective opens the book, is sleeping with another man’s wife. The local doctor is concerned only with his own ailments and with his relentless cataloguing and observing of the habits of the other villagers.  This is a place without purpose peopled by those who though technically neighbours are each fundamentally alone.

The book swiftly reveals Irimiás and Petrina as police informers, dubious adventurers and con-men. Their interest in the village is predatory; they bring no salvation. The flyleaf of the book suggests that Irimiás may be the devil, but though the book is shot through with religious imagery there’s no real evidence that he has any importance beyond that the villagers place on him.

Satantango is a mudslide of prose. Translator George Szirtes has spoken of Krasznahorkai’s language as a “slow lava flow of narrative, a vast black river of type.” There is a hallucinatory sense to the text, with apparent realism turning to symbolism or dream without pause or comforting marker of where one state ends and another begins. On the second page Futaki has a vision of “himself nailed to the cross of his own cradle and coffin” as he looks at an acacia twig. Later a roomful of drunkards is covered in spider webs as they gradually fall asleep – a thing that makes no logical sense but yet which seems inevitable within the book’s insular context.

Here’s another quote, illustrating how Krasznahorkai makes use of language:

The table beside Halics made a creaking noise and the rotting wood of the bar gave a low sigh like the quiet easy movement of an old carriage wheel over the buzzing chorus of horseflies: it conjured the past but also spoke of perpetual decay. And as the wood creaked, the wind outside, like a helpless hand searching through a dusty book for some  vanished main clause, kept asking the same question time and again, hoping to give a “cheap imitation of a proper answer” to the banks of solid mud, to establish some common dynamic between tree, air and earth, and to seek through invisible cracks in the door and walls the first and original sound, of Halics belching.

Notice the use of quotes there. Characters frequently speak in what appear to be set phrases, folk-sayings or received wisdom. Sometimes the narrative itself does the same. Each time these phrases are placed in quotation marks, as if flagging their essentially phatic nature. I’m not of course familiar with common Hungarian sayings, but some of these phrases appear highly unlikely to be traditional or ever used outside of this novel. That makes the quotation marks unreliable, perhaps themselves meaningless, ironically underlining the impression already given of speech without thought.

Spoilers are essentially meaningless with a book like this, though I’ll avoid them anyway out of courtesy to those who’d prefer to discover that for themselves. The novel consists of a combination of black comedy, petty yet vicious cruelty, Beckettian existentialism and Kafkaesque farce. At times it feels near-medieval, with the villagers at one point forming a procession of fools on a pilgrimage to the empty shrine of the abandoned factory. It should be relentlessly depressing. The imagery is of mud, rain, death, mould and decay. The village is a slough of meaninglessness populated by fear, greed and stupidity, and the outside world seems little better.

What’s it ultimately about? It’s hard to say; it feels almost like the wrong question (or I’m the wrong person to answer it anyway). It doesn’t come with answers; it just is. Reading it I become as lost as the characters, sensing meanings and chasing after them but finding them slipping from my grasp just as I seem to reach them. In the end all I am left with is the language itself; Krasznahorkai’s sentences that seem to twist upon themselves continuing long after all sense should demand that they stop and yet still remaining no longer than they ought to be. Here’s just one sentence, by way of final quote:

The entire end of October night was beating with a single pulse, its own strange rhythm sounding through trees and rain and mud in a manner beyond words or vision: a vision present in the low light, in the slow passage of darkness, in the blurred shadows, in the working of tired muscles; in the silence, in its human subjects, in the undulating surface of the metaled road; in the hair moving to a different beat than do the dissolving fibers of the body; growth and decay on their divergent paths; all these thousands of echoing rhythms, this confusing clatter of night noises, all parts of an apparently common stream, that is the attempt to forget despair; though behind things other things appear as if by mischief, and once beyond the powers of the eye they no longer hang together.

This is a spectacular translation of a genuinely gifted writer. It’s an extraordinary piece of writing; mesmeric. It is the opposite of escapist, rather it is a book that addresses directly the problem of existence in a universe without meaning and without ultimate authority. Perhaps then it’s natural that it’s a book that has no answers, because the world has none.

Here are three other reviews of the book, each of which I thought particularly insightful: from the New Statesman, here; from the blogger Bookslut, here (some spoilers); and from an online magazine I’m unfamiliar with, here (the last paragraph of that last review explains how the book’s structure reflects the structure of the tango, something which not knowing the dance I couldn’t speak to myself). If you read this and you’ve reviewed it on your own blog please leave a link in the comments below as I’d be fascinated to know how others who’ve read it found it.

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Filed under Hungarian Literature, Krasznahorkai, László, Modernist Fiction, Szirtes, George (translator)

Emerence had never studied Heraclitus, but she knew more about these things than I did.

The Door, by Magda Szabó and translated by Len Rix

I tried. I got to page 69, took a break, picked it up again and pushed on to page 90. After that, I just couldn’t carry on. I couldn’t face yet another page of this crude and unconvincing novel.

The Door came very highly recommended to me, and from people whose judgement I trust. I’m hoping that some of its enthusiasts may make a better case for it in the comments, point out where I went wrong and how I missed its merits. The front and back covers come garlanded with plaudits from serious newspapers, The Daily Telegraph (“A triumph”), The Independent (“Profoundly moving”), and many more. It’s won some serious international prizes.

So, what’s it all about (Alfie)? The narrator is a middle class author. The narrative is her account of how her relationship with her cleaning lady, Emerence, ended in disaster and Emerence’s death – a death for which the narrator blames herself (that’s not a spoiler, it’s a teaser from the first chapter). More than that though, it’s a character and relationship study of these two women (with the shallowly drawn husband having an occasional walk on part).

Character then here is everything, and that’s a problem because while the narrator is credible Emerence is closer to an ambulatory plot device, utterly unconvincing as an actual human being. The other problem with this novel is its portentous and overwrought prose and deeply repetitive structure. Here’s an early quote:

One can tell instinctively what sort of flower a person would be if born a plant, and her genus certainly wasn’t the rose, with its shameless carmine unfolding – the rose is no innocent. I felt immediately that Emerence could never be one, though I still knew nothing about her, or what she would one day become.

That “what she would one day become” is typical of the novel’s style, which makes constant use of heavy hints of dark secrets and loss to follow. Of course, these cryptic references are only required because Szabo is intentionally holding back information so that it can be dramatically revealed later. It’s a writing technique I associate more with boilerplate thrillers and while it can work in serious fiction (Catch-22 pulls it off brilliantly) here it’s bluntly deployed.

I’ll come back to the structural issues. Before that I should say a little more about the plot and themes. The narrator and her husband are both intellectuals, and they need a cleaning lady to free them up from chores which otherwise take up too much of their time

Their answer is to hire an old lady named Emerence who they are told will not work for just anyone, she chooses her employers as much as they choose her. Emerence accepts them though, and they discover that she is no ordinary woman; rather a collection of peculiar requirements and habits who though a marvel in the domestic sphere is also very difficult to share territory with – unfortunate given the narrator works from home.

At first the narrator finds Emerence difficult, impossible even. Emerence shows no desire to make friends, to exchange pleasantries. She is angered by odd things, easily offended. She is though so good a cleaner that though the narrator is sometimes tempted to dismiss her, she always steps back from the brink. Instead, she becomes fascinated with unravelling the mystery of who Emerence is, what made her the person she has become.

Leaving aside the arrogance within the fiction of treating a domestic servant as some kind of anthropological subject (and there’s a credible interpretation that says the narrator’s attitude is as much the book’s subject as the relationship), Szabo is able to use Emerence as a vehicle able to carry the weight of 20th Century Hungarian history. Emerence has lived through a great deal, has been shaped by the country’s traumas, and to understand Emerence one must in part understand Hungary itself.

This is partly what stops Emerence ever really becoming a person. She’s a survivor carrying the burden of history, she’s an impossible presence in the narrator’s home, she’s a set of behaviour patterns which appear inexplicable and which the narrative slowly unravels. She’s all those things, but she isn’t human.

It’s perhaps unfortunate that I read this so soon after Anna Édes. Kosztolányi also explores the relationship between servant and employer, and how employers can see servants as less than truly human. Kosztolányi though writes with insight and above all with empathy, humanity even. There is an equality of subject in Anna Édes, all its characters are equally real. Here that isn’t true. The narrator is real. Emerence is merely interesting.

The book does raise issues about the reliability of its own narration, not in the sense that the narrator is unreliable but rather in that she herself over the book comes to reinterpret and question her own understandings. Frequently the narrator comes to conclusions that she later decides are wrong; she makes assumptions about Emerence which she learns to be untrue. That doesn’t make it better though, because the pattern of event, conclusion, re-evaluation becomes so predictable.

I promised to return to the book’s structural issues, and the worst of them is this repetitive cycle of incident. Emerence says something or carries out some action which makes the narrator furious. The narrator comes to reconsider that comment or action, its motivations, and understands that it and they weren’t as they first appeared. The narrator comes to a new understanding of of Emerence and herself. Rinse and repeat.

It’s a serious issue, but it’s not what ultimately caused me to close the book. It wasn’t the final, fatal flaw. That was the book’s utter seriousness; its utter lack of humour

At one point Emerence tells a possibly untrue story of her childhood featuring beautiful blond “siblings” (a word that rang oddly to me coming from Emerence, supposedly an uneducated peasant woman). Due to Emerence’s lack of care when looking after them they were killed by lightning, at the sight of which Emerence’s mother drowned herself in a well. It’s clear that none of this may be true, but it’s so absurd, so bathetic, that it just threw me right out of the novel. I came close to laughing at it.

In the end I’ve nothing positive to say here. That being so, the best I can do is point you to other reviews which better reflect the wider consensus on it. There’s an excellent one here from Tom at A Common Reader (an excellent blog by the way, and Tom’s opinion is worth taking seriously), and a fairly representative one from the more traditional critical sphere here at The Telegraph (by Tibor Fischer no less). I do suggest you read both, because a great many people (many of them with excellent taste) love this novel and you might be one of them. Not, however, me.

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Filed under Hungarian Literature, Rix, Len (translator), Szabó, Magda

the real test of life was uncertainty

Oliver VII, by Antal Szerb and translated by Len Rix

Nicholas Lezard, in his review of Oliver VII for the Guardian, asked if a novel can be constructed out of pure joy. The answer of course is yes,  because the answer is Oliver VII: a fairy tale of love, loyalty and confused identities.

Antal Szerb only wrote three novels. This was his last, written in the shadow of the Nazi conquest of Europe. Three years after its publication Szerb was killed in a labour camp. It would be easy to read Oliver VII’s humanist vision as escapism, except that it’s nothing of the kind. Rather it’s a statement of the value of romance in the widest sense, of kindness and perhaps ultimately of European culture in the face of an enemy that despised all those things.

Heroic as all that is, it’s not of itself a reason to read his novel. Were it didactic, or worthy, it would fail as literature however brave or inspiring it might be. The reason to read the novel is because it is, quite simply, wonderful.

Oliver VII is the indifferent king to the obscure Southern European nation of Alturia. Alturia has but two exports, its wine and its sardines, and it is bankrupt as its people are perhaps more romantic than practical. Alturia’s northern neighbour is Norlandia, a colder, gloomier and more sober land where grapes do not grow and which sardines do not care to visit.

Alturia’s finances have become unmanageable and its people are becoming increasingly unruly. The only hope Oliver’s ministers see is a deal with Norlandia’s greatest business tycoon, Coltor. Coltor will help Alturia redeem its debts, but in return will assume control of its wine and sardine production. Alturia will be saved, but at the cost of its sovereignty.

You know, it wasn’t until I sat down to write this review that it occurred to me quite how timely that is.

Coltor is no ordinary merchant. He made his fortune selling half-pairs of shoes (each of which could be worn on right foot or left), so those who had lost a shoe could buy a half-pair instead of wasting money on a whole pair. He built houses from onions, a textile cigarette, ant-powered lamps and edible fog. We’re in the world of whimsy here, but even whimsy has its serious inhabitants.

Oliver would prefer not to sell the country he only recently became king of, but his ministers give him little choice. Oliver then, in disguise, leads a revolution and has himself deposed by patriots opposed to the Coltor plan. He leaves for Venice with but a trusted aide, where he disguises himself again and falls in with a gang of con-artists headed by a figure naming himself Count St. Germain.

Soon the con-artists have an audacious plan. They will take this new acquaintance of theirs who has such an uncanny resemblance to the former King of Alturia and will train him to impersonate that missing monarch. Oliver, they decide, will pretend to be Oliver VII.

Meanwhile, back at home, the people are finding life without Oliver more difficult than they had imagined…

By now Alturia’s problems were not trivial. With the rejection of the Coltor plan the public finances had sunk to the state of an intractable mess. [The chancellor] had been replaced by the chief accountant of a large bank who, a week later, committed suicide in a fit of book-keeping insanity. He was followed by a wine merchant who fled the country without embezzling a single cent; then a business tycoon, who promptly arranged for his own denunciation, and a university professor who simply disappeared, said to have been lost in the labyrinth of the Exchequer and never seen again.

Like many comic novels Oliver VII in some senses is deeply serious. Here everyone wears a mask of some sort or another, and so naturally they find themselves in Venice. The novel becomes an examination of identity, of how we become who we are and how who we are changes according to who others think we are. Oliver steps beyond convention, represented in part by the heavy and restrictive greatcoat the king is required to wear on all formal occasions, and changes from being a man who is given his part in life (for a king is born to be a king, and has no other options) to one who chooses it.

If you want then, there is plenty here beneath the surface to think about and this is a novel that would easily bear a re-reading. It’s also though a novel with the most marvellous sense of its own absurdity. In Venice Olliver falls in love with a young woman who is part of the team of con-artists. Here he embraces her:

Being French, Marcelle liked to talk in moments of passion.

“Oh Oscar … I love it, you’re like an express train … like a wild sheikh … like a bartender at closing time …”

Oliver VII comes with an extremely well written afterword by translator Len Rix, that throws light both upon its themes and on Szerb’s life. Rix shows too how Oliver VII represents a synthesis of Szerb’s themes in his previous two novels, which Rix also translated. For that reason, I wouldn’t actually suggest this as your first Szerb if you’ve not tried him already. If anything, I’d do not as I did and save this for third. Rix makes a good case for reading Szerb in order, and I rather wish now that I had (I haven’t yet read Journey by Moonlight).

With that small caveat, all that’s really left to say is that it will be remarkable if this doesn’t end up on my end of year list come December. It’s clever, funny, well written and utterly charming. Like Szerb’s The Pendragon Legend, and like the Alturian people themselves, it’s a book of “a somewhat dreamy nature, fanciful and poetically inclined.” That’s ok though, because as the Count St. Germain says:

“Long after reinforced concrete has disappeared, the need for adventure will still be with us.”

The Nicholas Lezard review I mentioned can be found here.

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Filed under Hungarian Literature, Rix, Len (translator), Szerb, Antal

One by one the lights were going on in the worn chandeliers of middle-class life.

Anna Édes, by Dezső Kosztolányi and translated by George Szirtes

In his excellent introduction to Anna Édes, translator George Szirtes says of Kosztolányi that in “a generation of elegant stylists, Kosztolányi was the most elegant.” It’s a line so good it’s quoted on the back of the book. Like much of the introduction, it cuts cleanly to the point. Kosztolányi is a consumate stylist, unflashy and effective. 

Anna Édes is the story of a provincial middle-class couple in 1919, the Vizy’s, and of their relationship with their new servant, Anna Édes. The Hungarian Soviet Republic has just collapsed, after less than six months in power, and the novel opens with its leader fleeing the county in a self-piloted plane with gold chains hanging from his wrists and sweet pastries filling his pockets.

Before the Soviets gained power Mr Vizy was a senior civil servant, well regarded, well paid, and no more than normally corrupt.

Vizy was an outstanding bureaucrat, hard working and conscientious. This was a fact recognized both by his inferiors and superiors. Nor did he lack a social conscience: if someone in trouble turned to him he would immediately write the necessary memo to the relevant organisation.

Mrs Vizy is a society wife, bored and purposeless. Her days are empty, occupied with nothing but her endless search for the perfect maid: one who does not steal; is not lazy; does not break things; is not in Mrs Vizy’s view a whore.  

With the communists in power the Vizys had to lie low. They lived in fear of fear every soldier and official, any of whom could do as they wished with such perfect examples of the old order. Their building caretaker, Ficsor, had more status under the communists than they did and could if he wished have denounced them.

With the communists gone the old order is back, and that means the Vizys are back too. Now they can denounce Ficsor. Mr Vizy might get his job at the ministry back. Anything is possible. Here, immediately after the fall of the communists, Ficsor calls on the Vizys:

‘Good day, your excellency,’ [Ficsor] bellowed, loud enough for the whole house to hear. ‘May I have a word with your excellency?’

‘Oh, it’s you Comrade,’ responded Vizy.

‘Your humble servant, your excellency.’

‘Do come in, Comrade Ficsor.’

It’s a lovely little comedy of manners. Nobody is quite sure how they stand, Vizy survived the communists by being cautious, but if Ficsor wants to survive in future he needs to be seen to be servile.

In order to get the Vizys on his side Ficsor offers Mrs Vizy what she most wants in the world. A new maid, and not just any new maid but a peasant girl whose only interest is work. A girl who’s diligent, doesn’t need much by way of comfort or money, and who won’t run around with men. What Mrs Vizy really wants isn’t in fact a human being at all, but a robot. But this is 1919 and robots don’t of course exist. That’s ok though, because if you can’t find a machine to work for you, you can always find a person and treat them like a machine.

What follows is a middle-class dream. Anna’s work isn’t perfect at first, but she really does have no real interests beyond work and she doesn’t complain at sleeping on a makeshift bed in the kitchen or at the mistress withholding her wages to keep them safe for her. She’s almost a slave, but in part a slave of her own volition – it’s clear that she could if she were more motivated leave the Vizys and find better employers.

With the old order restored the Vizys are soon successful again, sought after. They hold dinner parties in which the wives discuss their servants and coo over how marvellous Anna is. Anna is a consumer good, a person become status-indicator for her mistress. An aging doctor argues for compassion, for the essential equality of the servant classes, but even he sees that equality as more a matter for heaven and noble aspiration than as something to be practically implemented.

This isn’t a simple diatribe against the bourgoisie. Mr Vizy is a self-serving hypocrite who seems to genuinely believe himself virtuous but who really only advances his own interests, Mrs Vizy is a dissatisfied neurotic who takes out her own frustrations on each maid in turn each of whom is the one person she has power over in the world, their friends are self-satisfied and smug, but none of them are actually particularly bad people for all their failings and the working classes are no better.

Ficsor helps prise Anna out of a good job that she loves so that he can effectively sell her to the Vizys in return for their patronage. Anna does nothing to help herself. The other servants of the other families in the Vizys’ mansion block are snobs or gluttons. In their different ways, everyone is demeaned by their master and servant relationships.

Kosztolányi doesn’t hammer the reader with any of these points. Rather he relies on simply leaving the reader to see for themselves how people behave, and on wonderfully witty and acerbic asides like this:

Things were getting better. True, there were still problems. There was runaway inflation. People eyed each other nervously in the oppressive atmosphere. They denounced their neighbours in anonymous letters. Those who once refused to recognize their friends as ‘good Communists’ now hastened to offer this long-denied recognition and readily handed them over to the authorities.

This is a novel about, in part, people reduced to property. As Kosztolányi observes at one point, “Maids fulfil much the same function for their mistresses as whores do for their husbands. When they’re not needed they can be sent away.”

Years ago in one of my first jobs, the man I worked for got changed in front of me. He didn’t ask if I minded, he didn’t attempt to conceal himself. He just took off one set of clothes and put on another. I was there, working, but to him I was no different to a chair or office computer. I was one of the pieces of equipment in his office, and why would you be embarassed to get changed in front of a chair?

Decades change, countries change, people sadly don’t.

 I want to avoid spoilers in this review, which means that unfortunately I can’t discuss the most interesting parts of the book (and if you want to discover them for yourself I’d read that excellent introduction after, instead of before, the novel). All I will say is that Anna Édes gets into complex issues of motivation, and over its length becomes more than social commentary. As he did in Skylark, Kosztolányi shows the tragedy in the quotidian. He shows no villains or heroes, but flawed humanity with an eye which is compassionate, but unsparing.

I’m going to end on a quote that actually doesn’t fit this review at all, but which I liked too much to leave out. If I were reviewing for a newspaper I couldn’t include this, but what’s the point of blogging if one can’t be unprofessional? This is one of the Vizys’ neighbours, the aging doctor who is the nearest the novel has to a conscience, reflecting on mortality and meaning:

‘… I have a patient who is seventy-six years old and who has just started to learn English. By the time she has learned it she will probably be dying. But let us suppose that she doesn’t die just yet, that she survives until she is a hundred – she will die having learned English. Will that have been worth it? Is it worth it for us to start on anything even at the age of twenty? Of course it is: one has to fill in the time somehow.’

Guy Savage has also reviewed Anna Édes, here.

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Filed under Hungarian Literature, Kosztolányi, Dezső, Szirtes, George (translator)

My Hungarian literature month

Most English language readers or literary fiction don’t read literature in translation. It’s odd, but it’s true). I find that incredibly disappointing, particularly when one looks at lovers of crime fiction who react with absolute glee when new works appear in translation.

Some writers leap over the great barrier of indifference. Most serious English-language readers could name a fair range of French and Russian writers without breaking sweat. German language would be trickier, but you might get a handful, the same could probably be said for Latin American writers (and I’ve just jumped there from a country to a continent of course).

After that, after that I think most people would start to run a bit dry. That’s fair enough, we can’t read everything, but it does mean that most of us are missing out on absolute riches. Iceland has a strong literary tradition, but I wouldn’t call it a well known one. Italy of course, but few Italian writers are household names (Umberto Eco being the obvious exception). Japan has in my view one of the greatest bodies of literature the world has yet seen, but apart from Haruki Murakami I suspect most of it remains obscure even to those generally open to translated fiction.

Then there”s Hungary. I’ve only reviewed two Hungarian novels so far on this blog (Antal Szerb’s The Pendragon Legend, translated by Len Rix; and Dezső Kosztolányi’s Skylark, translated by Richard Aczel). I own though a great deal more Hungarian literature that I haven’t read yet, and that looks absolutely superb. It looks so good in fact that I suspect Hungarian literature may be up there with French and Japanese in terms of the quality of the tradition.

So, I’ve decided that I’m going to make September a personal Hungarian fiction reading month. All that means is that during September I’ll only be reading Hungarian literature, drawing on the titles I already own and haven’t got to yet. It’s not a challenge (how could reading great literature ever be that?) or a race, just an attempt to broaden my exposure to a body of work which I suspect I’ll find extremely rewarding.

The authors and titles I have to hand are:

Miklos Banffy: They Were Counted; They Were Found Wanting; They Were Divided (it’s a trilogy)

László Krasznahorkai: Satantango

Dezső Kosztolányi: Anna Édes

Gyula Krudy: Life is a Dream

Sándor Márai: The Rebels

Antal Szerb: Journey by Moonlight; Oliver VII

Now here’s the thing. I read around 50 books a year (I thought it was more, but blog stats don’t lie). That means I probably read around three to five novels a month, depending on how dense they are and how busy I am at work. That in turn means that I’m not going to get anywhere near reading all of that list. So it goes. Besides, having more than I can get to gives me a choice each time I finish a book of what to read next, which is important.

I should also note that my reviews tend to lag my reading a book by a week or two on average. So, while I’ll only be reading books from the above list in September, my first couple of reviews in September will likely be of books finished during August, and my first couple of reviews in October will likely be the last couple of books I read during September.

Those caveats are ok though, because the point of all this, to the extent there is any point beyond literary whim, is personal. I’ve bought these great books, I’ve sat them on my shelf and they remain there providing a certain literary ambience and helping insulate the dining room. Those are important tasks for books, but occasionally it’s nice to actually read them too. If nothing else it saves embarrassment if a guest picks one up and notices that the pages remain suspiciously pristine.

If anyone wants to join me in this, that’s great. If not, I hope you find some of the resulting reviews interesting.

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Filed under Austro-Hungarian Literature, Hungarian Literature, Personal posts

How children suffer for their parents, and parents for their children

Skylark, by Dezső Kosztolányi

There are some books I don’t want to write about. Instead, I just want to quote them. Passage after passage. These are books where once I finish them I have to accept that there’s nothing I can say about them that a quote wouldn’t say far more eloquently.

But, this wouldn’t be much of a blog entry if it were just a series of quotes. So, even though what I have to say is redundant in the face of Kosztolányi’s prose, I’ll add to his words with some of my own.

Skylark is a Hungarian novel written back in 1924, shortly after the end of the Austro-Hungarian empire. It’s set in 1899, during the last flower of that empire. It’s translated by Richard Aczel who has either done a wonderful job or is a gifted writer in his own right (or both) and it is here published by NYRB Classics.

Skylark is a 35 year old woman, which means she is no longer young by the standards of her time and culture. She is unmarried and lives with her elderly parents. The reason she is unmarried is a simple one: she is very ugly.

Skylark and her parents live their quiet lives in a provincial town. They seldom go out and have few visitors. Over the years, Skylark’s blighted hopes of marriage have led them to retreat into their own unit. They are self-contained, and perhaps happy. Change comes though when Skylark goes to spend a week with relatives in the country. Skylark cooks for her parents and in her absence they must go to the local restaurants. That means her parents reenter the social world, and discover that it is not as bad as they have been reassuring themselves.

As plots go it’s hard to find many less dramatic. Here an elderly man being welcomed back by old dining companions is a major event; a trip to the theatre equally so. The Dreyfus affair trundles on in the background, but Budapest is far away and Paris even further. In Skylark’s town of Sárszeg time seems to stand still. Things are as they seem they always have been and perhaps as they always shall be (though the reader knows 1914 is not far distant).

Not to put too fine a point on it, I thought Skylark a quiet masterpiece. That’s a big word, and not one I use often. Still, Kosztolányi earns it with a book that dazzled me with the calm precision of its prose and the deadly accuracy of its observations.

I should perhaps caution that others are less taken. John Self of The Asylum commented that although he had read it he had found nothing in it sufficiently interesting to merit a blog post (that’s not a direct quote, but hopefully is broadly accurate). I wrote recently about the chemistry between a book and a reader, for John clearly it was lacking here. Not so for me.

Kosztolányi’s great gift is his language. His style is economic. Here’s the opening paragraphs of the book:

The dining-room sofa was strewn with strands of red, white and green cord, clippings of packing twine, shreds of wrapping paper and the scattered, crumpled pages of the local daily, the same fat letters at the top of each page: Sárszeg Gazette, 1899.
Beside the mirror on the wall, in a pool of bright sunlight, a calendar showed the day and the month: Friday 1 September.
And through the window of an elaborately carved wooden case, the sauntering brass hands of a grandfather clock, which sliced the seemingly endless day into tiny pieces, showing the time: half past twelve.
Mother and Father were busy packing.

Reading that I know where I am: Sárszeg. I know the year, the month and even the day and the hour: half past twelve on Friday 1 September, 1899. I know that someone is going away, but the reference to the clock lets me know too that the days are not normally so eventful. Also of course I know that the couple here, Mother and Father, are defined by reference to a child.

What of that couple? Here are their descriptions:

Father wore a mouse-grey suit, the exact colour of his hair. Even his moustache was the same light shade of grey. Large bags of crumpled, worn, dry skin hung beneath his eyes.

Mother, as always, wore black. Her hair, which she slicked down with walnut oil, was not yet altogether white, and her face showed hardly a wrinkle. Only along her forehead rant two deep furrows.

Two short paragraphs, yet containing so much. There’s a sense for me of disappointment and of a withering. Those deep furrows speak to me of sorrows endured.

One of the many great joys of Skylark is Kosztolányi’s character portraits. As well as Mother and Father, and Skylark herself of course (of whom more shortly), there are people such as a young man whose “summer pimples bloomed brightly like ripe cherries” and a waitress “as pale as a damp bread roll.” This is prose that for me is a joy to read.

Central to it all is Skylark. I’ll leave Skylark’s own description for those who read the book. Here though is her room (and perhaps more than her room):

The room had once looked like a chapel, chaste and white.
But the paintwork had faded with time and the silk cushions had grown soiled and a little grey. In the cupboard stood empty cosmetic jars, prayer books from which the lace trimmings of devotional pictures protruded with German inscriptions, velvet-bound ornamental keepsake albums, fans scribbled thick with names, ball programmes, perfume sachets and hairpieces hanging from a length of string.
Beside the door in the darkest corner of the room, facing north, hung Skylark’s mirror.

Well, I said at the beginning of this piece I wouldn’t just quote. It really is hard not to though on this occasion.

The tragedy at the core of the story is swiftly apparent from the quotes above (all of which save the waitress come from the first thirty pages). Skylark’s ugliness has denied her an exit from the family home, but her presence has foreshortened her parents’ lives so that now they live together wrapped in a web of illusory comfort. Their existence rolls down the years, like the town of Sárszeg there seems a timeless quality to their lives. Father spends his days on genealogy, heraldry and tidying his affairs (“The last years of his life he spent increasingly in preparation for his death.”), Mother looks after the Home and Skylark looks after them both. They are complete.

With Skylark absent and the parents forced out of their small existence for the first time in years, the view shifts outwards taking in the wider life of Sárszeg. Father dines with the Panthers, the town’s drinking society who count the success of a night by how many times after it a man vomits. He takes Mother to the theatre where they are astonished by the wit and skill of the local players (who to the reader’s eyes seem woefully provincial). Father begins to enjoy a drink again, and a cigar. Mother buys a new bag. Their lives are flowering.

The question this raises is whether the break in routine created by Skylark’s brief absence marks a real chance of change in all their lives, or whether this is simply an Indian Summer before the final onset of autumn and winter.

Skylark is a novel with a powerful sense of wasted and frustrated lives. Skylark and her parents smother each other in the prison of their mutual love. A local poet writes to fashionable magazines but they do not print his works. The happiest here are those without ambition. The local fire chief and social lion of the town is delighted with life in Sárszeg as it is. He has no unmet goal and sleeps content. It is only those who reach beyond what is on offer who are unhappy.

All of which makes this sound a profoundly depressing novel. Well, to an extent certainly at times it is. It’s also though shot through with a lively wit and a fine comic touch which makes some scenes extremely funny. I spoke earlier of being dazzled by it, that’s because so often it sparkles.

I adored this book. For me, it was a perfect combination of prose, tone, wit and observation. I’ll be seeking out more Kosztolányi. Time I think for a quote from a different source, this one from Trevor Berrett of The Mookse and the Gripes whose own review alerted me to this marvellous novel.

I can’t recommend this book highly enough.

Nor can I, and I thank Trevor again for his recommendation.

For those wishing to read more, after reading Trevor’s review I found that Guy Savage over at His Futile Preoccupations had also covered it. His review is here. Both he and Trevor have insights that I found extremely valuable (and which I avoided rereading while writing this, so I’m off to look at them again now).

A final quote from Skylark. Three sentences that for me encapsulate the essence of the book.

Nothing had been settled or resolved. But at least they had grown tired. And that was something.

Skylark

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Filed under Central European Literature, Hungarian Literature, Kosztolányi, Dezső

But books live on, as does man’s eternal thirst for them.

The Pendragon Legend, by Antal Szerb

Antal Szerb is best known for his second novel, Journey by Moonlight, which was published by Pushkin Press and proved something of a success for them. Before that though in 1934 he wrote his wonderful first novel – The Pendragon Legend.

The Pendragon Legend is a hard book to describe. It mixes (and gently lampoons) elements of detective fiction, romance, gothic horror and more in a combination which shouldn’t work but which undoubtedly does. It’s well written, it’s huge fun to read and it’s incredibly playful which just isn’t a word I get to use often enough about books I read.

I didn’t actually buy The Pendragon Legend. My wife bought it after thoroughly enjoying his other work (though she hasn’t had time to read this one yet). Even with it sitting on the shelf the book just didn’t grab me though and it wasn’t until I read William Rycroft’s review of it at his Just William’s Luck blog here that I moved it to the top of my to be read pile.

So, what’s it all about? Well, where to start? The narrator, Janos Bátky, is a scholar of irrelevant subjects currently writing about Seventeenth Century mystics. He is introduced by accident at a party to the reclusive Earl of Gwynedd. The Earl invites Bátky to visit his family seat and to see his library there and Bátky excitedly accepts. The Earl’s family is an ancient one, the ancestral seat is Pendragon Castle in Wales and the Earl’s library promises to have books on Seventeenth Century alchemist Robert Fludd which no other library possesses. For a scholar of the subject it’s an extraordinary opportunity and one that will make Bátky the envy of his scholastic colleagues. That’s no small thing, for as Bátky says:

A colleague’s envy, when all is said and done, is the scholar’s one reward on earth.

Soon however mysterious events begin to occur. Bátky receives a threatening telephone call (the conversation is quoted over at Just William’s Luck, it’s worth reading) and is befriended in the Reading Room of the British Library by an athletic if unlettered young Irishman from Connemara who tells the most extraordinary tall tales and attaches himself to Bátky without delay. Maloney is the Irishman’s name, and it turns out he is heading to Pendragon Castle too in the company of the Earl’s nephew. Bátky is an unworldly sort and though he has some suspicions about his new Connemaran acquaintance the fellow is so likeable that he ends up travelling with him anyway.

From their the plot goes on to feature what may or may not be ghosts, ancient and bewildering customs of the nobility, death threats and assassination attempts, alchemy, Rosicrucians, the Comte de Saint-Germain, Casanova, Satanism, the Philosopher’s Stone, the terrible state of English cuisine and the difficulties of getting a good cup of coffee in Britain. Actually, there’s a lot more than that, but I have to stop the list somewhere…

It sounds cluttered. It sounds too like a Dan Brown plot. But even though it’s only a little over 300 pages (and that in Pushkin’s Gem format so they’re smaller than usual pages) Szerb’s grasp of pace is such that not only is it not in fact cluttered at all but actually there’s space for digressions and romantic subplots and a great deal of gentle observational humour. The plot is slightly Dan Brownian, but Szerb is well aware of how silly it all is and that’s part of the fun. What in a bad writer like Brown is painful here becomes almost a celebration of human eccentricity and folly.

Bátky is an engaging but flawed hero. He’s a terrible snob who is utterly in love with the English (and Welsh) aristocracy. He’s passionate about women, but prefers them beautiful and intellectually unchallenging and is slightly threatened by those who don’t fit his criteria. He’s vain too (at one point he smiles sardonically to himself, then reflects that it’s a wasted gesture as nobody is there to see it). None of these are terrible faults though, rather they’re more in the line of human failings and on the positive side he’s charming, polite, romantic and at times quite brave given he’s hardly a man of action. He’s a European intellectual in love with Britain and the British, as Szerb himself was, but above all he loves books. Here, for the first time, he sees the Earl’s library:

I was filled with the tenderness I always feel – and which nothing can match – when I encounter so many books together. At moments like this I long to wallow, to bathe in them, to savour their wonderful, dusty, old-book odours, to inhale them through my very pores.

The novel’s other characters (all seen through Bátky’s eyes) are affectionate stereotypes. Maloney is an entertaining and adventurous fellow fond of rhetoric and stories. The Earl’s nephew is an Englishman so reserved he cannot comfortably sit next to a woman, let alone talk to one. The Earl’s niece is distinctly Welsh and so a committed romantic. Bátky is helped at times by one of his friends, Lena, a buxom and highly efficient German woman with who has a tendency to take control of situations she finds herself in (again, see William’s blog for some wonderful dialogue describing her). They all embody in a way their countries, as perhaps does Bátky himself. None of it is terribly serious.

As the novel continues dark events occur and hints arise that there may be supernatural forces at work. Dire prophecies are heard and seemingly inexplicable ghostly happenings. Here Bátky and others investigate a voice coming seemingly out of an empty room which a servant believes to be the ghost of a local man:

“How could it be the ghost of old Pierce?” said another. “He’s still alive.”
“It could be his double. It happened to my uncle. It went and got completely drunk down at the Elephant, and the next day he had to pay the whole bill.”

There’s tons of plot, and yet it’s not a plot driven novel. Rather the plot is there because detective novels are plot heavy and that’s one of the genres Szerb is playing with. Equally ghost ridden ancient castles, strange legends and curious inhabitants of remote places are all staples of gothic horror and Szerb plays with that too. Bátky becomes involved with the Earl’s niece, among other women, and his German friend Lena takes a fancy to the Earl’s nephew. There is a perilous conspiracy, misunderstandings and comic escapades, and still there is time for love. It’s extraordinary that Szerb manages to fit it all in so well.

I’m obviously not going to discuss the ending or what’s really going on. I can say though without fear of spoilers that in places the book does dabble in darker territories, like the ancient alchemists and mystics Bátky is so fascinated by. There’s a warmth and humanity and a profound sense that we’re all a little absurd running through this novel, but there’s a recognition too that there are parts of us that aren’t funny at all. Szerb lived at a time when irrational beliefs were once again on the rise. Ideas of German nationalism and racial destiny were live issues, and philosophies that belonged in history books were alive and well and being used for tremendous harm. The Pendragon Legend is a comic novel, but it’s one that recognises that myths can be dangerous things.

I’ll draw this piece to a close with one final quote. In a piece in the Guardian Nicholas Lezard makes a comparison with Waugh (which he rightly warns should not be overextended). Lezard speaks of Waugh and Szerb’s irony and deadpan technique, and I think this description of the Café Royal illustrates just that quality nicely.

The Café Royal is effectively London’s only real café. It aims at Frenchness in every detail. As if the place had been built by Napoleon himself, the grand entrance, the doorman’s cap, and even the cups and spoons are adorned with a capital N crowned with laurel. Coffee is served in glasses; the air is so foul and the chairs so very uncomfortable it’s as if you really were in Paris. It was once the meeting place of the British intelligentsia, and the clientele has remained interesting to this day, consisting mainly of aspiring actresses and clever foreigners.

The Pendragon Necklace is translated by Len Rix who has also translated Szerb’s two other novels for Pushkin Press. It’s a translation so smooth you’d think it was written in English in the first place. It’s a wonderful piece of work, and I’d regard Rix’s name on a book as a distinct recommendation. There’s an interesting interview with him here with a Hungarian literature webzine which is well worth reading.

The Pendragon Legend
. Interestingly, mine had a different cover, suggesting that Pushkin may have reissued it in a new format since the copy I read. Tragically, Szerb is yet another author murdered by the Nazis. As I’ve said before with other writers Pushkin Press have helped me discover, they have my thanks for helping bring him back for a new audience.

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Filed under Central European Literature, Hungarian Literature, Modernist Fiction, Szerb, Antal