On Sunday I went to my first literary event. I’m not as a rule interested in readings or signings and I tend to think that if a writer has something interesting to say to the public it’s probably already in their books. It takes a fair bit then to catch my interest.
All that said, when the London Review Bookshop (my favourite bookshop) holds a panel discussion on Central European classics (another favourite) I’m there.
The panellists were Hungarian poet and translator George Szirtes, poet and translator Michael Hofmann, Czech author Tomáš Zmeškal and Penguin editor Simon Winder (responsible for publishing the Central European Classics range). Each of them spoke about one of the classics in the Penguin lineup and talked too about Central European literature more generally.
I’m not going to repeat the entire discussion. It was 90 minutes long and I don’t recall every detail. I can say though that they made their cases well. I already knew I wanted to read The Cowards, but before attending I had no intention of picking up Faludy’s My Happy Days in Hell or Bernhard’s Old Masters.
It was interesting to learn that Simon Winder had wanted the range to include essays, memoirs, short stories and novels. He didn’t want it to be just a way of pushing some lesser known writers, but more an introduction to the range of Central European writing available. It was interesting too to learn how much chance played a part in who was selected. It wasn’t that anyone was undeserving, but for some authors there weren’t the translations available, for others another publisher already had the rights.
Generally it was a good humoured and intelligent event. George Szirtes was on particularly good form, arguing that the resigned shrug was Central Europe’s great contribution to human civilisation and explaining that Krudy was so influential in Hungary that books with a nostalgic fin de siècle air are described as being Krudyesque.
There wasn’t time for a lot of questions. I asked one on the links between Austrian and Central European fiction which revealed the cheering fact that Austria is increasingly looking to Central Europe to rediscover old literary links severed by the second half of the twentieth century. A question on the influence of English literature led to comments on the importance of Byron on the region (something I had no idea of), though current English fiction has much less impact (US more, probably because the US novel is in my view in better shape than the English novel right now).
The last question was the only one that touched on Hofmann’s recent Zweig piece in the LRB – asking whether there were any authors in these countries so well known that they got in the way of discovering other and better writers. George Szirtes asked in return how many Hungarian authors the questioner knew. He knew two, and could think of a third but without remembering his name. I counted on my fingers (I’m an Arts grad, what can I say?) and got to four, but also counting one I couldn’t remember the name of. Szirtes had made his point. The literature’s not so well known it can afford to start jettisoning people just yet.
Afterwards, I chatted briefly to Michael Hofmann. I talked to him about Arthur Schnitzler translations (I’m a fan after all); and he recommended to me Tadeusz Konwicki’s novel A Minor Apocalypse as being superb and made some favourable comments about Dalkey Archive Press generally. Hofmann generally seemed very likeable, not at all as you might imagine from his rather passionate LRB article.
So, a bit of a departure for me, but a lot of fun. The crowd were mostly on the middle aged to elderly side, but that’s not really a surprise and doesn’t much worry me. As long as the literature’s good, there’ll be readers. And the literature is very good indeed.
On a final note, the title of this piece comes from Simon Winder’s description of one of the writers. I forget which. I thought it summed up the literature of the whole region in a way, or at least what appeals to me in it. That’s the joy of Central European literature, it’s gloomy, but it is fun.