Gloomy but fun

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.


Filed under Central European fiction, Publishing

37 responses to “Gloomy but fun

  1. I rather like – or, let’s put it another way, I am not put off by – gloomy literature. I have only read a little central European literature – such as Imre Kertesz – but would like to read more.

    Oh, and, I do like literary events – of a certain type ie they involve authors I’m interested in and are put on by groups/organisations I respect. I go to a few each year and have mostly learned something from them.

    Nice report!

  2. leroyhunter

    Sounds like an interesting event.

    The “Hungarian authors” question is a good acid test: I can think of 3 I know off the top of my head which isn’t very impressive.

    Did Hofmann comment any further on Zweig or the reaction to his piece? As such a Zweig-phile I’d imagine this was on your mind Max.

    And finally, I don’t know if you’ve ever read Danube by Claudio Magris, but among the multitudes contained in his journey through Mitteleuropa is a survey of the (then contemporary) lit scene of the countries he passes through. Some of it is academic and a little obscurantist, but there are some good discussions of trends and traditions across central Europe that might interest. That’s only a small part of the book by the way, it’s well worth reading for all the other wonderful stuff in it.

  3. Hofmann didn’t comment much further on the Zweig piece, but he wasn’t really asked to either. I’ve only read one Zweig by the way Leroy, so I’m afraid I’m not yet that much of a phile. That said, I liked the one I read a lot and I didn’t like Hofmann’s article (I thought it mean, and much worse poorly argued).

    I did agree with one point in Hofmann’s piece, in that I found Schnitzler the better author (based on my magisterial survey of one Zweig novella and two Schnitzler novellas…), but that’s no reason to cast Zweig into the outer darkness.

    John Self has read a lot of Zweig, he’s probably his biggest proponent on the blogosphere and he knows his work very well. I do think from the little I’ve read that Zweig deserves to be read and to be published, that he’s not the best (I don’t think John claims he is either) author of his time doesn’t mean he’s not good. He’s rather eclipsed Roth in the public consciousness, which may be Hofmann’s real objection given how good Roth is and how much attention he deserves (and Hofmann of course translates Roth).

    I don’t know Danube, I’ll look it up.

    WG, having been to one I may go to others. It’d have to be the right topic though, since as I mention in the piece above I’m not interested in signings or readings per se (though I might attend a poetry reading, not novel extracts though).

  4. I forgot to mention, what I really wanted after the panel discussion was the book Simon Winder brought along. A 1911 Baedecker guidebook to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Wonderful, and as he said chilling in how its innocent description of tourist spots brought home how much the 20th Century had transformed those places. How many of them, and of their people, disappeared.

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  6. leroyhunter

    Mea culpa Max, I was mixing up the blogs. Yes it was John’s extensive Zweig category I had in mind.

    I’ve read one Roth (Confession of a Murderer) which I must confess passed me by a little.

    Great anecdote about the Baedecker: what a sad and ironic document that must be.

  7. I’ve read Hotel Europa, which I really enjoyed.

    I’ve also got a writeup on this blog of a collection of short essays he wrote about 1920s and 1930s Berlin (translated by Michael Hofmann, now I check it again). It’s here:

    The essays generally are brilliantly written little pieces, the last however is extraordinary. A howl of rage and defiance against the Nazis, as they destroy everything he holds dear.

    Shame I didn’t recall I’d read a Hofmann translation while I was speaking to him. It’s fluidly done.

  8. Great to read about this event, Max, which I definitely would have attended if I’d been in London at the time.

    I do indeed rate Zweig, though now I think of it I have a handful of the most recent reissues (Wondrak, Fear, Journey into the Past, Beware of Pity, The World of Yesterday) unread and with no real intention to go near them soon. He is a little bit samey at times, for sure – which is why my favourite of his stories is one of his least typical (Twilight) – but even at his weakest, he’s still a terrific ‘comfort read’.

    Is he Roth’s inferior? Possibly; I’ve read only two Roths – The String of Pearls and The Legend of the Holy Drinker – and liked them both well enough. I do have Left and Right and The Radetzky March on my shelves.

    Thanks for the reminder about My Happy Days in Hell, Max, and I hope you read and enjoy Old Masters (one of Winder’s all-time favourites, I believe) as much as I did. Thanks too for the Hofmann tip about A Minor Apocalypse – another one to look out for.

  9. Sounds like a discussion I’d find really interesting, mainly because my Central European literature is minimal, but I don’t always recognize or remember where authors come from either. I’ve read some books by German authors and Isaac Bashevis Singer from Poland. Since he was mentioned, I have a couple of Zweig’s books in the TBR pile.

    I’m a fan of attending panel discussions at SF/F conventions. All the fascinating information puts me into mental overdrive and books are heaped onto my reading pile. I’ve been to three readings by authors I really like, but they were for works not yet available to the public. Regular signings with lines, no thanks.

  10. I have The Radetzky March too John but haven’t read it yet, I’ve heard great things of it but I may reread Hotel Europa first.

    Hofmann spoke for Old Masters by the way, though Szirtes commented how influential Bernhard has been in Hungary which I wouldn’t have guessed.

    I’d forgotten you’d covered Old Masters. Sometimes a book doesn’t appeal to me on first reading about it (A Way of Life, Like Any Other for example) but then I realise I may have been wrong which I always rather enjoy.

    That said, on the wrong front I’ll be writing up Berger’s Pig Earth soon. Kevinfromcanada recommended it. From A to X appealed to me so little I’d ignored Berger’s other works, and I was definitely wrong there. Pig Earth is brilliant.

    It’s marvellous when one discovers that a book one didn’t look forward to much is actually great. Helps make up for those times when the reverse applies too…

  11. I’ve probably missed the boat mish, but I’d have loved to attend a panel discussion or two on the mundane sf movement. It appeals to me, but I’m pleased it’s not more successful too. My ambivalence makes it an interesting topic for me.

    For those unfamiliar with mundane sf but curious about it (though I suspect most here who’ve not heard of it will probably be happy to keep it that way):


  12. This sounds like a wonderful event. I’m not that keen on author events (I’d much rather read the book).

    Back to the event which I would have loved to attend. Now you are London Ears. So thanks for that–there are some great names to investigate.

    I was talking to someone the other day about foreign literature and he argued that a nameless country historically produced only one book!! I tried to point out that it is the ONLY book we hear about and that the country has a rich, literary background, but to no avail. My point is that we hear of so few of these books, and it is wonderful that publishers (some) are getting these titles translated and out there.

    Hungarian authors–four off the top of my head. Can’t pronounce them though.

    I see you are reading Count Orgel’s Ball. It bored the hell out of me but I see that Pushkin has another of the author’s books on the line.

  13. Simon Winder’s definitely due a beer, whisky, orange juice or whatever from me for bringing out this series and drawing more attention to this literature.

    I wonder how much overlap there is between our various Hungarian author lists. Szerb’s probably on all of them.

    I do think native English speakers sometimes overestimate the importance of English literature, though it’s hard to be sure on the point. I’d have expected German and Austrian fiction to be bigger influences than English on the Hungarians for example, but there’s a slightly myopic tendency to assume our stuff’s the most important out there. Really, it’s just that our stuff is easier for us to read (naturally enough). Much of it is wonderful, but there’s no reason to believe the same can’t be said for many other places.

    The Radiguet is fine so far, but I’m not yet much into it. John Self has a spare of another of his which he’s kindly sending me in the post, so if I don’t like this one I’ll have a chance to try again with another…

  14. leroyhunter

    Szerb was one of mine, along with Nádas (know the name, never read) and Kosztolanyi (plan to read, only heard of him in last few months though).

    I’d like to read What I Saw, more so then Radetzky I think. I nearly bought The Wandering Jew last year and regret not doing so now: it’s gone from my local and not been replaced.

    Talking about influnece, importance, quality and anglophone vs rest of the world of course leads inevitably to the “issue” of translations. I know I’m not alone in probably over-worrying about which version of a translated book to read. But what really baffles me is the number of readers who will disregard books / writers precisely because they are translated. Why would you impoverish yourself like that?

  15. Mine were Szerb, Banffy, ironically today I’ve forgotten the third and Kostolanyi was the one I knew of but couldn’t remember the name of.

    Oh dear, from three to two in just two days. Not impressive.

    I worry too about which translation to read. It does make a huge difference. I once saw the same passage from Three Musketeers repeated four times from four different translations, and the tone changed heavily from one to the other.

    That said, I’m baffled too by the fact translated writers get ignored. Who makes that distinction, between translated and native? Why? So much wonderful stuff, as you say, why impoverish yourself like that?

    No French literature, no Russian, and that’s even before we get to German, Austrian, Czech, Hungarian, Japanese, I could go on…

  16. I can get The Wandering Jew free on the kindle. Is it any good?

    Ok here’s my four:
    Kosztolanyi (really liked)
    Szerb (ok)
    Sandor Marai (everyone else seemed to love it)
    Milan Fust (haven’t read it yet but I have a copy of The Story of My Wife on my shelf)

    I think re: why we stick to our own literature–some of it is accessibility and also what’s shoved in front of us. There’s a rage afoot, for example, on Scandinavian thrillers.

  17. This discussion is very interesting. I’ve never heard of any of those writers apart from Zweig and Schnitzler. The only writers I know from these countries are Kundera and Kafka.

    I’ll have to try one of those. This is how you check if your book store is a good one: when they have foreign literature which is not American or English.

    Max I agree with you on translations. When I wanted to use a poem from Baudelaire in a post, I found 4 different translations of it and none of them really gave back the beauty of the original. I also read Macbeth in a dual edition and sometimes the translation was so complicated that the French was more difficult to understand than the Shakespearian English. (Can you believe that?) Dual editions are really the best when you know the original language but not enough to understand everything without help.

  18. Crime readers are vastly more open to literature in translation than literary readers.

    I have various ideas why that should be so, but I’ll probably save them for another post. In essence though, I think crime readers often choose novels to immerse themselves in a place and to explore it, literary readers read mostly for the character and prose where location is often less important.

    That said, I also think literary readers can at times be a bit conservative. Perhaps more so than crime readers (though for really conservative, as I’ve said before, it’s hard to beat fantasy readers).

  19. It is always a pleasure to see for a Hungarian when the most significant pieces of our literature goes abroad 🙂

    If you need English to/from Hungarian linguistic services, please visit my site:

  20. Re: translations (Russian). If there’s a Pevear/V (shortened as I may misspell it) copy, then I will buy it.

    Apart from that I didn’t care that much one way or another but since I’ve been reading more translations, I’ve come to recognise certain names and also appreciate their styles (not that I’m into comparing translations necessarily). But that name recognition sometimes seals the purchase decision for me.

  21. GB Steve

    Of Zweig, I’ve only read horror stories but I’d forgotten that Roth was Austrian not German. I’ve read Left & Right and White Cities, his travelogue from Provence and Paris. Dedalus Books is usually where I go for this kind of thing and the Book of Polish Fantasy was terrific.

    Otherwise I read Kadaré and so should everyone. He’s my tip for the Nobel Prize.

  22. Re Hungarian authors, for the record I read Kosztolanyi’s Skylark at the weekend and was disappointed by it. I don’t mean I disliked it; I liked it, but it wasn’t, to me, anything special.

    I recently bought Ferenc Karinthy’s Metropole which has been eloquently praised here by Keith Ridgway (author of the excellent Animals). It’s translated, as chance would have it, by George Szirtes.

  23. For me Guy, Brendan King, Anthea Bell and Michael Hofmann are all names I look out for.

    I’m sure I’ll add to that list as time goes on.

    Dedalus Books are excellent. I hadn’t heard of Left & Right, I’ll have to look that one up.

    I totally second the Kadaré recommendation. A wonderful writer, I’ve read I think three by him of which my favourite was Broken April. I agree, Nobel Prize material (if he hasn’t got it already).

  24. I’m looking forward to Skylark, I’ve no real preconceived view on it though.

    Thanks for the Metropole link, I’ll take a look at that.

  25. GB Steve

    And now I’ve remembered Michael Ajvaz’s Other City from Dalkey Press ( It’s a surreal masterpiece, about the Prague that you can’t see but that always waiting there in the wings. It’s a bit like reading Jan Švankmajer.

  26. What a wonderful event. I’ve never been to anything like this, but this one would have been perfect for me. How brave of you to ask a question.

    I’ve just read Germania by Winder so would have like to meet him. And Michael Hoffman too.

    A very interesting post.

  27. leroyhunter

    I don’t know why anyone would make that decision Max (ie to ignore “foreign” writing) but I’ve seen it posited and defended as a position on the Guardian Books blog more then once. The ultimate logic seems to boil down to the idea that “there’s enough good stuff in English not to have to bother about all that other stuff.” Baffling.

    It strikes me as on a par with the attitude that avoids non-Anglophone cinema because “I don’t go to the cinema to spend 2 hours reading.”

    Encountering either of these attitudes (or the “it doesn’t matter if I am / they are reading shite as long as I am / they are reading” one) usually ends up with me needing a lie down.

  28. leroyhunter

    GB Steve: that Prague book looks interesting. I’ve long wanted to read the hard-to-find Magic Prague by Ripellino, this looks like a perfect companion.

    On a similar theme, and also from the Dalkey Archive stable, let me suggest this book about Vienna, which caught my eye:

  29. Leroyhunter,
    About the “it doesn’t matter if I am / they are reading shite as long as I am / they are reading” one” attitude, I am precisely the kind of person who thinks that, as long we assume that “shit” can be defined.
    If people reading books or watching movies categorized as “non-shit” by self-centred elites don’t take into account the other side of the argument, ie “it’s too complicated or too highbrow”, their number will not grow.

    I think you need to learn how to walk before trying to run.

    So maybe a little effort in dubbing foreign movies in English would be a first step, a way to show those movies are worth seeing and thus worth the effort of reading subtitles if it is not dubbed.

    And perhaps trying to share easy “non-shit” books with “shit-books” readers could help them bring their reading to a new level.

    Worse: what if reading “shit” gives someone the habit to read fast enough to be able to follow a foreign movie with subtitles? Does that make “shit” worth reading or still not?

    Call me a candid if you wish, after all, Voltaire was French too.

  30. leroyhunter

    bookaround, I’m not trying to set myself up as an elite, self-centred or otherwise. I do think of myself as a serious reader, interested in quality books regardless of provenance, genre etc. I think that’s an attitude most people who comment here seem to share.

    What I object to is the laziness that equates reading, say, celebrity memoirs or “misery lit” with reading books that authors have put time, effort and craft into. I don’t believe the huge numbers of people who read the former, or the people who make Dan Brown or James Patterson bestsellers, are interested in developing as readers and trying new things. I may be wrong about that of course, but the figures these authors generate suggest that repetition is a key for their fans. People who go for this type of stuff are just looking to pass the time, and to me that doesn’t equate to active, engaged reading.

    It’s not about difficulty or obscurity or looking down on what other people choose to do, it’s about drawing a distinction between stuff that is purely commercial and is consumed as a product and books that have other objectives and deserve to be thought of differently. The argument that reading anything is of itself “good” doesn’t hold for me. If it’s part of a development like you suggest, well, that’s a different matter.

    I take your point about dubbing, in the anglophone world that’s not common and it might help a wider audience engage. I really doubt that reading challenges prevent people from seeing subtitled movies though. I believe there’s an ingrained reluctance, as with books, to try different things and the subtitle issue is in general a handy excuse for this.

  31. I didn’t mean to offend you of course, and I was purposely provocative. I perfectly understand (and share by the way) your point on active reading opposed to laziness. And I also regret that computer-written books hide the real authors too.

    My point is that it is part of our responsibility (a too heavy word maybe), us who like reading, to try to share our passion and not only with people who like reading as much as we do. That’s what I meant by self-centred elites.

    I mentioned Candide on purpose too. The end of the book is “One must cultivate his own garden”, meaning one had better stop trying to change the world to concentrate on changing things around them.
    When I offer my sister-in-law good but easy reading for her birthday, I’m part of that. And she surprised me in lending me a Bernard Schlink book which is much better than the Marc Levy or Daniel Musso she’s accustomed too.
    I also saw my grand-mother reading very lowbrow romance and saying one day “I can’t stand reading those anymore”. She dropped out of school at 13 and started reading when she was 60 at least. That’s what I mean by starting to walk before running.

    So yes, I believe it can happen, on a tiny scale maybe.

    If you’re interested, you might like to read Daniel Pennac’s testimony/manifesto called The 10 Inalienable Rights of the Reader, which has been reviewed by the Guardian there :

  32. On the subject of translations, I do sympathise with Leroy a great deal about those Guardian threads. It is depressing when someone says they see no reason to read books in translation.

    I don’t personally have a problem with people reading Dan Brown or Twilight or whatever. It’s their free time to do with as they choose. That makes sense though, that’s someone saying “I’m reading for entertainment, I think this writer tells a good story and that’s what I’m here for.” I may not agree, but I get it.

    What I don’t get is when someone says “there’s enough in English, why read something foreign?” That makes no sense to me at all. Read just for entertainment, read the same authors over and over, read what everyone else is, read nothing but contemporary literary fiction written to please prize juries, whatever. Read what you want. But don’t hold yourself out as a literary reader while being as close-minded in what you’ll look at as any fan of Tom Clancy.

    The you’s in this comment are general by the way, there’s nobody in this thread they apply to.

  33. Tom, forgot to add, I pretty much talk for a living being a lawyer so asking questions isn’t much of an issue for me. Not asking questions, that would be much harder…

    I do though try to ask an actual question and to keep it short. There’s few things in this context more groan-inducing than the person who says “this isn’t so much a question as a comment” and then proceeds into some 10 minute monologue of doubtful relevance.

  34. leroyhunter

    No offence taken, bookaround. Your points are well made. It’s interesting what you say about your experiences with your in-law and grandmother.

    Thanks for the link to the Pennac piece, it’s a wise and tolerant approach that you couldn’t disagree with.

  35. My knee jerk reaction to the content in the links you provided was that it sounds boring and a lot like fiction. Wiki’s list of what it is not didn’t help. I can see why Ryman’s movement was/is criticized among the SF community, it’s not more popular, and only a small circle of people use the term because it’s not common knowledge.

    Upon further research, I came across an interview with Ryman with one of my preferred SF sources and got a better idea about his reasoning. I liked his line that “The only person who can say if its author was playing the mundane game is the author him/herself”. He lists authors/books I’m familiar with and have had in the reading pile, but thinking about a short story by Samuel Delaney, yes, it was mundane and good. Neal Stephenson calls anything that isn’t SF mundane and it seems that unless written by a writer of SF, most mundane works will be found outside of the SF section, Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes or Margaret Atwood’s the Handmaid’s Tale, which she calls literary fiction or speculative fiction depending on the audience.

    Now that I’m aware of the movement, I’d like to attend a panel discussion about it too. I may pose a few questions to a SF forum to get their thoughts. Good thing they aren’t flamers, heheh. I like broadening my horizons and exploring speculative fiction/science fiction so thank you.

    What is it about the topic that makes you ambivalent? I’m always intrigued by people’s responses, so what comes to mind when you think of SF in general?

  36. Mish,

    I missed your comment. Apologies for that.

    I’m ambivalent because it’s implicitly judgemental about other forms of SF and because it excludes so much that works so well. I’m ambivalent too though because on the positive side arbitrary restrictions often spur good art.

    I read Maureen F McHugh before I knew her work was mundane sf (I don’t know if she wrote it with that label in mind or if it was later imposed). For all that, her books are tremendous. Quiet, but excellent. China Mountain Zhang is a beautiful work of SF in which the conflicts centre around what would normally be literary issues – problems with career and relationships. Mission Child takes the old sf trope of someone getting access to higher technology than their world normally possesses and turns it on its head with that person then making little use of it. Along the way it says quite a lot about the refugee experience (and refugee “ingratitude” to those who provide well meaning but not always relevant aid) in our own world.

    So, I like mundane sf because that of it which I’ve read is very good. I dislike it because I wouldn’t want all sf to be like that.

    What comes to mind when I think of sf in general? Excellent question. The word that came immediately to mind is possibility. SF is the literature of the possible, it’s the literature that explores what could be or might be. It’s a literature of ideas.

    And sometimes it’s not. Sometimes it’s a literature of attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion (not that that quote comes from a book), and that’s ok with me too.

    Back in the 1950s Kingsley Amis wrote an overview of SF called New Maps of Hell. Although a major literary writer, he was a big SF fan. In the first chapter he quotes an excerpt from The Space Merchants and effectively says “either that excited you or it didn’t, if it didn’t you can close this book now” (that’s not a precise quote). He was right, the other thing sf is is something that’s in your blood. It’s in mine and always will be, even though it’s a small percentage of what I read nowadays.

  37. No worries. Nice quote. In one’s blood, I like that. Unless it’s by an author I really like or want to read, I doubt I’d actively go seeking mundane SF because it’s so constricting of everything I love about SF- the exploration of infinite possibilities. I’ve never been good with a list of “not” anyway. Should you be interested, I’m hosting a SF reading challenge that starts again in August. It would be great to have you along.

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