A literature of accession

Back to Essays, Reviewsback to journalism

As it joins the EU, Hungary can teach us to dream of new possibilities

Prospect, May 2004


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 by H.H. Asquith’s government as a temporary wartime measure in 1915 – the same year Henry Ford started his first Model “T” production line at Highland Park, Detroit – 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 across Europe to Constantinople, passportless travel was finished. Wandering in eastern Austria, he was hailed by a man in uniform as he crossed a field. “Where the devil did I think I was going?… ‘You were walking straight into Czechoslovakia!’ the official said reproachfully as he stamped my passport.”

In Holland, nevertheless, Leigh Fermor had benefited from the Dutch welcome that promised the humble traveller overnight shelter in a police cell; and in Germany, though harangued by Brownshirts, he repeatedly found himself on the receiving end of spontaneous German hospitality. Meanwhile, in Britain the publishers Chatto & Windus had refused an invitation to translate Du Côté 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 distributed the book in London, the printing rapidly ran out.

And so to today, when that easy permeability between cultures seems oddly quaint. How many works by European novelists would today go out of print in their own language as a result of sales to British readers? The question seems forlorn and meaningless. What counts is that the European political entity we now inhabit, once of 15 states and increased this 1st May to 25, is peaceful now as it was not then, politically and economically closer, a Europe of open internal frontiers and liberal outlook, a Europe discussing, with surprising bounce, a common constitution, seeking common responses to global problems. Yet we may have forgotten the virtues of that earlier porosity. Difficult relations then were those between governments, not people, and though the impetus for the founding of (what later became) the European Union was the desire to rebuild Europe after the disastrous events of World War II, one consequence of political union has been that the links between the inhabitants of historical Europe are being ironed out – that mixture of cultural individuality and commonality between us that once spurred the Italian novelist Alberto Moravia to describe the continent, delightfully, as “a reversible fabric, one side variegated, the other a single colour rich and deep.” I enjoy, as you may, using the same money in most of Europe, driving 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 sophisticated virtual Europe of museums and folklore, 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 Petersburg, from Reykjavik to Kiev. Why the novel? Because I was fascinated by the traffic in stories and ideas carried by the novel across the continent since the Renaissance, and how it has therefore been one of the instruments of modern Europe. It may be the most mongrel of the 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. (Science and philosophy work with a much lower tolerance of ambiguity.) 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, they make manifest our present and future connectedness.

Can we be enriched by the literatures of the new states to join our political union, as it expands south and east? It is a feature of what we call central and eastern Europe that the novel arrived late there, some time in the nineteenth century. More interesting is that when its novelists made their mark – one thinks of Kafka, Musil, Gombrowicz – they succeeded better than most western writers in overthrowing accepted ideas of reality, in making visible the modern era. It is as if,  just as the novel was getting normalised in the West, it took off again.

One 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 nineteenth-century central European circus. A new anthology, Leopard V from the Harvill Press, seeks to redress that balance of neglect, devoted to Hungarian fiction and poetry “before and beyond the Iron Curtain”. The anthology’s editor, the distinguished poet George Szirtes, puts down the relative unknownness of Hungarian literature to an anxiety on the part of Hungarians themselves – of language, of territory, of politics – that has prevented its becoming known. The Hungarian language, with its Finno-Ugric roots, is an “island of sound” in a sea of Teutonic, Slavic and Romance languages, its consonants, arriving in the 9th century AD, “flat, clear and unremitting”. (Hungarian writers I spoke to frequently expressed unhappiness at the ugliness of their language.) Hungary’s borders have been more subject than most to history’s traumatic shiftings. After long redrawing by Turks and Habsburgs, the country was cut by the Treaty of Trianon in 1920 to one-third of its prewar size and half its population. Soviet takeover, Communist rule, and the 1956 revolution displaced hundreds of thousands of Hungarians, most recognisable in Britain by the clarity of their articulation in English, giving equal stress to every syllable.

It’s at this point of post-World War II self-definition that Szirtes’ anthology begins, with a beautifully detailed memoir by Sándor Márai – all snow and ice, and the rich ironies of “liberation” of his country by the wartime Soviets. Márai’s work is richly revealing of the quality of Hungarian prose, and followed by other gems to make the reader want to seek out more of this resilient and lyrical literature – Ferenc Juhász’s poem, much admired by Auden, “The Boy Changed into a Stag Cries Out at the Gate of Secrets”, extracts from Géza Ottlik’s Buda and György Konrad’s The Case Worker, short stories by Péter Nádas, György Spiro, Lajos Grendel, Péter Zilahy and many others.

Yet for British readers I wish Leopard V had started 25 years earlier, when, after the overriding dramatic and poetic statements of the 18th and 19th centuries, the Hungarian language, and novel, finally broke away from its defensive past. Mentioned in the anthology’s introduction, though not in the text, is the ringleader of that break, novelist and reformer of Hungary’s literary outlook, Dezsö Kosztolányi. Márai, in this case, was the pupil; Kosztolányi was the master.

A dazzling boy-poet who became a novelist in his forties, Kosztolányi (1885-1936) is still regarded by many Hungarian writers as a Merlin of their language. The written Hungarian language that he fashioned during the Twenties, a prose that in translation can read as clear as Stephen Crane and as melodic as DH Lawrence, remains their touchstone. Anna Édes, his last and greatest novel published in 1926, 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 waited till the caretaker had gone and then she 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.

‘A servant.’

‘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 in a strangled voice.

Thomas Mann was an admirer of Kosztolányi’s, writing to him, “[You are] among those who today best express the spiritual and cultural life of Europe.” Two of Kosztolányi’s four other novels, Nero: the Bloody Poet and Skylark have appeared in English, although inexplicably the surreal stories of his alter ego Esti Kornél – a picaresque hero of our untrustworthy era – have never been translated.

Kosztolányi, a fiction writer of world class, was also co-founder of the Budapest literary review Nyugat, whose title (“West” in English) says much about the commitment of its contributors. When Soviet tanks dashed their ideals and the phrase “committed literature” came to mean that which was loyal only to the Party, Kosztolányi’s successors – writers from Magda Szabo to Péter Esterházy – reacted with allegory, irony, parody. (Incidentally, the omission of the wonderful Magda Szabo from the Leopard anthology requires an explanation.) Kosztolányi would probably 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 from a landscape apart. The aesthetic is, however, really an aesthetic of discovery, of plunging into the unknown – and to that degree is actually our ancestral Europe, the Europe that once sent us out to explore our possibilities, to venture everything. When, a couple of years ago, I asked Péter Esterházy – whose testamentary novel of family history, Celestial Harmonies, is also out in English this month – what he thought novels were for, he responded by saying novels were why he lived. He added that he also thought they were why readers lived. Why? Because they, like him, had “a bottomless curiosity to find out” – he was momentarily stuck, waving his arms – “what the fuck this is all about!” Which, as the politicians’ Europe enlarges, is a very reasonable reason for embracing Hungary’s literature, and those of the other nine states joining it.


© Julian Evans 2004

Conditions of use

This site contains copyright material © Julian Evans 1993-2013. Permission is granted to print, download, read/listen to the print/audio material for personal use only. It may not be reused (copied, broadcast, shared) without permission and all reuses must be attributed.