Writing from Hungary: An Introduction

I saw a movie the other day, Cold Souls by Sophie Barthes, in which I caught the following dialogue:  “I’m working on a play. 'Uncle Vanya.'”  “I . . . I know that play. It’s so Russian.”  Now I appreciate an admonition when I hear one, so if you’re interested in what makes contemporary Hungarian literature contemporary Hungarian literature, you will have to turn to someone else. All I can say is: it’s like this and it’s like that—there are traditionalists for whom the story is paramount and so they resort to a straightforward narrative style and technique (Ádám Bodor, Lajos Grendel, György Spíró), and there are writers who, committed to a specific subject, return to it book after book, and whose writing is  characterized by highly wrought, polished styles and a worldview, sometimes even a dramaturgy, that is distinctly their own (Imre Kertész, László Krasznahorkai, Endre Kukorelly, and Péter Nádas). Then there are the intrepid modernists, some of whom seem not to give a hoot about storylines, or stories for that matter, not even traditional literary forms—what’s more, not even grammatical rules—and for whom the act of writing is equal to the act of creating a new universe that did not exist before they set pen to paper. For them, not thoughts, but words are the stuff of prose (or poetry), or as Lajos Parti Nagy has said, “My stories are made of the raw flesh of language.” Also, a while back I asked Péter Esterházy why he put something in a certain way, and he gave his famous smiling shrug and said, “I have no idea. That’s what the sentence wanted.” All of which implies that these Hungarian modernists and postmodernists (oh, how they hate being called that!) conceive of literature in a radically new way. Once you read their works, life will move to a different rhythm, it will take on a different tone and hue, and you will be enriched by a new type of reading experience which calls for an interaction with the text that is often quite intense, if at times baffling. It is from this group of writers that I have chosen nine, hoping that their works will provide readers with a sense of what one exciting face of contemporary Hungarian literature is like, and that once they have read these pieces and proceed to read others like it, they will be able to cry out, “Ah, if this isn’t Hungarian, I’ll eat my hat!” I am, in short, hoping to present one exciting face of contemporary Hungarian literature by having chosen and translated pieces that will speak for themselves and, as you read, will reveal their nature, and divulge what it is they share. Where they come from, and why.

I claim no form or standard of objectivity, except for one, which I shall leave for last, for when all is said and done, almost nothing is really objective. Which, considering that we are human beings, is nothing to hang our heads about. Subjectivity is the noblest form of self-expression, and informed subjectivity is the surest guarantee that we are pursuing the right path.

Well, then, what do I like about the contemporary Hungarian literature to which the current issue of Words without Borders has so generously devoted itself? Why have I chosen the authors and the pieces that I have? (“How do I love thee?  Let me count the ways . . .”) For one thing, no matter what the piece is about, it is pulsating with spirit and energy. Which comes, on the one hand, from the license the writer has granted himself to ignore past rules and to throw caution to the winds; it also comes from his willingness to throw himself into the foray and not hide behind his words—nor hide his words, for that matter—to courageously look into the mirror, and regardless of what he (or she, for that matter) may see there, to work it into his prose. The most blatant example of this is Mihály Kornis’s striking piece, “The Toad Prince.” I have always admired this willingness to look steadfastly at the self and at the world, this kind of ultimate courage, this need to know,which is not simply the courage of the intellect, of which the French essayists and philosophers have furnished such brilliant examples through the centuries, but of the soul, which seems to surface where there is deep and long-lasting repression, and where the search for the ultimate solutions to living in an overpoliticized environment without losing one’s self takes on special urgency. Of course, in the case of writers such as Mihály Kornis, Péter Esterházy and Magda Szécsi, it is also a working method, for they have clearly opted to use their own lives and the lives of their immediate families as part of the stuff of their prose, even if at least one of them (Esterházy) keeps pretending he doesn’t. At least, not his own. Whereas we all know better. I have been hooked by this kind of literature from the very first, literature that is made not only of the flesh of language, but the flesh of the writer as well.  

Also, since these writers do not distance themselves, their feelings and convictions, their passion, in fact, from their work, often writing through thick and thin as if the devil were after them—they are using themselves to write with, I like to say, unconvinced that this makes much sense—on some very deep level their works becomes a veritable extension of themselves, and since their works are quite remarkable, one can’t help but feel deep affection for the writers as well. Which of course makes for a very special relationship between writer and reader, not to mention writer and translator.  To like not only the “product” but the man behind it, too, this can make one’s head spin. “Where does the writer end and his prose begin?” one might ask, and I wonder if, in the case of the contemporary Hungarian literature that is the focus of this issue, one could in fact draw a  line. And this is exciting, new terrain for anyone interested in literature.

In the pieces in this issue I like the frequent occurrence of striking images, of which there are too many to quote here, and the striking thoughts (Magda Szécsi’s “I realized early on inside my mother’s belly that I’d be born a Gypsy, and the realization made me drown at least twice in the embryonic fluid”). I like the play with language that involves unexpected shifts in register, which usually comes from a character’s voice intruding on the narrative, or a character inadvertently giving his or his character’s true feelings away by reverting to the language of communism or the language of prejudice against the poor and the homeless. Such shifts also allow for simultaneous temporal presence, for a character to speak, within the same sentence, both as a grownup and a child, a favorite literary device of mine, and one frequently used by Mihály Kornis.

I like the multiplicity of meaning that is so often present in these writings, the experience of reading one thing, like a surrealistic story of three homeless people who grow as tall as the Parliament building, or the story of the Communist-Party functionary who comes to portion out the land among the peasants and leaves them with the promise of resurrecting the dead, and then realizing that behind the surrealism in the one case, and the innocent, pared-down storytelling in the other, there lies a brilliant piece of social criticism. And in literature, social criticism is always at its most effective and most enjoyable when it doesn’t come bursting through the front door, but sneaks up on you gradually through the use of various literary devices: in the case of Virág Erdős (“Blessed Margaret”) the diversionary tactics are wrapped in the disarming innocence with which her story is told; in Ervin Lázár’s case (“The China Doll”), they come disguised as a folktale told in the  simple style and quiet tone of the  people of the Hungarian plains.

No wonder, then, that some of the writers in this issue blur the line between fact and fiction, which goes hand in hand with the creation of a multiplicity of simultaneous meanings. The story, which is fiction, is “true,” as are the insights we gain through the story, which are true, too.

This blurring of the line for these writers is less a postmodern gesture than an existential reality, for the harm that a political system has done does not disappear without a trace. Specifically, I am thinking of what Péter Esterházy has called the web of lies that there was no escaping, “a little Hungarian pornography,” the state of knowing what you are hearing is pure fiction and not fact, yet having to pretend otherwise. And if this went on long enough, after a while you began questioning your own reality and the limits of your personality, the limits of its integrity. And if you happened to be a writer, you sometimes extended this questioning and existential feeling of uncertainty to your writing as well, by working it into the fabric of your story. Are we dealing with life into art or art into life, that is the question. But as in the case of the nine authors presented here, and the others who could have been, we are definitely dealing with the triumph of art over life. Or so it seems to me.

And I most especially like—though considering the preoccupation of so many of the writers presented here, the word “like” seems out of place—that their works tell us that we are all living, more or less, on the periphery of our lives, that we live with a sense of otherness or exclusion, somehow unfulfilled, tragically comic, yearning after things we cannot have, yearning for something more, for normalcy. . . No wonder that so much contemporary Hungarian writing has a sense of urgency about it, and I like this, too, very much—the feeling that the author’s pen was steeped not in ink but his own life. I like this in contemporary Hungarian literature very much, almost as much as the inventive use of language and admirable linguistic dexterity, sometimes used just for the fun of it—all this because I am a great believer in the pleasure principle, which contemporary Hungarian literature satisfies in abundance. No matter how serious the subject may be, it is as often as not treated with humor (you laugh until you cry, but then in the end you laugh—until you cry), and there is an abundance of playfulness, of linguistic frolicking. And playfulness is not only liberating but, like all play, keeps us in the absolute present moment, which may well be one of the secret ingredients of the pleasure principle.

And one last thing. I had promised that I would leave the one objective criterion of my selection of authors for the end, and that criterion is quality. The question of quality is not to be confused with likes and dislikes. Though I’d be hard put to pinpoint its components, I know quality when I see it, just as you do, I am sure. In the case of contemporary Hungarian literature—the face of it that I wished to present, certainly—quality involves the mysterious brew of subject matter and the manner of presentation, and it also involves the presence of a voice that is intrinsic and unique to the writer and is easily distinguished from all other voices, and this voice in turn involves what Mária Sívó, a very dear friend of mine, made me see. I spent days trying to fathom the first sentence of Our Street, a book by Sándor Tar, trying to understand what makes the sentence, “The people of the street are waiting for the mailman,” so haunting and so perfectly in-place at the beginning of the novel, when Mária gave me a look one usually reserved for a slightly dim but not unlikeable child, and after a short pause said: “Sollosy, it’s called talent.” After my many years of editing, publishing, and translating Hungarian, Mária was still able to surprise me, making me accept that when it comes down to brass tacks, it’s talent and quality that weighs most in the balance—plus that certain something that sets the literature of one country apart from another which, taking the admonition of Sophie Barthes’s film to heart, I will only call the X-factor for now. Perhaps as you read you will be able to give it a name.

Postscript: Translation can be very tiring, even a burden at times, but I can’t help myself. Sometimes I really wish I could. But translation for me is a matter of nerves;  when I come across a fine piece of literature, I can’t pretend I didn’t see it. I can’t walk past it, making like it never happened. I need to answer the challenge, interiorize it, gobble it up, make it mine. This is what translation means to me, this is why I do it, and if what I do should turn out to be a source of pleasure for others, all I can say is it was well worth the effort.


Judith Sollosy

July 27, 2010, Budapest