Arthur Phillips was born in Minneapolis in 1969 and educated at Harvard. He has been a child actor, a jazz musician, a speechwriter, a dismally failed entrepreneur, and a five-time Jeopardy! champion. His first novel, Prague, a national bestseller, was named a New York Times Notable Book, and received The Los Angeles Times/Art Seidenbaum Award for best first novel. His second novel, The Egyptologist, was a national and international bestseller, and was on more than a dozen "Best of 2004" lists. Angelica, his third novel, is now available. You can find Angelica, as well as his earlier work online at Amazon.com. His work has been translated into twenty-five languages. He lives in New York with his wife and two sons. He and I have joked that the success of Prague has made him the "go-to" source for discussions and opinions on MagLit (Magyar Literature), and I'm pleased to have him share his thoughts on The Rebels with us all.—Mark Sarvas
MS: Perhaps I'm reading too much into your New Yorker review, but the sense that I got was that you were at some pains to say nice things about a lesser work. I've mentioned that I think there's a problem for modern readers in coming to Márai in a sort of reverse order. Do you think there's a fundamental problem coming to Márai in this order, and that readers might be better served going straight for Embers? Or is there a strong case to be made for The Rebels on its own merits?
AP: I think Rebels does just fine on its own. It's a younger man's book with younger characters, written at a time when Márai hadn't seen all hell break loose in his country yet. I wasn't trying to prop up a lesser book. And, I really don't know what else is out there; there are a lot of Márai books still only in Hungarian. So I don't know the direction his style took. Embers is certainly more stylistically interesting to me than Rebels, but Rebels was funny, and the language more outlandish, more under the influence, I think, of Gyula Krúdy. Embers may not be his best or most characteristic novel, so I won't say that the way to go is to start with Embers. There are some who will get more out of starting with the memoirs, I suppose. Even Casanova in Bolzano, maybe.
MS: You and I share a particular admiration for Embers but writing for the New York Review of Books, J.M. Coetzee dismisses it with terms like "overblown language" and "caricatural layer of kitsch." Accepting that like minds may differ, to what would you attribute such an extreme difference of opinion and how might you address Coetzee's criticisms?
AP: So I went and bought the Coetzee review for three dollars and now have precisely three dollars’ worth of opinions about it. Here they are, free of charge. I think that Coetzee limits the ways you can read Embers, and then doesn't much like either of the ways he allows for. He says first, if it's a satire of Austro-Hungarian values, then the clichés are there for satiric purpose. But if instead, it's really about Márai's values (specifically, the need to keep your inmost personality private), then it can be dismissed as "minor." I think this criticism falls short of acceptable. There's at least one other way of reading the novel (if not several): Márai doesn't agree with the values of the General, but he is also not parodying them, and he's not endorsing Konrad's bitter silent privacy either. Instead he's trying to present both characters in their own contexts, their own justifications, using literary effects (the castle, the retainer, all that). This is how I read it—some of the General appealed to me, some didn't, Konrad frustrated me, but I saw his motivations, I think. But I didn't read or take the novel as a whole as either indictment or endorsement of anything, and I am a little surprised that Coetzee insists we have to. Of course, even if we do insist that the book is somehow moralizing, how about this interpretation instead: it was published in 1942, at a time when a desire to recapture lost Hungarianness, both spiritually and geographically, had led the country to an uneasy alliance with Nazi Germany. The book can be read as a warning letter: those old military days are dead, cling to them and you will end, like the General, with nothing at all. Now, I didn't take the book like that—I read it in the 21st century, not as a historical document, but as a novel. And for me, I was not bothered by the aspects that so bothered Coetzee. My impression is, he didn't like the book, and he really didn't like the picture of Márai that he got from the memoirs, and so the ideas and ideals of Márai were perhaps looming too large in Coetzee as he read the fiction. Obviously I'm speculating far out of bounds here. But I read the fiction first. Finally, my honest literary theory is, you like what you like. It's a personal, chemical reaction. Then, after that, you find the theory that fits your tastes. Coetzee didn't dig the book, and so his review explains why it's structurally and morally minor. I did like the book, so I can explain why it's structurally, morally, and literarily lovable. I reserve the right to change my mind the next time I read it.
MS: It seems that the concepts that concern Márai—honor, boon companions—might seem curiously outdated to contemporary readers. How then to account for the success of his works with English-speaking audiences?
AP: I can't account for the success of him, though I don't know that it's continued since Embers. I think that many readers, like me, were happy to learn there was another Central European master to discover. Those early 20th-century pessimists flung out from the wreckage of 1918 are a lot of fun, and once you've read Mann and Joseph Roth and Musil and Kafka, it's exciting to hear, "Hey, wait! We just found another one!" even though, as Coetzee points out, that "discovery" was rather on the hype-y side of the truth.
MS: Since we're talking about Hungarian novelists in translation, and this is an audience interested in literature in translation, might you take this opportunity to tell us a thing or two about Gyula Krúdy?
AP: Well, for all this, my taste personally runs slightly more to Krúdy than to Márai, and I've had a few Hungarian friends tell me something similar. Márai himself idolized Krúdy, and even wrote a fictionalized biography of Krúdy's last day alive in the style of Krúdy himself. There are, as far as I can find, five volumes of Krúdy's fiction in English, done by four translators. The best translator, by my standards, is John Batki, who has done Sunflower and Ladies Day. Krúdy is wonderful for almost opposite reasons that Márai is wonderful. Márai (especially in Embers) appeals to me by his arranged ideas, his tidy composition, his characterizations. Krúdy is a fever-dream instead. His language (as far as I can tell in English) is unlike any other writer's; he's an oddity in literature. Unlike the norm of fiction, where language is put to use for a plot or a thematic investigation or a portrait, his books sort of exist for the language; the stories are not the point. The characters aren't even the point. The ideas are not the point. The point is this stream, this woven tissue, this endless river of imagery. At the end of the book, what sticks with you are the comparisons, imagery, personifications that have been spun around a theme, so that you are left with, for example, a feeling about the world and death that another writer would have delivered in character and plot, but Krúdy has delivered in images. It feels a bit like the payoff of a tremendously moving poem, though he writes prose. I hope this rather inept description gives you the desire to try him, and also the warning to give him some time to work his magic on you. You have to read him slow, and you have to work for a while, and then suddenly, it's as if you are in his dreams alongside him. The payoff of hard work with Proust, for example, is the feeling at the end that you have actually spent years in someone's company. The payoff with Krúdy is the feeling that you have spent several nights together, drunk, and possibly unconscious.