I stumbled upon this one by chance while in Budapest for holidays and looking for books by Hungarian novelists'Jaguar' is a strange animal of a book.
I stumbled upon this one by chance while in Budapest for holidays and looking for books by Hungarian novelists. I had never heard of this novella and its author before. Thanks to the excellent (and Budapest based) Corvina kiadò for having translated 'Jaguar' into English making it widely available in the bookshops of the Hungarian capital.
Written by the Hungarian journalist, poet and playwright Jeno Heltai in 1914, 'Jaguar' is set twenty-three years earlier.
Now, back in 1891, Heltai's beloved Budapest was quite an exciting place to be. The town itself had been created only eighteen years later by merging the municipalities of Buda and Pest with Obuda. The beautiful Chain Bridge was only forty-two year old and the first line of the Budapest Metro was going to open in five year time. The city was probably at its cultural and economic peak back then within a still powerful Austria-Hungary and sporting a multilingual identity. Budapest in 1891 had an exciting nightlife, excellent theatres, cafes, museums and a number of daily newspapers.
Heltai lived those years working as a reporter for one of those newspapers and sort of romanticises the deeds of his early career in this novella. You'll learn how journalists in fin-de-siecle Budapest were often penniless, spent a good deal of time in coffee houses, lived in furnished rooms and worked til the early hours.
Yes, 'Jaguar' is an odd book. Semi-crime fiction novel, semi-entertainment, semi-spy story, the book revolves around the weird and kaleidoscopic character of Jaguar, a columnist who saves from closure the newspaper he writes for. Jaguar manages to do this by ensuring the publisher one exclusive scoop per week and the way he gets those news is sensational in itself.
Suffice is to say that Budapest will soon discover the existence of the daring 'There is Still Humour in the World Burglars' and Old Soldiers' Association' led by the bold and mysterious Great Nemo.
I cannot imagine a book like 'Jaguar' having been written anywhere else than in Hungary. Fellow Hungarian novelists such as Antal Szerb and Gyula Krudy might have loved this one; I've found it an entertaining quick read....more
This was an excellent, engaging and quite informative read which happened just when I needed it. I've been interested in the 1956 Hungarian Uprising/ReThis was an excellent, engaging and quite informative read which happened just when I needed it. I've been interested in the 1956 Hungarian Uprising/Revolution for quite a long time, but - by sheer coincidence - one week upon finishing 'Twelve Days' I finally visited Budapest for the very first time.
I guess it might have been rather annoying for my partner (she has just confirmed that it was) being led through the Hungarian capital by me unawaringly lecturing her on events and anecdotes from October '56. And I reckon how more than once I juxtaposed the monumental main streets and squares we were navigating through with the black and white pictures depicting Soviet tanks, urban guerrilla, rubble and destruction dating back to the uprising. Sorry for that, Paulina! And blame on you, Victor Sebestyen.
For reading 'Twelve Days' brought me straight into a Budapest that is no more. I got sucked into a time vortex blowing me away from A.D. 2014 Poland and leaving me stranded but not confused in 1956 Hungary. It took Mr Sebestyen's wizardry only a few pages to captivate me and - much to his merit - once I get into the history whirlwind I was reluctant to get out of it. I'll tell you why.
'Twelve Days' is one of those rare history books where the context is introduced and explained thoroughly, the chronology is always clear and the narration manages to be enthralling, coherent and consistent. It reads like a well-plotted political spy story with a Machiavellian cast of characters, but it deals with one of the darkest pages in recent European history. Despite of the title he chose, the author doesn't rush to the brave and bloody twelve days of the 1956 uprising/revolution. At the contrary, Mr Sebestyen takes his time to explain what happened to Budapest and Hungary during and after World War II. By doing so the Anglo-Hungarian historian skilfully introduces the readers to a place and time they might not be familiar with and gradually builds up the book to its climax.
Each of the main domestic characters who played a major part in the events leading to 1956 and following it - Matyas Rakosi, Erno Gero, Laszlo Rajk, Imre Nagy, Janos Kadar - is carefully disclosed in an unbiased and quite objective way. True, when it comes to villains Mr Sebestyen stresses out Gero's 'sadistic smile' or Rakosi's 'overwhelming cynicism', but one must not forget that these men sent thousands of people to death and are justly remembered as criminals by Hungarians. What I've found interesting is that the author doesn't depict Imre Nagy - now considered a hero and a martyr by his compatriots - as an entirely positive character. In fact, Sebestyen does quite the opposite by showing us an often undecided politician, an excessively cautious man uncapable to cut the bounds tying him to the USSR and reluctant to accept the moral leadership the Budapest crowds granted him. In the same fashion, Janos Kadar - the man who took over the power after the uprising/revolution was crushed to bits by the Soviet tanks - could be included into the villains ranks as he was 'loathed as a Judas' by Hungarians. And yet, Sebestyen doesn't portray Kadar as merely a Muscovite puppet but reckons how in the years following the uprising he actually did something to soften things up leading to the so called 'goulash socialism'.
On a side note, my only criticism to the author is that he might have done a better job on the international stage. The role played in smashing the uprising by a deus ex machina such as Nikita Kruscev in Moscow is explained but not investigated as much as it could have been. Looking Westwards, Sebestyen expresses some mild criticism towards the lack of interest in Hungary from the US and the UN, but eventually justifies both Eisenhower and Hammarskjoeld for their giving priority to the Suez crisis unfolding in the very same days. This point of view is a tad too simplicistic to be accepted completely, but Sebestyen did such an excellent job overall that I can forgive him.
If you are interested in knowing more about the 1956 Hungarian uprising, revolution (or whatever you call it), 'Twelve Days' is a book to get and read soon. ...more
'Tell me,' he asked, with some embarassment, as we strolled along: 'you're a bloody German, aren't you?' 'Oh, no. I'm Hungarian.' 'Hungarian?' 'Hungarian'Tell me,' he asked, with some embarassment, as we strolled along: 'you're a bloody German, aren't you?' 'Oh, no. I'm Hungarian.' 'Hungarian?' 'Hungarian.' 'What's that? Is that a country? Or you are just having me on? 'Not at all. On my word of honour, it is a country.' 'And where do you Hungarians live?' 'In Hungary. Between Austria, Romania, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia'. 'Come off it. Those places were made up by Shakespeare.' And he roared with laughter.
(from The Pendragon Legend, page 31)
I lived with Hungarians. I worked with Hungarians. I drank with Hungarians (and no less than Hungarian homemade palinka!). Boy, I even went punting with Hungarians. And yet, all that I recall from the fascinating Hungarian language is two words: hupikék törpikék. Which sounds just lovely when you hear it and it's an excellent icebreaker speaking with your average beautiful Miss Polyglot, but, in fact, means 'Smurfs'. Now you know it: go and conquer parties!
How did I come across Antal Szerb? No idea. But what I know is that 'The Pendragon Legend' turned out to be a serendipity of a book. I was looking for a decent gothic novel in the wake of Poe and Machen and, this book - to some extent - is a gothic novel, but that's not all. There is much more here and Szerb managed to mix plenty of sweet and sour ingredients with an excellent final result.
Now, how can I describe this? There is this certain Young Frankensteinesque mood in 'The Pendragon Legend', so much that I expected Frau Blücher to pop up, but dismissing this novel as a parody would be unjust. There is a quintessentially British sense of humour bringing P.G. Wodehouse and the early Evelyn Waugh in mind, but nonetheless Szerb pokes fun at Englishmen, Scots, Welshmen and Irishmen from the continental point of viewof Janos Batki, 'Doctor of Philosophy specialised in useless information'.
Batki is a Hungarian academic in London toying with his rather obcure research in 'English mystics of the Seventeenth century'. Having no impelling economic problems, he spends a good deal of his time in the Reading Room of the British Museum, under the very same dome that plays such an important role in 'New Grub Street' by George Gissing and 'The British Museum is Falling Down' by David Lodge.
Not so here. Batky will leave London and his vague studies at the British Museum behind in the pursuit of intellectual curiosity. An invitation from the distinguished Earl of Pendragon (a man 'with a remarkably handsome head' but charged of being 'mad has a hatter') will take the Hungarian Phd to Wales where a very funny and very creepy serie of events will happen.
A scholar of Blake and Ibsen, Antal Szerb spent only one year of his life in the UK. And yet, in such a short time he was not only able to complete a once acclaimed World History of Literature, but also to grasp a lot about Britons and their idiosyncrasies. The Hungarian author was clearly fascinated by Britons and I bet he had great fun while writing 'The Pendragon Legend' which was his first novel.
You can get that Szerb was witty and well-read as well as a man who loved to court women and being playfully seduced by a pretty face. Not your standard academic bookworm, then. Quite surprisingly to Janos Batki - Szerb alter ego here - courtship is not an intellectual pleasure, but actually quite the opposite as he firmly believes that beautiful women are not meant to be clever. Worse: beautiful women might be imprisoned to make the world a better place. As you can see, this is a novel where the main character does have some interesting opinions. But don't take Antal Szerb wrong, please. He was not a misogynist as the irresistible character of the rubenesque Lene Kretzsch - a modern and sexually liberated intellectual - can prove in this novel.
Despite of its name 'The Pendragon Legend' has nothing of Arthurian. This is an entertaining romp with some spooky moments, mysticism, cheeky saxophone interludes (if you know what I mean), brilliant dialogues and many a good and sharp observation. Much credit to Pushkin Press and the excellent translation by Len Rix for making this book available to an English reading audience. As a self proclaimed bookworm I couldn't help but finding 'The Pendragon Legend' extremely engaging and a pleasure to read. True, the finale sort of disappointed my expectations, but what came before was brilliant enough.
All things considered, it's high time I pay my first visit to Budapest. 'A Martian Guide to Budapest' written by Antal Szerb in the 1930s might be of use. (if you tell me where I can buy that). ...more
The first time I've heard about Antal Szerb was no more than two months ago. Since then, I managed to put my hands onto all the novels by Szerb translThe first time I've heard about Antal Szerb was no more than two months ago. Since then, I managed to put my hands onto all the novels by Szerb translated into English, whose number equals to three.
I had the luck to make a good catch while visiting an Oxfam charity shop in lovely Bath, UK. Bless the kind reader who donated Szerb's novels to Oxfam!
'Journey by Moonlight' ('Utas és holdvilág'), published in 1937, is widely considered as Szerb's masterpiece, but I must confess that I liked 'The Pendragon Legend' - his first novel - a hint more.
Nevertheless, this novel came very close to the intellectual pleasure I felt while reading Szerb's previous work and is considered a milestone of Hungarian literature.
Antal Szerb had the rare talent to combine serious and farcical elements into his novels. What we have into this one is a post-wedding personality crisis of a Hungarian man - Mihaly - who is still tied to his adolescence, prone to womanising and cannot really cope with the social and moral responsabilities brought by adulthood.
From the very first sentence of the book, we know that something odd is going to happen to Mihaly. He's travelling through Italy on honeymoon with his newly-wed wife Erszi, a pretty but rather boring socialite whom he took away from her previous wealthy husband out of an extramarital fling.
Unlike his wife, it's the first time that Mihaly visits Italy and he's deeply fascinated by the country due to its glorious past rather than because of what he sees around him. To Mihaly, Italy means first and foremost Goethe, the Renaissance and the Ancient Romans' deeds in a dramatic and sentimental manner that brought to my mind 'Peter Camenzind' by Herman Hesse. But whereas Hesse really meant what he wrote writing his idyllic postcards from a non-existent Italy (with an involuntary comic effect) Szerb is able to cast some clever observations on Italy in the 1930s between the lines thus stressing out the absurdity of Mihaly's behaviour in being tied to a Grand Tour-shaped past.
Art, food, sensual pleasures and architecture aside, what Mihaly really pines for is wondering and wandering around the alleyways of Venice, the hills of Tuscany and the forests of Umbria preferably by night and in a state of self-indulged introspective stupor which leads him to take impulsive and absurd decisions.
Erszi is rather tolerant of her husband's recurring oddities but all the same she doesn't care a bit to catch him when Mihaly - unaware and aware at the same time - leaves her behind by boarding a wrong train. From this point on, Szerb focuses on Mihaly's identity crisis and the interesting people and the former acquaintances he meets through his Italian adventure. Some of these encounters happen by chance, some others not but all leave a mark in Mihaly's tormented story.
The author shows us a man who rebelled against a petty bourgeois life, but poor Mihaly doesn't quite know what led him to rebel and what he's inclined to pursuit and how. By writing so, Szerb tells us about the protagonist's personal defeat and evokes the topic of suicide which is a taboo much dear to his fellow Hungarians.
And yet, don't look at 'Journey by Moonlight' as your dark and depressing novel spiralling downwards to the abyss of human nihilism as Szerb's peculiarity and ability is that he always knew how to cheer you up with a touch of lightness. Go and read yourselves....more
In the very first 50 pages it reminds me quite a lot "The confusion of Young Toerless". by Musil. Let's see if Marai is able to go a step further.
UpdaIn the very first 50 pages it reminds me quite a lot "The confusion of Young Toerless". by Musil. Let's see if Marai is able to go a step further.
Update: in the following pages Marai is able to move away from Musil creating a very interesting and intense atmosphere of expectation. I liked the book and there is no doubt that his author was a talented one.
And yet I have the doubt that without my fascination for the Central European culture and its lifestyle during the Austro-Hungarian heydays I would have found less reasons for feeling connected with "Embers".
That's why I am still undecided between three and four stars....more