Every January, I read books only by authors I have never before read. This month, the biggest surprise was my countryman Antal Szerb, whose Journey byEvery January, I read books only by authors I have never before read. This month, the biggest surprise was my countryman Antal Szerb, whose Journey by Moonlight is a strange amalgam of depression and gentle irony.
Mihaly (Michael) and Erszi (Elizabeth) are on their honeymoon in Italy. Strange things keep happening. Mihaly's youth in Budapest keeps coming back to haunt him. When he steps off the train for a coffee at a station, he takes the wrong train, with him going to Perugia and Erszi to Rome. This puts Mihaly in a sluggish, depressed frame of mind. Instead of hurrying to reunite with his wife, he goes on a strange quest to satisfy his childish fantasies.
It seems Italy is full of Hungarians who know Mihaly. There is Ervin (who has become a saintly Franciscan monk), Janos Szepetneki, Eva Ulpius, Zoltan Pataki, and of course Erszi. Somehow they all act on him while he tries to find himself:
Foied vinom pipafo, cra carefo Enjoy the wine today, tomorrow there'll be none. The wine had run out: the mysterious inner spring that wakes a man day after day and sustains him with the illusion that life is worth getting up for, had run dry. And as the spring, like the wine, ran dry, it had been replaced from below by waters rising from the dark sea, the inner lake, connected through its depths to the great ocean, the Other Wish, antagonistic to life and more powerful than it.
Or is it? Mihaly's Magyar melancholy seems all powerful, but this book is ultimately a comedy -- and a great one. ...more
When the wounded Béla Zombory-Moldován went by train through Eperjes (now Presov) early in 1915, my father was nearby, a toddler at the age of three.When the wounded Béla Zombory-Moldován went by train through Eperjes (now Presov) early in 1915, my father was nearby, a toddler at the age of three. I cannot help but wonder if he heard the train go by, carrying the wounded officers and men of the Royal Hungarian Army after its defeat to the Russians at Rava-Ruska.
BZM, as I shall call him, managed to survive and, in fact, managed to live for another half century, becoming one of Hungary's most beloved artists. But in The Burning of the World: A Memoir of 1914, we see only a tiny slice of that life. Would that it were more! Supposedly the remainder of his autobiography was hidden or destroyed by a relative.
We tend not to know much about the Galician Front in 1914-1915, except that the casualty rates for the monarchy's forces were horrifying. In the first two weeks of fighting alone, the Austro-Hungarian forces lost some 400,000 killed, wounded or captured. The "butcher's bill" rose to 850,000 by the end of 1914 and to 1,600,000 by March.
We meet young Bela at a seaside resort in Croatia (then part of Hungary) the day that war is declared. Then we follow him to Veszprém, where he is called up to report, and from there to Galicia, where he engages in the battles at Rava-Ruska and Magierov. Wounded, he returns to Budapest where he has a month to recuperate before returning to duty. During that month, he visits a priest relative in the north of Hungary, and then returns for a while to the Croatian Adriatic.
During this time, BZM came to a realization:
Nature slumbered, seemingly indifferent. Everything moved forward in accordance with unchanging laws; sleeping or waking, every struggle, in accordance with its slow, gradual, hidden evolutionary laws. Nature flowed on its course, impervious to the absurd behavior of men, their mutual slaughter and assorted acts of wickedness. The whole world was manifestly indifferent in the face of the life-and-death struggles of men: it neither took their side nor opposed them, but simply paid no attention. Let them get on with it. Let them reap what they sow.
This edition from the New York Review of Books is the first publication of this fascinating little document in any language. It is translated into English by the author's grandson, Peter....more
During the 1980s, Czech-born writer Milan Kundera defined Central Europe as "that ... part of Europe situated geographically in the center, culturallyDuring the 1980s, Czech-born writer Milan Kundera defined Central Europe as "that ... part of Europe situated geographically in the center, culturally in the West, and politically in the East." As far as most Americans are concerned, it is "flyover country" -- somewhere between Germany and Russia.
Consequently it is refreshing to read a history of the part of the world from which my family comes without being overwhelmed either by Germany or Russia. It is a separate place, which unfortunately is positioned between two behemoths that, especially in the last hundred years, have treated it as silly putty.
Lonnie R. Johnson in CENTRAL EUROPE: Enemies, Neighbors, Friends has performed a useful function in describing how a dozen small countries have managed to perform a dance at the edge of the abyss without plummeting. Also, it is useful to view both Germany and Russia from the point of view of the Baltic countries, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, and the Balkans rather than vice versa.
Johnson starts pretty much at the beginning, during the Dark Ages, and deals with changes in the formation and de-formation of countries over the years. Although we Americans do not, by and large, purchase goods from this part of the world, I have always believed that its time has not yet come. It would be nice to think that all those small Slavic and Finno-Ugrian (in the case of Estonia and Hungary) nations have in their possession the seed that will eventually grow into works of genius and perhaps even prosperity. ...more
As a Hungarian-American who lived through the period of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 (we even took in two refugee families at different times), ViAs a Hungarian-American who lived through the period of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 (we even took in two refugee families at different times), Victor Sebestyen's Twelve Days: The Story of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution help refresh my memory. Plus, it made me even more furious at the Eisenhower administration's craven failure to pay any attention to the failed efforts of my people to break free of the Soviet yoke.
During the Revolution, the propagandists at Radio Free Europe, in effect, kept promising American and UN aid, going so far as to give specific military advice. But the eyes of Eisenhower and of UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold were on the Suex Crisis, which was taking place at the same time. Even the Russians were nonplussed: They had lined 20,000 troops with armor and artillery along the Austrian-Hungarian border in expectation of an invasion.
Over the long haul, the Hungarians won. Janos Kadar, who was put into power by Kruschchev proved to be a good leader -- years after he had all the uprising participants executed. After the Hungarian people, the biggest casualty of the Revolution was all the Communist parties of Europe. Russia's naked aggression did not stand well with the West, and it was one of those subtle turning points in history that preceded by some thirty years the collapse of Soviet Communism itself. ...more
Some works of fiction are nothing less than magic. Their authors have seen to the core of life and shroud the most mediocre settings with some sort ofSome works of fiction are nothing less than magic. Their authors have seen to the core of life and shroud the most mediocre settings with some sort of pixie dust. Such is the provincial city of Sarszeg (sar- is a Hungarian root meaning "mud," just as in French President Nicolas Sarkozy's last name) in the year 1899. Like all of Hungary, it is jokingly referred to as "Kakania" by the Magyars, a disparaging reference to the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary. On one hand, you have the universal meaning of "kaka"; on the other, it refers to the German initials K. u. K., which stood for Kaiser und Königlich -- "imperial and royal."
Nothing could be simpler than the plot. The aging Vajkays have one lone child, a 35-year-old girl whom they call Skylark. Her prospects for marriage are, to say the least, nonexistent. In addition, she is a wet blanket, big time. At the beginning, she leaves for a one week trip to relatives up north. With Skylark gone, Mother and Father Vajkay, who had been leading a dry as dust existence, suddenly shine forth, going to restaurants and to the theater; and in one classic scene, Father Akos attends a drunken revel of the Panthers, an all-male club which features drinking, gambling, tobacco, and gypsy music. After one of their outings, they run into the local journalist and would-be poet, through whose eyes we see the Vajkays as if in a flash:
He could hear rummaging from inside the house, the old couple preparing for rest. And he could see quite clearly before him the wretched rooms, where suffering collected like unswept dust in the corners, the dust of lives in painful heaps, piled up over many long years. He shut his eyes and drank in the garden's bitter fragrance. At such times Miklos Ijas [the poet/journalist] was 'working.'
He stood for some minutes before the gate with all the patience of a lover waiting for the appearance of his beloved. But he was waiting for no one. He was no lover in a worldly sense; the only love he knew was that of divine understanding, of taking a whole life into his arms, stripping it of flesh and bone, and feeling into its depths as if it were his own. From this, the greatest pain, the greatest happiness is born: the hope that we too will one day be understood, strangers will accept our words, our lives, as if they were their own.
As soon as I read that, I felt exactly as if I had bumped into the author, Dezso Kosztolanyi, in the flesh. It is hard to think of a more imaginative summing up of a life.
Eventually, Skylark returns to Sarszeg. Do Papa and Mama continue their recent "skylarking" (please excuse the pun), or do they settle back into a humdrum existence in which their spinster daughter, in effect, calls all the shots? I refuse to say, because I think this obscure 1924 Hungarian novel is perhaps one of the greatest works of 20th Century European Literature, and definitely deserving of your attention. ...more
An incredible and at the same time incredibly difficult book. What can you say about a novel whose main character is half-mad? Gyorgy Korin is a HungaAn incredible and at the same time incredibly difficult book. What can you say about a novel whose main character is half-mad? Gyorgy Korin is a Hungarian archivist who has run across a manuscript about how all goodness and nobility has been drained out of the earth, about four characters who wander through history running into nothing but war & war wherever they go.
Korin finds his way to New York, because he feels that this is the place to transfer the manuscript to the Internet, because he has heard that whatever goes on the Internet is, for all practical purposes, eternal. Krasznahorkai writes chapters of varying lengths, each of which is a single, frequently very long, sentence.
Yet it all makes some kind of sense. One would think that if the message one tries to convey is ineffable, the end result would be a failure. But this is a noble failure. I was transfixed by this book and look forward to finding the author's other novel, The Melancholy of Resistance.
Susan Sontag called Krasznahorkai "the contemporary Hungarian master of the apocalypse." That he is!...more