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Modern Hungarian literature in translation

After a recent trip to Budapest I decided to engage in a short survey of English translations of Twentieth Century Hungarian literature. Here is my progress so far…

I started with Sándor Márai, who wrote in his diary in 1949 that “the world has no need of Hungarian literature”. It is only in the last decade that this statement has begun to be proved untrue, in large part thanks to him; poet, author and journalist, Márai’s work has enjoyed a renaissance in the English-speaking world since his suicide in 1989. His most well-known novel remains Embers, published in English in 2000 and adapted for the stage by Christopher Hampton in 2006. A mise-en-scène in the days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the book was originally published as A gyertyák csonkig égnek, meaning ‘the candles burn down to the stump’; the curious abridgement of the title in English is perhaps due to the (unbelievable) fact that the translator Carol Brown Janeway was working from a German version of the novel.

In February of this year, Knopf published Portraits of a Marriage, this time translated by distinguished poet and translator George Szirtes. A wistful, eulogic portrait of a love triangle spanning thirty years, it is full of images of Budapest which continue to resonate. This one, for example, struck me, because in Budapest I regularly saw people eating ice cream, apparently oblivious to the freezing wind: “Come on, let’s get some pistachio ice cream. I really can’t understand why people say you can’t eat ice cream in winter. I love this patisserie best in winter for the ice cream. There are times I almost believe that anything possible to be done should be done, not just because it’s good or makes sense, simply because it’s possible.”

Next up: Imre Kertész, probably the most internationally well-known Hungarian author, due in part the Nobel Prize for Literature he was awarded in 2002. Kertész survived Auschwitz, a theme he addresses in his novel Fatelessness, for which he was awarded the Nobel. He discusses his philosophy in an interview here: “To be very close to death is also a kind of happiness. Just surviving becomes the greatest freedom of all.”

Interestingly, from a translator’s point of view at least, Fatelessness was originally translated in 1992 by Christopher C. Wilson and Katharina M. Wilson as Fateless. Tim Wilkinson’s 2004 version opted for Fatelessness as being, apparently, closer to the sense of the original. The same thing happened with another Kertész novel, Kaddis a meg nem született gyermekért. The Wilsons in 1997 went for Kaddish for a Child Not Born, whilst in 2004 Tim Wilkinson chose Kaddish for an Unborn Child. The difference between these two titles, at first glance insignificant, in fact makes a huge difference to the meaning. Speaking no Hungarian I am unable to pronounce on the subject, but Google Translate renders it as the Wilsons did.

The third and thus far final novelist I have turned to is György Faludy, specifically his My Happy Days in Hell (Pokolbéli víg napjaim), an new old translation of which was republished in 2010 as part of Penguin’s exemplary Central European Classics series. Echoes of The Good Soldier Švejk permeate this book, but whereas Švejk is of a kind of slapstick dumbshow satire, Faludy’s novel ranks, in my opinion, among the greatest works of biographical fiction written in the Twentieth Century. It is,  simply, superb: “The poplars on the shore…stood in the moonlight like old actors wrapped in dressing gowns, peering barefoot in the door of the larder to see whether there was any wine left.”

Faludy himself was a real character: “I had written a few satirical poems about the Hungarian fascist leaders. One of them, a deputy by the name of Andras Csilléry, had a heart attack when his malicious secretary showed him my poem after dinner…I had always considered this the greatest achievement of my life.” He fled Hungary before the Second World War, travelled across Europe and eventually volunteered for military service in the States. Returning after the end of the war, he was thrown into a labour camp. After his release, Faludy lived in London and Toronto before going back to Budapest for the last 18 (out of 93) years of his life.

Here he is on his life as an exile in Paris during the war:

“Thus conditions threw us together and our double exile – from Hungary and from French society – lent our friendships and conversations extraordinary intensity. We felt like a bunch of roving knights hopelessly in love with the same woman, but whether that woman’s name was Hungaria or Marianne was a secret we kept from each other and often from ourselves as well. Though we stopped wooing the lady we preserved our love for her, and remained haughtily true to that love, because love is one’s private affair and in no way concerns its object.”

Next on my list is A Journey Around my Skull by Frigyes Karinthy, which promises to be an extremely interesting read.

I have run out of space to talk about Hungarian poetry, above all János Pilinszky, whom I discovered through Ted Hughes’ translations (and championing) of his work, and who, in my opinion, ranks with Holub, Celan and Miłosz as one of the best Central European poets of the last 100 years.

On which theme, I am happy to announce that the next in this series of blog entries will be translations of Czech authors, always assuming, that is, that QuickSilver can be persuaded to fund a week-long literary fact-finding trip to Prague…

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