Hungary in Ten Books

In a few hours time I’ll be taking a late night flight to Budapest; by the time you’re reading this I might have even arrived. This latest visit home prompted me to write a long overdue book list for you. 🙂

The Széchenyi Chain Bridge in Budapest in winter fog. Photo by Noval Goya via Flickr.

One good way to get to know a people is by reading their literature.  Unfortunately, in the case of the Hungarians this is not easy as the language is obscure and difficult (and no, it’s bloody not related to Polish, or Russian, or German!¹) and not a lot of the country’s literature has been translated into English, let alone into other languages.

So what follows here is not any kind of representative list of Hungarian literature – it is, nevertheless, a list of ten good books which were all translated into English. If you ever decide to visit Hungary, you could do much worse than reading one of them on the flight there. 🙂

People of the Puszta by Gyula Illyés (1936)

We’ll start with the book that defines my background; the one Mr Anglo-Saxonist paid nearly £100 for when he first fell in love with me and still insists that it was worth the price. (You can get it much cheaper by the way, if you’re not in a hurry like he was at the time. 🙂 ) And the one he keeps telling me I should write a post on. If there is one book I’d like to pass on to my children – this is it.

Gyula Illyés came from the same area (less than 10 km distance) and social group as my family; he was roughly contemporary with my great-grandfather. People of the Pusztapuszta here means a village of serfs attached to a manor house or palace of the local landlord – is a curious but highly successful blend of sociography and auto-biography.

It was my grandmother who gave me the book to read, saying, ‘every word of it is true’. She lived the life that is described in this book, she spoke with the accent described in the book and she remembered the events described in the book. You can’t beat that kind of authenticity. If you’re at all interested in the recent history of Hungary and wish to understand Hungarians, this book offers an insight into the recent past by a highly respected author.

Gyula Illyés (short biography)

The Baron’s Sons by Mór Jókai (1869)

Don’t be mislead by the rather unimaginative English title – this is an exciting historic epic in the Romantic style of the 19th century, such as Dumas or Jules Verne would have written. The original title The Sons of the Stone-hearted Man seems more appropriate as it conveys a bit more of the excitement. It’s the story of the 1848-49 Hungarian War of Independence against the Habsburgs told through the lives of three sons – a diplomat, a dashing officer of the Hussars and the boy who stayed at home – of a man who was loyal to the Habsburgs to the death.

Jókai was the great Romantic novelist of Hungary, and as a young man he fought in the War of Independence.

Mór Jókai (short biography)

Embers by Sándor Márai (1942)

Originally titled The Candles Burn Down to Stump, this is the elegiac story of two old men, former friends, who meet again after some 40 years to have dinner together. Two lifetimes, a divisive love affair and a nostalgic look back on the Austro-Hungarian Empire of their youth.

Hungarian Graffiti by Tibor Fisher (book review)

Fateless by Imre Kertész (1975)

The first and only Hungarian Nobel-prize winner in literature. Fateless (in some translations Fatelessness) is the quasi-autobiographical story of a Jewish teenager from Budapest who is carried off to a Nazi concentration camp in 1944. He lives to tell the tale but at what price?

Imre Kertész Speaks to Himself (self-interview)

Relations by Zsigmond Móricz (1930)

An ordinary city clerk is suddenly elevated to the powerful post of chief prosecutor in a provincial town. Just as suddenly he finds himself to become a highly popular man and he discovers more relatives than he ever had been aware of… A story of one man in the face of endemic small town corruption, very typical of Hungary between the two world wars.

Zsigmond Móricz (short biography)

The Eclipse of the Crescent Moon by Géza Gárdonyi (1899)

In the original, Stars of Eger. Nowadays considered a children’s book, compulsory in year 5 (for children aged 10-11), this epic novel tells the story of the first Ottoman siege of the town of Eger in the northeast of Hungary in 1552. A fine, dashing, romantic story with plenty of genuine historical characters who take you gallivanting from Buda to Constantinople to Eger (of course). If you ever go to  Eger, do visit the castle and its casemates which feature in the novel. 🙂

Women of Eger (a 19th painting depicting an episode from the siege)

Please, Sir! by Frigyes Karinthy (1916)

Wickedly funny stories of school life from around the turn of the 19th/20th century, dealing with anything and everything from attempts to explain away a bad school report to classroom pranks. Karinthy paints the atmosphere of Hungarian schools in very vivid colours – as anybody who lived through the terror of the moments when the teacher slowly turns the pages of his marks register looking for his next victim to be tested in front of the class can attest. Karinthy went to school almost a century ahead of me but apart from the fact that schools become coeducated, the Communist grammar school experience mirrored the Austro-Hungarian one; nothing changed at all through the century and Karinthy’s school memories are also mine.

Please, Sir! by Frigyes Karinthy (English text)

Journey by Moonlight by Antal Szerb (1937)

This is not my favourite Antal Szerb novel but it’s one of the most highly regarded by the critics – a complex psychological exploration of the self. The protagonist is a young middle class man on honeymoon in Italy. A chance encounter with an old friend brings back memories of his adolescence which he starts to share with his wife… as their travels progress, the new couple separates and the protagonist has more encounters with figures from his past, more things to discover about himself, until he comes a full circle and returns to uneventful respectability.

Just Divine by Nicholas Lezard (book review)

The Paul Street Boys by Ferenc Molnár (1907)

A classic – and in Hungary very famous – children’s book about schoolboys in Budapest in the beginning of 20th century. An evocative and somewhat tragic story about two gangs of schoolboys who fight over the ‘grund’, an undeveloped building plot in Paul Street, as if they were fighting for their homeland.

Paul Street Boys Sculpture in – Paul Street (3 photos)

The Tragedy of Man by Imre Madách (1861)

A philosophical drama about the meaning of life, told via the story of the creation and fall of man. After Adam and Eve are cast out of Eden, Lucifer takes Adam on a journey through time attempting to prove that life has no useful purpose and all mankind’s endeavours will turn out ill. The play is a series of sketches in which Adam takes on the roles of various historical characters, such as an Egyptian pharaoh or Johannes Kepler, while Lucifer is usually his sidekick in some form, and Eve continues to be Adam’s beloved in various historical guises. I’m not going to tell you what the conclusion of the play is – you’ll have to read it or see it in the theatre. 🙂

Imre Madách (short biography)

¹ Sorry for the outburst... Too many people in the last 15 years insisted that of course I must understand one or the other of these languages by default. Well, I don't. They are all Indo-European languages and Hungarian isn't. I can no more understand any European languages without studying them first than you can understand Hungarian. Beats me why people just won't take my word for it?!

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