Hungarian may be an unknown language to most of the world but a substantial number of its greatest works have been translated and are ready to read in English.

Get to know more about a fascinating, sometimes bizarre nation, romantic and crazy, with a history full of brilliance and brutality, through its literature.

This Babel Guide presents modern Hungarian literature: novels, short-story collections, poetry and drama that have been translated into English. Sample the hallucinogenic typography of Peter Nadas, the psycho-comedic narratives of Agnes Hankiss, or Tibor Dery's Lilliputian characters.

Guide

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Neighbours of the Night

ADY Endre

Short stories are not the genre that secured Endre Ady’s fame — the success of his remarkably innovative and dramatic poetry has nearly completely obscured his other writing. Yet he achieved his rst success precisely with excellent essays in periodical publications, including the appropriately named Nyugat (West) which, with its focus on radical developments in the arts in Western Europe, almost overnight shook Hungarian culture out of its provincial slumber.

The stories in Neighbours of the Night...READ MORE

The Nightmare [A Gólyakalifa]

BABITS Mihály
A fascinating psychological drama, presented as the frenetic notes of a man revealing the secret life of his soul. In this his rst novel, originally published in 1916, Babits sets out to explore the nature of a personality split equally into two lives, each representing the night-time self of the other, its opposite.

The book purports to be the autobiography of Elemér Tábory. It begins with a description of him as a child in a wealthy home, well-off materially but also with a rich inner life. Soon however we discern a shadow, beginning in childish games but continuing in reex reactions to memories he experiences as ‘awakening’. Slowly Elemér becomes aware that he knows and recognises things from ‘a distant past’, though what that distance is he struggles to discover.

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OXY-ACETYLENE WELDING MOTOR EQUIPMENT

BABITS Mihály

One wakes up on a soft silk pillow each morning after long hours

spent in nightmare, the other wakes up on soiled bed linen in a rented bed after a night of sweetness. They each know things through the experience of the other, but this awareness is a curse. They are each pursued by knowledge of the other. Eventually, the two personalities representing the opposite poles of the same person move closer together and Elemér is dragged down, following more closely the movements of his loathsome twin. He keeps his nightmares secret because his fear is that this other night-time self is as much him as the person he is thought to be. He wants to escape from his family, feeling himself tainted and responsible for the darkness he is sure dwells within. Finally, he knows, they must come face to face — ‘It was only then that I realised that the enemy we carry in ourselves is unconquerable. Man can be master over everything except his own thoughts…’

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They were counted [Megszámláltattál]

BÁNFFY Miklós
One of the marks of a successful novel must be the author’s ability to draw us into his world. Miklós Bánffy triumphantly pulls off this feat in his The Writing on the Wall, also known as The Transylvanian Trilogy, where we soon get caught up in the turbulent world of Hungary between 1904 and the start of World War One in 1914. This was the golden age of Mitteleuropa, that semi-mythical Central Europe in which internationally minded gentlemen bought their guns in England, took the waters in Karlsbad, went to the races in Paris and holidayed in Venice.

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They Were Found Wanting [Es hijjával találtattál]

BÁNFFY Miklós

They Were Found Wanting [Es hijjával találtattál] Book Two of The Writing on the Wall opens a couple of years after the end of Book One, with Balint Abady back in Budapest and heavily involved in his work as an independent member of parliament. His cousin Laszlo Gyeroffy has now run through all his money and has been ruined by a crooked lawyer. He is drinking heavily and leading a dissipated life in Transylvania. Balint and Adrienne meet by chance and start up their affair again. A divorce for Adrienne from her unstable husband now seems possible. Balint continues to take an interest in the plight of the mountain people. He also continues his social life, accepting an invitation to a grand shooting party at Jablanka in northern Hungary (an area that now belongs to Slovakia). This section of the novel offers a vivid picture of life on a great country estate.

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They Were Divided… [Darabokra szaggattatol…]

BÁNFFY Miklós

They Were Divided… [Darabokra szaggattatol…] The third volume of The Writing on the Wall is considerably shorter than the rst two: the pace accelerates as the headlong rush to the tragedy of World War One begins. And the mood becomes elegiac.

In the opening chapter Balint sees Adrienne again for the rst time since the ...READ MORE

The Giant

DÉRY Tibor

Déry’s short stories represent a genre fairly common in Hungarian letters but what makes this collection particularly interesting is their historical specicity.

Set in postwar Hungary, the three novellas contained in this volume all provide a glimpse into slightly different periods of physical misery and deprivation. ‘The Giant’, a metaphorical novella about a man of enormous size, provides the reworking of the ancient saw of the ckleness of women. ‘Behind a Brick Wall’, not the strongest of these stories, provides an insight into the soul of an apparatchik during the 1960s, ‘Love’, a novella of poetic beauty later made into a superb lm by Károly Mak...READ MORE

She Loves Me [Egy Nö]

GÁLL István

The Sun Worshipper [A napimádó]

ESTERHÁZY Péter

Péter Esterházy was born in 1950 into an aristocratic family who had played a key part in Hungary’s history for several hundred years before being branded as ‘class enemies’ in the Stalinist 1950s. He is one of the country’s most popular contemporary writers, well known for his essays, short stories and plays as well as his many novels. But he is also a leading literary gure, respected both at home and abroad for his virtuoso use of language and his skill at weaving his wide knowledge of Hungary’s troubled history and of European literature into his witty, irreverent, often erotic ction.

This short, plotless novel is made up of ninety-seven chapters, some of them only a sentence or two, others around a page long, and all of them starting with a variant on chapter one’s two sentences: ...READ MORE

Eclipse of the crescent moon; a tale of the siege of Eger

[Egri csillagok]

GÁRDONYI Géza
Eclipse of the Crescent Moon has been the favourite reading of Hungarian teenagers since its rst appearance in 1901 with its exciting rendition of one of the most picturesque and dramatic periods of Hungarian history. In fact it contains all the material of a good Victorian-era adventure story for boys.

This is historical romance based on real historical events: the siege of the Castle of Eger (North-East Hungary) by the Turks in 1552. This was one of the most colourful and heroic phases of the protracted war between the Hungarians and the expanding Ottoman Turkish empire in the 16th century. The elements of the original story really do ask for their tale to be told — the position of the castle was highly strategic as it opened up access to the north east of the country, and both the Hungarians and the Turks were aware of that. The Hungarians, though few in number, bravely defended their castle from the Muslim invader....READ MORE

Homecoming and other stories

GÖNCZ Árpád

Göncz, apart from being a writer, was a leading Hungarian democratic politician, the rst freely elected president for forty years. The gift of ‘political speech’ is clearly there in his foreword which we quote below. He has in fact a great gift, unlike most politicians, for clarity and economy — here he makes a ‘chapter’ in a micro-novel about the toll of war in Hungary;

Apartment Building

It was struck by 35 grenades and one cannon burst. Everything was destroyed. Except for the large wall mirror on the wall facing the street in apartment #12b, rst ...READ MORE

A Hungarian Romance [Széphistória]

HANKISS Ágnes

Hungary’s literary and intellectual life has long tended to be dominated by men. So Ágnes Hankiss’ decision to turn from psychology, her professional eld, to write a novel was seen, at least in some quarters, as a step in the right direction. Her novel came out in 1988, but she has not returned to ction since, though she has published essays.

The novel takes place in Transylvania at the end of the sixteenth century, a turbulent period in Hungary’s history, when the region was an autonomous principality under the suzerainty of the Sultan — most of the country was ruled by the Turks at that point. The Hungarian title refers to the old tradition of a romance (which is what ...READ MORE

The Right to Sanity. A Victor Határ Reader

HATÁR Victor (Gyözö)

Victor Határ is a writer of a polymathic, entrepreneurial (commercially, philosophically and literarily) type that died out in English and American letters many years ago. This well-produced reader of his extensive work selects from fty years of writing spread across all literary (and some other) genres. It gives an insight into an adventurous, contrary mind that has doubtless developed with particular abandon and luxuriance partly from native exuberance of spirit and partly from the special conditions of being an exiled writer (in London) for much of his career, isolated from the literary machinations and constraints of the national capital, working, as his translator George Szirtes says, in his own ‘Nautilus, hidden under the English waves’. Jules Verne is an appropriate reference in that Határ too has a taste for producing half-realistic wholly tongue-in-cheek descriptions of ‘other’ worlds, in a kind of wayward, way-out form of social critique.

One form of...READ MORE

The Baron’s Sons [Koszivo ember fiai]

JÓKAI Mór

Jókai’s name is entirely unknown to the contemporary reader, but this was not so earlier this century, for most of his voluminous oeuvre — more than two hundred novels — was not only translated into English and into other European languages, but were permanently in print in Britain until World War Two, and he was one of the better known European writers on the other side of the Atlantic as well. This novel is one of his best, and it provides a good introduction to his oeuvre, for it exemplies both of his fortes; the vivid representation of heroic and romantic turns of Hungarian history with tinges of Orientalism, as well as his descriptive powers of character and personal psychology, which make his novels a unique combination of the most enjoyable features of romantic and realistic narratives.

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Grave and Gay

KARINTHY Frigyes

Witty parodies of schoolboy pranks, satires of insufferably perfect ‘straight A’

students and elegantly scathing literary parodies of contemporaries — these are the genres for which Karinthy is best known amongst his native readership. This selection of his short stories and other writings, however, offers a wider range of the work of the author whose tragedy was perhaps never to be able to nd the genre best suited to his talents.

The rst story of the volume, ‘Meeting with a Young Man’ under the heading ‘The Graver Side of Life,’ aptly summarises Karinthy’s personal anxiety about an autho...READ MORE

The Ant Heap [Hangyaboly]

KAFFKA Margit

Just as elsewhere in Europe at the turn of the century, the Austro-

Hungarian empire was characterised by social, political and intellectual ferment. Change and modernisation also included a new and acute perception of women’s situation, and the modern woman was born, with her new moral, social, human and intellectual aspirations, and with the desire to have a professional career. This became a possibility with the 1895 Edict by the  Minister of Education, which opened up university education for women. These changes, and the general milieu of social progress  also brought along the emergence of a number of woman writers, who, for the rst time in the history of Hungarian letters, appeared not just as isolated talents, but as a group of talented authors, with a shared sympathy for the situation of women.

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Colours and Years [Színek és évek]

KAFFKA Margit

The novel Colours and Years describes the predicament of the modern woman from a different perspective. While the young women in The Ant Heap were exploring the possibilities and avenues just opening up for developing their social and female identities, this novel concerns a fty-year-old woman, Magda Porteleky. For Magda, just like for any other woman in Europe in the early 1900s, turning fty represents closure and solitude, the sense of an endgame, at best only a moment to calculate all her missed opportunities....READ MORE

The Case Worker [A látogató]

KONRÁD György

This is a story of gripping terror and angst, transmitting a sense of alienation and anxiety familiar from the writings of earlier authors like Franz Kafka. Yet, it differs from other writing in signicant ways; unlike Kafka’s work, which, in a metaphorical way, exposes the general human condition behind the temporary alienation, bureaucracy and the instability of the human psyche, Konrád’s book, written in Hungary in 1969, is undeniably more critical of a particular political regime than the general human condition.

The story of The Case Worker is rooted in Konrád’s personal experiences as a social worker in the Hungary of the 1960s, and is much ...READ MORE

Anna Édes [Édes Anna]

KOSZTOLÁNYI Dezső

The nal days of the short lived Hungarian Bolshevik revolution of 1919, the leader of the Bolsheviks, Béla Kun is eeing by aeroplane and nobody quite knows where the political balance lies. The war has been an unmitigated disaster for the country which is about to be savagely punished by the treaties of Trianon and Versailles (which handed over a large part of the country to neighbouring lands), though the protagonists of the book do not know that yet and continue to speculate, somewhat optimistically, about the future.

A cold-blooded bourgeois couple, the Vizys, have been living in siege conditions under the revolutionary regime. The apartment block they inhabit was under the thumb of Ficsor the janitor, who is now terri...READ MORE

April Fool [Selected Stories]

KOSZTOLÁNYI Dezső

Kosztolányi was a prolic writer inuenced by psychoanalysis (which had many Hungarian exponents). Like other agile and witty writers he was a short story genius and in this attractive little book the talented Eszter Molnár has both selected and translated nineteen of her favourites. Many of the stories attack reality from inside a child’s viewpoint or are about children; they produce a sensation of an uncomfortable clarity — children are often ‘innocent’ of consideration, empathy or socially-inspired illusions, so theirs can be rather a raw world. Above all though it is the intensity of these brief stories that catches; whether in the vision of four-year-old Piroska describing the grand tea ceremonies of another era, or the complex servility/aggression of the young protagonist in ‘Checkmate’, who is obliged to let his sick (and socially superior) playmate win every game of chess against all natural instincts of competitiveness, or the glorious description of the enjoyable, expansive physicality of growing up in summer...READ MORE

Skylark [Pacsirta]

KOSZTOLÁNYI Dezső

Kosztolányi, born in 1855, is one of Hungary’s greatest stylists, both as a lyric poet and as a prose writer. His precise language and ironic humour are particularly well suited to the short story, or novella, of which Skylark, written in 1923, is one of his best known.

It takes place in September 1899, in an imaginary provincial town called Sárszeg, clearly based on Kosztolányi’s birthplace Szabadka, then in southern Hungary. Less than twenty years later it was to become part of the new state of Yugoslavia and be renamed Subotica, so Kosztolányi was writing from the standpoint of a man whose one-time fellow citizens were having to learn Serbian.

In crisp, mo...READ MORE