A Hungarian Romance [Széphistória]


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 széphistória means) but Hankiss adapts it for her own ends, creating two separate narratives. The regular plot features the lovely (and lively) Susanna Forgach, born in 1582 and living with her gloomy widowed father and her two sisters in the family castle.

A marriage is arranged with her sister’s devious brother-in-law Ferenc Révay, a complicated, eternally hesitating man whose impotence and his failure to face up to it ruin their marriage and throw her into the arms of the exuberant and luxuriantly bearded Peter Bakics.

Susanna and Ferenc’s highly public — and often comically told — divorce case, heard before the parliamentary court in the historic cathedral in Pozsony (now Bratislava in Slovakia), is counterpointed by the trial for treason of the historical gure István Illésházy that is the main subject of the second narrative. This takes the form of four ‘history lessons’, separated from the main text by being printed inside boxes, and relating a public, real-life event played out by historical gures that runs in parallel to the private drama of Susanna and her relations. These history lessons present a lively picture of the peculiar court in ‘the dark anarchic halls’ of Hradcany Castle in Prague presided over by the mad Habsburg emperor Rudolf II, surrounded by his ‘gypsy camp’ of alchemists and showmen, quack doctors and card-sharps.

At times the public and private spheres come together. One of the privy councillors acting as the jury at Illésházy’s trial is a distant relative of both the Forgachs and the Révays and appears in both narratives. The myth-making musician who allegedly tried to touch up Susanna when she was a little girl reappears, lipsticked and nail-varnished, at Rudolf’s court. But glimpses into what Hankiss calls ‘the rickety merry-go-round of Hungarian history’ aren’t restricted to the history lessons. Throughout the private story, we sense the impact of public events on the lives of these young people, as when Ferenc Révay and Peter Bakics refer to ‘up there’, meaning one or other of the imperial seats in Vienna and Prague where the fate of Transylvania and Hungary is too often decided. The introduction by the translator Emma Roper-Evans helps to unravel some of the more complex threads of Hungarian history.

On another level, the novel can be read — and has been in Hungary — as a feminist text, contrasting, in the translator’s words, the factual, if sometimes dramatised, history of public events with the ctional ‘herstory’ of Susanna’s private drama. The lively girl being forced into marriage to the neurotic Ferenc Révay is of course shocking to modern sensibilities, though quite normal for the period. But Susanna’s emergence at the end of the novel as a still-young woman with a mind of her own and a determination to decide her own destiny is certainly a powerful statement. Much has also been made of the introduction into the story of the Transylvanian aristocrat Elizabeth Báthory, notorious in Hungary as the probable origin of the vampire legends thanks to her alleged fondness for bathing in the blood of young virgins.

More importantly for most readers, the way the author succeeds in making her characters seem both of their age and at the same time profoundly modern in their feelings and reactions makes this a highly original novel, which can perhaps be best compared, among English-language writers, to the work of Penelope Fitzgerald. The novel is peppered with bracketed asides, which add greatly to the enjoyment of reading it. These asides comment ironically on the characters’ behaviour or motivation, betraying a thorough knowledge of human nature — the author is, after all, a psychologist — or on the ups-and-downs of history. Also very enjoyable is the way the narrative occasionally breaks off for a lyrical description of nature or the weather, particularly in the passage where we are given a run-down of the wild owers that Susanna can nd in the meadows and woods of early seventeenth-century Transylvania. Altogether this short and lively novel makes a thoroughly entertaining read, even for anyone with no previous knowledge of Hungarian history. VMI


She had placed candles in all the windows and lattices of the castle. By the time they were all lit, on the ground oor, on the top oors, in the crevices of the tower (it was not easy, when one of them nally amed, another somewhere was going out with a tiny zzle, so that she had to hurry up and down from one oor to the other) dusk was falling. Susanna shepherded everyone into the garden to see from which point the spectacle would look most beautiful. Earlier the reddening light of the setting sun had almost eclipsed the candles in their modest, doleful sanctuary lamps. Now in the grey dusk they burned orange, they were bright ames of true love, eternal res of blind suffering, a victorious procession. Now not only did they array the castle, its ledges and sills, but they created it in their own image against an enveloping darkness.

And while the others were all streaming out into the open air, Susanna Forgách clasped Peter Bakics by the hand and, helter-skelter, pulled him into her room, embraced him, kissed him, and whispered into his soft beard that she waited only for him, thought of him every day, because he was the only ray of light in her wretched life, her winter moon, her guiding star, her scripture and her sacred book, her silence and her song, her life-line, her lucky charm, her mirror and the centre of her life, in short, that she desired Peter Bakics. She really did have all these dim feelings, but afterwards even she did not know how much she had revealed in that shadowy corner of her darkening room. It was certainly quite enough; for Peter Bakics replied in his deep, melodious voice, ‘Don’t talk such nonsense !’ 64