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.


51 records found

Homecoming and other stories


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

The End of a Family Story [Egy családregény vége]


This shortish novel was written a little before Péter Nádas’ A Book of Memories and shares with it a dearth of paragraphs, a sometimes confusing narrative structure, and some beautiful writing.

In the early part of the book we gradually work out that the narrator is a small boy, who enjoys acting out the various roles in the traditional nuclear family with the kids next door, to make up for his own lack of parents. His mother appears to be dead and his father is caught up in some mysterious job, probably undercover counter-intelligence work, from which he rarely returns home, and then only for a quick bath ...READ MORE

One Minute stories


Örkény (1912-1979) was a humorist, specically a Budapest humorist who, rather unusually, managed to stay in print in Hungary through all its post-war régimes and even at the height of Stalinist censorship. His humour in fact ranges, as one might expect, given all these ‘régimes’ from grey to black via the ironic, the absurd and the grotesque. The ‘one-minuters’ here may be brief but they are often genuinely funny, and usually in a strongly local context, giving an intimate picture of everyday life in the country. In one of the relatively longer pieces ‘Ecstasy’ we get three pages about a man on a splurge, the most wonderful part being the description of the place where the splurge occurs; a Central European delicatessen of a kind never seen in England or America, albeit the name ‘delicatessen’ ...READ MORE


(ed. Andrew Handler)

Ararát; A Collection of Hungarian-Jewish Short Stories As the editor and translator of this collection, Andrew Handler, points out, emancipated Jews have been very active in Hungarian cultural life — most of the founders and major editors of the very inuential literary magazine Nyugat (West) were Jewish for example. It’s clear from this fascinating anthology of stories from 1921–1944 that there are, as Handler puts it, an interesting group of Jewish writers hidden, as their Gentile compatriots tend to be too, ‘behind the forbidding barrier of the Hungarian language’.

Tamás Kóbor’s ‘When they ...READ MORE

Present Continuous. Contemporary Hungarian Writing

[ed. István Bart]

Present Continuous. Contemporary Hungarian Writing The editor of this substantial anthology — István Bart — is also head of the publishing house, Corvina of Budapest, that produced it. He has here tried to put together a collection that illustrates both the period 1945–1985 in Hungary and its literature. He starts, however, in the middle of World War Two with István Örkény’s ‘The Hundred and Thirty Seventh Psalm’, a bitter, economical account of a forced labour company in German-occupied Hungary. Its Jewish protagonist is an ex-medical student whose studies were cut short by Hitler’s entry into Prague and he is now forced to carry out a botched operation under primitive conditions; clearly Hungary had its own ‘Year Zero’ in 1945 after the cruel and destructive conditions imposed by war and Fascism. In the same vein Ferenc Sánta’s ‘Nazis’ gives a glimpse of a menacing soldiery with unlimited power over civilian lives. The post-war period starts with Iván Boldizsár’s ‘Meeting the General’, an excellent aperçu on the political constipation of the 1950s, when every move could be a false move and the cell door is slammed shut by torturers; here the new Communist ones, but there is also a sinister link to th...READ MORE

The Adventures of Sindbad [Szindbád három könyve]


Sindbad is an autumnal amorist, a lover of women who, in their turn, adore him because he is the perfect lover. In fact he is so perfect that he is practically immortal. Even death cannot prevent him revisiting his old lovers. In this collection of stories about him he rst appears as a child at the time of his rst romance which is accompanied by the drowning of an ugly hunchbacked fellow-student of his at the seminary. In the second story he dies, though we are given to understand that he is close on three hundred years old. Throughout the subsequent stories we see him in old age or as a ghost after death engaging with a variety of women, most of whom are already in the autumn of their years. There is an elegiac yet ironic lightness of voice in Krúdy that conjures up both Proust and Marquez. Sindbad’s world is that of the twilight of the Austro-Hungarian empire as seen from its romantic, slightly dusty provinces. Sindbad is boy, gentleman-rake and ancient rolled into one. It is impossible to tell whether his lo...READ MORE

They Were Divided… [Darabokra szaggattatol…]


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

The Baron’s Sons [Koszivo ember fiai]


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.


Anna Édes [Édes Anna]


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

Colours and Years [Színek és évek]


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 Coward and other stories


La Dolce Vita in the Hungary of the early 1960s — this apparently paradoxical concept could best summarise Sarkadi’s short novel The Coward. Its heroine, the thirty-year-old Éva is married to a popular sculptor in the Hungary of the post-1956 consolidation, enjoys all the privileges Communist dictatorships offered to their artistic collaborators; a villa, a Mercedes, and a young maid — in other words, Éva has the chance to reenact the life of a wealthy industrialist’s wife of thirty years before. However, her idleness bores and oppresses her, she nds life meaningless and unchallenging and she embarks upon an affair with a young mechanical engineer. Yet, as the title indicates, she is ‘The Coward’, and, when posed with the choice between her life of (relative) upper middle class comfort and the drab usefulness of a rural ...READ MORE

Journey by Moonlight [Utas és Holdvilág]


A highly amusing (and popular) Hungarian book from the late 1930s, in which we meet the romantic gure of Mihály, aloof and poetic but struggling to break with an adolescent rebelliousness which he tries to quell under respectable bourgeois conformism but also with the disturbing attraction of an eroticised death-wish. While there is no doubt an element of (the then especially inuential and risqué) Freudianism in this, as well as perhaps the sexual and emotional claustrophobia of a society with strong Catholic and martial traditions, it is also has a distinct originality.

The narrative is a little pat but, lying beneath this symmetrical structure, there is the phenomenon that af...READ MORE

The Siege of Beszterce [Beszterce ostroma]


A profoundly entertaining raconteur and a ruthless social critic — the unusual complexity of Mikszáth’s writing has made him popular not only with generations of Hungarian readers, but attracted the attention of President Roosevelt as well, whose favourite novel was his St. Peter’s Umbrella (1895).

The Siege of Beszterce displays Mikszáth’s skills at their best; his deft use of anecdote helps him to expose absurdity with utmost irony. Its hero is the eccentric aristocrat, Count István Pongrácz, who, wrapped up in his ...READ MORE

The Herb of Lohina [A lohinia fü]


An extended humorous anecdote based on local colour, or a profoundly complex short story about an unspectacular tragedy — either way, The Herb of Lohina provides an entertaining introduction to Mikszáth’s work. Mikszáth was the leading novelist of Hungary in the second half of the 19th century, with a special gift for anecdote and narrative, a skill which he also sharpened by his extensive journalism. His early works and short stories are particularly anecdotal, and their subjects were often borrowed from the life of Slovak and Hungarian peasants in the north of Hungary. Yet, his seemingly simple, anecdotal narratives are told not only with great and skilful conciseness, but also often rounded off with a moral, neither too obvious nor too vulgar but with an ironic slant.


The Smell of Humans; a Memoir of the Holocaust in

Hungary [Emberszag]


Despite its eye-catching title that evokes dreadful memories in so many people, The Smell of Humans is a surprising addition to the many memoirs published by holocaust survivors. Ernő Szép, a Jewish author of rened lyrical poetry, was already over sixty towards the end of the war when the ghettoisation of Budapest Jewry took place, and this book describes his own memories of the Budapest ghetto and its survivors and his time as a forced labourer. Yet the book, based on the author’s personal experiences, differs from many other similar works.


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 ...READ MORE

Love [Szerelem]


It seems strange to think that this short novel of drug-taking should have been published in Hungary in 1979, under the puritanical Communist regime. That means that it appeared after The End of a Family Story and at about the time when Péter Nádas was starting to try to get his big novel A Book of Memories past the censors. It was not published in English until over twenty years later.

 An unnamed man is in the seventh-oor ...READ MORE

April Fool [Selected Stories]


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, 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