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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The Melancholy of Resistance [Az ellenállás melankóliája]

KRASZNAHORKAI László

Reader, when you open this book you will be faced with one black molten-lava ow of type that goes on for close on 300 pages in sentences as long as this article is going to be. Do not be put off. You are about to embark on one of the great dark comic novels of our time. The darkness dominates but at the heart of it a kind of ghostly laughter keeps welling up from the deep as though in slow motion. How can I persuade you? Hold your breath for a Krasznahorkaian sentence.

Imagine, then, a world that seems far off and yet is only an accident or two removed from your own, where nothing works, trains disappear, where ‘whatever could be imagined might come to pas...READ MORE

The Adventures of Sindbad [Szindbád három könyve]

KRÚDY Gyula

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

Sunflower [Napraforgó]

KRÚDY Gyula

Krúdy is a prolic, forgotten-and-rediscovered writer whose favourite topic was the country life of another era, a Hungarian Golden Age of the nineteenth century. Although writing about his version of rural tranquillity — a world of lush, romantic young women and eccentric, Quixotic aristocrats — Krúdy himself was a city scapegrace, Bohemian, a night-owl who lived from story to story he published in newspapers eager to distract a post World War One readership with images of a brighter world at a time of territorial partition and economic privation.

Sunower starts off as an unabashedly lyrical, quite light-headed celebration of rural...READ MORE

Confrontation [Szembesités]

LENGYEL Jozsef

Lengyel is one of the better known Hungarian authors in the West, something attributable to the political content of his writing, rather than, for instance, any aesthetic innovations. By publishing Confrontation in London in 1970, despite the ban placed on the book by the Hungarian government, he appeared to follow the successful tradition of the gulag novels established by Solzhenitsyn, and add one more tragic description of the suffering of political prisoners in the Soviet Union. The novel, of course, can be considered in no way radical now, but putting it in the correct historical context, it is easier to explain how its mild subversiveness appeared so threatening at the time.

As is the case of the Russian writer, Confrontation...READ MORE

The Tragedy of Man [Az ember tragédiaja]

MADÁCH Imre

(Madách’s play is a notable Romantic era response to political, philosophical and scientic ideas of the time; Madách imagines the Biblical gure of Adam — representing humanity — being taken on a tour of past and future by Lucifer. Madách’s reections are always thought-provoking and frequently strikingly predictive. See also ‘Drama in English Translation’ and ‘Poetry in Translation’ articles in this book. RK)

...READ MORE

Fabulya’s wives and other stories [Fabulya feleségei &

Elõadók, társszerzõk]

MÁNDY Iván

This slim but fascinating book puts together a racy and insightful novella from 1959 ‘Fabulya’s Wives’ and some later less politically constrained stories about a similar milieu written in the 1970s. ‘Fabulya’s Wives’ is about the little Bohème of freelance radio writers and journalists in 1950s Budapest and is a very rich little novella, sharply capturing different angles of this existence such as the painful business of being a jobbing writer:

Mr. Fabulya himself is discussed by various fellow scribes who reminisce about him, generally around the theme of his succession of curious wives — hence the book’s title. These reminiscences abound with little ashes of wider illumination as when one wife allows herself to be picked up and i...READ MORE

What Was Left

MÁNDY Iván

The posthumous collection of Mándy’s best short stories offer an engaging introduction to one of the most original authors of 20th century Hungarian literature. Mándy’s writing differs from the realist traditions of mainstream Hungarian literature, in that while his short stories lack detailed descriptions of social environments or psychological landscapes they use instead an effective economy of expression borrowed from lm scripts, radio plays and cinema scenarios.

In many of his stories, the author’s interest centres on social outsiders, as in the series of pieces centering on Zsámboky. Zsámboky is no outsider in the usual sense; he is an author recalling memories of parents ...READ MORE

Once there was a Central Europe. Selected Short Stories and Other Writing

MÉSZÖLY Miklós

Once there was a Central Europe. Selected Short Stories and Other Writing Born in 1921 Mészöly started writing just in time to be caught in the vice of Stalinist literary mechanics. Not keen to produce the kind of work which hymns the love of collective farmgirls for their tractor-pool he eventually took refuge in writing for children.

He re-emerged in the late 1950s with allusive stories like ‘Encounter’ whose refusal to spell things out in an account of the meeting of two women after seventeen difcult years is both a violation of the Stalinist (and Hollywood) ethic of ‘plain facts for plain folks’ and a mild stab in the post-modernist dark; it also produces an unmistakable tingle of literary truth. As does ‘Three Potato Bugs’ which focuses on the chaotic days at the end of World War Two, pointing up their quotidian cruelty, the terrifyi...READ MORE

The Miracle Worker

MEZEI András

An honest book about Jewish existence in twentieth-century Central

Europe; ‘Soldiers were, as always, hunting for people…’ It’s the story of little Joskele, son of a Jewish fruit peddler who wants to be a footballer after ‘the war and the persecution was gone by’ and ‘The Germans and the Arrowcross (Hungarian Nazis) men had been slaughtered’. Meanwhile we get an interestingly detailed picture of Budapest in the years 1943-4, particularly from the point of view of the Hungarian Jews — the last European Jews rounded up for mass murder by the Germans and their local helpers. Part of the unusual detail we get here is a kind of vox pop of the local anti-Semites, relishing the prospect of de-Jewing the land; ‘The country should have been cleansed of them all, long ago.’ The Hungarian Jews, like their German co-religionists, were, paradoxically, a group...READ MORE

The Siege of Beszterce [Beszterce ostroma]

MIKSZÁTH Kálmán

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]

MIKSZÁTH Kálmán

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.

...READ MORE

The Paul Street Boys [A Pál utcai fiúk]

MOLNÁR Ferenc

While Ferenc Molnár was an internationally acknowledged playwright, the author of witty and pleasant domestic comedies, his Hungarian audience has always been at least as enthusiastic for his entertaining essays and feuilletons, satirising petit bourgeois snobbery and pretentiousness. This novel, The Paul Street Boys shows him in a different light; this is a tragic tale about adolescence, teen-age chivalry, friendship and untimely death.

Set in Budapest, 1885, the novel narrates a story about a war between two gangs of schoolboys for a piece of grund (ground), an empty ...READ MORE

Be Faithful Unto Death [Légy jó mindhalálig]

MÓRICZ Zsigmond

Móricz was largely cherished by Hungarian literary historians of traditional Marxist sympathies for his social realism — for his intimate knowledge and meticulous description of the life of the Hungarian peasantry and for his ruthless exposition of the empty and wasteful life of the Hungarian n-de-siècle gentry. This is certainly true for most of his oeuvre; some of the peasant heroes of his early writing embody the brute force which cannot assert itself in constrictive societies and therefore threatens with unpredictable eruptions, while some of his later novels passionately expose the emptiness of the life of the small town gentry where men waste themselves in elegant debauchery, while women turn into neurotic small-time Madame Bovarys in their frustration.

Narrow connes of social existence, ...READ MORE

Relations [Rokonok]

MÓRICZ Zsigmond

The stiing atmosphere of a small town, the binding power of social expectations, the discrepancy between social status and nancial backup and a well-intentioned but powerless man’s disillusionment are the main themes of Móricz’ later novel Relations. It describes the rise and fall of an innocent, Kopjass, who is accidentally promoted from a minor civic post to a major one, that of Town Clerk in a ctitious small town on the Great Hungarian Plain in the late 1920s, ‘Zsarátnok’, a town which does not exist on the map but whose name suggsts elements of ‘blackmail’, ‘of...READ MORE

A Book of Memories [Emélkiratok könyve]

NÁDAS Péter

Péter Nádas is better known abroad than any other contemporary Hungarian writer. This ambitious book, which caused a sensation when it was published in Hungary in 1986 (after years of delay as the censors ruminated on it), is his ‘Big Novel’ in every sense of the word. It weighs in at over seven hundred pages and treats the big themes of love and death and identity and what have you. It is also beautifully written, often tragic, sometimes comic. And it is well served by the very readable translation, done from an amended version published after the end of communism and its censors. Not always an easy read, thanks partly to its complexity, partly to Nádas’ predilection for paragraph-length sentences and chapter-length paragraphs. But his eye for the telling detail as well as the broad sweep — he earned his living as a cameraman before concentrating on writing — creates memorable vignettes and makes you feel the colour and texture of people’s lives, so that you are swept along by the narrative, or rather narratives.

 You don’t realise at fi...READ MORE

The End of a Family Story [Egy családregény vége]

NÁDAS Péter

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

Love [Szerelem]

NÁDAS Péter

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

One Minute stories

ÖRKÉNY István

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

A wartime memoir: Hungary 1944-1945 [Asszony a fron-ton]

POLCZ Alaine

This deeply autobiographical story, the rst person narrative of the female narrator, counts as a unique piece among recent Hungarian ction. The heroine tells the story of rape, humiliation and suffering in Hungary towards the end of World War Two. For the hardened newspaper reader of the late twentieth century, fed on written and visual reportage of gang rape of civilian inhabitants for the purpose of intimidation and of the general terrors of the war on a daily basis, one more story of this kind does not come as a particular shock. Yet this compelling narrative can still move the reader, precisely because of its differences from newspaper reportage. Rather than sensationalism, it offers an account of events from a distance of forty years, and it is precisely this distance that allows the author to emphasise the dreadful naturalness of brutality, cruelty, and rape.

...READ MORE

The Coward and other stories

SARKADI Imre

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