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Literary escapade in Budapest

April 19, 2015 24 comments

At the beginning of the 20th century, Budapest had around 500 cafés or kávéház in Hungarian. Some were literary cafés. They were open night and day and were the writers’ second offices. Some even provided them with free quills, ink and paper and waiters granted credit to writers. Sándor Márai relates in Confessions d’un bourgeois how he had to choose a café to become a writer.

Obeying to a tacit convention of our fraternity, I chose myself a café. According to a passably romantic theory dating back to the beginning of the century, any real Hungarian writer spends his life in a café. It wasn’t the same abroad (In London, that kind of places didn’t even exist). But in Buda, I thought, one had to frequent these literary aquariums where writers, like objects in an exhibition, were gathering dust behind bow windows. I decided to choose an old café from before war, located near the Horváth garden and opened until midnight. I befriended the waiter and the tobacconist and I soon realized that my mail and my phone calls were directly transferred to the café. My visitors first came to my “annex”. I settled down in the local climate without any difficulty. I was treated with regard, my whims were taken with benevolence. I always found on my table an inkpot, a quill “made in Great Britain”, a pot of fresh water and matches. All the conditions seemed met for me to become a real writer in the way my country meant it. I started to envision my literary career with confidence. Abroad, in cafés full of noisy clients and rude waiters who are always in a hurry, I never benefited from such a heavenly quiet. There never had been fresh water and an inkpot on my table. As soon as these accessories were in place, I started to work. (my translation from the French translation)

Amazing, isn’t it? I believe the rude and hurried waiters come from Márai’s stay in Paris. I had to visit at least two of these cafés that have been renovated, the New York Café and the Central Café.

The New York café opened on October 23rd, 1894 and was nicknamed the most beautiful café in the world.

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It is built is eclectic style, Italian Renaissance and baroque, and it’s beautiful but a bit flashy for my taste.

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It’s hard to imagine struggling writers in this place. It’s not exactly the same as Hemingway’s time in Paris. The history of the café is more interesting to me than its architecture. It became the meeting point of the writers of the time. The café even had a writer’s special (a plate with cold meat, cheese and bread) and a writer’s discount! This is where the famous literary journal Nyugat (West) was founded in 1908. It lasted until 1941 and three generations of writers contributed to this journal. Dezső Kosztolányi, Antal Szerb, Sándor Márai, Frigyes Karinthy, Zsigmond Móricz and other writers I haven’t read yet wrote for it. The journal was about literature, poetry, philosophy and it contributed to make psychoanalysis known. They had their editorial office at the New York café. It is reported that the writer Ferenc Molnár threw the key of the New York café in the Danube to ensure that it stays open night and day.

The New York café relies on its famous past but the Central Café has truly been renovated to sing the praise of its literary past.

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There’s a wall full of pictures of writers

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In this very café, in March 1936 at 7 am, Frigyes Karinthy had a hallucination: he heard a train leave the station. This became the ground material of his novel Journey Around My Skull. In this novel, he describes his operation of a brain tumor. I haven’t read it yet but it sounds fantastic and quite funny. He has his picture on the wall of the Central Café.

DSC_1234And you can see copies of Nyugat journals in displays.

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I love to visit places like this an imagining all these great writers lingering, thinking, discussing and creating the books we discover later. I hope for Budapest that other places like this celebrate the city’s literary past and I think it deserves a museum of literature like the one in Dublin.

More to come about Hungarian literature since I gathered names here and there and I want to check them out before sharing the information with you.

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