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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.

Masters and servants

July 31, 2014 18 comments

Anna Edes by Dezső Kosztolányi 1926 French title: Anna la douce

Kosztolanyi_Anna_DouceFor July our book club read Anna Edes by Dezső Kosztolányi and Passage à L’Est decided to re-read it along with us. You can find her billet here. (spoilers) This is my third novel Dezső Kosztolányi, after Skylark and Le cerf-volant d’or.

We’re in Budapest in 1919. The novel opens with the flight by plane of the communist leader Béla Kun. He governed Hungary from March to July 1919 and he leaves the country with a lot of jewels in his pockets. The end of this short communist period in Budapest is the start of another part of Kornél Vizy’s life as a civil servant. The city is coming out of a miserable time and Vizy’s house, as a bourgeois house, has been occupied by the new power. The caretaker of his house, Ficsor, supported the Bolsheviks and is now in a delicate position towards the inhabitants of the house and needs to make himself useful to the soon-to-be powerful Vizy.

Mrs Vizy is a housewife, still grieving the untimely death of her only daughter. She has nothing better to do than take care of the house and pick at her servant. The current one, Katitza crystallises all the faults a servant could have in Mrs Vizy’s eyes: she eats too much, she’s insolent, she likes to go out with men and she doesn’t respect curfew. Mrs Vizy complains, and complains and complains.

Ficsor must redeem himself for being a communist and decides to provide Mrs Vizy with a new servant, his young acquaintance Anna Édes, or the sweet Anna, since Édes means sweet in Hungarian. She’s currently rather happy with her employment at a widower’s house because she watches two small children. She’s reluctant to leave but Ficsor brings her back to Mrs Vizy. And Anna is the perfect servant. She doesn’t go out, doesn’t steal, doesn’t eat much and works, works, works. A curious relationship grows between Anna and Mrs Vizy but no warm feelings are exchanged. Anna is tamed but doesn’t say much. Nobody really knows what she thinks and according to appearances, she’s the best servant ever. What will become of that?

In Anna Édes, Kosztolányi pursues two aims. He pictures the condition of servants in the Hungarian bourgeoisie at the time. And what he pictures is exactly what Sándor Márai describes in Confession d’un bourgeois. Servants slept in the kitchen, they had dirty bedclothes, they were poorly paid and were supposed to be happy to get bed and board. They were treated like animals or machines and there was no affection. The mistresses always suspected them to steal and complains about servants were common topic of discussion among bourgeois housewives. Márai says they were not better treated in aristocratic houses but at least aristocrats wouldn’t let go an elderly servant and considered them as part of the family.

What Kosztolányi describes is close to slavery for the living conditions but what amplifies everything is the pettiness of the mistresses. Mrs Vizy and her neighbours have nothing else to discuss but their servants. Talk about narrow-mindedness. While the men had a life outside the house, they live shut out indoors and as they don’t have the education a Lady could have, they have nothing to do. They are in a bad place: they’re too high class to work themselves and be occupied by household duties and they’re not high class enough to have had a solid education. They don’t read, don’t follow politics, don’t go to the theatre, barely play an instrument and don’t write letters to relatives. It’s terrible. They have nothing better to do than watch what their servants do. What a waste of life.

Anna Édes concentrates on the story of Anna in the Vizy household but Kosztolányi also relates the professional raise of Mr Vizy. He’s described as a fair and honest civil servant. He works seriously, doesn’t encourage corruption and is willing to improve the services brought to the population. Mr and Mrs Vizy don’t have a happy marriage, he’s utterly bored with his wife and her one and only topic of conversation. Anna’s qualities are a relief to him not so much because the work is better done than because he escapes the endless whining of an irritated wife.

The political context of the years 1919-1920 is also an important part of the book. I didn’t know about that short episode of Bolshevik power in Budapest in 1919. Actually, I didn’t know that communists came to power anywhere else than Russia before WWII. What happened in 1945 seems like a simple repetition of what had already happened in 1919. Same methods. They used intimidation, purged the opposition and anything bourgeois was suspect. It’s the classic consequences of a change of power, similar to the French revolution, the Empire, the Restauration. Don’t tell me they didn’t know what would happen when they shared the world at the Yalta conference.

During our book club meeting, we debated about the best comparison to Kosztolányi. Is Anna Édes more a Zola or a Balzac? Although Kosztolányi’s luminous and precise style is far from Zola’s luxuriant prose, it is true that both show the living condition of poor people and their lack of opportunities in life. However, I think Kosztolányi is closer to Balzac because more than picturing the poverty of these servants, he pictures the nastiness of the bourgeois, their selfishness and lack of humanity. They are grotesque and Kosztolányi shows them as heartless as the daughters in Le Père Goriot. Zola has a political and social agenda. Balzac and Kosztolányi dissect human nature and expose its cruelty. The changing political context also brings back to Balzac whose novels are often set during the Restauration and after the fall of Napoleon. He pictures the shifts in the society and how everyone tries to reposition in the new game. The same atmosphere applies to Anna Édes and I can’t help thinking it’s also a political novel for Kosztolányi, especially when you see how he winks at us in the last chapter.

I’ve read Anna Édes in French, in a translation by Eva Vingiano de Piňa Martins. It was retranslated in 1992 and improved as the first 1944 translation had some passages changed and was bowdlerised (everything related to sex was cut off) Kosztolányi’s style is glorious, at least in this French translation but I don’t see why it doesn’t reflect the original. I’m happy it’s been retranslated and I highly recommend this book. Skylark was deeper in the psychological exploration of the characters, Le cerf-volant d’or depicted well the microcosm of small town life and Anna Édes is the most political of the three. I still prefer Skylark out of the three but all are a pure pleasure to read.

Other reviews: Guy’s here and Max’s here

PS: Don’t ask me why there’s cheese on the cover of that book.

The Golden Kite by Dezsö Kosztolanyi

August 12, 2011 21 comments

Aranysárkány aka The Golden Kite by Dezsö Kosztolányi 1925. 363 pages.

 Foreword:This novel takes place in a Hungarian small town named Sàrszeg around 1900. It’s the same imaginary town as in Skylark, by the same writer. It is about a teacher, Antal Novak and his students, which means it talks a lot about school and the Hungarian school system. I read this novel in French and the translator converted the Hungarian realities with words corresponding to the French school system. Now, I’m writing a review and I don’t know which English words I should use. I could use the American school system, well-known to everyone thanks to their dominating role in the cinema industry. But I can’t. Talking about “high school”, “senior year” and “finals” also brings along images of prom nights and cheerleaders. It doesn’t suit at all the atmosphere of The Golden Kite. Plus, I don’t know if the school system was already like that in the US in 1900. What is described here is very close to the French school system and I don’t think it’s only the work of the translator. There are similarities in the exams, in the solemnity of high school and of old tradition. Therefore, I’ve decided to use the French words chosen by the translator. “Baccalauréat” or its shorthand “bac” is the final exam for “gymnase” (high school, French Swiss word). Like in the Hungarian system of The Golden Kite, this exam is a rite of passage and it’s composed of a written and an oral part. The “terminales” are the students in their last year of lycée, the ones who will take the bac at the end of the school year.

 Now, the review:

The Golden Kite was written in 1925 and although the title is mentioned on the English page of Wikipedia, I couldn’t find any book cover on Amazon or Book Depository. It doesn’t seem to be available in English as a stand-alone but it may be included in anthologies. If it hasn’t been translated into English or is out of print, than I feel so sorry for English speaking readers as they are going to miss a tremendous book. For francophone readers who would buy the French edition, don’t read the blurb as it gives away events that take place around page 200 in a book of 368 pages. (A very irritating habit, in my opinion)

The opening scene of The Golden Kite is a sprint race. Vili Liszner, a terminale, is an athletics lover.

Le coup de feu claqua.

Posté derrière le coureur au bout d’une ligne tracée à la chaux, un lycéen tenait dressé le canon du pistolet et fixait les petits nuages de fumée qui tardaient à se disperser dans le ciel matinal.

Dès l’apparition de la flamme, un deuxième garçon avait mis en route le chronomètre. Il n’avait pu toutefois s’empêcher de crier :

– Vas-y !

Vili courait déjà.

Le départ avait été impeccable. D’un bond de panthère, net et sans à-coups, il s’était levé au dessus du sol, et quelques secondes plus tard, il était déjà lancé à toute vitesse vers la ligne d’arrivée.

Dans ses yeux, les prés défilaient au galop. Ses souliers cloutés griffaient la piste. Sa tête, battue par des cheveux à la tzigane, était rejetée en arrière et son visage se tordait dans un effort grinçant. Le sol palpitait.

The gun went off.

Posted behind the racer at the end of a line traced with chalk, a lycéen hold up the barrel of the gun and stared at the little clouds of smoke that longed to vanish in the morning sky.

As soon as the flame showed up, a second boy had started the stopwatch. However he couldn’t help shouting:

– Go!

Vili was already running.

The start had been perfect. With a panther leap, clean and without a jolt, he had risen above the ground and within seconds, he had launched himself toward the arrival line.

In his eyes, the fields flashed at a gallop. His studded shoes were scratching the track. His head, blown by his tsigane hair, was thrown back and his face contorted in a wincing effort. The ground was quivering.

The scene is vivid; we can see it right before our eyes, like in a film. From this scene we can deduct that Vili is more an athlete than a student, that his parents are rather wealthy since he can afford a gun for departure and studded shoes. Vili’s nightmare is school and especially math and physics classes. He doubts he can pass his bac. It’s the first of May, a public holiday.

Antal Novàk is the math and physics master. He’s a widower and has a sixteen year old daughter, Hilda. Novàk loves his job. Teaching is a calling and he’s a humanist. He’s devoted to his school, spending hours in his lab to prepare classes, willing to help his students become men. He’s against corporal punishment, preferring discussion. He’s the kind of teacher who throws teas for his pupils and promotes modern teaching methods. He’s respected among his peers and admired by the bourgeois of Sàrszeg. But he’s not loved, he’s even ridiculed by his students and perhaps envied by his peers. His daughter Hilda is rather wild and unbalanced. She’s been dating Tibor Csajkàs for two years now, first openly and then, after her father’s interdiction, secretly. From the start we guess that dramatic events will take place, shattering Novàk’s orderly life and breaking his peace of mind.

I loved this book, it is as good as Skylark. and I have dozens of wonderful quotes. I tried to share some, the translations are mine, unfortunately. Kosztolányi managed to mix philosophical thoughts (What is it to be a good teacher? Isn’t life an absurd sum of misunderstandings? How do you become a man? Aren’t childhood and adolescence the best parts of life?) with the chronicle of everyday life in an Hungarian town of that time.

I was amazed by how contemporary it is. I thought about Sexy by Joyce Carol Oates and I, Charlotte Simmons by Tom Wolfe. Vili reminded me of American athlete students, good in sport but with low grades. And Novàk was like their teachers who’d do anything to avoid giving them bad grades because of the fame they bring on their town or school. The class of terminales was like any class of that age nowadays. Here they are, gathering to study before the exam:

Ils parlaient de plus en plus des matières scolaires. La parole était monopolisée par Dezsö Ebeczky, le premier de la classe, qu’ils détestaient tous cordialement. Non pas parce qu’il travaillait bien. Après tout, on a le droit de bien travailler. Mais travailler aussi bien que lui, c’était quand même écœurant.

They spoke more and more about school classes. Dezsö Ebeczky, the best student in class was speaking all the time. They all heartily detested him, not because he was a good student. After all, one has the right to be the best student. But being as good as that was really disgusting.

Kosztolányi also unravels the unique relationship between student and teacher. I liked the passage where Kosztolányi explains that Novàk isn’t really human for his pupils. They can’t imagine he can get sick, has been a child or he has a home life. Even his clothes seem of different fabric as they are teacher clothes. And it’s true that teachers have a special aura, that they are stuck in their role and are hard to imagine as mothers, sons of anyone and spouse. The descriptions of the exams were accurate, the fear before the D-day, the parents’ expectations, the frantic cramming until the last minute. They organize cheating during the exams:

Fóris, qui surveillait, les mis sévèrement en garde à plusieurs reprises sur le sérieux danger que constituait la fraude, dite « pompage ». Ledit « pompage » n’en fut pas moins organisé. Gyuszi Olàh avait prévu de copier la réponse aux questions à l’aide d’un code ad hoc, en vingt-trois exemplaires d’un coup, pour que le savoir, comme il se doit en une époque démocratique telle que la nôtre, devînt le bien commun.

Fóris, who was invigilating warned them strongly against the serious danger that cheating represented. It was called « pompage ». The so-called « pompage » was nonetheless organized. Gyuszi Olàh had decided to copy the answers to the questions with an ad hoc code in twenty-three copies in a row, so that knowledge becomes a common good, as it is suitable in a democratic era such as ours.

The journalists write articles about the bac, to question its utility

Il fustigeait surtout “l’institution désuète et inhumaine” du bac, qui « avait déjà fait parmi les jeunes d’innombrables victimes »

He castigated the “old-fashioned and inhuman institution” of the bac that “had already innumerable casualties among the youth”

I don’t know how it is abroad, but in France, the bac is an institution. This exam was created under Napoleon and if its substance has changed, the form remains. The written part takes place the same day in the whole country and it starts with philosophy. Every year, journalist talk about it in headlines and wish good luck to the candidates. Every year, we hear the same kind of debate: “Is the bac still up-to-date?”, “Is it useful?”, “Shouldn’t it be done differently?”, “Is it still a rite of passage?”

There’s a beautiful chapter about what it meant to pass the bac at this time. Of course, we must not forget that only the upper classes went to lycée at that time. (And in France, also poor but brilliant students. Teachers considered it was their mission to detect brilliant minds and push them as far as possible.) The students become men: at the diploma ceremony, they receive their first cane, they are allowed to drink alcohol, smoke in public. They are treated as equals by the adults. It’s an important rite of passage.

As an aside, Kosztolányi has a real gift to describe nature and its soothing impact on the human soul.

Dans une ombre irritante, des peupliers trembles se dressaient, semblables aux colonnes d’une cathédrale, et leurs couronnes de feuillage bruissaient dans la brise telles les orgues d’une église. Des peupliers blancs cherchaient le ciel de leur branches en balais. Les chênes, sérieux, hochaient la tête, imitant le grondement ininterrompu des chutes d’eau. Ici les grands lycéens avaient presque l’air de petits enfants.

In an irritating shadow, some aspens rose like the columns of a cathedral and their crown of foliage rustled in the breeze like the organ of a church. White poplars looked for the sky with their broom-like branches. The oaks nodded seriously, mimicking the continuous rumbling of waterfalls. Here, the great lycéens almost looked like small children.

Or

Un silence de sieste s’étalait sur la ville muette.

A silence of afternoon nap was stretching over the mute city.

A last one for the end, one that made me think of Thomas Hardy:

La vie n’est faite que de méprises empilées les unes sur les autres.

Life is only made of piled up misunderstandings.

In conclusion: a must-read among my best reads of this year.

Eleanor Rigby is Hungarian and lives in Normandy. Or in Vancouver ?

October 20, 2010 17 comments

Pacsirta by Dezső Kosztolányi, translated in English as “Skylark” and in French as “Alouette”.

No one is exactly the same after reading Skylark. It took me time to land down in my own life after I turned the last page of this novel. It is so sad and moving.

This novel by the Hungarian author Deszö Kosztlányi has already been beautifully reviewed by Max from Pechorin’s Journal and Guy from His Futile Preoccupations. Please read their excellent reviews to find details on the plot and Kosztlányi’s style. Their English is obviously much better than mine and I share their views.

Skylark is Akós and Antonia Vajkay’s daughter. They live in the provincial town of Sászeg. She’s 35. She’s unmarried. She’s ugly. In September 1899, she leaves her parents to spend a week at her uncle’s, in the country. Skylark opens with her departure and closes on her return. This week of holiday is a catalyst. Something had been boiling for years and after that week, a precipitate named “spinster” is born. The parents eventually admit that Skylark is too ugly to get married. Skylark stops hoping to meet a husband. They all love each other so much that they suffer in silence to protect the each other. Skylark will never unveil what really happened in the country. The parents will never tell her how fun their week without her was. All carry a huge amount of pain.

Skylark is about women and about parenthood.

In 1899, the only reason a woman would definitively leave her parent’s house is marriage, the only way a woman can reach adulthood and independence. Names reveal how insignificant women are at that time. Akós’ wife is named Antonia. Her husband is talked as Akós. She is designated as “his wife”, “the woman”, “the mother” but never Antonia. As a woman, she has no proper identity. She only exists as a mother or as a wife. In addition, Kosztlányi never tells Skylark’s real first name. She will keep her nickname forever. Only a husband would have called her differently.

Like all animals, human parents raise their children with one aim: their future autonomy. Skylark will never leave the family nest, her ugliness cut her wings. It is a handicap; she will never be able to live on her own or find a place in society. She is like a mentally handicapped child you love but will depend on you forever. Her parents will have to take care of her until they die and worry about what will become of her after their death. She’s a burden for her parents and they know it. They never said it aloud to each other before this very week off, because it would have intensified their pain and because they are ashamed of this feeling.

Some events in life create a new version of yourself, depending on how other people look at you. At the beginning of your adult life, you were just yourself. Then you added a “spouse self”, ie who you are as a spouse. When you become a parent, a love storm comes in your existence, creating a “parent self”. In the eyes of your child, you are a parent. When you are with your child, you act like a parent, whatever the age of the “child”. Skylark never leaves her parents. They spend all their time together. As a consequence, the Vajkay never go out of their parent role or identity.

When the children are away, roles shift, and the other selves show up. That’s what happens to Skylark’s parents. They forget hours. They have lunch at the restaurant. They go to the theatre. The mother wants a new handbag. They stop thinking their identity as being “Skylark’s parents”. They are adults and spouses again. I have to say I feel that way too when my children stay a few days at their grand-parents’. My husband and I forget meal hours, eat junk food, go to the cinema and work late without thinking of the nanny. We miss them but also enjoy the temporary freedom.

Skylark’s return announces the winter of her parents’ life. The roles are reversed, Skylark acts like a parent. They erase the traces of their joyful week like teenagers would hurry to tidy the house before their parents come back. Skylark finds her father too skinny: she decides to cook for him to fill out again. In French “to fill out again” is said “se remplumer”, literally “to feather again”. Isn’t it ironical to be “feathered again” by a Skylark?

The town of Sászeg is also a character of this novel. According to the foreword included in my copy, Kosztlányi’s home town inspired the fictional Sászeg. For a modern reader, it is interesting to discover the way of life of provincial Hungary at the turning of the 20th century.

 The translator compared Kosztlányi to Flaubert. I would rather compare him to Maupassant, who has a more compassionate look on people. I noted several references to France throughout the novel: one character reads Le Figaro, the men drink Sylvaner, a white wine from Alsace. The newspaper talk about the Dreyfus Affair – was it such a scandal as to interest the foreign press? Maybe Kosztlányi was francophile.

 Before ending this post, I would like to say how wonderfully Kosztlányi writes. The scenes when Skylark weeps in the train or silently cries in her bed are poignant. The description of life in Sászeg is vivid. The French translation was agreeable to read, except for one detail. I just didn’t like all the “attendu que” (“given that”) abundantly used in some chapters. This locution is typical for court ruling, I had sometimes the impression to read a judgment.

 This novel is a masterpiece and I highly recommend it.

 By the way, Skylark has sisters: Jeanne, from A Life by Guy de Maupassant, Liz Dun, from Eleanor Rigby by Douglas Coupland and Eleanor Rigby, the one of the song. Hence my title.

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