The latest addition to my website is Miklós Szentkuthy‘s Fekete Reneszánsz (Black Renaissance). This is the second in his St Orpheus Breviary series. It has not yet been translated into English (I read it in French) but will be appearing from Contra Mundum Press in the not too distant future. Nominally about Claudio Monteverdi, his opera L’incoronazione di Poppea and Venice, these three scarcely make an appearance as Szentkuthy romps through various parts of European intellectual history, including Tacitus (Monteverdi’s source for information on Poppea), Tiberius, Empress Theodora and the man she hid for twelve years Anthimus, Pope Sixtus IV, the architect Filippo Brunelleschi and Roger Ascham, tutor to the future Elizabeth I. How are these people connected? All too often they are not but this does not stop Szentkuthy setting off on innumerable tangents to tell their stories and to make his point about the dualities in European intellectual history. It is enormous fun and full of great learning, if you can keep up with him.
The latest addition to my website is Miklós Szentkuthy‘s Széljegyzetek Casanovához (Marginalia on Casanova). This is the first in series of ten novels (incomplete at the time of the author’s death) written over a period of fifty-four years, albeit with a thirty year gap because of the political situation. It can best be described as a romp through European history. This novel, the only one so far translated into English, is, as the title tells us, about Casanova and is the author’s highly idiosyncratic commentary on Casanova’s Memoirs (the German version). While Szentkuthy does not shy away from Casanova’s amorous exploits (the book was banned when first published), he is equally interested in Casanova’s thoughts, Casanova’s Venice and Casanova’s era and draws in comparisons from pre-Casanova period and the modern period. He frequently gets carried away with his comments but manages to produce a highly learned work, full of erudite commentary, as well as a highly enjoyable, witty and colourful work.
The latest addition to my website is Magda Szabó‘s Katalin utca (Katalin Street). This is a new translation (September 2017) replacing the one from 2005. It tells the story of three families who had lived in nice houses on Katalin Street, before World War II but, at the start of the book, are living in one flat, the Katalin Street houses having been replaced with social housing. The post-war residents, with one family having been killed (parents sent to a camp, as they were Jewish, daughter killed tragically), one other having been killed in the war and one having defected to Greece, are all miserable with their lot. Bálint, the oldest of the younger generation, who was loved by the three daughters of the other families, has not lived up to expectations (his or anyone else’s) and the others struggle to cope, all the while dreaming of the good times in Katalin Street.
The latest addition to my website is Antal Szerb‘s VII. Olivér (Oliver VII). This is a light-hearted novel, set in the fictitious Southern European country of Alturia. The country is broke and is considering an offer from Coltor, a rich businessman from neighbouring Norlandia. He will take over the two main Alturian industries, sardine fishing and wine, in return for bailing out the country. King Oliver VII and his ministers are reluctantly in favour while the people are not. Indeed, a revolution is under way, determined to stop the treaty and one of the associated conditions, that Oliver marry Princess Ortrud of Norlandia. The revolution takes place, Oliver’s reluctant uncle Geront takes his place, and Oliver leaves the country. He reappears in Venice, where he is living under an assumed name and identity, working with a bunch of swindlers. The swindlers aim to swindle Coltor out of a sum of money using someone pretending to be Oliver VII to assist them. The fake Oliver is, of course, the real Oliver, though some of the swindlers do not think that he is a very convincing Oliver. It is all great fun and light-hearted and a well-told tale.
The latest addition to my website is Antal Szerb‘s A királyné nyaklánca (The Queen’s Necklace). According to Szerb’s introduction to the book, this is not a novel but then, in his posthumous papers, he claims that it might be sort of a novel. In my view it is perhaps what we might call a popular history. However, it certainly reads like a novel and is clearly written by a novelist. The story it tells is a well-known historical one, that of the Affair of the Diamond Necklace. The necklace was made by two German jewellers based in Paris, who hoped to sell it first to Madame Du Barry, Louis XV’s mistress and then, when he died, to Marie Antoinette, wife of Louis XVI. However, they got caught up in a scam involving a descendant of the Valois royal house and her fake aristocrat husband, a cardinal, a probably fake magician and a few others. The jewellers and the Cardinal thought the necklace was to be bought by Marie Antoinette. However, she knew nothing of it. When everything came out, Marie Antoinette, however, was blamed by the French public for her role and this was one of the incidents that led to the French Revolution. Szerb tells the story well but, more particularly, goes into some detail into the contemporary state of affairs in France and the whys and wherefores of the impending French Revolution. A novel it is not but it still a fascinating story.
The latest addition to my website is Antal Szerb‘s Utas és holdvilág (Journey by Moonlight). This is a wonderfully written book about a man, Mihály, who struggles to cope with life and is obsessed with death. As a child, he had been part of a small group – a brother and sister, Éva and Tamás, who played strange, often sexual games, were generally unconventional, though they went through a religious phase and were obsessed with the idea of suicide, as well as two other boys, Ervin, a Jew who later became a Catholic priest, and Janós. All four boys and, later, young men, were in love with Éva, including her brother, who later committed suicide. Mihály goes to work in his father’s firm, which he does not enjoy, and marries Erzsi, whom he has lured away from her husband, the philanderer, Zoltán. The book opens while they are on their honeymoon in Venice. There he encounters Janós which brings back his past and he – possibly accidentally, but probably not – abandons Erzsi and drifts around Italy, struggling to find both Éva and himself, while becoming obsessed with death and quite unsure of who he is and what he wants to be. He meets a series of strange people, including Ervin, now a very holy priest. He even meets Éva a couple of times but that relationship is never going to work. It is a first-class book about a man struggling with his life and essentially failing to come to grips with it.
The latest addition to my website is Antal Szerb‘s A Pendragon-legenda (The Pendragon Legend). Szerb’s first novel is a wonderful romp, with a complicated plot involving a thirty-two year old Hungarian intellectual, living in England and getting caught up in a plot involving eccentric (if not mad) English, Welsh, Irish and German characters, with ghosts, ancient castles with secret trapdoors, the Rosicrucians, a Welsh earl who experiments on animals, not to mention the whole paraphernalia of the Gothic/ghost novel. Our Hungarian hero, János Bátky, is somewhat out of his depth but does not really mind, as long as there is a nice young woman to jump in into bed with and there are ancient manuscripts for him to peruse. He gets caught up in plots and counter-plots, always one step behind the villains but somehow manages to come out more or less unscathed. It is a great fun and fast-paced and certainly not a novel to leave you bored, with its complicated plot.
I spent last week in Budapest but was somewhat disappointed with the literary offerings. I asked around and found only only literary house/museum – the Petőfi Literary Museum, devoted to the poet Sándor Petőfi. Sándor Petőfi lived in the early nineteenth century, became a famous poet (actually making his living from poetry) and has since become Hungary’s national poet. He was involved in the Hungarian Revolution of 1848 but failed to get elected and joined the Hungarian Revolutionary Army. He was last seen alive at the Battle of Segesvár but disappeared during or after the battle. His body was never found. The display was excellent, with a fair amount in English. More interesting to me is that the back of the museum was devoted to Milán Füst, a distinguished poet but who also wrote the novel A feleségem története (The Story of My Wife), which has been translated into English. As well as information about his life and work, the museum showed many of the old and rare art works he collected as well as his keen interest in music.
Though there were no houses to visit (I was told that many of the writers lived elsewhere in Hungary and, of course, Budapest has been badly damaged many times during its history, including by the Germans at the end of World War II), there were statues/busts and street names galore. To the right you will see a bust of Mór Jókai, one of Hungary’s great writers and very prolific. As he lived in the nineteenth century, he will not appear on my site but I have read a few of his books (quite a few have been translated into English) and can highly recommend them, if you like big nineteenth century historical romances à la Walter Scott. Though statues and busts of Liszt and various politicians were ubiquitous, I still came across a few writers.
The photo to the left was taken in a book shop. Yes, it does look like a magnificent Viennese café and, indeed, it is, but it is also the Alexandra Book Café. The scones were excellent. They only had a few Hungarian books translated into English and this was the case at the other book shops we visited. Irok Boltja and BestSellers were also worth visiting. And we also enjoyed the Liszt Museum.
The latest addition to my website is Terézia Mora‘s Das Ungeheuer [The Monster], winner of this year’s German Book Prize. It follows on from Der einzige Mann auf dem Kontinent [The Only Man on the Continent], which told the story of the somewhat naive and simple computer engineer, Darius Kopp, from the former East Germany, and his wife, Flora, an immigrant from Hungary. At the beginning of this book we learn that Flora has committed suicide and Darius has had a breakdown since and stayed at home, living on pizza, alcohol and TV. His friend Juri, tries to get him to get a job but Darius decides to travel to Eastern Europe (and beyond), ostensibly to bury Flora’s ashes in her home country. We follow his journey but, at the same time, we read Flora’s journal as Darius is reading it, which he has translated from Hungarian. From it, he learns, to his surprise, that she was terribly depressed. He was completely unaware of this and this has a profound effect on him. His journey is something of an attempt to come to terms with this and get his life back on track. It is a superb novel and one that deservedly won the German book Prize. It has not yet been translated into English but I have no doubt that it will be.