12. 29. 2018. 14:41

“Be prepared!” So, we were.

Zsófia Bán speaks to HLO about the publication of Night School this January with Open Letter Books.

Congratulations on the publication of Night School: A Reader for Grownups! Besides your work as an author, you’re well-known to be a professor at ELTE University Budapest, and the subtitle of this collection of essay-like short stories (or short-story-like essays) is ‘A Reader for Grownups’; it’s interesting that you’re still teaching when you’re writing, how much irony and sincerity is there in the subtitle?

There’s both irony and sincerity: it makes fun of a genre that’s often full of didacticism and ideology, and isn’t much help when you’re confronted with actual life problems. But on the other hand, literature is meant to do just that, it’s meant to help you live, if only indirectly. Of course, the book also problematizes the possibilities of teaching versus having to handle situations that you’re usually unprepared for. I think the most you can do is to teach/learn how to improvise when the unexpected happens. Which is life, I guess.

To draw one example, one moving chapter of the reader, entitled ‘Teacher’s Edition/Russian’, is a final secret recorded lament from Laika, the dog sent into space by the Soviet Union, a last-ditch lesson to the children of Earth. What sparked the idea for this narrator?

What sparked it was our basic experience while growing up under Communism, which was a constant grappling with lies, lies, lies. You had to learn a fluent double-speak, to know the difference between what could be said at home and what could be said at school, and you had to learn to read between the lines, which consequently sharpened your interpretive skills and taught you to be constantly on guard. The pioneers’ slogan was “Be prepared!” So, we were. The Hungarian original, “légy résen” also implies to be on guard. Sadly, the current political situation has deteriorated to such an extent—especially with the almost complete co-optation of the media by the state and the renewed centralization and indoctrination of the school system—that now this skill has to be re-learned by the younger generations. Luckily though, they have much wider access to alternative sources of information than we did. But they still have to learn to recognize fake news, hoaxes, indoctrination and abuse of power, and so still need to be very much on guard. That can be exhausting, confusing and accumulates anxiety, but you either sink or swim.

Besides my more acerbic school teachers, the witty tone at times reminds me of Vonnegut, are there any foreign authors who might have influenced this work?

There are many, but one of my obvious heroes is Donald Barthelme, both in tone and form, as well as Alexander Kluge who experimented with combining texts and images, but I’m also very fond of authors like Lydia Davis, Julian Barnes, Cortazar, Juan Rulfo and Gertrude Stein, to name just a few. I like a combination of melancholy, irony, humor and a playful approach to language and being serious.

“...a varied and unsettling reader for our varied and unsettling times” writes Kirkus. But we might assume the pieces in this collection were written ten to fifteen years ago, it shows real strength of the work that it holds such biting relevance even after a tumultuous decade. Have you taken this tone further in later texts?

The tone has returned in some of my later stories. But I’d like to keep this form as a trademark for this specific book, and I’ve tried to develop something different for each of my later books. I like to experiment with new voices and new forms and I can only hope that the readers enjoy them at least as much as I do.

How was it working with Jim Tucker on the translation, and how do you relate to what he’s produced? Do you only see your own words in it? Has the book changed?

Jim is an exceptionally gifted and deft translator who knows the Hungarian language and Hungarian culture to an incredible depth that allows him to express nuances you wouldn’t even hope for. Originally a classical philologist, his interest in language as such is also apparent. He also has a wonderful ear for irony, humor and rhythm, which are all fundamentally important for me. So I feel very, very lucky to have had him as a translator. He allows the original to breathe naturally, while at the same time producing delightfully surprising, creative and often revealing solutions. Reading his translation, I often think, hm, I never thought that was there too, and you’re just grateful to have him.

How did this publication come about?

Through the efforts of my German publishing house, Suhrkamp Verlag, who owns the foreign rights to my books that have been translated into German. Thanks are no less due to Terézia Mora whose truly amazing translations have introduced my books to the German public. I’m a big fan of her work both as a writer and translator; it’s a privilege to be translated by her.

What are you working on now?

I’ve been working on a novel for some years, titled Venom, set mainly in Brazil, and which is about exile. It grew out of the eponymous short story that first came out in my book Amikor még csak az állatok éltek (When There Were Only Animals). This story, which is about pre-war Hungarian diva, Katalin Karády’s exile in Brazil seems to have a tendency to morph into other genres and forms. Péter Forgács has made a 29-minute film (Venom - A Diva in Exile, 2018) based on the story, which has recently won the Acquisition Award at the LOOP Barcelona video festival. The film combines archival footage of family films shot by my father during the fifties in Brazil (where I was born), as well as documents, and the text of my story narrated by myself (in English, but there’s a Hungarian and a German version too).

We really enjoyed co-creating this multimedia venture and it was a delight to work with Péter for whose work I have great admiration.

The story also exists in a picture album form (Méreg, 2017, Magvető) for which Forgács used manipulated stills from his film, combined with the text of my story. The book design was made by József Pintér.

I’m really hoping that the next and perhaps final (?) metamorphosis of this story is the completed novel. And I’m hoping for sooner, rather than later.

I’m also very much looking forward to the publication of a collection of my essays in Germany next spring, also translated by Terézia Mora. But before that, to the January book launch of Night School in the U.S. It’s almost like sending out a new ship to sea. I’m holding my breath.




Zsófia Bán's Night School will be launched by Open Letter Books on 15 January.

You can pre-order the book from the publisher here.

For those of you in New York, Bán will be participating in Night of Philosophy at Brooklyn Public Library, on 2 February. The title of her 20-minute talk will be Night School, or: The Ancient Art of East European Heavy Breathing. At the event there will be readings, book presentations, dance performances and more. Doors are open 7pm to 7am.