What with Krisztina Tóth’s participation in 2016 in not one, but two international literary festivals, The Krakow International Book Fair and New Literature from Europe Festival in New York, we thought it about time we gave you a portrait of one of Hungary’s most prominent contemporary writers of poetry, prose and children’s literature.
In recent years the work of Krisztina Tóth, the author, poet and children’s writer has been popping up more and more on the international radar. Born in 1967, Tóth studied sculpture and then literature in Budapest, nowadays Tóth continues to work with stained glass. A translator of French poetry, she spent two years in Paris during her student years, but today Tóth lives in Budapest. Tóth initially made her first mark in the literary world as a poet with Autumn coat flutter in 1989 (Kozmosz Könyvek). Her poetry collections Snow-dust (Magvető, 2001), Bitter pulp (Magvető, 2004) and High ball (Magvető, 2009) were among her most celebrated poetic works, and received several awards including the István Vas award, the Palladium award, the Writer’s award and Asymptote Journal’s Close Approximation award. To explain what Tóth’s work really conveys, I turn to Viktória Radics for help; in Radics’s review of High ball she wrote of Tóth:
"Regardless of the fact that Krisztina Tóth’s poetry may address the most difficult of topics; seperaration, wounds, annihiliation, bewilderment, loneliness and death, Tóth’s poetic voice is forever the voice of a lover, even when wry, sharp, ironic or melancholic. Open to anything but never servile; in her bitterness lurk outspokenly feminine understanding, gentleness and sympathy, silent forgiveness, often ethereal clarity, playful humour and a desire to tell a story. The sentimentalism is heightened by the potency, the lyrical and linguistic ingenuity, and shimmers with intelligence and jest. From her material Krisztina Tóth can draw the comedy and burlesque of bitter absurdity."
As for prose, Barcode (Magvető 2006) was Tóth's debut prosaic work, a collection of short stories, it was awarded the Márai Sándor Prize in 2007 and has been translated into seven languages (including French, Spanish, and German). The subject matter of Barcode certainly fits Radics’s description: the body, the failed relationship, childhood, family, the limits of language and communication. In a round table discussion at the Petőfi Literary Museum in 2016 Tóth described this collection of short stories, among her other prosaic works, as being the closest to her heart.
Pixel (Magvető, 2011), a novel woven from thirty short stories, glimpses into a network of living and breathing characters’ everyday lives, and is a prime example of how Tóth perceives life in the city. It has been translated into five languages, including Swedish and German where it reached first place in the ORF bestseller’s list. An English translation of Pixel is already underway; selected chapters have been published in Dalkey Archive Press’s Best of European Fiction 2016. Like much of Tóth’s work this fragmented collection of details from individuals’ lives is closely tied to Budapest, but also central Europe and the history of modern Europe; the stories cut from Luton to Greece and back to Teréz boulevard, while the period fast-forwards from 1940s Poland to 1970s West Germany to modern-day Romania and rewinds back again through the generations. Tóth’s interview on Words Without Borders for the New Literature from Europe Festival reveals a lot about how she gathers her stories, and how she came up with the concept for Pixel:
"Passion lurks in private stories, in the tiny details unexpectedly on show. People use their phones as though nobody were around them. I listen to their conversations with their lovers, only hearing one of the speakers, only hearing half of it, but in my head I fill out the gaps in the dialogue. … The most fun is when I’m standing beside someone and I hear them lying about where they are. A writer’s goldmine!"
On top of all this, Tóth has made several highly-acclaimed contributions to children’s literature. In 2003 her collection of children’s poetry The London Teddy Bears (Csimota, 2003) was named the children’s book of the year. More recently, in 2015, Tóth published one new work for adolescents: The Girl Who Didn’t Speak (Móra), and one children’s book: Mummy’s Operation (Móra). Tóth explained in an interview with Könyv7.hu that the former was first of all an exploration of identity ,“who I am, who my parents are, how I came to be in this family,” which she explores through the story of an adopted child entering their new family. The latter, Mummy’s Operation, as explained by Tóth in the same interview, is a book that raises a key problem: how to speak to children about serious a matter, which, in this case, is cancer.
In recent years, her first novel – traditionally speaking – Aquarium (2013) has also been translated into German and was nominated for the renowned internationaler Literaturpreis. Furthermore, her last collection of short stories Instant glue (2015) was her fifth work to be nominated for the most prestigious literary award in Hungary, the Aegon prize and makes her the writer with the most nominations. In 2016, Tóth made a long-awaited return to poetry with her recent collection Universal Adapter (Magvető). Also this year, Tóth's poem All the countries of the world appeared in the Guardian’s Translation Tuesday in Peter Sherwood’s fine translation.