04. 20. 2004. 16:44

Interest in these "distant" cultures

Simon Corrigan

In common with most British schoolchildren, I didn't receive much grounding in Hungarian literature. Even when, in my teenage years, I started exploring the literature of other (and in those days Hungary was particularly 'other') European cultures, Hungary was conspicuous by its absence.

Hungarian literature had produced no such iconically representative figures as Hasek or Musil. In so far as the British imagination had been caught by anything happening in Central-Eastern Europe (which was not very far), it was the Czechs who claimed our attention.

Kundera's The Joke was published as a Penguin Modern Classic in the early 1970s, which was then almost the literary equivalent of receiving an honorary degree from Oxford University. Nor did Hungary enjoy the dubious advantage of having its dissident intelligentsia glamorously incarnated in the tediously hunky shape of Daniel Day-Lewis in The Unbearable Lightness of Being. (There were a few exceptions to the general neglect: Ted Hughes, one of the most popular British poets of the late 20th century, and later Poet Laureate, translated - or rather translated translations of - Janos Pilinszky. They read like poems by Ted Hughes.)

I began to take an interest in Hungary and its literature in the mid-late 80s, in Paris. The French seemed to be surprisingly Hungarophile in those years, and it was not difficult to obtain translations not only of obviously attractive works such as Krudy's, but also of more recent and troublesome work, prepared and published with exceptional care by specialist small presses. (I remember reading a translation of a marvellous novel by Lajos Grendel which I am still trying to track down.) True, it often seemed that the French enthusiasm for Hungary and its culture had an element of appropriation about it, rather as if Hungarian literature were a natural offshoot of French intellectual thought, and its proponents honorary Frenchmen - I read an alarming description of Krudy as 'the Hungarian Proust' (a related point is made in the Translators' Workshop discussions in these pages). Nonetheless, the French openness to a quite foreign literature was refreshing.

The revolutions of 1989 saw a brief flurry of western interest in these 'distant' cultures. Once again, Hungary saw itself out-glamourised by the Czechs. Yes, the Hungarians had elected a poet to the presidency, but the Czechs had put the dissident troubador Havel into the Hrad - Havel! whose works were available in every right-on liberal British university bookstore!

It was only through the experience of living in Hungary during those crucial years of 1988-1991 that I really came to know anything of the literature of the country, its breadth, its range, and its odd consistency. Friends sensitive to my deficiencies with the language, and thinking I needed something short but digestible, sent me towards Orkeny, whose terse, bitter and oddly exhilarating works continue to reflect much of what draws me to this country and, particularly, this city.

In recent years the work of two Hungarian authors has penetrated a market - the British market - which must once have seemed inaccessible. Sandor Marai's Embers has enjoyed an unprecedented success, even in the translation of a German translation. Count Miklos Banffy's Transylavian Trilogy has been published to some acclaim. It would be easy to say that foreign interest in Hungarian literature derives from a romantic nostalgia for eras which for Hungarians are no longer relevant. One of Britain's greatest travel writers, Jan Morris, described Banffy's works as 'perfect late night reading for nostalgic romantics like me.' But perhaps one of Hungarian literature's strengths, or at least fascinations, lies in its very rootedness in the historical period which formed and informed it.

I should admit at this point that very little of my acquaintance with Hungarian literature has been made in the original, and there are times when I feel like the single foreign guest (invariably British) at a party who expects and obliges everyone else to speak in his tongue. But while it may be a cliché that Hungarian is a very difficult, near-impenetrable language, it has become a cliché precisely because it contains a great element of truth. And the disparity between the linguistic competence required for everyday transactions and conversations, and that demanded in order to appreciate and enjoy Hungarian creative writing at its best, is very great indeed, far greater than that of any language I have encountered. A foreigner with a decent command of English will usually be able to grasp not only the gist but the tone of an editorial in The Times (if perhaps not of Hamlet), and someone with middling French will not be entirely overawed by Flaubert. But a student of Hungarian, fresh from congratulating him- or herself on successfully managing some bureaucratic encounter, or on linguistically shining in some social gathering, can wonder if all these efforts are worth it when faced with the intricacies of a novel or poem by an author who has been recommended, or simply by a work which initially attracted their interest. The effort required to penetrate this written language can often prove too intimidating, or else rob the experience of that element essential to all recreational reading, which is, after all, enjoyment. I can't believe that it is simply the fact of Hungarian's anomalous status within the family of European languages that creates this problem. Rather, I think that it is the very great strength of the language - its almost infinite capacity for manipulation, in psychoanalytical terms for play - which renders it, regrettably for us, so impenetrable to foreign readers. There are times, reading passages by writers both classic and contemporary, when it seems that the Hungarian language is being reinvented before my eyes; and this not through some modish punk subversion of grammatical rules or gimmicky misspelling, but through the expert exploitation of the tension between those extremes of regulation and flexibility which the very nature of the language affords and, curiously, creatively, encourages.

I have lived in Hungary for a total of four years, and my acquaintance with the country and its language goes back the better part of two decades. But I have to accept that, however many years I stay here, there may still be authors and works I'm unable to enjoy as they should be enjoyed. In an ideal but perhaps less interesting world, there would be no need for translation. But as long as that need exists, I am very grateful for the work of those translators who transmute all the vitality and variety of Hungarian writing into languages which certainly enjoy far greater potential readership, but which, for all that, cannot necessarily boast a greater sophistication.

Simon Corrigan was born in Barnsley, UK, in 1964. He has lived in London,
Paris, Lisbon and Trieste. He has published two novels, Tommy Was Here
(1992) and Sweets From Strangers (1994), and is currently researching and working on two more, dealing respectively with vampirism and Empress Elisabeth of Austria. He lives and works in Budapest, and has no plans to leave.

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