"I insist on moving freely between categories, on keeping every door and window open. This is my notion of freedom as a writer." - Interview with Noémi Szécsi, the author of Finno-Ugrian Vampire, recently published in English.
You wrote Finno-Ugrian Vampire in 2002, years before the onset of the vampire craze, set off by Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight. How did the idea of the novel come about?
The late 90s – I started to work on the novel in 1999 – were the time of the Hollywood adaptations of some vampire classics, like Ann Rice’s Vampire Chronicles and Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Or you could watch a vampire parody in the cinema (From Dusk Till Dawn), but my main inspiration was a BBC documentary on Hungarian music which I saw on TV in Helsinki: I couldn’t grasp why the presenter was talking about vampires in Budapest. But I soon realized that it could be a productive metaphor I could use in my coming-of-age story that I had already started to write.
When it comes to vampire mythology, you seem to be a bit like Jerne, who is reluctant to embrace the vampire tradition: you hardly measure up to the expectations of a reader who is hoping for a creepy vampire story. Also, your novels represent quite a unique and fresh voice in contemporary Hungarian literature. What is your attitude to literary tradition?
As a rule I am not into traditon. Maybe I am not even aware of Hungarian literary tradition.
I used to read mainly Hungarian literature up until the age of 18, but as soon as I could read in English and Finnish I was mesmerized by British and Scandinavian women writers. So as a ’conscious reader’ I looked for different attitudes from our very political, masculine, ’heavy’ literary tradition.
I regard Kosztolányi, Krúdy or Szerb as geniuses who cannot be imitated, but I do study literary tradition in connection with the recreation of traditional genres. In Finno-Ugrian Vampire I used the patterns of the Künstlerroman, the Bildungsroman and vampire fiction; in Commmunist Monte Cristo political satire and the story of a family; and in The Restless gothic fiction, family melodrama and the marriage market novel. They give structuring force to the story.
Your characters often kill of and are killed off by their family members. You were merely twenty-six when you wrote Finno-Ugrian Vampire, and ever since you have become a parent, as well as also the author of two popular books on the experience of pregnancy and motherhood. How do you feel about the biological family?
Every kind of family life could be a source of deep suffering and reassuring security at the same time. I come from a relatively normal family and live in a relatively normal family with a husband and a nine-year-old daughter, but I have traumatic family experiences like everyone else. Family is the primary community where we learn to adapt to other people so it isn’t all smooth sailing. Although I do hope I won’t kill any of my family members and they won’t kill me. That’s what literature is for! You can always kill freely there!
The protagonist of Communist Monte Cristo is a character whom you call your great-grandad, a vegetarian butcher who was also a cardholding Communist at the time of the Hungarian Soviet Republic of 1919, which, although short-lived, was an extremely bloody period. In Finno-Ugrian Vampire we have a bloodsucking granny whose grandchild works in a vegetarian restaurant. So would you rather go for a hearty salad or a rare steak?
I am only an on-again off-again vegetarian, but I am a mother of a strict vegetarian who refused meat already as a baby, so I am not crazy for meat and I know a lot about vegetarian cooking.
In Communist Monte Cristo Sanyi follows the method of Béla Bicsérdy (1872–1951), a life style reformer and believer in raw food diet. He claimed that he had been cured from syphilis as a result of his new way of life: sports and raw food – without meat, bread and dairy. In Jerne’s case working in a vegetarian restaurant is mainly a funny contrast, but in Sanyi’s case denying eating meat means denying the ready-made food of mind, body and soul. He is not a brilliant man, he keeps drifting with the current, but he never gives in to aggression and never kills anybody.
Today eating meat is easier than not eating, because it means having to find alternatives in your everyday life. So in my world following a special diet always means making an effort to think differently.
Jerne is a good writer and a good narrator because she is an outsider: being a vampire, she doesn’t understand much about human emotions, sensations, history and other ’unnecessary’ complications of human life, which makes her comments on these topics absolutely hilarious. This is true of your own writing as well: the source of fun in your novels is often the fact that you keep pairing up incongruent things, and recounting the bloodiest scenes (like when the grandmother puts her ex-husband through the meat grinder) in an invariably light and matter-of-fact tone. Do you see yourself as an outsider?
I do. But it is a fact I base my identity on. I like being an outsider, because I want to keep the privilege of an observer, I want to keep the distance. I don’t like getting involved in causes, communities and movements, I don’t like building Hungarian or cosmopolitan identities for myself, because I insist on moving freely between categories, on keeping every door and window open. This is my notion of freedom as a writer.
Since Hungarian is a language without a grammatical gender, we never know if Jerne is male or female. This layer of ambiguity is completely lost in translation as in English the translator had to opt for one or the other, so he decided to make Jerne a woman. How did you feel about this?
Jerne was a girl already in the 2005 Polish translation of the novel. So Peter Sherwood only followed this in his English translation, not as if he had countless alternatives.
I remember reading a short story by Rosa Liksom, a Finnish writer where the gender of the narrator wasn’t clear until the very end, and I remember thinking ’well, it is fun’. It is much more difficult to create a whole novel based on this idea, but with the help of our language you can at least play with it.
I like the notion is that Jerne is somehow ’above’ gender stereotypes, s/he is not a heterosexual man or woman, a lesbian girl or a gay boy, but a sexual being. I grew up in a world paralyzed by outdated stereotypes, but the generations I see growing into adulthood now are much more like Jerne.
The novel ends with Jerne saying that, having got rid of her grandmother and all her expectations, she is now too happy for writing – although she then adds that, actually, she has written this novel. You have a lot of scathing comments about literature and the fate of writers, yet writing clearly seems to be a lot of fun for you. You relish language, move freely from genre to genre, treating topics as various as vampires, communism, pregnancy, anarchists in present-day Budapest, or Hungarian emigrants in 19th century Europe. How do you see the contemporary Hungarian literary scene? And how do you see yourself in that scene?
I would like to make a wise statement about the contemporary Hungarian literary scene, but I am afraid I cannot. As most of the time I sit in my room writing, I never attend literary events apart from my own book launches, and I am not a member of any of the Hungarian writers’ organizations, I don’t really feel a part of the literary scene. It must be a part of my personal identity crisis that I find it difficult to read Hungarian contemporary literature. The works are either close to the German literary tradition which is alien to me, or domestications of a world-wide trend which is not intriguing for me. It still has great achievements, Imre Kertész, Péter Esterházy, Ádám Bodor, Lajos Parti Nagy, Péter Nádas, Béla Fehér, Attila Bartis, György Dragomán, etc. are truly great writers who write very elaborate prose. They are all – with the exception of Nádas – authors of Magvető, a publishing house which has defined Hungarian ’high’ literature for decades, but whose dominance and scale of values is more and more challenged by other publishers, other tastes, and the huge success of female authors writing in the fields of popular or children’s literature (Judit Berg, Erika Bartos, Zsuzsa Rácz, Éva Fejős, Zsolna Ugron, Virág Vass, etc.). I can see it from a distance and I am really curious what will come out of this transition Hungarian literature is passing through.
Your latest novel, The Restless, is about Hungarian emigrants who left the country after the failed revolution and war of independence against the Habsburgs in 1848-9. Even living in Western Europe, these characters remain unmistakably Hungarian. What intrigued you about this topic? With more and more young Hungarians leaving the country to study or to work, have you ever entertained the thought of living elsewhere?
I had spent longer periods in Finland and quite recently in Scotland, and I didn’t feel like coming home at all. Not because of the political scene – I couldn’t care less for it is equally disgusting all the time. But because sometimes I feel that I am not inspired by Hungary, Hungarian life, Hungarian culture anymore. I think it is quite natural to have this feeling at a certain period of one’s life: I would be ready to go anywhere to find a new angle to my writing and not to slip into the habitual way of thinking nurtured by living in this part of the world.
I wrote The Restless with this notion in mind. Where is home? What do you lose by losing your home country? What is one’s identity made of? I found it easier to put it into historical context for the sake of stronger colours, and I listed different attitudes to patriotism, from embracing it to refusing it, but I concentrated on women’s reaction to the challenge of having to rebuild family and home.
Even it is painful to confess, after more than 200 years of nationalism, in this world home country should be where your home is and where you feel happy. If it coincides with the country where you were born and grew up, then it is fine and easy, if not, it is less easy, but not a tragedy as it used to be in the past centuries.
You received the literary prize of the EU for Communist Monte Cristo. Did it bring a substantial change into your life?
Yes, I think my considerably low price in literature has risen since I have received the EUPL in 2009. The most substantial change was that I started to work with Európa Publishing, which means fine covers and better distribution for my books, and a good working atmosphere for me. The prize also meant a lot of travel and some international buzz which was simply refreshing. On occasion I even had the feeling I was a European author.
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