10. 24. 2018. 10:58

Réka Mán-Várhegyi: The story's not the most important part

I felt as long as it was linear the story was too much in the focus, it drew attention to itself, but in this novel the story’s not the most important part. - Réka Mán-Várhegyi in an interview with Owen Good.

Mágneshegy was born out of a short story about a sociologists’ new year’s eve house party in your previous collection. What was it from that story that caught your attention and that you wanted to mine further?

It would be an exaggeration to say that I always knew what I was interested in and what I wanted to write about. On the one hand, I was interested in characters who were academics and what challenges academia presented for women. On the other hand, I also felt I wanted to experiment with this slightly ironic, funny, strongly character-centered third person narrator of the short stories.

That short story (the title story of the collection) was already a section of a novel I never finished. I had originally wanted to write a novel, but I couldn’t make it happen for a long time, I was never satisfied with the result, so I let it go. Then later I started a new novel. From time to time I cut out usable parts from the finished sections and I turned them into short stories. Then a part of these found their way into the novel that I finally actually wrote.



How did you end up writing three protagonists in a non-linear narrative?

Five years ago I was planning a linear narrative. Primarily about a sociologist called Enikő who wants to write a book but her private life always gets in the way. While I was writing I always felt that what I was writing was too much of a caricature, too predictable, and the whole thing just kept on going with no end in sight. Often the most interesting parts didn’t even involve the protagonist. I also tried writing in the first person as an experiment and I liked the tone that I found, but it didn’t suit Enikő’s character. I went back and forth between the two options, then it occurred to me that I could keep both in some form. I moved away from linearity in a similar manner. I felt as long as it was linear the story was too much in the focus, it drew attention to itself, but in this novel the story’s not the most important part.

The novel reveals multiple aspects of Budapest intellectual life; from the local conference, to the classroom, to fieldwork, to volunteer work, to the international conference, to the family and back again to the department house party. Tthough you could have further criticised the monotony and homogeneity of these circles, in your novel to an extent they appear vibrant and diverse. Why was it important for you to show these multiple sides as well as the restrictive and exclusive nature of academia?

Although I wanted to write about characters that are academics and I was interested in a social issue that concerned and affected this group, I didn’t want to write a sociologist novel or a novel about academics, because at the end of the day I’m interested in existential issues, and of course what literature is. I didn’t aim to show the academic world in its entirety, but precisely for that reason it was more important not to make it flat, and especially not to make it a caricature. And it’s not an easy task, because while I’m writing I hear myself to be much more neutral or restrained, it’s only in hindsight if at all I notice sometimes that the narrator’s tone is mocking, the entire scene is an absolute satire, or the characters are ridiculous. There’s been times I didn’t notice, then the first readers or editors read the problematic parts back to me, and we were in hysterics because the text was comical, but unfortunately not in the good sense.

Mágneshegy depicts three protagonists each trying to move higher up the ladder of the intellectual elite, while simultaneously trying to transgress their own inherited character traits, am I right in saying that there is an underlying conclusion in this book that we are largely unable to move beyond our own inheritance?

The novel does suggest something like that, but I wouldn’t say I planned for it to be this way. It just happened. But then, when I noticed that the topic kept coming up, I started working with it more consciously. Of course it didn’t come up by chance, it’s a topic that’s close to my heart, at several points of my life and in many situations I was dealing with the question of how free I really am, how much I can change my own personality, my characteristics, or my entire life. How far I can fall from my own apple tree. It might seem like we can alter and shape ourselves more than ever before, at least in the right circumstances. We can change our style in clothes, our hobbies, our jobs, and of course our bodies or even our gender, we can move to another country, switch to a new religion, process our traumas, and so on. During the past decades I tried to consciously change myself on a number of occasions, sometimes to fit into a new environment, to measure up to the supposed expectations of my surroundings, or to rid myself of various frustrations. It sometimes seemed to me like I could change anything I wanted to in myself, but as I grew older, more and more frequently I realized that nothing had changed, my chains are the same as my parents’. Regardless, I wouldn’t like the novel’s message to be that the chains are all that there are.


(Réka Mán-Várhegyi: Mágneshegy, Magvető, 2018.)

Read our review of Mán-Várhegyi's Mágneshegy

Translated by: Fruzsina Wilhelm