Hungarian for Inspiration

In Growth Markets by Guest Contributor

Andrew Ervin

• Andrew Ervin, author of the collection of linked novellas Extraordinary Renditions discusses the woeful lack of Hungarian literature translated into English and offers a survey of titles that are available and should not be missed.

By Andrew Ervin

Though I lived in Budapest for over four years, from November 1994 to March 1999, my grasp of the Hungarian language — which was always shaky at best — is now all but gone. When I return to Hungary now, I’m able to converse relatively well, but only after a visit to my father-in-law’s vineyard has loosened me up a bit. I’m embarrassed to say that reading Hungarian remains impossible for me, which is why I’m so grateful for the small amount of Magyar literature that has been translated into English.

My own first book, a trio of linked novellas titled Extraordinary Renditions (Coffee House Press, 2010), is set in more or less contemporary Budapest; in the many years it took me to write it, I read a great deal of Hungarian literature in translation. I’d like to mention three titles in particular that shaped my thinking about Hungary and informed my own book in various ways, but before I do it needs to be said that there aren’t nearly enough translations published in the United States. We’ve heard this before. The excellent blog Three Percent is named after the purported percentage of published books that come from other languages. And there certainly isn’t enough literature from Hungary getting translated, despite that fact that most of what we do have is superb.

In addition to these three books, I’ve compiled a short list, certainly subjective, for those brave souls interested in digging deeper into Hungarian fiction. You’ll notice something terribly wrong with this list: all the books mentioned here are by men. I can’t find one work of fiction by a Hungarian woman that has been translated into English and published in the United States. Not one. That’s impossible, isn’t it? Surely I’m missing something? If so, please let me know.

extraordinary renditions

Imre Kertész (b. 1928) is very likely the best-known Hungarian author on our shores. A Nobel Prize will do that, I suppose. Kertész’s masterpiece Sorstalanság has actually been translated twice into English, first as Fateless and more recently, and more impressively, by Tim Wilkinson as Fatelessness. If there’s really any such thing as required reading, this is it. It’s an absolute classic. If you don’t find yourself moved by this book, you may need to ask yourself why you learned to read in the first place. At his best, Kertész reminds me of W. G. Sebald in the ways that nostalgia (sometimes for things not typically remembered fondly) and the ghosts of Europe’s past can so readily affect the present. That’s a major theme of Extraordinary Renditions. Liquidation is another classic, though Kertész’s novellas are also spectacular, all for different reasons. Like Bolano’s shorter books, Kaddish for an Unborn Child and Detective Story remind us that some of our most powerful literature comes in small packages. And I’m very glad that Melville House has added The Pathseeker and The Union Jack to their “Contemporary Art of the Novella” series, which proves that the novella form remains vitally important.

After Fatelessness, another absolute must-read Hungarian novel is Embers by Sándor Marai (1900-1989), but I say that with some hesitation because I’m not sure if the book we have is really by Marai at all. The problem derives from the sad reality that the English edition has arrived as if by an international game of telephone in which the message has been progressively distorted. Embers comes translated from a German translation of the Hungarian original, A gyertyák csonkig égnek (The Candles Burned Right Down). I can’t be the only one disturbed about this? The title isn’t even close, though I suppose that it plays with the fact that “ember” means “man” in Hungarian. But though it’s impossible to know how closely it follows Marai’s original, I have to admit that what we do have is in itself a wonderful book. It’s an atmospheric, dream-like story of a long conversation before a fire. The slow, gentle revelation of secrets and ideas will have you up late trying to finish the book, but also dreading the idea of finishing it. It’s a book that should go on forever. The calm exterior demeanor of Embers inspired me to tone down some — not all, mind you — of the histrionics in the early drafts of Extraordinary Renditions. Fortunately, the great poet George Szirtes has translated at least two of Marai’s other novels (which we know as Casanova in Bolzano) for us directly from the Hungarian. I hope he gets to A gyertyák csonkig égnek soon.

Tibor Dery

Finally, I had the honor of reviewing Tibor Déry’s (1894-1977) amazing Love and Other Stories a few years ago for the Cleveland Plain Dealer. In terms of population, Cleveland is said to be the second largest Hungarian city in the world, after Budapest. I wrote that Love contains, “the single best literary depiction of civilian life during war” and I’m going to stand by that. The book is important to me for many reasons, not least of which is because shortly after the review ran I got an email from a nonagenarian woman in Ohio whose sister, as it turned out, had been Déry’s nanny back in Hungary. She even mailed me a photograph of the young, sailor-suited Tibor at age 8 or so (seen at right). Love includes six stories translated by various people and one novella told in six parts, “Games of the Underworld.” The depiction of wartime Budapest is chilling and in writing my own first novella I found myself returning to it over and over. And it warmed the cockles of my heart to see our man Szirtes recently translated Déry’s Niki: The Story of a Dog, which offers another indelible vision of World War II, one free from propaganda and sentimentality. By the way, my pen pal recently turned 99 and our email correspondence continues at full steam. I mailed her one of my author copies of Extraordinary Renditions.

There is of course more Hungarian fiction in translation but, again, not nearly enough. You may recall that Péter Nádas’s 700-page epic A Book of Memories got an enthusiastic reaction when the English translation appeared in 1997. His short novel Love is also worth a look, but I’m particularly fond of his Fire and Knowledge, which combines fiction and essays in one volume, which is something I wish more publishers would do. Péter Esterházy has also had a number of books translated into English, the best known of which are Celestial Harmonies and A Little Hungarian Pornography. Other noteworthy books include Tranquility by Attila Bartis, László Krasznahorkai’s War & War and the amazing The Melancholy of Resistance. Then there’s The Last Window-Giraffe by Péter Zilahy and one final personal favorite, Out of Oneself by András Pályi. You can’t go too far wrong with any of these.

Andrew Ervin is a graduate of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he earned his MFA in fiction writing. His short stories have appeared in Fiction InternationalOxford Magazine, Prague Literary Review, and the anthologies Chicago Noir and Mythtym, among other places. He has reviewed more than 200 books for publications such as The BelieverNew York Times Book ReviewWashington Post and Miami Herald, to name just a few. He is the author of Extraordinary Renditions, recently named one of the top 100 books of 2010 by Publishers Weekly.

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