Dipping a Toe into Hungarian literature and opinions on How to Tell a Good Tale!

In Budapest last week, inevitably I picked up various titles, including some poetry and some novels. The only Hungarian novel I’d read to date was by Magda Szabó (The Door). Even then I was struck by the tendency to use what I was once taught in German lit. hist was the ‘Binnenerzaehlung’, or ‘story-within-a-story’. Is it a central European aspect of creative fiction, I wonder? Because sure enough, I find it yet again in Antal Szerb’s ‘Journey by Moonlight’ (translation Len Rix),which was first published in 1937 and is now available from Pushkin Press since 2000. In contemporary Anglophone fiction, whether it’s Ireland, the UK or the USA, I have often found that the telling of another complete story within the broader framework of another generalised one, seems ‘disallowed’ or slightly frowned on. There are obviously exceptions to the rule, of course (I’m thinking of Carlo Gébler, who utilises this form in at least two of his novels). Initially my response is: how quaint! But then something changes in me, and I realise that it may the mark of the unrepentant story-teller, of the writer who realises that no story is a thing-in-itself, a watertight, closed system. In cosmological terms, the story-within-the-story may well represent the concept of the constantly expanding universe, or similar. So why do we turn away from it in the Anglophone world? Is it a factor of our sense of the fragmental nature of existence, that we disallow the alternative of ‘telling’ and not always, always ‘showing’? Because at root I think that may be what the difference is. We have become so rule-bound when it comes to writing in a way we consider ‘creative’, that we have internalised all the typical workshop regulation recommendations, one of which today is always, always, ‘SHOW, DON’T TELL’. Well I have news for this high-command: It doesn’t always work! It need not always apply! It doesn’t always necessarily make for a well-told story, whether we speak of the short story or the novel.

Angal Szerb’s ‘Journey by Moonlight’, for example, starts out in Budapest, within the familiar landmarks of that city. His characters display a fascination with suicide – which is a motif of this novel – and yet the protagonist, the melancholic, funny, and often radiant Mihály, makes an incredible journey into an unexpected aspect of his own character. The inner story of this novel is often within the mind of Mihály, but equally so its framework involves the reader having to engage with characters s/he might not have expected to. Initially, you think: hey! this isn’t part of this story! But in fact, it is. Also, there is a lengthy, unfolding, patiently-told odyssey into the self via journeying through Italy on honeymoon and deserting his new, but very experienced wife.

I don’t know if this reflects anything very much about contemporary Hungarian fiction. What I do know though is that the other writer I mentioned, Magda Szabó, remains a top-selling literary writer over there (she’s dead some years now)  and displayed the same inclination.

As for the poetry? Well I already had a copy of Gusztáv Báger’s ‘Object Found’ (Salmon Poetry, 2008), which was gifted to me while in Budapest. These are unashamed, up-front love-poems, but also poems about poems. Here’s an example of one of his love-poem 3 X Three Wishes:

To turn your bouquet
to set your dreams
to collect your hair

To buy your dance
to colour your movements
to plaster your shadow

to catch the wild horse
to re-form your wings
to drink up your voice

András Gerevich’s ‘Teresias’s Confession (Corvina Books (www.corvinakiado.hu) is a different proposition. George Szirtes provides an excellent endorsement to this younger poet’s work, and is one of five other translator’s of Gerevich’s work here (Peter Zollman, Christopher Whyte, David Hill & Thomas Cooper). As he says, ‘It is one of the most difficult things in the world to write poems so clear, so pellucid, so free of metaphor and simile as to be almost pure speech. Everything depends on narrative shape and tone because there is little else. András Gerevich’s poems are like that.’ And this is why I enjoyed about them. Again, the dispensing of metaphor and simile comes hard to Irish poets, although the younger generation are making a stab at it. It is not – and has not been, especially since post-World War II – essential to provide skilful similes and metaphors  in order for a poem to be called a poem. Still, we Irish love our metaphors and similes, and have a leather-bound allegiance to comparison of one kind or another. The bald representation in language of subject, voice or whatever, does not mean that this is not literature, or that it will not engage a reader. But whether it is because of our haunting with our original language, always whispering its descriptive, spiralling, siballances in the collective mind, or whether it’s merely sheer convention, by and large we are not in a hurry to ‘give up the aul metaphor’. What writing without metaphor requires, however, is absolute precision of emotion, as well as having a range. That’s what makes such writing so adventurous and interesting.

Of course, not all poets who are Hungarian have dispensed with metaphor or simile. For example Zsófia Balla’s wonderful poem ‘Swimming in the Ground’ starts out as follows: ‘A man is swimming in the ground/The hills are waves/wrinkling with his sinking mouth …’  And Attila Balogh’s poem ‘Numero XXXIX starts out with similar enthusiasm for metaphor: ‘Show falls,/time hangs on the breasts of bushes,/if animal thirst splashes on the snow/this present spatters away,/ hot stones of palsy snow/on the surface of my spine-pierced back/on my beetle legs a walk dawdles,/a pothold squats under my hair,/as I topple on the snow,/shining as I fall …’

Other poets whose work I’m currently dipping into include Zsuzsu Rakovsky (her ‘Pitbull’ is a dream of a poem, a study of anger and viscerality), Kristína Toth, Gyorgi Petri, whose work I knew already, and István Kemény. What they all seem to share (to my outside observing eye at least), is a foundation in philosophy, whether this comes from formal study or simply a socialised approach I don’t know. But it’s there, and it’s obviously welcomed within that literary culture.


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