Hungarian Novels

As the crossroads of Europe, Hungary has borne all the turbulent drama the continent could offer. Over the last century, Hungarians have gone from being proud citizens of the Austro-Hungarian Empire to seeing most of their lands lost to neighboring countries after World War I to witnessing the rise of Hungarian fascists in league with the Nazis, who were replaced by the victorious Russians after World War II. Years of unrest eventually sparked the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, a popular uprising infamously crushed by Red Army tanks and followed by decades of life under police-state control. The collapse of the Soviet regime in Hungary in 1989 led to the country’s next reinvention, as a democracy, but old resentments and bad economic times have since turned some toward a renewed hard-line nationalism. From empire to enslavement, communism to capitalism, war to peace and back again, in a single lifetime Hungarians have experienced a dizzying amount of change.

Over these dramatic decades, Hungary’s novelists have addressed the concerns and conscience of the Hungarian people—and of readers everywhere—through marvelous characters who explore how we are, in the words of Desző Kosztolányi, “identical in everything and different in everything.” Once a vast, multilingual state, Hungary includes in its literary canon cosmopolitan writers whose homes have long since become part of other countries. For instance, Kosztolányi—an iconic Hungarian stylist—was born and raised in what is now Subotica, Serbia, at the time a backwater of the Empire. When he set his sublime novel Skylark (1924) there, the place typified Hungarian society, and despite the extensive redrawing of national and ethnic boundaries since, Skylark’s characters and their milieu remain familiar today, especially as they relate to the issues of personal identity being examined. Questions of identity loom large throughout Hungarian fiction, along with explorations of innocence and lust, honesty and deceit, fear and pain and mortality: complicated concerns addressed in smart, passionate, humorous writing with a profound sympathy for suffering.

The five novels here offer a brief but fascinating introduction to some of the finest Hungarian writers of the past hundred years.

Sunflower (1918) by Gyula Krúdy

A well-known journalist and popular novelist in his day, Krúdy ended his life of bohemian excess in an alcoholic crack-up rivaling F. Scott Fitzgerald’s. Also like Fitzgerald, Krúdy captured the essence of his era as no other writer. In Sunflower, the fin de siècle story of the deceptively virginal aristocrat Eveline Nyirjes and her sultry best friend, the uncanny Malvina Maszkerádi, intertwines with the lives, loves, and deaths of their wooers, namely the rakish young Kálmán, the eccentric Andor Álmos-Dreamer, and the Falstaffian Pistoli. In Krúdy’s erotic landscape of Nyírség (The Birches), “a region wrapped in dreamy veils of mist,” characters are eternally turning toward the fire of love—even when it dooms them. Sunflower lays bare the paradoxical nature of domesticated passion and the secret of desire as the antidote to death—an especially potent combination given that the story was serialized at the height of the Great War.

Kornél Esti (1933) by Desző Kosztolányi

“I had passed the midpoint of my life, when one windy day in spring, I remembered Kornél Esti.” This Dantean opening sentence launches us into a kaleidoscopic account of the purported life of Esti, a trickster who may or may not be the nameless narrator’s imaginary friend from childhood. Reencountered after many years, Esti has grown into a quasi-magical adventurer said to “travel the world, fly above nations, in freedom, shrieking everlasting revolt.” When the narrator proposes fashioning a biography of Esti, Kornél agrees to tell his stories: of consigning a friend to the lunatic asylum, of visiting a land of total honesty, of giving a Turkish girl on a train “exactly three hundred and thirty kisses.” The existential demands of modern life gain poignant focus as Esti’s tales grow more audacious and bittersweet.

Fiasco (1988) by Imre Kertész

The longest novel by Hungarian Nobel laureate Imre Kertész, Fiasco is a darkly comic story centered on the anonymous “old boy,” a writer of threadbare repute with a past connected to Auschwitz. The old boy’s examinations of his claustrophobic apartment gradually zero in on the phrase “Ideas, sketches, fragments.” Driven by the repetition of this line, his ruminations coalesce into new writing, which transforms the narrative into FIASCO, a novel-within-a-novel in which a young protagonist assumes the name of Kertész’s alter ego from previous books and struggles to survive the communist bureaucracy smothering Hungary. A master ironist, Kertész uses the writer’s deliberate process for transmuting personal experience into fiction as a metaphor for the unconscious urge—irresistible to governments and individuals alike—to reveal the truths we mean to conceal.

The Melancholy of Resistance (1989) by László Krasznahorkai

In The Melancholy of Resistance, Krasznahorkai unleashes a full-throated provincial apocalypse willed into action by the Machiavellian Mrs. Eszter, a woman whose sexual wiles enthrall the town police chief and whose sinister maneuverings stoke a roving carnival of hooligans into a frenzy, leaving no citizen safe from the violence or its oppressive aftermath: not Mrs. Eszter’s estranged husband, György, a revered musicologist cloaked in mystery; not the achingly private Mrs. Plauf; not Mrs. Plauf’s gentle, ne’er-do-well son, Valuska; nor anyone else trapped in this Gogolian vision of how terror becomes an excuse for the rise of dictatorships.

[See also Bookforum‘s essay on Krasznahorkai’s novel Satantango and Béla Tarr’s adaptation.]

The Finno-Ugrian Vampire (2002) by Noémi Szécsi

Winner of the 2009 European Union Prize for Literature, Szécsi brings an iconoclastic new voice to Hungarian fiction. Her satirical debut novel, 2002’s The Finno-Ugrian Vampire, follows Jerne V. Ampere and her centuries-old grand-mère as they take a bite out of Hungarian machismo. Jerne works in publishing, until an affair with a boss costs her her job and her mortality. With a distaste for gore, and a sex life so flagrantly amoral it makes her guardian angel punch her in the face, Jerne soon finds that her shortcomings as a bloodsucker set her dangerously at odds with her monstrous ancestor. A bonus kink is Jerne’s implicit androgyny, which is unfortunately lost in translation from the grammatically genderless Hungarian.

Other great Hungarian novelists to look for include Péter Esterházy (Celestial Harmonies, 2000), Sándor Márai (Embers, 1942), and Péter Nádas (A Book of Memories, 1986).

Jason Newport is currently at work on a novel about Hungarian Gypsies in the Holocaust.