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October-December 2019: Mitteleuropa

Reading Globally

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Edited: Oct 7, 12:06pm Top

This quarter is dedicated to literature from Mitteleuropa – which for the purposes of the theme read we've defined as the countries Austria, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, and Poland.

However, I think it makes sense to start the thread with a question: what is Mitteleuropa and does it make sense to talk about it as a coherent region?

There is no universal consensus about which countries are to be considered part of Mitteleuropa, and as the Wikipedia entry on the topic shows, it has been defined in a variety of ways by different people with different agendas. One understanding of the concept, which I think is the one that inspired the them read, is that of a cultural region influenced particularly by the Habsburg Empire.

This atmosphere is evoked in the writings of authors of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century like Joseph Roth, Stefan Zweig, Arthur Schnitzler, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Leo Perutz, Franz Werfel, Hermann Broch, Heimito von Doderer, Ödön von Horváth, or Sándor Márai.

Apart from this meaning, one advantage to reviving the idea of Mitteleuropa may be to recenter an understanding of Europe that is still influenced by Cold War politics – in which everything on the formerly communist side of the Iron Curtain is marginalized as "Eastern Europe." Historically speaking, this region was not at the margins of Europe at all, but deeply involved in the cultural, intellectual, religious, and political developments of early modern Europe. (The "Hussite Trilogy" by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski vividly evokes this dynamic: set in the 15th century, we follow the young protagonist through Silesia and Bohemia as he becomes entangled with various heresies and pre-Protestant reformation movements, attracts the attention of the Inquisition, and meets various thinkers and innovators such as a certain Johannes Gutenberg.)

One thing the countries we will be covering this quarter have in common is a history of multilingualism and multiculturalism, even if the current geopolitical divisions suggest the idea of the nation-state as a supposedly monolingual entity. (The reality is in fact, as so often, rather more complicated.)
Franz Kafka, as part of a German speaking minority in Prague, may be the most familiar example of this historical diversity. One could also add Kafka's less well-known contemporary Gustav Meyrink.

Another point of note is the fact that these countries are mostly land-locked – the exchange of people and ideas relied on overland routes or along the major rivers of central Europe. And although these countries have been parts of various empires, they were always intra-European empires, in contrast to the nation-states of Western Europe that were built upon their colonies overseas.

More recently, four of these countries – the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia – have joined a political and cultural alliance within the EU, known as the Visegrad Group. In certain respects, these countries are currently facing similar political and cultural challenges: Their former status as independent states within the Soviet bloc; the out-migration of a large portion of the population in search of jobs in richer EU states; the challenges of the current rise of right-wing populism. The name, however, harks back to earlier connections: a meeting in 1335 between John I of Bohemia, Charles I of Hungary and Casimir III of Poland to form a trade alliance to counter the powerful Habsburg Empire.

I'll be putting up separate posts for the individual countries, but want to refer you all to the topic for Region 24: Europe VII (which largely overlaps with the selection of countries for this quarter) for additional inspiration.

Edited: Oct 7, 12:21pm Top

In no particular order, here are some Polish authors I've enjoyed or who are on my to-read list.

Henryk Sienkiewicz: Nobel laureate best known for his massive historical novels, in particular Quo Vadis (set in ancient Rome during the time of Nero). More regionally relevant to this theme read, he also wrote a trilogy set in the seventeenth-century Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (With Fire and Sword)

Jan Potocki: an eighteenth-century nobleman and adventurer. His gothic-picaresque novel The Manuscript Found in Saragossa was written in French.

Witold Gombrowicz: known for the novel Ferdyduke.

Stanisław Lem: A must-read for science fiction fans.

Andrzej Sapkowski: Known for his fantasy series "Witcher". I enjoyed his slightly fantasy-tinged historical novel Tower of Fools

Bruno Schulz: author of a remarkable collection of stories entitled The Street of Crocodiles and Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass. Killed in the Holocaust.

Tadeusz Borowski:His book This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen is based on his experiences in Auschwitz.

Magdalena Tulli: Her books In Red and Dreams and Stones have received glowing reviews from readers in this group. She also also translates from Italian (including, among other works, Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities).

Olga Tokarczuk: Works include Flights, House of Day, House of Night, Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead, Primeval and Other Times

I mention here also several German-speaking authors whose works are shaped by their experiences growing up in the eastern territories of the former German Empire that are now Poland:
Günter Grass: Danzig Trilogy
Horst Bienek: His Gleiwitz quartet (starting with The First Polka) chronicles life in a Silesian village during WWII.
Jurek Becker: Jakob the Liar is set in a Jewish ghetto in Poland during WWII; he settled in East Germany, which is the setting for his later novels.

Edited: Oct 7, 1:11pm Top


Again, in no particular order and with no pretense at completeness:

Jaroslav Hašek: author of The Good Soldier Svejk, a satirical tale of a soldier in the Austro-Hungarian army in WWI.

Bohumil Hrabal: Too Loud a Solitude, I Served the King of England, Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age, Closely Watched Trains

Karel Capek: Science-fiction writer, known for The War with the Newts and the play R.U.R. which introduced the word "robot" (from the Slavic word for "work") to the world.

Milan Kundera: has lived in exile in France since 1975, and his later novels (starting in 1993) have been written in French. The Unbearable Lightness of Being, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Life is Elsewhere, etc.

Václav Havel: political dissident in the communist period and later the first president of the Czech Republic. His plays are in the tradition of the theater of the absurd. The Garden Party, The Memorandum

Ivan Klima: Works include Love and Garbage, Waiting for the Dark, Waiting for the Light

Josef Škvorecký: The Engineer of Human Souls, The Republic of Whores, The Swell Season, The Bride of Texas

Pavel Kohout: publication ban (and later expatriated) by the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia in the late 1960s; settled in Austria. Works include: The Widow Killer, I Am Snowing. (Kohout was involved in an underground production of Macbeth that was the inspiration for Dogg's Hamlet, Cahoot's Macbeth by Tom Stoppard)

Michal Ajvaz: author of the fantastic travelogue The Golden Age;also available in English: The Other City, Empty Streets

Patrik Ouředník: Europeana, Case Closed, The Opportune Moment, 1855 (all made available to English-speakers thanks to the efforts of Dalkey Archive Press)

Edited: Oct 13, 5:42am Top


Sándor Márai: Embers, Portraits of a Marriage, Esther's Inheritance

Gyula Krúdy: Sunflower, The Adventures of Sindbad (who here seems to resemble Don Juan more than the character of the Arabian Nights)

Péter Esterházy: Celestial Harmonies, Helping Verbs of the Heart, The Book of Hrabal (referring to Czech writer Bohumir Hrabal)

Imre Kertész: Nobel laureate. A number of his books thematize his experiences in Auschwitz and Buchenwald, e.g. Fateless, Fiasco, Kaddish for a Child Not Born

Péter Nádas: A Book of Memories, The End of a Family Story, Parallel Stories

Magda Szabó: a number of us in this group have raved about The Door; several of her other books are also available in translation, e.g. Iza's Ballad, Katalin Street, Eszter und Angela

Antal Szerb: Journey by Moonlight, The Pendragon Legend (an outsider's look at England), Oliver VII (set in a fictional central European monarchy)

Dezső Kosztolányi: Skylark, Kornél Esti

Miklós Bánffy: Hungarian nobleman with roots in Transylvania (present-day Romania); his trilogy They Were Counted, They Were Found Wanting and They Were Divided is set in this milieu in the years before WWI.

László Krasznahorkai: Satantango, The Melancholy of Resistance

Ferenc Karinthy: Metropole, a fantastically-tinged novel featuring a linguist who gets off a plane and discovers that everyone is speaking some unknown language

Terézia Mora: grew up bilingual in Hungarian and German, came to Germany in 1990. Writes in German. Day In Day Out is available in English translation. She has translated a number of Hungarian writers, including Péter Esterházy, into German.

Agota Kristof: fled to Switzerland and began writing literature in French, including the trilogy The Notebook, The Proof, The Third Lie

Edited: Oct 15, 2:11pm Top


I mentioned some Austrian writers in >1 spiphany: above, and I won't try to include a complete list of the classic authors here, but list a few highlights instead.

Stefan Zweig is the author of the masterful novella Chess Story, as well as a number of less famous short works.
Robert Musil is another author whose short works, e.g. the stories in Posthumous Papers of a Living Author or Five Women, are incredible miniatures, although he wrote several full-length novels as well.
Ingeborg Bachmann is likewise a must read in my opinion, but I liked the collection The Thirtieth Year considerably more than her novel Malina.
I'm sure I've raved about Ilse Aichinger before, so here I merely repeat my recommendation of her collection The Bound Man and Other Stories.

Nobel laureate Elfriede Jelinek is probably best known for The Piano Teacher, about a troubled, sexually repressed woman who has sado-masochistic fantasies. Here it is worth noting that this falls within the tradition of a country that was home to both Sigmund Freud and Leopold von Sacher-Masoch (author of the erotic novel Venus in Furs and origin of the word "masochism"). Her novels and plays are characterized by biting criticism of society in general and Austrian society in particular.
Which brings us to the other great critic of Austrian society, Thomas Bernhard.
Peter Handke also seems like he would fit into this grouping (he is the author of a play entitled Offending the Audience, for example), although I'm not familiar with his work.

In the experimental tradition, I would mention Ernst Jandl, who doesn't seem to have been translated into English, perhaps unsurprisingly due to the way his poetry is based on playing with sound. For those who read German, I recommend Laut und Luise. His partner, Friederike Mayröcker, does have one book available in English: with each clouded peak.
H.C. Artmann is also a lot of fun; The Quest for Dr. U is available in English.

Marlen Haushofer: in the novel The Wall, a woman copes with being alone after a mysterious catastrophe: all other humans seem to have vanished and a wall has appeared that separates her from the rest of the world.
Thomas Glavinic's Night Work is based on a similar premise. Also available in English: Carl Haffner's Love of the Draw; Pull Yourself Together; The Camera Killer

Some other contemporary authors who are available in translation include:
Christoph Ransmayr: I've mentioned The Last World before; other works in English are The Terrors of Ice and Darkness, The Dog King, The Flying Mountain, Atlas of an Anxious Man.
Arno Geiger: his family saga We Are Doing Fine takes us through seventy years of Austrian history, decade by decade.
Norbert Gstrein: The English Years, A Sense of the Beginning
Erich Hackl: Farewell Sidonia, Aurora's Motive, The Wedding in Auschwitz
Robert Menasse: The Capital, Don Juan de la Mancha
Eva Menasse: Vienna
Marlene Streeruwitz: Seductions
Barbara Frischmuth: The Convent School
Robert Seethaler: A Whole Life, The Tobacconist
Daniel Glattauer: author of two bestselling novels told entirely through e-mails, Love Virtually and Every Seventh Wave

Edited: Oct 13, 5:40am Top

Czech literature: New Books in Translation: website from the Czech Ministry of Culture)

HunLit: website on Hungarian literature from the Hungarian Books and Translations Office. Searchable index of translations (the dropdown language menu is in Hungarian, however! Translations into English can be found under "angol")

Polish Literature in English Translation: Organized by century; website is the product of extensive research by a passionate reader

The following publishers/series are particularly useful for finding translations of East-Central European literature:
Writers from the Other Europe
Writings from an Unbound Europe>: series from Northwestern University Press featuring literature from the formerly communist countries of Eastern Europe
CEU Classics: series from Central European University Press featuring translations of classic works of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Central European literature
Twisted Spoon Press: Prague-based publisher "focused on translating into English a variety of writing from Central & Eastern Europe"
Ariadne Press: independent publisher dedicated to publishing Austrian literature in English

And for those who read German, I want to mention Wieser Verlag, a publisher based in the province of Carinthia in Austria, which has a substantial Slovenian minority. The publisher's program has a heavy focus on fiction, poetry, and essays from eastern and south-eastern Europe.

Edited: Oct 3, 2:55pm Top

Whither Croatia? I realise that its multi-facetedness presents unique problems, but its entire modern history, especially in the north but eventually in the south as well, is of or marked by Austro-Hungary. Leaving it out means leaving out writers like Krleža, a quintessential "mitteleuropean" in person and work.

ETA: Slovenia too

Oct 3, 2:38pm Top


The Angelus Central European Literature Award also known as Angelus Award (Polish: Nagroda Literacka Europy Środkowej Angelus) is a Polish international literary award established in 2006 and presented by the city of Wrocław, Lower Silesia. The award is given annually for best prose books written in or translated into the Polish language by a living author originating from Central Europe whose works "undertake themes most relevant to the present day, encourage reflection and deepen the knowledge of the world of other cultures."

The 2012 laureate: Miljenko Jergović, Bosnia/Croatia

Oct 3, 3:16pm Top

I couldn't find the original source of this quotation so what follows is my rapid translation. I think it illustrates well the "Central European" condition of many people:

Of all the people I spoke with, Miljenko Jergović, the (...) Angelus laureate for 2012, is most sanguine that the idea of Central Europe isn't dead. "After all, my family tree proves that Central Europe exists. And the family trees of millions of other people, today's Serbs, Croats, Bosnians, Slovenes, but also Czechs, Slovaks, Ukrainians, Poles... Following the logic of great and small migrations, according to clerical administrations, people moved from one end of the empire to another, founded families, brought and took various customs and established astonishing identities.

My great-grandfather was a German, born in the Romanian part of Banat, my great-grandmother came from Slovenia, but she herself wasn't sure whether she was Slovene or German. Her mother, on the other hand, was an Italian from Udine. My other great-grandfather was from the environs of Šibenik {my note: Dalmatia}. My great-grandfathers and grandfather were railway men, and the language of their communication and literary culture was German. The space they experienced as their own was the space of the imperial and royal railways, which spread from today's Ukraine to northern Italy and today's Montenegro.

Without the existence of Habsburg bureaucracy, state institutions and common infrastructure, my great-grandfathers would never have met my great-grandmothers. There, that is Central Europe. And so I find it normal that there should exist a prize for--Central European writers." (John Bousfield interviewing Miljenko Jergović)

Edited: Oct 3, 3:52pm Top

Claudio Magris, a Triestine and possibly the greatest living authority on the culture, history and politics of Mitteleuropa (but as an Italian ironically excluded from this read), suggested the Danube as the common thread that binds Central Europe into a coherent if kaleidoscopic entity. At some point we cross into "Eastern Europe", and at the end plunge into the Black Sea, but it's a wonderfully fertile perspective on this region nonetheless.

Oct 3, 4:42pm Top

I don't have a strong ideological commitment to one definition of Mitteleuropa or another -- as I noted, there isn't a single straightforward way to define the bounderies. If participants in the group want to expand it to include other countries, that is fine with me.

However, the five countries I've listed are what I understood to have been agreed upon when the theme was selected, and since nobody else suggested alternative definitions when the group originally discussed the topic, nor expressed interest in leading this quarter themselves, I assumed this was OK. My familiarity with the literatures in question drops dramatically at the Austrian border, so I welcome others sharing their expertise.

That said, for pragmatic reasons, I'm not sure it makes much sense to focus particularly on Italy this quarter (by which I do not necessarily mean an absolute exclusion of all Italian authors -- nationality may not be the most useful criteria here) because Italy was already included in Q1 this year for the theme read on the Mediterranean world. So it seems like there is likely to be more to discover if we emphasize countries that we haven't looked at recently.

Oct 3, 5:36pm Top

The countries in the list are those we mentioned when we were voting on the thread so that everyone would know roughly what we meant, but I don’t think we should get too hung up about definitions ahead of time. How about considering those countries as the core of the thread, and including people/books from outside that area on a case-by-case basis? In any case, we’re going to have to deal with borders that have moved around since books were written, and authors who lived in more than one place. Common-sense will be needed. I don’t think we would include James Joyce because he once lived in Trieste, but Italy Svevo might be more borderline...

I’ve started Drive your plow over the bones of the dead. I’ve got a few Austrian authors on my TBR pile, old favourites like Thomas Bernhard and Ilse Aichinger, but I’m going to try to read people who are new to me as far as possible.

I read Magda Szabó’s The door a while back, I’d like to read some more of her and try some other Hungarian writers. I’ve read shockingly few.

Oct 3, 6:08pm Top

>11 spiphany:

I didn't mention Magris because I think Italy belongs here (I certainly don't) but for his insight and value to discussing Central Europe and its space, beginning with that suggestion about the Danube.

Omitting Croatia and Slovenia, however, makes no sense. They were part of Austro-Hungary for centuries, every city in Slovenia and Northern Croatia (and quite a few down south) has parallel German names, the culture is influenced, marked and haunted by this history in more ways than I can enumerate.

>12 thorold:

I hope you'll find some time for the Bard of Hungarian literature, Sándor Petöfi, born Aleksandar Petrović, ethnic Slav not Magyar, and to this day claimed by both Slovaks and Serbs. Speaking of what makes a "Central European"...

Edited: Oct 4, 1:33pm Top

I should have added that this (which by the way expresses beautifully that the "Central Europe" under consideration is not a mere geographical, but a psychogeographical region, a realm with shifting borders and temporal dimensions):

>1 spiphany:

One understanding of the concept, which I think is the one that inspired the them read, is that of a cultural region influenced particularly by the Habsburg Empire.

This atmosphere is evoked in the writings of authors of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century like Joseph Roth, Stefan Zweig, Arthur Schnitzler, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Leo Perutz, Franz Werfel, Hermann Broch, Heimito von Doderer, Ödön von Horváth, or Sándor Márai.

Apart from this meaning, one advantage to reviving the idea of Mitteleuropa may be to recenter an understanding of Europe that is still influenced by Cold War politics – in which everything on the formerly communist side of the Iron Curtain is marginalized as "Eastern Europe."

not only applies to Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia and Serbia in terms of "influence" but also in terms of what constitutes a great part of the respective literatures' themes and problems--in the case of Croatia (which I know best and therefore find easiest to talk about), I'd say THE greatest part. Eliminate the portion of modern (post-16th century) Croatian literature dealing with the history and neuroses of servitude to the Habsburgs, the Magyars, the Germans, or that is marked in some way by it, and you're left with... I don't know what. Some folk songs and bawdy tales? Struggling to get a grasp on one's identity as a pre-condition for emancipation, between the Slav, the Teuton, the Latin, and the Turk; fighting for one's own "small" language under the onslaught of forced Germanisation and Magyarisation; pitting your provincial self against the empire's capitals--that's basically what Croatian literature IS.

The paradox is that, in an ideal situation in which we could all access any text at will, it would become clear how much of that peripheral-to-the-empire production, that's so hard to get at in the "mainstream", actually illuminates the empire's problems. Those Slav peasants did for the Germanic and Magyar aristocracy, and they were trying and preparing to do so for a very long time. They argued about it, they educated their children and progressed through the ranks thinking about it, they hid, advertised or manipulated their ethnic and political allegiances in service or war to it--and they wrote about it.

It's Krleža people still have to discover and need to discover, not Musil or Roth, when it comes to understanding what Austro-Hungary was like and why it fell apart. The German-Austrian perspective is already well-exposed but obviously it's not the only one--and in a way it's not even the most important one. I'm not saying that what is missing presents an entirely opposite, antagonistic perspective--but an absolutely necessary, complementary one.

The vast Slav underclass in Austria that fragmentarily and uneasily, here and there, ascended to the middle and sometimes upper ranks, isn't adequately represented in the Germanic literature.

And yet for its very suppression it's all the more interesting--at least, I can't help thinking so.

Anyway, I do hope this is not considered off-topic as I would gladly make recommendations where I can, for those who don't mind the less trodden paths.

Unfortunately English is underserved by translation, but readers of German in particular should have better luck.

My first proposal, at least for the sake of "putting it on the map" if not in expectation someone may actually read it--it's five volumes (I found it unputdownable, but who knows?)--is Krleža's magisterial Die Fahnen, (Flags). A generational saga of an upper-middle class, very much "Central European" family in Zagreb (AKA Agram), it illustrates that problematisation of identity of people constantly subjected to waves of oppression. It matters, historically if not philosophically, that it's those people for once, the unseen and unknown counterparts of those in German classics.

Krleža was himself born an Austro-Hungarian subject and educated as a military cadet in Hungary--from where he ran off to volunteer in the Serbian army, only to find himself deported back into Austria under suspicion of being a spy. The Austrians drafted him and sent off with other Croatian cannon fodder into Galicia. He spoke fluent German and Hungarian. His entire oeuvre is relevant to the theme, exemplifies the theme, both because of where he was born, who he was, what he was, how he was raised, and in the sense of constant consciousness of precisely those aspects that make "Central Europe" a topic for discussion.

The Return of Philip Latinowicz, The Banquet in Blitva and On the edge of reason are available in English.

In German, there is furthermore Die Glembays, Der kroatische Gott Mars, Requiem für Habsburg and more that deals directly with the history of the Austrian empire, its decadence and fall, as experienced by the Croats and other members of minor ethnicities.

Apologies for the length...

Edited: Oct 4, 9:16am Top

>14 LolaWalser: I read The Return of Philip Latinowicz (guess who persuaded me to do that...!) a few years ago. That was certainly a book with a Mitteleuropa feel and strong echoes of people like Joseph Roth. I need to explore Krleža further, as I keep saying...

(I admit that Roth doesn't need to be rediscovered, he's still there, but I don't think you're being quite fair lumping him in with the "German-Austrian" perspective. His status as a Jewish outsider from the Galician fringe never quite allows him to drop into that metropolitan view.)


My first read for this thread, a short one already mentioned in >2 spiphany: above. This is on this year's Booker International shortlist:

Drive your plow over the bones of the dead (2009; English 2018) by Olga Tokarczuk (Poland, 1962- ) translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones (UK, 1962- )


Olga Tokarczuk originally trained and practised as a psychologist. She's been writing novels since the early 90s, and started to grab the attention of English-speaking readers last year when Flights won the Booker International. She's also a well-known thorn in the side of the xenophobic right-wing politicians who claim to speak for Poland these days.

It doesn't take much to guess that William Blake is going to be playing a big part in this novel: apart from the title and the chapter epigraphs, he's also there in the text - the narrator, a semi-retired English teacher, is helping one of her former students to translate Blake into Polish. And the whole moral compass of the narrator's slightly-crazy-but-disturbingly-sane way of describing the world she lives in comes from Blake's disconcerting, prophetic way of calling out the hypocrisies of our everyday life as though they were simple and glaringly obvious things.

But it's also an edgily-uncomfortable parody of the cosy-murder genre. A succession of men meet gruesome deaths in the area around the small hamlet where the narrator lives, and she tries to help the police with her observations and astrological insights. The victims are all prominent members of the local hunting club, and they die in ironic ways that make it look as if the animal kingdom is taking revenge on them for their cruel sport. There's an Ovidian undercurrent here as well, and all sorts of references to folk-tales.

Probably not a book you will want to read if you have venison in your freezer, but very enjoyable - in a slightly disturbing way - for the rest of us. Lots of unexpected little bits of observation.

(And, to add to the "Balkan question" - this reminded me quite a lot of the mood of Baba Yaga laid an egg...)

Edited: Oct 4, 2:10pm Top

>15 thorold:

There are many flavours of outsiderism. Jewishness in general is a whole question apart, with many variables within it. If you compare Zweig and Roth, or rather the world of Zweig and the world of Roth, it's clear that not all Jews were made the same in Austro-Hungary. Zweig was a rich native, as much of an heir to the capital's culture and prestige as anyone else (until the Nazis decided otherwise), Roth a poor Einwanderer. In some ways they belong in the same club, but there are other things that set them very much apart. Each could be grouped with very many examples of their respective cases--and also isolated from yet other types of "occurring" Jewish lives, those of the poorest, illiterate workers, peasants, religious fundamentalists etc.

It's, I think, always debatable whether, and in what degree, and when, a specific Jewish-Austrian/German perspective exists and emerges. In particular for the highly assimilated Viennese and other urban Jews, for whom frequently their "Jewish connection" is no more than a memory, an archaeological tidbit, perhaps a folkloric flourish around the holidays and suchlike.

Your description of Tokarczuk's book brought to mind a novel, based on real events, that has little to do with it past the mention of gruesome deaths "of men", but that would be an interesting and somewhat unusual read for this thread--The Widowmaker (1966) by Maria Fagyas. I'll copy what I posted about it a few years ago:

...is a great quick read if you have a taste (or tolerance) for the macabre--based on true events in a 1920s Hungarian village, it's a zesty fictionalised account of a slew of suspicious deaths, mostly male, mostly by arsenic poisoning.

I don't know how accurate the Wiki entry might be, but here it is, about the actual events:

Angel Makers of Nagyrév

Fagyas is very good at intertwining social commentary with the incredible proceedings, and manages to make the assassins understandable and even sympathetic, in some cases. The life of these peasant women is probably the worst on earth. Treated as literally nothing but beasts of burden and brood mares, forced into marriages more often than not, abused every which way, beaten to pulp by familiars, condescended to and ordered about by everyone else from the priest to the squire, they are as low as mud. When war gives them respite from their typically brutal husbands and, significantly, let's them experience not only independence but success in being heads of households, some find it difficult to reconcile themselves to losing it all again on husbands' return--many of whom are now sick and invalids, doing nothing but increasing the already horrendous burden on these women.

There's a monograph on the case: Tiszazug: A Social History of a Murder Epidemic; I think I'll get it. (...)

It gives a really great picture of Hungarian peasant life and the repulsive aristocrats (hardly better educated or mannered) who exploited them.

Oct 4, 8:27pm Top

I should read more of Magris. The only thing I have read of his is Inferences from a sabre. I know several people over the years have recommended him. I think the Austrian Nobelist Elfriede Jelinek certainly deserves a mention as well as the Romanian Nobelist Herta Muller. Speaking of Poland Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz was an outstanding playwright who committed suicide after the German and subsequent Russian invasions of Poland at the beginning of WWII. There is no doubt in my mind he would have been murdered by either side if he hadn't acted. Zbigniew Herbert was a great poet--Report from the besieged city and Mr. Cogito among his works. Then there's the Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal. His Too loud a solitude is a great book. One of the weirder coincidences in my life--being a postal worker I always brought books with me to work. So I was reading Josef Skvorecky's The bass saxophone one night and casing outgoing mail and a postcard comes through addressed to Skvorecky at his address in Toronto Ontario. I wrote that address down inside the cover of my book. I never contacted him however--that I thought would have been indiscreet.

Oct 7, 4:47am Top

A warm-up to re-reading Kafka:

Betrachtung (1912; Contemplation/Meditation) by Franz Kafka (Austria-Hungary, Czechoslovakia, 1883-1924)


Like his near contemporary, Rilke, Kafka grew up in Prague, but spoke German as his first language, learning Czech at school. He wrote in German, but in later life he also took a serious interest in Yiddish culture. Unlike Rilke, he earned his own living, staying in Prague and working for an insurance company for most of his adult life. His literary work was done in his spare time, and little of it was published in his lifetime (and of course he famously asked his friend Max Brod to destroy the unpublished work after his death, something Brod failed to do...).

The short story collection Betrachtung was Kafka's first work to be published in book form, in 1912. Most of the eighteen stories had previously been published in literary reviews. They are all very short, ranging from a tweet-length 41 words ("Die Bäume") to just under 1500 ("Unglücklichsein").

All the stories seem to be in one way or another about the narrator's alienation, mechanically following the rules and duties of modern, urban life but also somehow only watching it from the outside, in a detached, almost voyeuristic way, unable to break through into participation. Only the child-narrator of the first story, "Kinder auf der Landstraße", can fully enjoy taking part in contact with others in play, and even there there's already a strong hint that the adult world is a different matter.

The stories are written in terse, clear language, although there are sometimes hints that we are supposed to imagine them as extracts from a longer narrative - several of the stories open with a conjunction, for instance. The images are generally very concrete, but occasionally a text runs off into a flight of fancy - the dull shopkeeper on his way home in "Der Kaufmann" spends the few moments he is alone, going up in the lift, apostrophising a set of imaginary winged creatures that turn into runaway horses, then comes back to earth to ring the doorbell and greet the maidservant.

Not "Kafkaesque" Kafka, perhaps, but you can see how it only needs to go a little bit further to become that.

Oct 7, 1:43pm Top

>17 lriley:

Hrabal's I served the king of England is the one I read, also excellent. Of Magris, I'd say any of his non-fiction is a "must"--he opens up the world like an orange, a dozen slices focussing a dozen directions at the same time. Danube, Microcosms--actually, I guess you don't have that much choice in English so whatever you chance on is worth trying.

>18 thorold:

Quite a coincidence, I finished a book about Kafka this morning, Jeremy Adler's Kafka (woo, found the touchstone!) It's an illustrated edition with many useful and intriguing photos, paintings, Kafka's own drawings and sketches and serves well as an intro and invitation to deeper studies.

Kafka may not have published a lot during his lifetime (it being so short) but it's notable that he was by no means an unknown quantity in the literary circles--he was friendly with Blei, Werfel, Erwin Egon Kisch's brother and had met publishers Ernest Rowohlt and Kurt Wolff--the latter becoming his publisher. Musil wanted to secure his collaboration. Karl Kraus joked about him ("Es brodelt und werfelt und kafkat und kischt"). When you start counting Kafka's literary acquaintances and admirers, it adds up to a considerable and very dazzling set.

And the things that got published before his death--Die Verwandlung and In der Strafkolonie among other stuff I don't now recall--that's quite something, I think.

Nothing compared to what might have been, of course...

Adler's epigraph is a quotation from Kafka which is perhaps relevant to the reasons he asked for his work to be destroyed:

The reason why posterity's judgement of an individual is more correct than that of his contemporaries has to do with the dead. You only develop your own character after death, when you are alone...

Perhaps he didn't want to allow this judgement to develop based on what he had done so far, especially if, as it seems, he was a struggler and re-writer.

(But in any case, praise be to Max Brod!)

Oct 7, 3:37pm Top

#19--ordered two books today--Magris' A different sea and another by Maryse Conde who until recently I hadn't heard of. But anyway I've read several of Hrabal's books including I served the King of England--though I don't have that one in my library. He is my favorite Czech writer.

Edited: Oct 10, 9:48am Top

Olga Tokarczuk from Poland and Peter Handke from Austria have just been announced as the winners of the 2018 and 2019 Nobel Prizes in Literature. I had planned to read Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead for this quarter's theme, and I'll probably read Flights as well. I've read the only book I own by Handke, A Sorrow Beyond Dreams. Which other books by him should I read?

Oct 10, 9:23am Top

>21 kidzdoc: I read Flights by Olga Tokarczuk last year but was not bowled over. Finishing it was an effort, not a pleasure. That was disappointing as she seemed right up my alley! Should I persevere? If so, which book would the knowledgeable among you recommend?
I haven't read anything by Peter Handke either, so am also looking for recs...

Meanwhile, I'm starting this quarter with Sándor Márai's Sirály/Les mouettes (it might be called The Seagull in English) which is waiting for me at the library.

Edited: Oct 10, 10:00am Top

>21 kidzdoc: We seem to have timed this theme perfectly, then! And I think this is the first time I've ever managed to read a book by a Nobelist (see >15 thorold:) less than a week before the award was announced...

Nice to see that they've half-followed their intention not to be male-dominated, but the pledge to stop being Eurocentric is looking a bit hollow.

The Guardian quotes Fiametta Rocco: "Olga Tokarczuk of course is beloved by everybody except the hard Polish right, Peter Handke is not so beloved of everybody, except for the arch followers of Slobodan Milošević..." https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/oct/10/nobel-prizes-in-literature-olga-to...

Given what he's said about the Nobel in the past, I wouldn't have expected Handke to accept the award. But maybe he is prepared to stretch a point when they come knocking on his door.

>22 Dilara86: I think you might enjoy Drive your plow. But that's the only one I've read.
Re Handke, I've only read Die Angst des Tormanns beim Elfmeter (The goalie's fear of the penalty), which is a memorable title and one of his best known books. I didn't like it very much, and Handke's public persona rather put me off exploring further.

ETA: Hindsight is a funny thing: I'm sure I remember not enjoying it, but what I wrote about it five years ago was rather favourable. Maybe my memory is coloured by what I've read about the author since: https://www.librarything.com/work/379577/reviews/113203257

Oct 10, 9:49am Top

>22 Dilara86: I haven't read any of the three books I own by Olga Tokarczuk, so I can't make any recommendations. I'll probably start Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead later this month, after I finish the Booker Prize shortlist next week.

Edited: Oct 10, 10:09am Top

>23 thorold: Right, Mark. I watched a short video interview yesterday by Anders Olsson, the chair of the Nobel Committee, about this year's prizes on the Nobel Prize's Facebook page. Based on your comments I would guess that you watched that interview as well. I'm not surprised by either choice, especially Tokarczuk, but I had hoped that Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o would be the 2019 laureate, especially after Tokarczuk's name was announced first, as the 2018 laureate.

I'm less familiar with Handke, although I do remember hearing about his apparent support for the late Slobodan Milosevic and the far right in Serbia; I'd forgotten who it was that made those comments until an hour or so ago. I suspect that we'll read a lot more about his political positions and statements in the days to come.

What did Handke say about the Nobel Prize before today? All I can find so far is a flurry of articles about today's announcement.

Oct 10, 10:33am Top

>25 kidzdoc: https://www.diepresse.com/3892843/handke-den-nobelpreis-sollte-man-endlich-absch... (in German)

“The prize should be abolished, it’s a false canonisation, a moment of attention, six pages in the newspaper”. Handke was being interviewed in 2014, when he’d been talked about as a candidate and Modiano, a writer he’d translated and promoted, was the actual laureate. So maybe there were sour grapes involved.

Oct 10, 10:54am Top

I've ordered something by Tokarczuk. As for Handke--I've read A goalie's anxiety at the penalty kick which was one of his earliest works and Absence. The first was pretty good--the second I didn't like so much and at that point I stopped. I'm interested a lot more in finding out about Tokarczuk than going further with Handke.

Edited: Oct 10, 12:53pm Top

This message has been deleted by its author.

Oct 10, 5:26pm Top

>19 LolaWalser: I, too, very much enjoyed I Served the King of England.

>17 lriley: I read The Bass Saxophone in grad school as part of a novella writing/reading seminar. I've also read and loved his short story collection called The Tenor Saxophonist's Story.

Regarding Meyrink, I highly recommend his The Golem.

Oct 10, 9:28pm Top

I recently read Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead and have been working my way through Iron Curtain.

Oct 11, 7:11am Top

#29--generally I liked Skvorecky. The Miracle game was really good. The one I wasn't that crazy about was The engineer of human souls which I think is the one he's most noted for. It happens---you like one book better than another. If I had to choose between him and Hrabal though I'd choose Hrabal. But it's also good that I don't have to choose.

Oct 11, 10:55am Top

Just back from more time away and although I had forgotten the theme for this quarter, coincidentally just started Journey by Moonlight. I also picked up Iza's Ballad on my travels and have a Joseph Roth on the go. It's good to feel in tune with the theme.

Although not part of this quarter's theme, but on the Nobel discussion, my own nominee would be Ismail Kadare, so hoping he sticks around long enough to receive the award.

Edited: Oct 12, 6:38pm Top

I was looking for a different book by the Viennese Fritz von Herzmanovsky-Orlando (quite a mouthful, so FHO from now on) but when I couldn't find it, fell on Tarockanische Geheimnisse (Tarockanian secrets)*. The latter is a facsimile reproduction of some 44 drawings he made through 1919-1920, by and large of fantastic characters and bizarre activities (there's maybe one "straight" sketch of a Venitian scene).

FHO worked as an architect before illness made him abandon the daily routine (presumably there was family wealth to help him get along) and he seems to have done little but written, drawn and travelled, sometimes in the company of such friends as Alfred Kubin.

He didn't publish much during his lifetime but there's a hefty box of collected works out there now.

What's interesting is that he seems to have developed a self-contained narrative world encompassing his literary works and drawings, endowed with a private symbology and mythology. His name for this dreamland was "Reich der Tarocke". Recurrent figures include seductive young women, usually naked, and ridiculous-looking old men, usually with physical malformations. One of his reference points was commedia dell'arte, and his archetypes seem informed by it.

Judging by the drawings it was a surreal, grotesque, humorous place; judging by the title, the surface symbols hide a deeper reality. I don't think the drawings have much artistic value, they seem to me to be products of a story told to oneself, perhaps even therapeutically.

FHO had a variety of mystical, esoteric, pseudoscientific connections and interests (yoga, "New Age", Cosmism, freemasonry, parapsychology etc.) He joined the Nazis in 1932 (but decamped to Italy for health reasons and never returned), which of course didn't stop the Austrians from honoring him with a street name by and by.

A curiosity to add to the mosaic of cultural life in Austria.


ETA: *Or "Tarockanian Mysteries"

Edited: Oct 12, 3:13pm Top

Well, I just had the nastiest shock I ever received on LT since joining in 2007. I should probably step away from the computer, my heart is racing, my hands are shaking, my thoughts are a jumble, all bad signs, but--fuck it, I guess. I tried to be careful and circumspect; she interpreted that as acting in bad faith. An LTer whom I liked and respected, although I don't and never presumed to "know", just dumped on me the accusation that I'm defending far-right nationalism, and refuses me even the grace of a reply.
Since this was precipitated by something she wrote about Handke and my reply to it, I figure it may as well be commented here--it's ironic that I deleted my post in this thread before. I deleted it because I feared it could become a huge digression and--not secondarily at all--because talking about the destruction of Yugoslavia cuts me to pieces. But I guess there is no protection.

This is the copy of my post in her thread--given her monstrous insult, I won't post there again:

"I had deleted a post I made elsewhere that touched on the political attacks on Handke because I thought better of going that dismal route (which is, technically, a digression if the topic is Handke's literary worth and import), so I would much rather not take it up in anyone's personal thread. Suffice it to say that the topic is complicated and doesn't merit peremptory dismissal through a few strong, dubiously applied labels.

We tend to assume a committee is acting in the best interest of the award, not acting upon its members' own quirks and prejudices.

And yet it's often our own quirks and prejudices that blind us to how others view matters. If one is convinced that Handke is a "far-right nationalist" who has "condoned and contributed" to "international horrors" one is bound to remain oblivious to what others see in him that is worthy of praise--not unadulterated, blind glorification perhaps, but praise nevertheless.

I would suggest that there is a different view (and views) of Handke and his political engagement that, far from dumbly and criminally agreeing to some "far right" narrative, recognise not just his literary talent (the reason he is deserving of the prize in the first place) but the existence and the importance of the problems he raises--problems whose neglect compromises our own relationship to truth, our own ethical self, our own conscience.

I don't say this to force anyone away from their antagonism, however well or badly founded; merely to note that other opinions are available, not all of which automatically make of Handke's readers or admirers hardcore fascists."

As someone who has read only two works by Handke, I'm not much of "his reader"--although I intend to read more, if only to clarify my ideas. I have liked the two works I read, but I couldn't call myself an "admirer". I think it's fair, if somewhat anodyne, to say that I think he's a writer who can make one think, experience literature as something deeper than entertainment.

Whether pointing out that not everyone who reads him is thereby automatically a fascist and defender of "far-right nationalism" actually makes one (or me specifically) a fascist and defender of far-right nationalism is, I hope, open for debate.

Edited: Oct 12, 4:47pm Top

#34--FWIW a lot of literary writers (and artists of all kinds) are fucked up individuals and anybody who reads a lot should know that and anyone who is a reader of real literature no doubt has a library full of fucked up individuals and their works that they still like very much. I know I do. But really all kinds of neuroses, self loathing, bitterness and hate in great works of literature and I wouldn't be surprised if 100 or more of the writers I have read over the years have offed themselves. I could name a bunch. The suicide rate is pretty much through the roof. Serious literature is not for the weak of mind or heart.

On the question of Handke I've read him twice too--liked the first book--the second not so much and it's been a while since the second--at least ten years and as a 62 year old with a few thousand books in my background my memory is not that great or it's lapsing more as I get older so really the impressions I have on him as a writer are kind of vague--and really a writer's writing is how I tend to first judge him or her. There are certain writers I really detest like Ayn Rand because I think objective elitism is really evil but they are few.

I had no idea about anything regarding Handke and Milosevic until a couple days ago and really am not sure of the whole story even now. I never really thought about keeping track of who went to Miloselvic's funeral or would write eulogies for him. So I can imagine plenty of readers who had read some of his stuff were caught off guard. What I can say is from reading what I have I think he was kind of a mediocre pick for the Nobel--that there were numerous better choices but I could say that about other Nobel winners too so that's just an opinion and not necessarily a nuanced one.

I would bring up Claude Simon. I like Simon as a writer quite a lot. He writes kind of in that Faulkner-esque vein that you see in diverse writers like Lobo Antunes or Cormac McCarthy. But I also know someone who talked of meeting or running into others of the Nouveau Roman like Sarraute and Butor (both of whom she loved) and she hated Simon--called him a nasty old man in that he was very short and often contemptuous with people and probably there was at least some truth to it but really I had no way to qualify what she told me. I kind of look at it this way sometimes--that it's best to steer clear of meeting people whose work you admire because there's good chance they'll disappoint you if you do meet them.

Oct 12, 6:26pm Top

>35 lriley:

One of the saddest things of the innumerable sad things regarding the Yugoslav catastrophe is that someone like Milosevic and his cohort came to represent, positively or negatively depending on who is asked, the idea of Yugoslav unity. I think Handke went too far in paying respect to this idea, past the point when his actions became compromising, but at least he can say he was being consistent and true to it to the end.

It's not being "for" Handke (and by extension, as my ex-LT friend shockingly made clear today, for Milosevic and "far-right nationalism") to say that he's worth hearing out.

Neither do I mean it's to be listened to passively, or embraced, partly or let alone wholly. I mean that there is a debate to be had--about how the narrative about the war in Yugoslavia was created, promoted and manipulated, for what reasons and agendas. I won't say more as I hardly expect anyone to be interested; however, I hope people understand there is more to Handke than this topic. (But it should be noted that it may actually strikingly indicate a trademark of his persona--a contrariness and a loneliness partly inborn, partly elected.)

Regarding personalities and talent, achievement etc.--I've often posted about these dilemmas and expect to keep doing so in future. I don't know whether generalisations are possible. In most cases concrete accusations can be made and anyone interested ought to be able to decide what they can and can't ignore.

Edited: Oct 13, 12:39am Top

>34 LolaWalser: - >36 LolaWalser:
The trouble seems to be that we all agree in theory that it’s a crucial part of the writer’s job to challenge received ideas, but in practice we have a hard time accepting that that doesn’t just apply to other people’s received ideas. Or that someone can be (spectacularly) wrong on one thing but still worth listening to elsewhere. It’s tempting to be lazy and generalise, but really we ought to do the hard work of resolving the individual case with our own experience and moral red lines.

These things are clearly exacerbated by the way journalism works: conflict and controversy make news, literary merit doesn’t. We’re only likely to get on the barricades to defend a (politically) difficult writer if we’ve already invested a lot in reading their work, and obviously most of us aren’t quite there yet with Handke.

There do seem to be a few more nuanced views of Handke’s win out there, from literary rather than political journalists, for instance this piece by Hubert Spiegel in the FAZ (German): https://www.faz.net/aktuell/feuilleton/buecher/autoren/peter-handke-erhaelt-den-... — “unlike Grass ... Handke never wanted to set himself up in the role of a moral authority, rather preferred to see himself as a naughty child” — or this one (in Dutch) by Jan Luijten in the Volkskrant: https://www.volkskrant.nl/mensen/nobelprijswinnaar-handke-mijn-ideaal-is-in-stil... — Luijten talks about the whole of Handke’s work as the realisation of his 1966 outburst against neue Sachlichkeit. “Handke knows reality, but he sees it as his task to defamiliarise reality, to make literature from it.”

The more knee-jerk pieces I see attacking Handke without ever talking about his books and plays, the more it makes me want to read them...

Edited: Oct 13, 2:06pm Top

>37 thorold:

Thanks--you might be interested in these too:


Le minoritaire existentiel, cette fois, a rejoint le minoritaire politique. Les jurés d’une institution moralement éprouvée couronnent aujourd’hui un auteur que la morale institutionnelle a un moment réprouvé, phénomène dont ses lecteurs se fichent, et libre soit cette infortune. On l’entendra toujours nous dire, d’une voix amusée, avec ses yeux plissés : «Les gens déraisonnables sont en voie de disparition.» Ce sont les gens sans raison qui foisonnent.

France Culture did a series of interviews with Handke in 2013 (I listened only to part 1, don't know the topics covered past that):


I presume there are other examples of his responses to the (various) attacks over the years, this came up first for me, from 2006--relevant in particular regarding the unqualified assertions that he is a genocide denier:


(I'm reserving comment--rest assured there is LOTS one could say.)

Die Zeit also published an article, quite scathing in my view, that condemns his political (and politicised) gestures but not the idea that he's worth reading:


Es ist keine Frage, ob Handke mit seinem 1996 veröffentlichten Text Eine winterliche Reise zu den Flüssen Donau, Save, Morawa und Drina oder Gerechtigkeit für Serbien, mit seinen darauffolgenden, zunehmend wirren politischen Äußerungen zum Balkankrieg und mit seiner Grabrede auf Milošević im März 2006 eine politische Dummheit und historische Fahrlässigkeit nach der anderen begangen hat, die er in seiner Sturheit und in seiner Medienverachtung nicht zu revidieren bereit war...

Die grundsätzliche Frage lautet, ob Handkes verbissene literarische Zelebration des Vielvölkerstaats Jugoslawien, die bei ihm den grotesken Umweg der Verteidigung dessen Zerstörer nahm, Konsequenzen für die Rezeption seines Werks haben. ...

Der Schriftsteller Jan Brandt, der zuletzt das viel diskutierte Buch Ein Haus auf dem Land / Eine Wohnung in der Stadt veröffentlicht hat, kommentierte auf seinem Facebook-Account die Juryentscheidung mit deutlichem Unverständnis und ergänzt auf Nachfrage: "Gerade, was den Nobelpreis betrifft, geht es um Haltung und nicht nur um Literatur. Deshalb sind ja einige andere wie Heinrich Böll oder Günter Grass überhaupt erst ausgezeichnet worden – weil sie sich gesellschaftspolitisch engagiert haben. Das eine vom anderen zu entkoppeln, als hätte das nichts miteinander zu tun, halte ich für falsch und unangemessen." Der Schriftsteller und Historiker Per Leo wiederum, Mitautor des Essaybands Mit Rechten reden, entgegnete: "Gute Literatur entsteht zum Glück nicht aus Geisteshaltungen! Sonst müsste ich mich beim Lesen ja dauernd fragen, wes Geistes Kind der Autor ist."

Wenn beide recht damit haben, dann ist der Nobelpreis für Peter Handke möglicherweise tatsächlich eine mutige Entscheidung.

Listening to the interview, I remembered what you said about prefering Bernhard, I feel the same way. It's actually a bit surprising that someone like Bernhard, who couldn't bond with people, would seem closer and (to me anyway) warmer than someone like Handke, who clearly feels deeply.

Maybe it's wrong to try to compare them on some level deeper than "troublemakers". In any case, I find Bernhard's hatred for his homeland healthy, familiar and dear (a passion like my own, a Hassliebe that preserves my moral compass ergo my sanity), while Handke's ambivalent, grumpy but in the end blindly bestowed patriotism ("my country right or wrong") repels me. However, I find Handke pitiable in a way that is impossible to apply to Bernhard, no matter how much more impoverished the latter was (emotionally and experientially).

Handke is some sort of orphan and perhaps that's the key to it all...

Oct 13, 8:21pm Top

In a lot of ways Bernhard and Jelinek remind me of each other. Blunt and bleak outlooks but very funny too.

Oct 14, 3:28am Top

>39 lriley: Yes, and both happy to be iconoclastic about scenery, skiing, Mozart-balls and walking-socks. Very different in other ways, of course.

Something that must be important, although I haven’t really worked out how yet, is that all of them, including Handke, seem to be focussed on the theatre at least as much as they are on novels, if not more so. I suppose it means that they must see the public that lives within a tram-ride of the Burgtheater as their only really important audience.

Oct 15, 2:36pm Top

>40 thorold: I think some of this is surely simply due to the fact that theater has long played an important role in German-speaking societies (and continues to do so), and in particular it is a genre that is overtly political in a way that novels tend not to be -- i.e., theater is seen as having the potential to move people, to change perspectives and attitudes.
I can't think of many German-language authors whose writing has a strong element of social criticism and who haven't also at least dabbled in playwriting at one point or another.

In English-language literary traditions the theater doesn't seem as prominent, which probably has historical reasons (periods in which the theater was seen as a hotbed of immorality); authors who want to criticize society are more likely to turn to satire or science fiction. (Whereas in German-language traditions science fiction tends to be considered "entertainment" and not something one writes if one wants to be taken seriously, although a few "literary" authors have occasionally ventured into the dystopian genre.)

Oct 18, 7:26am Top

>41 spiphany: Yes, I'm sure that's right. Not that theatre is unimportant in Anglo-Saxon culture, but it does seem to have detached itself quite firmly from the rest of literature, obviously as you say a hangover from puritanism.


As I said above, I wanted to try some Hungarian writers, and by chance one came along, via Gerald Murnane's A history of books, which I read earlier this week. Murnane is clearly a big Sándor Márai fan — he puts him up there with Halldór Laxness, and apparently taught himself Hungarian specially to read him:

Portraits of a marriage (1941,1949,1980; English 2011) by Sándor Márai (Hungary, USA, 1900-1989), translated by George Szirtes (Hungary, UK, 1948- )


Márai came from a bourgeois background in Kaschau/Kassa/Košice, now in Slovakia, then in the kingdom of Hungary. He studied in Germany and initially wrote in German, travelling widely as a young man. In 1928 he returned to Hungary and switched to writing in his mother-tongue, Hungarian, establishing himself as one of the major novelists of the time. He soon got on bad terms with the new communist government after the war, and in 1948 he left Hungary for exile in Italy and then the USA. Few of his works seem to have been known outside Hungary until after his death in 1989, but translations have been gradually appearing since then.

George Szirtes is a distinguished English poet and taught at UEA until his retirement. He left Hungary with his parents in 1956.

Portraits of a marriage is a puzzling book for the reader, because of the way Márai added to it at widely-spaced intervals and at quite different stages in his development as a writer, apparently without changing what he had previously written, but each time shifting the tone and mood considerably and undermining our confidence in what we have taken from the earlier parts of the book.

The book takes the form of three separate monologues in the voices of Ilonka the First Wife, Peter the Husband, and Judit the Other Woman. These are followed by an Epilogue, also a monologue, in the voice of Ede, the musician who was Judit's lover and the addressee of her monologue.

Ilonka and Peter seem to be a normal, troubled bourgeois couple of the sort that we might well find in a novel by Franz Werfel or Stefan Zweig. They give us their (contrasting, conflicting) views on the story of their failed marriage and the role played by Peter's damaging obsession with his mother's maidservant Judit. There is a lot in both their narratives about the details of their everyday life, but very little reference to other people outside the immediate family — with the notable exception of Peter's friend the writer Lázár, who is obviously a kind of alter ego for the author — and no explicit reference at all to social class or historical events. We don't have any obvious way to tell whether we are meant to be in the 1890s or the 1930s, it just doesn't seem to matter. This is a story about what love means, how it can be resolved with everyday life, and what happens when different people have different expectations about it.

But then Márai hits us with Judit's monologue, addressed to her boyfriend of the moment in a hotel room in Rome sometime in the late 1940s, and obviously written after he went into exile. Judit comes from the rural underclass, her family literally sleeping in a ditch in the winter months, and has pulled herself up by her own efforts, first to become a servant in the apartment of Peter's wealthy middle-class parents, then to turn herself into a lady who could live with Peter on something like equal terms. Her analysis of the way the wealthy live and the irrelevance of Peter and Ilonka and their feelings is just disturbing at first, but we are drawn into her way of seeing things when she shows us (painfully) how the experience of the last days of the war in Budapest changed all the rules. There's obviously a lot here that is taken from the author's direct experience, including Lázár's decision that he can't go on writing under fascism and the destruction of his library in the bombardment.

And then we get the epilogue, written some forty years later, which pulls the rug out from under us again, if not quite as spectacularly as Judit has done.

Quite something, and the English translation by George Szirtes blasts along with real energy.

Another writer to explore further ...

Oct 18, 8:21am Top

I started Sirály/Les mouettes by Sándor Márai last week, stopped, took it up again, from the wrong page (I mistook the previous reader's bookmark for mine, and only realised 30 pages later: not a great sign), then gave up for good. I just could not get into it.
I've just finished Confusion: The Private Papers of Privy Councillor R. von D. by Stefan Zweig, which I liked a great deal more! Am now half-way through Baba Yaga Laid an Egg by Dubravka Ugrešić, which could qualify for a number of Reading Globally themes, including this one...

Oct 19, 12:28pm Top

Years ago I was blown away by Márai's Casanova in Bolzano (I like the original title, the subtle Guest performance in Bolzano far better) and still have it on my ever-shortening list of books I wish to reread. As I recall it's basically a lengthy conversation between Casanova and one of his old conquests (old as in "been there done that", not chronological age), in which we see the lines of power ever shifting and changing in unexpected ways. Who is the seduced or the seducer and what is seduction, what love? But also more than that, maybe much more than that, the pathos of whole life's yearning and the tantalising possibility--but dare one hope?--of a real bond... and the certain tragedy of loss.

Another Austrian book for me, Die goldene Horde, a collection of Alexander Lernet-Holenia's poetry, some translations and dramatic fragments, first published in 1935. The author was another of those Habsburg semi-knightly characters with military experience and literary interests, more conservative than not, compromised during the Nazi era although--maybe--less so than many? Not sure yet.

He was a friend of Rilke's and also, they say, influenced by Georg Trakl and Gottfried Benn. I see some thematic resemblances--a lot about death and dying, life's inexorable passing, autumnal atmosphere, mournful lyricism--but frankly it wouldn't occur to me there was a connection. L-H favours religious and courtly imagery and writes with special gusto about aristocratic pastimes like hunting.

The title poem is about the killing of the Romanovs--so the Soviets are equated with the Mongols.

From Tiresias' prophecy:

All your companions are
dead and God knows where.

They left you sleeping
like a child on the shore

and you woke up
in homeland.

And you won't know,
lord of Ithaca,
where you are.

Oct 19, 1:01pm Top

I've only read Marai once and that was Embers. Coincidentally though Marai shows up towards the end of a novel by Alta Ifland--a Romanian writer who has been living in California for a while. The title of that is 'The Iffland Ring' which hasn't been published yet but I was recently asked to look at and unfortunately the publisher isn't going to publish because it's a really really good book. Hopefully she'll find another publisher.

Oct 19, 1:17pm Top

I really have to give Márai another chance, don't I...

Oct 19, 4:19pm Top

I have Embers and a few other of his, as I was so pleased by that Casanova one, but, you know--so many books, so little time... it's unlikely you'll want for good literature in case you decide not to try him again!

Group: Reading Globally

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