26 June 2011

Sunday reading list – a very subjective take on Hungarian books

On Sundays we’ve been trying to give a little cultural twist to this blog. This time, it is not music, but books. Kováts is a great fan of listing things, so here is a very subjective list of the five “best” Hungarian books:

1. The most talked-about Hungarian writer these days is Sándor Márai (a good Guardian piece on him here) and his most famous book is probably the ’Embers’. It’s a magical realist tale of love and loyalty written in 1942. Kováts had the chance to see the book turned into a play in the Duke of York Theatre with Jeremy Irons, which has started him down on a slippery (and expensive) slope of theatre going in London.

Warning: starting to read Márai is addictive. Don’t blame us if you end up as a serial reader of his books.

2. “Many Continentals think life is a game; the English think cricket is a game.” By poking such gentle fun at the English, How to be an Alien by George Mikes has become an instant bestseller in the UK after WWII. It’s most famous line is probably about sex and the English – we have heard it quoted several times and most people probably don’t know where it comes from. You can read the whole text here – although without the fabulous illustrations by Nicholas Bentley. 

3. My happy days in Hell – The first part of the autobiographical novel of György (George) Faludy, a poet and a connoisseur of life who was chased by every possible totalitarian regime. He takes the reader through the period between 1938-1956 with so much inteligence, humanism and fun that contrasts the terrible events described. (If you read this, you may understand why the Council conslusions on crimes committed by totalitarian regimes was an important achievement for us - and why we insisted on the inclusion of communist crimes.) 

4. Linked and Bursts by Albert-László Barabási: Eye-opening books if you want to understand how networks work and what that means for humans: "Barabasi is one of the few people in the world who understand the deep structure of empirical reality." -Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of The Black Swan.

5. And a translation for the end: Winnie ille pu – Who would think of translating Winnie the Pooh into Latin? And expecting this to be a bestseller? It must be a polyglot Hungarian Jew, a doctor hiding in Rome’s libraries during WWII and later emigrating to Brazil and using his last savings to publish the book. As one of Kováts’s favourite British writers, Robert Graves explains: “Through some inexplicable quirk of fortune, Winnie ille Pu was taken up by publishers in Sweden, England and the United States, and everywhere became a best seller. Since then, several other Latinists have exploited the trend with translations of Peter Rabbit, Peter and the Wolf and Alice in Wonderland; but all that I have read lack Winnie ille Pu’s audacious wit and stylistic felicities, doubtless because they are written in the wrong sort of Latin.” (A very funny take on the story is available from George Faludy here)

Alexander Lenard (or Lénárd Sándor or Alexander Lenardus) has a few original works available in English. ‘The valley of the Latin bear’ is a superb account of life in the “Interior” of Brazil and one of the best cookbooks we know is ‘The fine art of Roman cooking’.

Some of the books above were translated into English (like those of Márai, who rejected even in emigration to write in anything then Hungarian), while others like Mikes, were written originally in English. We find it fascinating how some writers are able to produce lasting works in a language other than their native language(s). In addition to George Mikes and Alexander Lenard, think of Arthur Koestler, who wrote in Hungarian, German and English or of the leading American poet Charles Simic. This would be worth another post, but for the moment we must go back to more mundane tasks and prepare for tomorrow’s IGC with Iceland, the summing-up press conference of the Hungarian Presidency and the extraordinary Competitiveness Council which is expected to give a critical push to the creation of the EU patent (details for the press regarding tomorrow's events here - press conference for the Competitiveness Council will be broadcast from Luxembourg at around 5PM.)

1 comment:

  1. Hey guys, thanks for this list, apart from the Latin title, I'll make sure to include them in my vacation plans (which just received a huge blow as the ferry company cancelled our trip to Mallorca and back). My summer reads, in case anyone asked:
    - History of London by Stephen Inwood
    - Vendredi by Michel Tournier (just got this one for 1 euro, apparently the story of Robinson's companion, after his master got saved)
    - Le livre secred des fourmis by Bernard Weber (this "encyclopedie du savoir relatif et absolu" promises to be a funny read, for 1 euro, you can't beat its rapport qualite-prix)
    - Young Stalin by Simon Sebag Montefiore (useful for my Wiki articles about WWII)