Diary Note 30: Hungary and Europe

Berlin, 22 December 2018

With Kornél Mundruczó (Hungarian film-maker) I spoke for a moment about Sándor Márai. He uttered an Hungarian opinion, that I have heard before: Márai was better in translation than in the original.

I have heard this putdown before and always with some reserve. Renown in the outside world may bring envy into play at home. Márai moreover showed an aristocratic disdain for compromises with the communist state. He must have made enemies.

I reflected that I have read him in translation mainly for the evocation of a certain reality, which goes far beyond the formality of language.

Maybe the imputed poverty of the Hungarian language in Márai’s work could be real? On the one hand he himself stresses the isolation of the Hungarian experience from broad European movements like the Renaissance, caused by the non-European character of the language. These movements had to be acculturated by new words. On the other hand translations of his books into European languages may have created a veneer of subtlety, hiding some austerity of the original. A basic simplicity of language could be a given, or willed by Márai as his form of expression.

The problem could indeed lie with the insulating effect of the language itself. In that case the problem would manifest itself with other writers in Hungarian, like Kertész or Konrád. I have heard it said by a Hungarian friend that she prefers reading these writers in translation, because of more clarity.

I have no knowledge of Hungarian. In the seventies I met poets like Janos Pilinszky, Sándor Csoóri, of whom especially Pilinszky convinced me. I never met Márai. I first got to know Márai through an Italian translation (Le Braci) of his book The Cinders, about a conversation between two old acquaintances sitting by a fire at night and settling issues of the past. This situation was archetypal and gripped me. I sent the book on to my friend JM. Slightly later the book was published in Dutch and Márai became better known. I have since read several of his works and hope to read more in the future. You feel that something fundamental is being written about. Even the last book I read, which is a bit surreal and in English would translate as The Rebels, retains a feeling of lived experience, however improbable the situation described.

There remains a deeper problem, that of a small language. In the book Land, land!… (Fjöld, fjöld!… ) he takes leave of the land of his language with a moving description of local, provincial, hardly known authors who soon will be hardly remembered.

Somehow the Hungarian talent seems to develop differently once in the wider space of Europe. I was first struck by this fact a few years ago when visiting an exhibition of Hungarian photographers, now famous, who went abroad in the thirties, for instance to the Bauhaus. Their work expanded within this broader horizon. They excelled and became famous. The eagle was no longer caged.

Kornél himself is neither lacking in attention or commissions in Hungary. But he seemed to be moving consciously away from some limitations.

Gifted individuals from Hungary have found refuge as cosmopolitans not in other nations but in Europe. Hungary is perhaps the European country where the contrast between cosmopolitanism and nationalism is most felt.