With a native language spoken by only 14 million people in the world, Hungarian writers need to fight an uphill battle if they want to gain worldwide, international reputation. However, the bests do succeed; here’s a partial list of them.
Satantango by László Krasznahorkai (1985)
The first novel titled Satantango by prolific Hungarian writer László Krasznahorkai was published in 1985, translated in the same year by Hungarian-British poet George Szirtes, and adapted for the screen by Béla Tarr in 1994. In Satantango, Krasznahorkai depicts a despicable world that’s full of poverty, crimes, and guilty people, focusing on the characters’ thoughts in a desolate, passive environment. Satantango, with its name referring to both the Argentine dance style and the devil itself, is a true literary masterpiece with so many layers that the reader will find new interpretations even for the umpteenth time.
A Book of Memories by Péter Nádas (1986)
76-year-old Hungarian litterateur Péter Nádas is widely known for his attention to detail: it took him twelve years to write one of his greatest works, A Book of Memories, so it was first published in 1986. The title might be misleading, as Nádas did not write about his own memoirs on close to one thousand pages, but told the fictional and often intertwined stories of separate individuals of different eras, in a parallel manner. Nádas cultivates a very polished style, which often leaves the true bookworms fascinated by the information overload squeezed in one single sentence. The complexity of his 1986 book might be the reason why its English translation was carried out by two outstanding linguists, Ivan Sanders and Imre Goldstein, in 1997.
The Door by Magda Szabó (1987)
First published in Hungary in 1987, The Door is probably the most well-known novel by popular Hungarian writer Magda Szabó. Packed with autobiographical references, the plot unfolds around the relationship of a young female writer, Magda and her elderly housekeeper, Emerence. Their complicated connection that is full of intense, often contradictory emotions and affectionate love demonstrates what matters the most and what doesn’t in the lives of the 20th century people, and also, in ours today. The book was first translated into English by Stefan Draughon in 1995, which was followed by Len Rix 2005 translation that won the Oxford-Weidenfeld Translation Prize in 2006. A few years later, The New York Times put The Door on its The Best Books of 2015 list.
The Book of Hrabal by Péter Esterházy (1990)
Although internationally acknowledged as one of the most prominent writers in Central Europe, it is not always easy to follow Péter Esterházy’s train of thought that is often marked by quotations, paraphrases, and allusions, but it’s always worth the effort. As a paean to Hrabal and his autobiographical trilogy, The Book of Hrabal is narrated by Esterházy’s wife, Anna, who is expecting their fourth child. She ponders over her marriage, a possible abortion, and her family’s history, but most importantly she addresses her thoughts to Hrabal, who becomes her confidant. The book was translated into English by the brilliant Judith Sollosy in 1995.
The Book of Fathers by Miklós Vámos (2000)
Translated into ten languages, The Book of Fathers is an ode to Hungarian nationality, a 300-year adventure into Hungarian time and space, throughout Hungarian history and language. The narrative starts in 1705, one year after the war of independence broke out, and ends in the days of the solar eclipse of 1999. In The Book of Fathers, considered one of the greatest novels of the 20th century Hungarian literature, Vámos tells us about twelve generations of the Stern (later altered to Csillag) family with special attention to their private lives. Translated by Peter Sheerwood in 2006, the Book of Fathers, first published in 2000, was Vámos’s attempt to bid farewell to the 20th century, but it ended up an international blockbuster.
Tranquility by Attila Bartis (2001)
When you scroll through the first pages of Tranquility by Transylvanian contemporary writer Attila Bartis, you’ll feel the urge to keep on reading and be paralyzed at the same time. The 2001 psychodrama starts with a funeral, and develops from the dark and twisted memories of Andor, a Hungarian writer in his middle thirties. The plot unfolds around his hatred, lies, and passion filled, interdependent relationship to his mother, which is doomed to change due to another woman who brings love and affection into Andor’s life. The novel was translated by Imre Goldstein in 2008.
Night School: A Reader for Grownups by Zsófia Bán (2007)
An already acknowledged essayist, associate professor of American literature at ELTE, Zsófia Bán wrote her first prose, Night School: A Reader for Grownups in 2007. What makes this book a “reader” - or rather a workbook - is the playful exercises placed at the end, or in the middle of each text, which certainly aim to mock traditional textbooks and conformist literature teaching. However, Zsófia Bán does intend to have an educative effect on her “students” in a less direct but much more fascinating and frisky way: through intertextuality, historic events left out from most books, foreign languages idioms, and aesthetics. Her novel stand on textbooks was translated into English by Jim Tucker earlier this year.