Book Review, Midst the Wild Carpathians, by Mór Jókai

Upon finishing this intriguing book, I turned back to page one and began reading again, in the hope that the intricacies of its plot might become clearer the second time around. One dimension of this intricacy relates to the complex political situation of seventeenth-century Transylvania, where Ottoman Turks retained some influence despite the country’s nominal independence and where the word “Hungarian” could refer not only to the native ethnic stock but also to emigres from Hungary proper. Another relates to author Mór Jókai’s inexplicit treatment of cause and effect in the storyline, his disinclination to comment on how certain actions proceed from others. At any rate, my second reading was well worth it, as familiarity built on itself, yielding greater comprehension.

One obvious theme of the book is womanly influence over men. A typical sentence reads, “The chair of state was large enough to accommodate them both. It is true that the pretty wife had to sit half upon her husband’s knee, but that certainly did not inconvenience either of them.” (pp. 75-76) Another runs, “The women, like so many Bacchantes, ran in search of weapons, and mounted the ramparts by the side of their husbands, whom the determination of their wives had turned into veritable heroes.” (pp. 174)

However clever and strong the women of this book may be, though, they operate only through men. They are not independent.

Also intriguing to me is the hero of the last part of the book, Denis Banfi, who seems a typical representative of the gentry in the ease with which he shifts from grandiosity to viciousness. “The traces of noble enthusiasm and of unbridled fury are impressed upon his face side by side just as they are in his heart.” (p. 157)

In short, I enjoyed reading it once and more than doubly enjoyed reading it twice.

Book Review: Skylark, by Dezső Kosztolányi

Dezső Kosztolányi’s Skylark is pure delight. It depicts a week in the life of a provincial Hungarian town at the fin de siècle, when the unassuming protagonists, a Father and Mother in their late fifties, are deprived of the company of their homely daughter, Skylark, who goes to visit relatives. The town’s aristocratic bourgeoisie supplies the supporting cast and completes the book’s charm.

In a smart introduction, contemporary novelist Péter Esterházy quotes Kosztolányi’s diary:

I have always really been interested in just one thing: death….For me, the only thing I have to say, however small an object I am able to grasp, is that I am dying. (pp. xiii-xiv)

The result, quite logical if you think about it, is a “love of life” (Esterházy’s phrase) that permeates Skylark’s every page. No one dies in the course of the story. However, it brims with what the Japanese call aware, a sense of the impermanence of all things, felt most acutely when it emerges from a feeling of pleasure, sweetening it by cutting it short. In Skylark, the aware is on one occasion, an evening of cards at the club, made explicit:

One game spilled into another, with Ákos [the Father] shrewdly holding his own, uncovering every plot and scheme, averting every ambush. It was a long, long game.

But not for Ákos or the other players. What did they know of time, since falling captive to the magic of the cards? For all card players enjoy the intoxication of complete forgetting, and enter a separate universe whose every contours are defined by the cards….

Ákos gave them all a thorough thrashing. Only then did he glance at the clock ticking away on the wall before him. It was already after half past nine. He was suddenly seized by an inexplicable melancholy.

For a moment he hung his head, crestfallen after his unaccustomed frivolity. (p. 140)

A few pages later, Kosztolányi drives the point home:

Ákos suddenly picked up a tumbler full of schnapps they had set before him and downed it in one. The alcohol warmed its way through his body and lifted him to his feet. There was an enormous knocking in his old brain and he felt such delight that he really wouldn’t have minded in the least if there and then, in this moment of giddy ecstasy, when he felt his whole being, his whole life, was in his grasp, he were to fall down and die on the spot. (p. 147)

Et voilà: Life and death are yin and yang, ever-present in equal measure, at the taroc table, in a glass of schnapps, in everything.

Rounding out his study of cosmic paradox, Kosztolányi inserts exquisite portraiture of the oddity of human behavior, as in:

They met secretly in their lodgings, scoffing at everything, disparaging everyone, especially one another. An amber-tipped cigarette holder or a silver cigarette case could fill them with such unspeakable envy, and the good fortune of one of their number with such loathing, that they would immediately conspire against him and (remaining within the bounds of friendship, of course) contemplate causing him fatal injury, denouncing him in an anonymous letter or simply wringing his neck. (p. 19)

and:

In the end, he did what he always did in such situations: the opposite of what he’d originally intended. (p. 22)

Again, pure delight.

Book Review: Abigail, by Magda Szabó

The passage from childhood to adulthood is marked by an exchange of cares from the petty to the existential. A certain reorientation of perspective occurs as well: The child lives inside her petty cares; the adult views her existential ones from a certain sensible distance.

In Magda Szabó’s Abigail, Georgina Vitay must make the transition all at once, at the command of her father, the General: “From this moment onwards, Gina, your childhood is over. You are now an adult, and you will never again live as other children do. I am going to place my life, and yours, and that of many other people, in your hands.” (p. 121)

It is war, of course, that forces the General’s hand and compresses Gina’s adolescence into a moment. Instantly, her involvement in the world of schoolgirl pranks and grudges is ended, replaced by a series of life-or-death crises. She is now “the new Gina” (p. 126), and her transformation is noted frequently thereafter in such sentences as “They could not shake off the impression that she was playing with them…playing the way an adult does when joining in with the children.” (p. 134)

World War Two has become such a common setting for coming of age books and films that I wonder how anyone has been able to grow up since 1945. Maybe we haven’t. At any rate, Abigail is not only superlative in the subgenre but is a gem in its own right.

Book Review: The Man with the Golden Touch, by Mór Jókai

In Mór Jókai’s The Man with the Golden Touch, the protagonist, Mihály Timár, builds his fortune from an ill-gotten capital. He does not connive for it, but it falls into his hands unearned, and he spends most of the book in a cloud of self-reproach, unable to enjoy the happiness that properly belongs to others. Even when he resettles the fortune upon its rightful possessors, he claims no absolution, knowing that it was never his to bestow.

“Self-reproach” is an apt term, as is the idea of claiming “absolution” for oneself, for Timár is compelled, by the falsehood upon which his estate rests, to internalize morality. The inapplicability of external moral authority, at least to him, is the main theme of this book: The Man with the Golden Touch imagines a world without external moral authority, in other words, a world without religion.

Such a world presents challenges. It may seem at first glance to lack justice. Indeed, Timár’s basic uneasiness stems from his own flaunting of it. As he muses, “‘Whatever evil I do, good comes of it, and the greatest folly I commit turns to wisdom; when will this end?’” (p. 272 of 2001 Corvina edition) In despair, Timár gives up prayer. “Through this dreadful night he dared not pray; he would not speak with God. ‘Do not Thou look where I go.’ From this birthday on he gave up prayer. He defied fate.” (p. 261)

However, in his despair Timár forgets that it is precisely in supposed injustice that God abides. His lament (again) that “the greatest folly I commit turns to wisdom” amounts to a restatement of “God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise.” (1 Corinthians 1:27) In fact, The Man with the Golden Touch is the story of how Timár (and the reader) learns this lesson afresh. Its disparagement of religion, in its narrow, doctrinal sense, leaves God’s grace reigning supreme.

Accordingly, the book is brimming with godly though unchurchly sentiments. “They had no church holidays and did not count Sundays,” reads one. “Their saints’ days were those on which God gave them some special joy.” (p. 264) Another exposition occurs in the form of a dialogue, with a straw-man priest:

‘The man is your daughter’s husband?’

‘Yes.’

‘Who married them?’

‘He who married Adam and Eve – God.’

‘That was when there were no priests nor altars. But now things are not managed so easily….And so you have allowed your daughter to live in sin?’

‘What is sin?’

‘Sin? Sin is that which earns the contempt of all respectable people.’

‘I am quite unaffected by such empty considerations….My God requires no sacrifice of song and bell, only a devout heart. I do my penance, not by telling my beads but by working.’ (pp. 336-338)

The dominion of God without institutional religion suggests a paradise or Eden, making The Man with the Golden Touch into a story of paradise regained. Timár must strive through doubt and despair to reach the place from which all men and women are said to have been expelled. His sense of unworthiness stands him in good stead, as confidence in his own merit would doom him. Jókai even includes among his characters a sort of antichrist, who threatens to sabotage Timár’s endeavor.

The Man with the Golden Touch must count first and foremost as a spiritual allegory, yet it is a thoroughly engaging one. Its Hungarian setting and cast – the Danube and the representatives of all classes who live near it – is as intriguing as always, though never overdone or clichéd. In sum, this is a book to be cherished, providing both meaning and pleasure.   

Book Review: The Baron’s Sons, by Mór Jókai

This is the second book by Mór (a.k.a. Maurus) Jókai that I’ve read, after Poor Plutocrats. I enjoyed The Baron’s Sons at least as much, simply because it is well written, with incisive words and a general strategy of understatement; and it is well translated (by P.F. Bicknell). The story of three sons’ fates in the Hungarian revolution of 1848 is absorbing and politically exciting.

In my continuing attempt to understand why I enjoy Hungarian literature as much as I do (and as I continue to enjoy it), I am beginning to detect, in addition to its appealing wistfulness, a certain focus on honor. It is by no means as obsessive (and pathological) as something one would expect in ancient Greek tales, and it may actually be a little tongue in cheek. In Miklos Banffy’s The Transylvania Trilogy (I forget which volume, though it could have been the first), the protagonist, Balint, is compelled to fight a silly and ultimately harmless duel with someone. In The Baron’s Sons, brothers Richard and Ödön have a contest of honor of sorts, which ends with a hug and with Richard telling Ödön, “I’m very angry with you.”

I hope I never run out of books by Jókai, and I’ll keep reading Hungarian novels, even if I never figure out why I like them.

Book Review: The Queen’s Necklace, by Antal Szerb

It’s fitting how I’ve been putting off writing this review of The Queen’s Necklace, Antal Szerb’s last book; for Szerb, likewise, seemed to have been putting off finishing it. A lifelong Hungarian Catholic whose Jewish ancestry doomed him to underemployment and murder under Nazi occupation, Szerb passed up several opportunities to escape, preferring to share his people’s fate. With the final, fatal crisis approaching in 1943, Szerb sought refuge in the history of eighteenth-century France, dwelling on its most minute details, digressing and diverting along myriad tangents, as though contriving, like Scheherazade, never to reach the end. The Queen’s Necklace is Szerb’s valediction, how he wanted to go: not in bitterness but in erudite frivolity.

Pausing one last time, just before the close, Szerb makes the subtlest of allusions to creeping melancholy:

This age was as beautiful as the most finely worked lace, as a piece of Sèvres porcelain with its timeless charm and fragile delicacy; as the noble oozings of the Tokai grape, full and rich with sweetness; as the autumn air in Hungary, when the reddening leaves are scented with the inexpressible sweetness of death.

Not inexpressible, Antal. You expressed it. Thank you.

Hammered by Kindness

Sharing my diary entries detailing my “long way home” return from Taiwan via Europe in 1992, and reliving my decision to switch from flophouses to luxury hotels, I’m reminded also of how my sudden reintroduction to attentive restaurant service, after weeks of Chinese and Russian shabbiness, produced literally intoxicating results.

It was in the Xx Restaurant in Budapest (or was it Munich?) that the waiter, on bringing me my menu, asked if I would like to have an aperitif, while I looked it over. What a considerate question! This was more like it, I enthused, someone who knows how to treat a guest. Not wishing to profane the moment with a “No, thank you,” I asked the nice man to bring me a gin and tonic, which I remembered was customary for summer, even though I wasn’t really thirsty.

I sipped at the fizzy drink while perusing the bill of fare, and when the tuxedoed veteran returned to take my order for dinner, he asked me what sort of wine I would like with it. Of course! I remembered. One drinks wine with dinner at civilized establishments such as this one. I told my man that I would rely on him to provide the most appropriate ambrosia to match the veal I’d selected; and he brought the excellent white Burgundy for me to begin enjoying well in advance of my entrée. Naturally, I was careful also to finish off the gin and tonic, to avoid being rude.

The veal, balanced perfectly with the wine, melted in my mouth, and I leaned back in bliss, recalling how one week prior, I had considered myself lucky to be given a cold bowl of borscht, assuming I found the dining car of the Trans-Siberian open. When my hovering host cleared away my plate and asked me what I wanted for dessert, I started to cry, it had been so long since I’d been so well taken care of. I requested the chocolate mousse, and when he inquired, off-handedly, as to what sort of cordial I should like to go with it, accepted his recommendation of cherry liqueur.

A good half hour later, at the close of my repast, I wiped my mouth with the cloth napkin, paid the bill, took a deep breath of the fullest contentment and gratitude, rose to leave, and found that I could not walk.

Travel Journal: No More Roughing It; Arrival in Budapest (1992)

After the two [Ukrainian oil field workers] had both detrained, I had a very sublime conversation with my remaining compartment-mate. He was a Hungarian physicist who was “hanging up” whatever job he had in Moscow and returning home with his cat. For most of the conversation, it was this reserved gentleman who was asking me questions about Taiwan and other aspects of my life. Much as it happened during the Trans-Siberian conversation with the Australian woman, the relating of my exploits was quite therapeutic, but on this second train, this gentleman was the older-generation figure whose occasional encouragement and understanding I greatly appreciate, nay, crave. His questions also were aimed right at the point, the main idea, of each aspect we were talking about; he was [always] asking, “What was your purpose” for doing such-and-such? I was happy to have a purpose that guided me [and] that I could tell him. I think I meant that he was one of the few people who could understand my lofty life goals, as I expressed them; most folks simply smirked at how impractically I’d lived, “wasting” all that time in Taiwan, with little to show for it but weird experiences.

He also confirmed my observations re the Trans-Siberian, i.e., that trains in this part of the world were dangerous. Furthermore, it might have been a self-aggrandizing remark I’d made in Taiwan, that now was the last opportunity I had to adventure in Eurasia (before disunity and war, etc.); but my Hungarian companion seconded the emotion, explaining that the trains were daily witness to robbery and murder, and that he was leaving Moscow, in fact, on the strength of the sense of growing instability there.

True enough, our conversation had been initiated by the abrupt, uninvited entrance of two Ukrainian youths who had barged in for shock value (it sure shocked me as I looked and saw one of them sitting next to me and the other one blocking the door) but who finally didn’t seem to want anything other than to whine at the Hungarian before they got off. My companion later said that they were generally confused and specifically a bit drunk but at heart nice boys.

The effect of this gentleman’s descriptions of train-borne chaos was to put me on my guard during the crossing of the Hungarian border, in the early morning after my friend left, during a sunrise trip to the w.c., and upon arrival in Budapest, but after reaching that place, I saw that I’d definitely arrived in affluent, touristy, Europe and soon turned my thoughts from flight to food and other indulgences.

The first need-turned-indulgence, that of lodging, achieved its more luxurious state by the following means: The [homestay] hostess recommended by the [Moscow travel agency] turned out (after begging for change to use the pay phone) to be in Italy on holiday. I next was compelled by residual greenhorn desperation to book a guest room at a hostel through the services of a travel agency. Said travel agency gave me an address and a trolley number, but after riding the trolley all the way out to the burbs to where the room chanced to be, I found the host not at home. His absence was actually a blessing in disguise, for I opted on the spot to return to the center of town (before the host came back) and try my luck with a hotel.

I was not the only backpacker wandering the streets that morning, and after a while, I found the experience degrading. The prospect of carrying my belongings through city streets, looking for a room, I mean looking for a cheap room, was not inspiring. I therefore resolved to inquire for rooms at the first hotel I came across, which chanced to be the Astoria Hotel.

Rooms were US$100 a night, and I humiliated myself one last time by asking after cheaper flops in the area before I decided to reward myself for surviving a month on trains in the PRC and Russia. “You know what? Just put me up,” I said. My backpack and I were very happy for the pampering.

Travel Journal: You Can’t Always Get What You Want, from Moscow to Budapest (1992)

I took the long way back from Taiwan, traveling through Japan, China, Russia (via the Trans-Siberian), Hungary, Germany, France, and the UK. I had grown accustomed to peaceful, meditative train rides in my earlier adventures (the photo is from my first train ride, in China, in 1986), but I was not destined to enjoy another such experience, when I boarded the train in Moscow, bound for Budapest.

Munich, Bavaria, Germany                          August 7, 1992

To catch up with myself, the Moscow-Budapest rail journey was both potentially disastrous and lucky. The train itself was just like the Chinese soft-sleeper that seemed a rolling palace to me when I was twenty and which has grown less novel in my eyes (not as soft) during this trip, until this most recent ride, in which the train seemed to have lost all potential for a pleasure excursion and to have become the scene of an irksome flight. There does not seem to be the “hard sleeper” [available] in Russia, so there is no class boundary to hide behind; [in other words,] there are no hard sleepers, so all the soft sleepers are hard sleepers.

The first one in the compartment, I think I managed a “Not bad, Mr. Miller,” when I discovered my bunk to be the lower, trailing one that would allow the best view. Very soon, though, a loud man with a gold tooth entered the compartment with his copious bags. He immediately took off his shirt and began fussing with his gear, while I, out of necessity, arrogance, passivity, or what have you, began to constrict my space into the corner. He signaled that I should stow my bag below the bunk, out of the way (this was done, of course), and then he began to pile items onto the small table, where I had unsuccessfully staked a claim for my book. First, he set down about six cans of beer; then came two bottles of vodka, cigarettes, garlic (the items must have been chosen in order of aroma – all these smells could be discerned emanating from his bared torso); and finally came the main staples of bread, roast beef, canned sausages, parsley (another item selected for the prime merit of its fragrance), mustard, dried fish, cooked chicken, etc., etc. The flies came later.

The only position from which he could work the table was, of course, my window-seat refuge, so I yielded same to him as graciously as I could. I removed myself to the corridor, while “my” berth became a smorgasbord. The shirtless M.C. sliced the meats while his mustachioed friend and an older, more reserved man, imbibed. My impotent inner ranting in the corridor during this interval need not be detailed here. I presently tried to cop out by requesting a battlefield promotion to a first class berth, but this avenue of escape was soon found to be closed.

(Paris, 8/9) I think it was the shirtless gentleman who invited me back into the compartment and back to my seat, which he yielded; his timely invitation opened my window of acceptance, as it were, for I was then enabled to decide to submit completely to the situation and give up all frustrating hope of spending a clean, serene, evening.

I ingested the oily meats and breads and swilled down that warm beer, [sacrificing] the washed hands and face and brushed teeth that I’d prepared in advance for the trip.

(Paris, 8/10) Finally (actually, it was rather quickly), I was able to put a half-drunk smile on my face and lean my head back against the side, sometimes looking out the window, sometimes dealing with the questions that were thrown at me. The M.C. wanted me generally to eat more and drink vodka; I turned down the vodka by accepting a can of beer, with which I toasted him until he turned his attentions elsewhere (and I was toasted). In short, then, I found on this trainride out from moribund Eurasian ex-Communism that I had one final lesson to learn in the School of Submission. Having forfeited all control over the (initial) situation (which only would have led to conflict, if insisted upon), I was finally able to pass the time as peacefully as possible. I think it’s called buying popularity or respect. Later, the M.C. perceived that I was tired and actually prepared my bedding for me while I was (re)washing my hands.

Of course, a glass of vodka spilled during the night [due to] a sudden stop [illegible], and then the food ritual was resumed again in the morning. I had by then gathered enough respect to request that uneaten food be thrown out and not left out for the flies. Both the M.C. and his friend were Ukrainian and were returning home from their lucrative employment in the northern tundra, where they[‘d] worked on an oil rig. Before the afternoon was up, they had both gotten off the train. I was glad to have met them and also happy to see them go, before the food business got too monotonous.