The World's Best Unknown Books
13 11 2014

The three Peters of Hungarian Literature?

What has been discussed in Krakow

Who are the three Peters of Hungarian literature? What is a dinosaur doing on the banks of the Danube? Why is it important to steal books and to read Playboy from time to time? Would Dostoevsky use Twitter? Finnegan’s List jury members Dimitri Verhulst, Gabriela Adameşteanu and György Dragomán discussed these important issues at the Schwob event in Kraków on October 29, 2014.

Would you have known the answer to the first question? The “triptych” of Hungarian letters is made up of three distinctive contemporary writers – Péter Esterházy, Péter Nádas, and Péter Lengyel – who share not only a first name but also a complex, richly philosophical writing style. Lengyel, probably the least known abroad, wrote Cobblestone, a reflective, multi-layered guide to Budapest throughout history. In it, we encounter ancient creatures grazing on the shores of the illustrious river Danube. Lengyel, a major Hungarian intellectual, lives and writes in seclusion, to the point that some people think he has already passed away. In a rare interview he said that he “only accepts few printed materials as real books”, but that the writers of these “became masters and examples” to him. One of them is Hungarian classic Géza Ottlik. Recently, Schwob ambassador György Dragomán pointed out that Ottlik’s great novel, School at the Frontier, had been translated into Polish. Ottlik is one of the most essential modern classics in Hungary, as important as Musil and his Confusions of Young Törless. And, like Ottlik’s novel, Lengyel’s book merits wider translation, given that it is, according to György Dragomán, a “perfect example of a readable postmodern novel.”

Perhaps it could be compared to Jeroen Brouwers’ De zondvloed (The Flood), proposed by Dimitri Verhulst for the upcoming Finnegan’s List 2015. Both are complex, big novels. Will publishers be ready and willing to front translation and publicity costs for such giants?

Verhulst argued that Brouwers’ masterpiece of Dutch letters – where the perfectly worked style “reveals the author in all his honesty” – definitely merits the Nobel Prize in Literature. Verhulst also spoke about the master of Absurdism, Daniil Kharms. Before beginning, he apologized, saying he realized it might be strange to speak about Kharms in Poland, where people may grasp the meaning of Kharms’ absurd stories much better than in Western Europe. Interestingly enough, though, Kharms is not widely translated into Polish.
Kharms is a joy to read; his stories are unforgettable, and reveal a cruel reality. Kharms, a prolific poet, writer and dramatist, was arrested several times by the Soviet authorities; with the exception of his children’s books, his work remained unpublished during his lifetime. The writer died in February 1942, in prison. In Kraków, Verhulst pleaded in favour of the subversive power of literature, and the belief in the power of words. Throughout history, he recalled, regimes have been well aware of this power – otherwise, why would writers be imprisoned, and why would books be burned?

Verhulst gave the example of a bookshop owner who closed his shop, disappointed because no one was stealing books anymore.
The Belgian author also asked that the women present not read stories to their children in bed, as literature should not induce sleep but should, on the contrary, stimulate!

The presence and encouragement of literature in everyday life was another subject. Text today is everywhere, online and in social media, but at the same time, there are fewer real readers. Romanian author Gabriela Adameşteanu presented modern classic writer Lídia Jorge, from Portugal, who is still unknown to the Polish public despite being translated into numerous major European languages. Adameşteanu argued that Dostoevsky would probably be a fan of Twitter, and Dimitri Verhulst mentioned that he liked buying *Playboy *magazine for the joy of reading Vladimir Nabokov.

In the name of the authors present – and presented – in Kraków, here is a call to arms to read and to translate literature. Books, and particularly translated ones, should continue to play an important role in our lives, for, following Dimitri Verhulst, as long as we “continue to believe in literature as a universal language, there will be translations.”