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5 amazing Hungarian writers you must read

One of the most prominent Hungarian writers of recent years, Péter Nádas has gained huge acclaim for his dense and extremely lengthy meditations on European history and political tragedy. The epic scope of much of Nádas’ work has resulted in comparisons to 19th century Russian masters such as Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, and Nádas indeed shares their ability to trace weighty moral and philosophical dilemmas through his work. However he is very much a 20th century writer, and as much as his thematic content is influenced by the shifting terrain of Eastern European politics, his stylistic techniques of fractured perspectives and oblique intimations place him closer to the postmodern tradition in literature. He is most famous for Parallel Stories, which begins with the fall of the Berlin wall and then traverses backwards through the darkest episodes of European history. His work A Book of Memories has been described as ‘the soul of Proust under socialism’ by Eva Hoffman and ‘the greatest novel written in our time’ by Susan Sontag.

The only Hungarian recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature, Imre Kertész’s body of work is primarily a meditation on the Holocaust and the devastation it wrought on Jewish communities across Europe. Kertész is himself a survivor of the Holocaust, having been deported to Auschwitz at the age of 14, and then sent to Buchenwald. This experience informs his best writing, which both depicts the overwhelming misery and suffering of the camps, and also questions the type of civilisation which would manifest such repellent hatred and prejudice. Kertész’s most celebrated work is Fateless, a semi-autobiographical story about a 14 year old Hungarian Jew’s experiences in the concentration camps. It remains one of the most powerful depictions of the Jewish experience of the Holocaust, and the psychological and emotional destruction which this wrought on the individuals who survived the horrors of the camps. Kertész was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2002, for what the committee described as ‘writing that upholds the fragile experience of the individual against the barbaric arbitrariness of history’.

An unflinching critic of the political powers in Hungary who was forced out of the country in 1948, Sándor Márai struggled for many years to make a name for himself as a writer in exile, and committed suicide in San Diego in 1949. It was only after his death that he gained wider recognition, and as his works have been translated into successive languages he has garnered a reputation as a European master of fiction on the same plane as Joseph Roth, Bruno Schulz and perhaps even Thomas Mann. His most celebrated work is Embers, which depicts the reunion of two men who have not spoken to each other for 40 years in the foothills of the Carpathian mountains. Their reunion initiates a meditation on friendship, betrayal and abandonment as well as the rapidly declining fortunes of the central European states. Its narrative force and opaque atmosphere have seen it compared Robert Musil and Kafka, and it has revealed the unheralded power of Márai’s prose.

The grand master of contemporary Hungarian fiction and a commanding presence on the international literary scene, Péter Esterházy is perhaps the most established of these writers within Hungary. He is famous not only for the quality of his prose, but also for his rich aristocratic lineage; the House of Esterházy was one of the most powerful families in Europe in the Middle Ages, and remained so until their fortunes dwindled in the upheavals of the 20th century. Esterházy depicts these upheavals in his work, using the frame of his own family experience to understand the dwindling importance of the once rich Austro-Hungarian Empire. However, though his work is informed by his own family history it is also playful and experimental, and motions towards the language games of Frenchand American postmodernists. His major works include Helping Verbs of the Heart, A Little Hungarian Pornography, Not Art and Celestial Harmonies: A Novel, the latter of which is a record of his own family’s downfall.

The most prominent female writer in 20th century Hungary, Magda Szabó’s career was truncated by the communist authorities’ refusal to allow her work into print, which forced her to work as an elementary teacher for much of her life. However she did eventually manage to reach the audience she deserved and in the last few decades of her life she saw her novels become household names in Hungary. This was largely due to Abigél, a schoolgirl adventure set during the war, which was made into a hugely popular television series. Many consider her best work, however, to be The Door, a semi-autobiographical account of the relationship between a writer who has floundered in obscurity for many years and her caretaker. Szabó uses the complicated dynamics of this relationship to interrogate the place of creativity in a woman’s life when she is burdened by society’s expectations of domesticity and demureness.

Reviews via The Culture Trip, photo by Pixabay

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