Two or three things about my novel: the Hungary connection

Posted on March 31, 2012

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As most of you will know by now, my first novel is coming out this fall with Inanna.

It is made out of narrative standpoints of the three central characters: a woman in her thirties, a woman in her fifties and an old woman. Their lives intersect. Things happen. Their lives part ways.

With it, I wanted to look at the questions that have been bugging me over the last few years and still do, nell mezzo del cammin della mia vita: Can one try to live a good life and still pay one’s bills. Why do the gainful and meaningful employment so often diverge these days around these parts. How does one find one’s art and purpose. And does love, and the ways we love now, help things along the way or mystify and distract.

The oldest woman of the trio is a septuagenarian retired soprano who grew up in Hungary and started her singing career at the Hungarian State Opera but left Budapest after the 1956 revolution. She now lives on Delisle Avenue, in mid-town Toronto, but in effect she lives more in her operatic roles than any particular geography. She is trying to deal with the unsettling memories of an old, pre-1956 affair with another singer and the reasons for leaving the country but her excursions to the past end up in operatic scenes. It’s her way of forgetting: what she represses comes back as an aria or a scene.

I’ve been interested in this period of the East European Communist history, the lively first half of the 50s inHungary, so it’s been great spending some time researching it. I’ve stuck with non-fiction works, Tony Judt’s Postwar, for example, which helped me develop a basic grid of the years and what happened when. There are some amazing photographic collections of the 1955-6 Budapest, Erich Lessing’s for instance.

The old woman was part of an (invented) art workers group Sektor 7, populated by emerging artists with eager participatory-democratic instincts, who attend the meetings, go to demos, distribute publications, and I did not want them commenting on an event that could not have happened at the time of their café klatsch. I was pedantic about these things, although fiction absolutely doesn’t have to be, and in many other instances in the book I absolutely wasn’t.

It’s only after I was done with my version that I dared to look at the literary and cinematic accounts of the period. Possibly for fear of being influenced? Now I am in a happy period when I can finally see what I have written by looking at what other people have written about the same period.

Not enough is translated and subtitled into English, and the film that I really loved — what I could understand of it – Egy pikoló világos (1955) I only managed to find in Hungarian.

I’ve read and liked György Konrád’s  Caseworker but more to the point is his Stonedial which I have yet to read, a 2000 novel looking back on 1955. I’ve recently also read Magda Szabó’s exquisite Door which is however only indirectly important – as a fearless look at the divide between intellectual and physical labour at a most intimate level.

Then the other week I strike gold: Lucy Mallows of the Disappearing Budapest recommended in a Twitter exchange that I see Another Way, the 1982 Hungarian film set in the post-1956 Hungary, about two women having an affair. Just as I thought that there weren’t any substantive cinematic or literary accounts of lesbians or bisexual women in any literary traditions from behind the Iron Curtain, I find this unexpectedly sophisticated film. (The Palme d’or went to one of the actreses; both were btw Polish and dubbed, as no Hungarian actress would take either of the roles).

Furthermore, the film is based on a novel called Another Love, by the late Hungarian novelist Erzsebet Galgoczi. Which has luckily been translated and which I immediately bought and read. It’s a fascinating find, and very different from the film. It has strong elements of genre lit – it’s a variant of whodunit, the who-was-it, a crime story where the reader knows how and why the main character was killed, but the narrator is on a quest to unveil the victim’s life and what led to such an ending. There are also noir moments: the narrator-investigator is a disenchanted member of the military intelligentsia who discovers the rottenness of the system that is supposed to protect and serve.

In other ways, the novel will ring unfamiliar to the Western reader. Many of the conversations that we witness in pubs between the characters are socially conscious. The melodrama is always connected to the larger political and social developments. Disagreements and betrayals are both personal and – often very literally – of political import. And the lesbian character at its centre is a complex, plausible and at the same time completely outside of the parameters of our current queer discourses in English-speaking countries.

The book is a joy, despite its predictable denouement.

My search for traces and clues of unexpected affiliations continues.