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18 May 2020

Humour and Hardship in the Buda Hills and London – Review essay of the new English edition of the book by Mátyás Sárközi

"One of the recipients this March of Hungary’s highest award for contributions to the arts, the Kossuth Prize, was the writer Mátyás Sárközi. This was in recognition of his writings, including his depiction of Hungarian intellectual life in the first half of the 20th century through his family chronicles. The publication in English of his Letters from Zugliget offers non-Hungarian readers a chance to find out why. This is a most useful addition to the body of literature in English on Hungary, offering fascinating views of life in both Hungary and Britain in the 1950s and 1960s."

 

One of the recipients this March of Hungary’s highest award for contributions to the arts, the Kossuth Prize, was the writer Mátyás Sárközi. This was in recognition of his writings, including his depiction of Hungarian intellectual life in the first half of the 20th century through his family chronicles. The publication in English of his Letters from Zugliget1 offers non-Hungarian readers a chance to find out why. This is a most useful addition to the body of literature in English on Hungary, offering fascinating views of life in both Hungary and Britain in the 1950s and 1960s. It is written with a dry wit and a sharp eye, full of anecdotes and delightful vignettes of the Hungarian intelligentsia both at home and in exile. But perhaps most of all, it offers English readers an introduction to the author’s mother, Márta Sárközi, one of the unsung heroines of the 20th century Hungarian literary world.

The book opens in Zugliget, the district of Budapest nestling beneath the Buda Hills. “With its hillocks and dales it has a certain similarity to the Austrian Tyrol, but post-war neglect […] has relegated it to the Balkans” here, Márta Sárközi sits writing a letter to her son who has fled to London from Hungary at the age of nineteen after the suppression of the 1956 Revolution. Then the scene moves to London, where her son is sleeping on his cousins’ sofa at 14 Chestnut Close, in the outer London suburb of Southgate.

Their regular correspondence over the next ten years forms the basis of the book. The letters from his mother give a strong sense of what life was like under the repression of those years. In place of his letters, which were lost after his mother’s death, Sárközi combines his account of his life in London with a running commentary on his mother’s letters, interweaving this with stories of life in pre-1956 Budapest and telling anecdotes from his family history.

The vignettes of Stalinist Hungary before the 1956 Revolution depict the grimness of the period: the games the Communist leader Mátyás Rákosi would play, pouring praise on hapless individuals whose arrest he had already ordered, as happened to Márta’s first husband, or party officials imposing their absurd order on everyone’s lives. The ornate coffee houses were turned into storage space for gym shoes and footballs.

It was search for a better future that drove the young Sárközi and “a whole generation of the young middle class” out of Hungary. He escaped to Austria and then to Britain, where he had relatives, intending to stay for five years.

The London he discovers was a world away from the dour landscape of 1950s Budapest. This was a world of beautiful middle-class interiors espied through windows – “inherited wealth: such a rarity in Budapest, ravaged by wars and by proletarian dictatorship” – Piccadilly Circus “basking in the light of its bedazzling neon advertisements” and “its ladies of easy virtue”. Soho and Leicester Square were full of life: buskers entertaining the cinema queues, newspaper vendors with their baffling cries – “Fourtwentywinners Standard” – and the snake charmers who run into the middle of the street and charm an old bra out of a fez. They raise enough money from bystanders to pay off the inevitable police fine for obstructing traffic.

One of the joys for the English reader is that it is also a world away from today’s London. The bowler-hatted gents in the City of London, the porters at the old Billingsgate fish market carrying fish in baskets on their heads, and the guards at the back of the Underground trains shouting “Mind the doors!” – “the people of London provide a constant spectacle of street-theatre” – are all long disappeared. The national anthem is no longer played after theatre performances. Paper boys delivering newspapers are a rare breed now, the mail rarely comes at 8 am and the mention of letters in blue airmail envelopes made me feel quite nostalgic. And of course twelve pennies still made a shilling and twenty shillings a pound – all a headache for a new arrival.

Sárközi describes all this in a language that rather befits the period, conveying the feel of a B&W 1960s film: a Soho pub is full of “ageing strumpets” and “a scrawny queer flower seller who dances down Old Compton Street with flowers in his hand”.

He finds work in a Lyons Corner House – a chain of cafes that were a London institution until they disappeared in the 1970s where he offends a customer when he recognises her Hungarian accent: “You must be joking, I don’t have a Hungarian accent.”

And now-familiar names appear as aspiring stars of the future. An artist friend of his commends “a young contemporary called David Hockney or Hockley”. When he and a friend meet the daughter of the Hungarian-born food critic Egon Ronay at a party, she dashes off with a scruffy unshaven bloke, a young actor – “he calls himself Michael Caine, but it’s not his real name”, says the friend. (It was the stage name that Maurice Micklewhite had chosen in 1954.)

Sárközi’s decision to abandon early thoughts of a career as an illustrator in favour of writing is more understandable when you read about his mother and the world he grew up in. Márta Sárközi was a quite remarkable woman, with a resourcefulness that helped her family and her friends through the hardest of times; a prolific translator, she played an important role in post-war literary life. Yet her name is not a familiar one to many Hungarians, let alone English readers.

Márta was born into the centre of Budapest’s intellectual world in 1907. Her father was the playwright Ferenc Molnár, and her mother, Margit Vészi was a “professional muse” wooed by the great Hungarian poet Endre Ady and by the Italian composer Giacomo Puccini. Mátyás tells how Puccini tried in vain to seduce Margit. “Instead she sat down at the upright piano and sang Puccini arias to Puccini all evening.” Both Márta’s parents were too busy to tend to their daughter and Márta never got on with her mother, although Mátyás found Margit charming when she visited him in London and sponged meals off him.

Molnár moved to America from where he sent food parcels to his daughter after the war. He lived in a hotel in New York with his mistress/secretary Wanda a few floors above him and his third wife Lili living down the road. “Molnár, Lili and Wanda had lunch together every single day, always in the same Italian restaurant nearby.” Lili, who was a charming actress, would take Mátyás out to tea when she came to London.

Márta married the writer and poet György Sárközi in 1933, and together they produced the literary journal Válasz (Answer) and were friends with writers across the political spectrum. They also worked together translating German writers such as Thomas Mann – she had the German and he had the polished Hungarian. Mátyás tells elsewhere that when Mann met them, he was dumbfounded that his highly esteemed translator György spoke German so poorly. Then Márta stepped up and wowed Mann with her fluent German, spoken in a regional accent that he loved.

The Sárközis, who both came from assimilated Jewish families, were increasingly affected by the tightening laws on Jews in Budapest in the late 1930s and early 1940s. In 1944 György was arrested by the fascists and sent off to work in the murderous conditions of a labour battalion he died in western Hungary in 1945. Márta got wind of her family’s imminent deportation and quickly found homes for her three children in the countryside. The girl who brought eggs and cheese from the countryside to the Sárközi household took the seven-year-old Mátyás back to her village, saying he was an illegitimate child she had had in Budapest – a piece of incredible bravery. Márta used the identity papers of her son’s nanny and found lodgings nearby, posing as a Budapest widow escaping to the countryside. When she visited him Mátyás had to remember not to call her mother.

After the war she drew on her resourcefulness to support both her family and her broad circle of friends. She learnt invisible mending to keep her family afloat, sold apples from her orchard in the market and re-launched Válasz as a way to support Hungary’s imperilled literary community. The poet Gyula Illyés was the editor in theory, but Márta was the driving force it was her child. She served up coffee from her father’s food parcels to her writers and sold other food items so that she could pay her contributors. However, the Communist authorities hated Válasz and its contributors, and closed it down in 1949. Nevertheless her role as Maecenas continued as writers would come to her for help or money or just to talk right up to her death – György Moldova used her garden shed for writing and for the odd liaison, and the poet János Pilinszky was a regular visitor.

However, the post-1956 years that she describes in these letters brought new challenges. These were the years of ruthless repression, and many of her acquaintances were waiting for the knock on the door, and she writes in code, knowing that her letters will be read. She refers to the writer and political thinker István Bibó, who was a member of the 1956 government, as the Prof; Béla Király, the army general who was one of the leaders of the Revolution and fled after the Russian invasion is “my ex-gardener” – he did indeed work as her gardener when he was recuperating after his release from prison in 1956; and prison is the “hospital”. She comments on the “unfortunate fellow discreetly hiding behind the trees” trying to jot down the endless list of visitors who come on her birthday.

All of a sudden, in 1957, Márta was arrested. “I was supposed to move house to a new place allocated by the housing department”, she writes, but she was released after a couple of nights. She has no idea why she was arrested or who was behind her release, but she thinks that it was József Révai, the Communist cultural tsar, who was in a hospital bed near a friend of hers. He must have heard that she had been arrested and ordered her release. Then she writes that the Prof has been arrested and urges her son to tell the Hungarians at the BBC the latest news: “Life is full of fun now that hundreds of people follow Prof to the hospital. I myself hesitate whether to move or stay put.” Mátyás explains that the regime is “still pondering when to involve my mother in Professor Bibó’s upcoming trial”.

Throughout these years she was the rock that her friends relied on “Mother wants everyone around her to believe she has nerves of steel”, writes Mátyás. She might entertain 15 or more people for Sunday lunch, and they might stay right through till supper she had 46 visitors one Sunday. She would spend hours listening to friends’ emotional traumas. “I feel like a one-woman Salvation Army”, she wrote, as she helped all those around her, even at times when she had hardly enough money for herself.

Her language skills were exceptional and she always had something to translate. Besides German, she could also read French and English. In her letters she writes about translating a volume by the French writer André Gide (“this wretched book… Gide is invariably boring!”) and Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals (“one of the funniest books I have ever read”), which she turned around with incredible speed – her translation is still in print.

Amidst all her hardship and loneliness Márta never lost her sharp wit. She writes that one friend is depressed because she cannot see her husband (he is in prison) while another is depressed because she sees hers every day. At a funeral she sees her old acquaintances looking dreadfully old – one of them “has been dead for weeks but he hasn’t noticed yet”. Even towards the end of her life, when the gynaecologist discovers a tumour and tells her not to worry as it will diminish as she gets older, she says “I will try to get old as fast as possible”.

There is a poignant moment at the end of the book when Mátyás meets and marries Ili who has been his life-long companion. He wrote to his mother, hoping that she could come to London and meet his bride. But Márta was ailing with terminal cancer, and never made it.

The book provides a fascinating historical record, although it would be much improved by further editing to correct some of the more infelicitous phrasing. It would also be enhanced by the addition of some of Mátyás’s illustrations from the time as he clearly showed a flair for drawing.

 

Note:

1 Sárközi, Mátyás: Letters from Zugliget. Budapest: Kortárs kiadó, 2019.

 


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