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János HÁY
( 1960 )


1960 born in Vámosmikola, a village on the Slovakian border
1978-79 newsboy
1979-80 shop assistant in a bookstore
1981-85 studies Russian and History at Gyula Juhász Teacher Training College, Szeged
1985-88 editor of Narancsszív-szonett (Orange-Heart Sonnet)
1988-91 graduates in Aesthetic from Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest; teaches
1989-92 editor at Holnap Publishers
1993-96 editor for Pesti Szalon Publishers
1997-present editor for Palatinus Publishers

His prizes include:
1991 Zsigmond Móricz Literary Scholarship, 1991 János Sziveri Prize, 1994 The Soros Foundation Literary Prize, 1998 National Cultural Foundation Scholarship, 1999 Alföld Prize, 2001 Milán Füst Prize, 2002 Attila József Prize

Packing It In. Poems 1998–2001

Packing It In is a volume of poems—complaints, if you will—of a mature, middle-aged man. Their author already has considerable mileage behind him (a home, children, a washing machine, secrets, beliefs, bodies, gods, love). Decline has not yet set in, and only now does it occur to him that from here on he is slowly going to ‘pack his life in’. The title phrase, with the oddly inverted placing of the verbal prefix in the Hungarian title (the natural order in English), is a keynote to the volume. It appears just twice in the texts, once at the end of the poem “Törés” (Fracture), and again in the very last poem, the one that gives the volume its title, with its hint of the slowly approaching end: I’m packing it in, the world, mortally sick of it all. There is a bitter, resigned, sober undertone to the frequently song-like poems, yet the humour that typifies Háy’s earlier work is not lacking. The piece entitled “Szólj” (Say), for instance, comprises no more than: Say you love me, Or give me supper anyway. The use of vernacular and the concern with mundane is, of course, deliberate. This book of exhaustion is the best of Háy’s verse collections so far, offering as it does a precise anatomy of weariness. It also inspects the successive stations of love: dating, squabbling, tiring of one another, divorce, the nostalgic need to sustain love. The overall message: “I’ll stick it out.” On the cover of this is volume is one of the author’s paintings, “I’m No Longer Creating”, which portrays a naked, bent-over man-god with a shrivelling male organ.


The Xanadu we know from Coleridge’s poem “Kubla Khan” is this time set in a place called Pirano, near Venice, and though story is five centuries removed from our own, the colourful settings and the riotous characters raise topical questions about the meaning of our own age. Háy is a story-teller and creator of myths par excellence. Anecdotes, legends and archaic materials are woven into an idiosyncratic, playful and witty narrative. Sailors, tradesmen, Venice, Alexandria and the local population provide the background for an inexhaustible Comedie Humaine. At the centre of the story is Marco, a merchant with an insatiable thirst for life. He defies death on his sailing routes, never to arrive at an earthly possession that satisfies him. Finally, he comes to sacrifice everything for a beautiful, cat-eyed girl. He imprisons her in a vast, beautiful palace, where he winters. The windows of the palace face the bay, so she can always see when he reaches port at the end of his voyages. But his heart does not find peace: the girl is unfaithful and in a rage of jealously Marco kills the woman for whom he has sacrificed everything. For Háy, all is sensual, mysterious, fiery. Yet the wild love story is fundamentally simple: the story’s imaginative power, its dynamism and its superb use of language make for a captivating narrative.

The Berry-Fruit Gardener’s Son

This time, Háy’s novel of short stories takes place in the recent past and, leaving behind the world of legends, it relates with some nostalgia and irony life in 1970s Hungary (resembling in this respect the writings of contemporaries such as László Garaczi, Endre Kukorelly and Gergely Péterfy). The fable-like profession in the title, the occupation of the narrator’s father, refers in fact to growing red currants, a fairly undemanding fruit. But, as the critic László Bedecs notes, “to call the currant-grower ‘a berry-fruit gardener’ is at the same time charmingly euphemistic yet, because of the register, a strongly detaching gesture, and in this, certainly an exciting solution rather characteristic of Háy’s art.” In stories of adolescence, love is present, but so too is friendship and the father-son relationship. The writer’s own paintings grace the book jacket.

This Side of Marriage and Beyond

240 pages Háy has arranged his most recent crop of short stories into four cycles. The somewhat curious title comes from feuilletons making up the first of these cycles. In these we read about ordinary people, men and women, who live ordinary lives that are nevertheless filled with Fortune s tiny dramas. Their secrets are petty and humdrum, and the entire lives of these strange characters are compressed into just a few pages. Whether they are still in a marriage or have put one behind them does not seem to matter: either way their prospects are far from rosy. The characters who feature in the second cycle are also simple people, but their fates unfold in more detail, with the author sketching them impassively, bitterly and sometimes satirically. Among the figures here are an alcoholic father, a sick old man and his first-born son who was brought up by step-parents; all share the experience of being rejected by their families. Háy views his protagonists sensitively and yet grotesquely, treating their misfortunes with sympathy, but not hiding their narrow-mindedness. The pieces making up the third cycle were originally written for an album of photographs of the bridges of Budapest by Gábor Fejér. They are compositions of the moment, but the bridge is always only a starting-point for the unfolding any given story. The fourth cycle consists, with all but two exceptions, of stories that were all published before in the collection Közötte apának és anyának, fölötte a nagy mindenségnek (Between Father and Mother, above the Big Universe, 2000). "If one were daring enough to characterise the author's volumes to date with a single word, then one might use the expression 'subversive'." -Boglárka Nagy, Élet és Irodalom The key element of Háy's talent is his sense of where things slip by one another, or for that matter over one another. -Béla Bodor,

The Kid

We all know people who simply cannot tell a joke or story, however new it may be, without its instantly seeming boring coming from their lips; and then there are others in whose mouth those same jokes or stories are always funny or gripping. Indeed, ever more gripping. János Háy is one of the latter breed. Before reaching his fiftieth birthday (he was born in 1960), he has put out significant works in most of the major literary genres, from plays through lyric and epic poetry to novels, and seemingly every time manages to magic some surprising take out of his materials. Published last year, The Kid can be characterised as a family saga, a negative novel about growing up (that is, one about a character who regresses), or a novel that expounds a philosophical thesis (what the French call a roman à thèse) which corroborates the existence of destiny. One may be closer to the mark, however, in thinking of it as just a grippingly gloomy and yet, as a product of that very gloominess, unmercifully entertaining read. The main protagonist, the kid, who is addressed as such throughout the novel, is born at the very beginning of the Sixties to parents who live in a village that, despite its proximity to Budapest, is very much isolated from the rest of the world. The father, recognising the utter lack of prospects, does what he can to improve the family’s fortunes, and in particular to change his son’s future for the better. The son, in striving to accomplish his fuzzily defined mission in life, later moves from the village to the capital, then later to the south Hungarian university town of Szeged, in order to continue his education and, after a great many vicissitudes, end up as headmaster of his old village school. One of Háy’s greatest strengths, over and above the apparent spontaneity of the vernacular, the turns of phrase, that he employs (actually very tightly and deliberately integrated into the plot), is the way he can shape and pace a story. He will toss out an account, boomerang-style, of some minor character, picking out just a few aspects, only for the narrative voice and stance to loop back again to the main thread of the plot. That in turn brings up another important feat that The Kid accomplishes. Háy manages to present a catalogues of a dozen and more human types and courses of fate that were on display in Hungary in the Seventies, Eighties and Nineties. He is truest-to-life in the way he brings his readers closer to rural life, finding his narrative slant at the bottom of the glass. Witty as he is in the way he describes the inexorable, near-inevitable processes of the various breakdowns, declines and bankruptcies, by the end the smile freezes on reader’s lips. If there is such a thing as a village’s mythology, then what Háy shows is that there is also a pathology. Readers of The Kid may well start to feel rather like in the joke when, on seeing the wound to the corner of the mouth suffered by the sole survivor of a family tragedy, a person asks: “Does it hurt?”, to get the answer: “Only when I laugh.”


The most recent volume by János Háy (b. 1960) is made up of short prose pieces. Háy has won recognition over the last two decades as one of the most effortlessly fluent of Hungarian writers today, and is well known as such. A new, hitherto unknown side of him is revealed, however, by this collection of essay-style pieces, which reflect on games with language, on narrative and on literary genres. The volume is unified, besides by a probing inquisitiveness and affectionate, forbearing irony, by sharp observations and sensitive remarks. Háy is able to laugh at himself, which as it were permits the rest of us to join in without embarrassment. Like an earlier, highly successful collection of short stories, Házasságon innen és túl (This Side of Marriage and Beyond, 2006), this one also comprises four cycles. The first cycle, drawn together under the keyword ‘Family’, in themselves read more like novellas. Indeed, it is a categorically good thing that the author has kept this form of writing within the family as a plot can feed off not only the vicissitudes of married life, but also the contradictions and tangles of parent-child relationships; eventful summer holidays, racing around at Christmas time, those far from ordinary weekdays. The situations may be familiar, but one should not be surprised by that, rather try ourselves to skate in similarly witty fashion over both momentary and apparently perennial worries. Part 2, subtitled ‘Literature’, is a genuine potpourri: reading diaries, prefaces, portraits and brief essays about such topics as the renaissance of the historical novel, the dilemmas with which Hungarian playwriting contends, literary prototypes, books in the author’s life, and one of the best sketches that has been written about the recently deceased Magda Szabó. Part 3 (‘Journey’) contains travel diaries of trips from Naples to Moscow, or from London to Budapest, for there is nothing to stop a Hungarian from travelling to his own city. Assuming, that is, Budapest is Háy’s town. The last block in the book (‘Time’) is an innovative synthesis of genres that previously had been treated as separate—confessional essays seasoned with anecdotes. Outstanding among these is a polemical entitled ‘The Assimilated’, which gets to the roots of the provincial-versus-urban conflict that has fundamentally riven Hungarian culture. And does so both bitterly and wittily, given that these are interdependent. **

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