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( 1884 - 1953 )

» Nathalie (2008)



NORAN, BUDAPEST, 2008. 208 PAGES “I used to be Erno½ Szép”—the mordant yet defiant greeting that the writer used to introduce himself was hauntingly immortalised by Imre Kertész in his 1991 novella ‘The Union Jack’, though it has to be said that the mordancy yet defiance were of a piece with his naïvety, his uprightness, and his wit. He was one of those melancholy humorists who stand in the way of every ideology, and every authoritarian regime, that claims to be privy to the truth by virtue of not caring a damn for them, because Szép—as memorably documented in the memoir that appeared in English translation in 1994 as The Smell of Humans—was one of the many Hungarians of Jewish descent who was dragooned into labour service during World War II. Unlike many, he returned, but he was not prepared to step onto the Marxist-Leninist road—at most to stroll in Marx Square in Budapest (now Nyugati Square opposite the Western Rail Terminal), or along the Lenin Boulevard, though in his earlier life it was called the Theresa Boulevard (as it is again today). His was thus one of Hungary’s singular specialities or, perhaps more accurately, fates. Astonishingly, his novel Nathalie was published for the first time this year. There is something a tinge Erno½ Szép-ish about its deferred and low-key success. Like the novel, the whole Szép oeuvre can be said to be perennially on stand-by, awaiting discovery by the wider reading public, or to stop being seen as a perennial flâneur and coffee-house figure and rather as one of Hungary’s major twentieth-century literary creators. The person who has unquestionably been unequivocal in his advocacy of Szép’s strengths, in a whole series of sparkling essays, autobiographical and novelistic works over the last two decades or more, is Dezso½ Tandori, himself a rather underrated poet, writer and translator (in fact he supplied the introduction to The Smell of Humans). The main protagonist of Nathalie is Erno½ Szép himself, who arrives in Budapest in 1903, at the age of 19, to sit the school-leaving examination (the Hungarian baccalaureat). He may be pretty clueless about algebra, but he is already adept at writing poetry. Well aware of that, he strives (and fails) to multiply and divide, but on leaving school he decides to try and make his living as a writer (as far as that goes, the novel is sci-fi), and in the closing pages of the tale he is taken on as a reporter by one of the leading daily newspapers, the Budapesti Napló (‘Budapest Chronicle’). And there, on the last page, is indeed a reproduction of his visiting card. The novel is thus his calling card. Through his reminiscences the reader gets to know the café society of the day, the era’s minor poets and self-oblivious chorus-singers as well, as the petty-bourgeois characters with whom Szép shares rented accommodation in Lázár Road (just off Andrássy Avenue). He constantly interrupts the reminiscences, though, to relate an anecdote or extraordinary figure that has suddenly sprung to mind, only for him to pick up the story again or—if the fancy takes him—plough on with his broad synopsis of the smaller things in life. The Nathalie of the title is a gorgeous young woman, christened Rosie, who has escapes to Budapest to put disappointments in love and marriage behind her and, having experienced the ups and downs of a serving girl’s fate, is working in Lázár Road as a woman of pleasure, as the expression of the time put it. In much the same way as Erno½ Szép, having survived so many sorrows and horrors, himself confronts the person who he was forty years before. This is a genuine encounter with a young man and also an avowal of his profound love of poetry and literature—a novel of “How I became Erno½ Szép.” Nathalie is a superb memoir that contains some captivating cameos and more than a few sentences of utter genius.

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