A literary exclusive

In my fantasy world, I’m sitting on a couch being interviewed by Ryan Tubridy or Oprah Winfrey about my new book. One of them says that  they think I write like Marion Keyes (I’ve been told this before) and I say, hand on my heart, that I can’t comment as I’ve never read anything the woman has ever published. Being told you write like someone is a double-edged sword. It can be flattering and it can be disparaging. I’ll admit to being influenced by authors but I would hate to think I was mirroring anyone, either consciously or subconsciously.

So when I received an e-mail from Mr Bernard Adams in response to my latest Budapest Times piece on having fun with money and strangers, asking whether I’d ever read Kosztolányi’s sixth story in his  Esti Kornél series, I was flattered until I realised that it wasn’t my style he was talking about, but the content of my piece. But even then I could say, hand on my heart, that I hadn’t. Yes, I’ve blogged about Kosztolányi before, I always wave and say hi when I pass his statue on the tram,  and I’m very fond of his poem about the trees on üllői út but I hadn’t ever read any of his stories.

Mr Adams had attached a translation of the story for me to see the parallels; a translation he had done himself – one of a collection that won the  prestigious PEN Translation Award in 2008. He’s now living near the Balaton and still translating. I was bemoaning the lack of available translations from Hungarian to English and am delighted to hear that his book is coming out next month. The Adventures of Kornél Esti is being published by New Directions in the USA (ISBN 978-0-8112-1843-6) and you can pre-order it here. This 1933 interlinking sequence of stories  features Mr Esti, the central character, who is ‘the embodiment of senseless revolt, irresponsibility and latent cruelty’. Kosztolányi has some great lines: I’ve just been keen on rotten cigarettes and rotten women /  I wasn’t born to save that branch of humanity which, when not afflicted by fire, flood and pestilence, organizes wars and artificially causes fire, flood and pestilence / I was discovered but not unmasked.

You might this it strange that I’m resorting to such a shameless plug on what up to now as been an ‘ad free’ blog. But there’s an exception to every rule. The story is wonderful. I’d love to be able to read it in Hungarian but that ain’t likely to happen any time soon! For those of you who share my poor mastery of the language, you can read the translation here – ahead of print! A huge thanks to Mr Adams for so graciously agreeing to allow me to share it. Please respect the copyright… and if you like it, buy the book.

The trees on Üllői út

More than a year ago, on April 15, I signed the papers for my flat in Budapest. It marked the beginning of what I saw as a new era – one in which I would truly come into my own. No more working for big corporates, selling my soul in 8-hour segments. No more having to ask for a day off. No more resenting time wasted on those unproductive days that should have been spent under a duvet. Signing that contract was more than a simple act of purchase. Yes, I was buying a flat, but more importantly I was buying into a new way of life.

img_1644So, I was buying in the wrong part of town, at a time when prices maybe were higher than expected, when the exchange rate wasn’t exactly going my way but I was buying. I was putting down roots. I’d finally made the decision that I’d managed to avoid thus far. I was settling down. More than a year later and that decision finally feels right. Not that I for a minute believe I’ll end my days on Üllői út – but for the moment, this is home. And for the first time, it’s starting to feel like home.

I cooked lamb dinner Easter Sunday. I dragged the kitchen chairs into the living room and we sat around the dining table… that centrepiece of civility. It was lovely. Each of us brought something to the table. Each of us in Budapest by choice, be it choosing to come or choosing to stay. Balcony doors open, cool breeze blowing through, fine wine, good company, great food. Companiable silences punctuated by police sirens and ambulances. Background music mixing nicely with the steady beat of traffic. The view from the balcony into the 9th district was heady.

The 9th has been renovated to within an inch of its life. New street lamps reflect off the shiney new-build walls. Old and new sit side by side creating that intangible cosmopolitanism that is the mark of Capital city. It struck me that I could be living anywhere, in any big European city, and I was at once pleased with the thought and yet somewhat dejected. This one should somehow be different.

And then I looked to my left and saw Üllői út in all its glory. It runs southeastwards from Kalvin tér all the way to timg_16492he airport. At the Kalvin tér end, there are lots of neo-classical buildings (including one by the famous Ybl Miklos – No. 17). Where it intersects the Korut, there’s the Museum of Applied Arts and as you travel further out, Semmelweiss University and ‘the offices’. It seems like new buildings go up overnight. What makes it though, is the trees. Standing to attention on either side of the road, like a guard of honour resplendent in their green uniforms, they are truly magnificent. And that particular evening, they smelled of home.

Tonight, the lovely MI, who has introduced me to so much here in Budapest, introduced me to Kosztolányi . We had been talking about the trees. Yes, I am home.

The yellowed fields are withering, trees of Ulloi út
My moods like suns of autumn sink;
soughing and slowly blows the wind
and kilts the past spring’s root.

O where, 0 where does fly the youth?
You sad leaved trees, 0 tell the truth,
trees of Ulloi út

 For more on Üllői út, see my recent article in the Budapest Times

Updated 14 May 2011 : I walked up from Kalvin tér today, along Üllői út and for the first time noticed this plaque to the great man himself. It surprised me. I’ve walked that street many times and I wonder why I’ve never noticed it before. And why today? Perhaps because I’ve finished reading a collection of his stories? Perhaps because I was looking up and around instead of down at the street? Perhaps because I’d stopped, just then, to let someone by. For whatever reason, it was nice to see and nicer still to see that Üllői út can still surprise me.