Saturday, June 6, 2020

Temptation by Janos Szekely

The cover artwork is a detail from The Morphinist by Janos Vazary (1930)

I'm trying really hard to refrain from buying books, but inevitably birthdays and other gift-giving holidays occur, so what can one do? My most recent bookish gift was Temptation by Janos Szekely, an NYRB reprint of a 1946 novel newly translated from the Hungarian. Normally new-to-me books get shoved to the bottom of the TBR pile, where they sit, contributing to my unread-book guilt. But I'd signed up for the European Reading Challenge and this one fit the bill perfectly. I read the first few pages and was instantly hooked. 

This is the story of Bela R., a young Hungarian peasant boy born into rural poverty in 1913, after his sixteen-year-old mother Anna has a one-night stand with a charismatic sailor during a church festival. At the end of the night the charming sailor disappears, leaving her alone to deal with an unwanted pregnancy. After little Bela is born, Anna goes to the city to work as a wet nurse, and later a maid, leaving him in the care of Rozi, a former prostitute who now runs a sort of foster home for illegitimate children. It's a tough upbringing because Rozi basically hands out food and favors to the kids based on how much their mothers can pay, and Anna is always struggling, so Bela is always hungry, for food as well as love and affection -- Bela is literally young, scrappy and hungry.

Bela grows up as a tough kid, but he's smart and longs to go to school. Rozi refuses, forcing him to stay home and work until Bela realizes she's breaking the law. The village schoolmaster sees that Bela is smart and gives him a lot of tough love. Eventually, Bela rejoins his mother in Budapest at the age of fourteen, where they live in a tenement shared with a prostitute, barely making ends meet. Here's a wonderful quote describing the first meal his mother cooks for him after they're finally reunited:

I started sweating, I ate so hard. My God what a szekelygulyas that was! Pools of soured cream floated on top, the soft tenderloin melted in my mouth, and the cabbage -- Lord, what cabbage! You could tell my mother had cooked it that morning, or perhaps even the night before, because only when you cook it twice can cabbage be that good. I was moved: for the rich, food only goes to their stomachs, but for the poor-- it goes to their hearts.

There are a lot of food descriptions in this book, which I always love. (Obviously, food's pretty important when you don't get enough of it.) Anna gets Bela a job as a bellboy in a fancy downtown hotel on the Danube. The first year or so he doesn't even make any money, as they work for tips only and he normally works in the elevator. Eventually, a chance encounter with a rich woman's dog changes his life, and he becomes the designated dog-walker and works his way up the ladder -- and into her bed. Bela also meets Patsy, a rich Hungarian-American girl vacationing in Budapest, and longs to leave Hungary and move to New York.
Love this cover from the British edition

Meanwhile, Bela's family is always on the verge of bankruptcy, staving off hunger and the greedy Hausmeister, the building superintendent who's constantly threatening the tenants with eviction. Bela is also struggling with his conscience about the favors he receives from his wealthy lover while he sees the poverty surrounding him. There are few options for the thousands of poor workers faced with unemployment in the late 1920s, and it's obvious to the reader how fascism begins to take hold, and the inevitable rise of the Nazi party. 

Here, peace was always more dangerous than war, because the bomb has yet to be invented that can do as much damage as poverty itself.

I loved this book. It's nearly 700 pages long and I raced through it in less than a week. I can't compare this to the original Hungarian, so I don't know if it's Szekely's original style or the translation, but I found this really easy to read, almost as if I was sitting in pub with Bela and he was telling me his life story. I found myself breathlessly awaiting the next page, laughing and crying with Bela, outraged at the injustices he faced and feeling his despair as he didn't know how to take care of his mother and find their next meal and pay the rent. I was aghast at the struggles he faced, and I only wish the story were longer. It ends when he's seventeen and I wish I knew what happened to him next. Bela's character was so real to me. According to Wikipedia this is a semi-autobiographical novel, though Szekely was born in 1901. He did leave Budapest as a young man and ended up as a screenwriter in Berlin, then moved to Hollywood in 1934, where he was eventually won for an Oscar for the 1940 film Arise, My Love. Sadly, Szekely only wrote two novels, and this is the only one translated into English. Temptation was also adapted into a Hungarian film in 1977, but I don't think it's available on DVD. 

I also loved reading about his life in Budapest. I was lucky enough to travel there for a long weekend a couple of years ago, but I never got around to posting any photos. This review is pretty long already, so hopefully I'll add some next week. Temptation is definitely one of my top reads this year and now I'm inspired to read more Hungarian fiction. Bloggers, do you have any recommendations? I still have We Were Counted by Miklos Banffy (checked out from the library more than three months ago, still unread); and I've also heard great things about Magda Szabo, several of her books are reprinted by NYRB Classics and are available as ebooks from my library.

I'm counting this as my Classic in Translation for the Back to the Classics Challenge and for my Hungarian selection for the European Reading Challenge.  It also counts toward the Big Book Summer Challenge


  1. This sounds fascinating! I am 1/4 Hungarian but must admit all I have read is Kate Seredy's body of work (of course, wonderful) and Embers by Sándor Márai, which I liked.

    1. I forgot Sandor Marai! He's been on my to-read list forever. I hadn't heard of Kare Seredy so I will have to look for her, thanks for the suggestion!

  2. This sounds great! And I love that it feels like listening to him in a pub - those sorts of books are so rare.

    1. Yes, I don't know if it's the writer's original style or the translation, but it's a very easy read. It's a very conversational style and I raced through it.

  3. I've never heard of this novel before, but it sounds wonderful! Thanks for the in-depth review and quotes.

    You forgot to mention that it also counts for the Big Book Summer Challenge! 3 challenges covered for one book - You're off to a great start!


    2020 Big Book Summer Challenge

    1. Yes, I'll add that! Thanks for reminding me. I'm really loving the Big Book Challenge, it's inspiring me to read a lot of books that have been languishing on the shelves.

  4. Replies
    1. It is interesting but parts of it are tough. It's really worth reading.

  5. NYRB has a few really excellent Hungarian-English translations. Four by famed Hungarian author Magda Szabó (The Door, Iza's Ballad, Abigail, Katalin Street); Sunflower by Gyula Krúdy; Journey By Moonlight by Antal Szerb; Niki: The Story of a Dog by Tibor Déry; and a few others. My father is an immigrant from Hunagry. Unfortunately he never taught me his native language, so English translations of Hungarian lit is my only way to connect. And it is some of the most beautiful, impacted literature I've ever read.


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