Seven short stories
Translated by Tímea Tankó and Lacy Kornitzer
(Edition Solitude, Stuttgart, 2017, 144 pages)
“Mátyás Dunajcsik’s book contains seven short stories subtly bound together by the aesthetic and political question of the constructed reality of cities as mythic places. It has as its frame the Proustian experience of time and life. Consequently, we have here also a passionate ironic narrator, the dandy of the 21th century, a post-dandy, who is well aware not only of the lost time, but of the lost prestige, nevertheless liberating power of sophisticated literature too. Dunajcsik found a voice to tell the abundance of losses without being pathetic or garrulous; his stories are self-ironic, spiritual and humorous. From these pages we got the splendor of good, old readings. Moreover, he succeeds to address not only the connoisseurs, but with his taste and vivacity also the newcomers.” – Zsuzsa Selyem
Read a short story from this book in German:
Überfahrt zum Lido (The Passage to Lido) translated by Lacy Kornitzer
“Even considered from the point of view
of sheer reality, the places where we long
to be always occupy more space in our real
lives than the ones where we are actually at.”
BALBEC BEACH (Balbec Beach)
In this prelude to the stories of the collection, the narrator is a journalist staying at an old hotel at Balbec Beach, an imaginary place bearing an eerie resemblance to the beach resort called Balbec in Marcel Proust’s novel In Search of Lost Time, where he visits regularly to research the soon-to-be-forgotten cultural history of the place, publishing his findings in a magazine in his home country. As he is packing his bags preparing to leave, he is contemplating whether or not he should reply to the letter of an unknown young man who asks him if it is worth visiting Balbec Beach and maybe even moving there.
The protagonist of this story is a young artist who made his career by making sculptures from the flesh of dead animals using formalin or taxidermy. His workshop is in the outskirts of Budapest at the house of his grandmother, who in her last will bequeathed her disfigured leg to his grandson, permitting him to use it in his artistic work as he pleases after her death. When the grandmother unexpectedly dies, the protagonist finds himself alone in his workshop with the dilemma of whether or not he should accept her offer. In the middle of preparing a new exhibition and badly in need of a center piece for the show, he instantly envisions a sculpture evoking and grossly subverting the painting La Belle noiseuse described in Honoré de Balzac’s novella The unknown masterpiece.
THE PASSAGE TO LIDO (Átkelés a Lidóra)
In this story, the memories of two trips to Venice intertwine and mirror each other. During the first trip in February, the narrator is coming to the city on the pretext of doing research at the original sites where the story of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice takes place. He visits the Grand Hotel des Bains on the Lido, which is completely abandoned due to the low season and is currently repaired. However, his greatest concern is that he is torn between two possible love affairs back home, with two very different young men. By the end of his winter pilgrimage, he decides to carry on with his romance with one of them, whom he later takes to Venice for his second trip, this time during the summer, also visiting the very same beach of the Grand Hotel des Bains which is now swarming with guests of the reopened hotel.
THE INVISIBLE BUDAPEST (A láthatatlan Budapest)
The narrator of this story is a failed author who became a sort of private detective and crime journalist for the weekly entitled Gloomy Sunday. He is hired by a successful singer called Emma Április, who emigrated to Berlin years earlier but has come back for a surprise concert in Budapest. She asked the narrator to find her estranged father, a retired boat chef who used to serve on sightseeing boats on the Danube, which he does, taking Emma right after the concert to a mysterious apartment deep in the ghetto of Budapest.
THE LIGHTHOUSE KEEPER’S CAT (A világítótoronyőr macskája)
In this long story, half a dozen traditional Icelandic folk tales are retold in a contemporary way, sewn together to form a continous family saga of several star-crossed love affairs spanning over four generations, from the narrator’s grandfather and father to the narrator himself and his cat, all living around the area in Iceland that is called Hvalfjörður today. First the grandfather establishes the family wealth by fishing out a merman from the ocean who in return for his liberty reveals the infidelity of his captor’s current wife and a year later presents him with a miraculous cow coming from the water. The grandfather later becomes a powerful magician and as his seaside farm is gradually eroded by the sea, he is appointed to be the keeper of the lighthouse that the government builds on his land. He remarries and has three sons, one of which is thought to be lost on a distant rock in the ocean during a sea storm, only to be found a year later in perfectly good health. Soon it turns out that it was an elf lady who kept him alive out there on the rock, bearing him a son whom he does not wish to admit to his name. In revenge, the furious elf lady turns the young man into a whale, who later on roams the vicinity of the fjord, frequently attacking sailing ships. The half-elf child, who turns out to be the narrator himself, is brought up by the grandfather, who is later forced to kill his own son who turned into a whale, when World War II arrives to Iceland and the fjord is planned to be used by the American military as a natural harbour. The narrator inherits the office of the lighthouse keeper, and later on falls in love with a mermaid or seal lady, whom he keeps in his house by hiding her seal skin that would enable her to go back to the ocean. But one day when the narrator is away, the woman finds the skin in the garden shed and returns to her home, leaving the narrator alone with their seven children. The novella ends with the story of the love affair of the lighthouse keeper’s cat and an arctic fox, from which a mythical Icelandic monster, a skugga-baldur is born, which soon starts to ravage the livestock of the narrator’s sons.
THE HERRGOTTSSOHN-PORTRAIT (A Herrgottsohn-portré)
This story takes place in an imaginary Budapest where the contemporary Hungarian capital is blended with its fin-de-siècle counterpart. The narrator is a writer and the son of a famous studio photographer and enthusiast of the history of photography, who lived in an opulent and luxurious household in the middle of the city with his two children and his French wife, a direct descendant of Louis Daguerre himself. As the adult narrator meets an old family friend at a poetry reading downtown, he remembers a strange incident of his childhood, when a blind piano tuner by the name of Gellért Herrgottssohn had come to their house on a Sunday afternoon to beg the narrator’s father to take his portrait. But since the child narrator had to accompany his mother on a family visit, he’d never found out why it’d been so important for the blind man to have his portrait taken. This had made the imagination of the young narrator run wild and during the boring family visit he’d kept inventing several romantic narratives about what might have had happened at home in the studio. But during his musings on this childhood mystery, the adult narrator realises that the old family friend who just arrived to the poetry reading had been in fact in his father’s studio when the strange incident happened. So when the literary evening comes to an end, the narrator accompanies his old friend in a taxi on the way home.
MARCEL PROUST: MY MEMORIES OF SIGMUND FREUD
(Marcel Proust: Emlékeim Sigmund Freudról)
The text of this story departs from a few sentences and situations from the first chapter of Péter Nádas’s seminal novel The Book of Memories, and reimagines the awkward meeting of the nameless narrator and Arno Sandstuhl as the meeting of Marcel Proust and Sigmund Freud in a private dining room of the Paris Ritz. Playfully imitating the voice of Marcel Proust from both in his private writings and in his novel In Search of Lost Time – but also Nádas in his Book of Memories, which in itself is a sort of reflection on the Proustian style –, Proust remembers the one occasion when he met Sigmund Freud thanks to the efforts of Marie Bonaparte, a rebellious aristrocrat who was one of the earliest advocates of Freud’s theory in France. (Although all three of the above are historical figures who were each others’ contemporaries, Proust never met Freud in reality and didn’t have any close relations with Marie Bonaparte, although they might have crossed each others’ paths in Parisian high society.) At the time, in 1908, both Proust and Freud are at the beginning of their career, so it is only the unwavering admiration of their hostess for the both of them that ensures a kind of polite and uninterested respect in them for each other.