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  • Writer's picture Kester Eddy

Looking for a Christmas pressie for a friend (seriously) interested in Hungary? Read on ...

Updated: Dec 20, 2022

This is the first time on this blog I've used the same picture for two different posts. There's a very good reason for that.

Photo: The cover to The Will to Survive, A History of Hungary – second edition – by [Sir] Bryan Cartledge – 604 pp, ISBN 978 1 84904 1126

About 18 months ago, in the spring of 2021, a kind friend and regular reader of this blog, lent me a copy this work by Bryan Cartledge, former British ambassador to both Hungary and the Soviet Union in the 1980s.

I was very pleased with the opportunity to read it, took it home, put it down - and promptly covered it (albeit unintentionally) with boxes of photographs. Early this year I was asked, politely, by the owner, how my reading was progressing. Cue frantic search to begin a (guilty) quick dip.

I confess that what I term pre-history Hungary – tales of the Magyar tribes' arrival in the Carpathian Basin, King Istvan versus his pagan uncle and much more of the 'early' stuff was not my priority. I plunged into The Road to Trianon, which is Chapter 13, starting at page 319, just over half way through the tome. This largely dealt with characters whose names were familiar, although their recorded deeds were sometimes less so.

I suppose it was barely after one page that I thought I should do a post, a review, of the book on this blog, and I confess that here I have largely failed.

It's not that the text is not well written, on the contrary, it is superb. But the truth is that after about two-three pages, the content is so dense, so thought provoking, that I, for one, simply have to stop and try to take it all in. (I have a supposed friend, who would delight in saying here: "Typical of a Loughborough lower second." But there you are.)

Then something else comes along, and I get diverted. So, progress has been slow.

Nonetheless, I was, for instance, astonished at how Cartledge managed to summarise the intellectual and cultural life of the country in the years from 1850 to 1913 (yes, I began to read about earlier years after my initial dip) in about seven pages. This incursion left me feeling that I now knew all I needed to know about such characters as poet János Arany, writer Géza Gárdonyi and the rise of Nyugat – the famous (at least in these parts) literary magazine so beloved by western-leaning intellectuals at the time, and later into World War II.

He also rather shatters the myth of left-wing, Red Count hero Mihály Károly. (He didn't have the lands he famously 'gave' to his farm workers because he'd mortgaged them as debt at the gambling tables.)

Then my better half arrived, began reading the book (at my suggestion), before swiping it for her own shelves and justifying the (effective) theft by saying something along the lines of “No Hungarian ever writes like this.”

She also added – and, annoyingly, I forget the precise adjectives she used – but it was something like “uplifting, light, but so insightful”.

Come to think of it, that's probably so far from what she originally said that I'll have to take ownership of that description myself: suffice to say she was, perhaps I can say, vividly impressed.

I really haven't read enough (so far) to write anything like a 'proper' review, but I will say that if you are interested in Hungary's fateful, tragic and ultimately so massively destructive dalliance with Hitler's Third Reich, you could do well to buy the book for this alone.

Warning: though he invariably writes in an understanding, sympathetic manner, not all Magyars will appreciate Cartledge's assessments of, for instance, Budapest's treatment of its national minorities, be they Slav, Romanian or German, nor, it goes almost without saying, Jewish.

Come to that, even its own ethnic lower-income groups, otherwise known as the urban and rural poor, didn't fare too well between the wars either.

I should also say, if it isn't already clear, this is not an English-speaker's "beginner's guide to Hungary" - it will really stretch, test and probe the knowledge of many a long-term observer of the lands and peoples of Hungary.

That said, it's not often that I concur with the blurb on a book's cover, but for once, this one has a fair chance of being on the money.

“This is the best history of Hungary in the English language” - John Lukacs – it states, unashamedly, on the front cover.

My only quibble here being, just in the English language?

Well, I'm in no position to really judge, but even in the Anglo-Saxon vernacular, if that is not pretty much correct, someone should tell us all ASAP.

nb For earlier posts on a 2021 talk by Sir Bryan Cartledge on his experiences in both Hungary and the Soviet Union, along with his concerns for both Hungary's and Russia's futures, see:

Finally - BW - thanks for the book - of course, you can have it back whenever - just let me know.

UPDATE; Former British Ambassador to Hungary Greg Dorey (yes, another one) has just reminded me that this volume is availabe in Hungarian under the title Megmaradni – A magyar történelem egy angol szemével. This first came out in 2008, when Greg was at the helm in Harmincad utca. He termed the book an "excellent work" at the launch of the Hungarian version in Budapest at the time.

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