Monday, 9 April 2012

Easter in Hungary


I am spending what Romanians call the Catholic Easter (the Orthodox Easter is next weekend) staying in the officially Catholic city of Budapest. I say officially because Catholicism was imposed on Hungarians as on the French and the Czechs during the wars of religion. It is not a deeply rooted thing like Catholicism in Ireland, Poland or Slovakia, where religion is a patriotism, or like Orthodoxy in Romania. I am staying with a British Jewish friend who owns one of the most important collections of erotica in the world much of which he keeps in his palatial Budapest flat in the Buda hills overlooking the city.

He proudly shows me many of his treasures and I remember my life dedicated to collecting very much cheaper books none of which I have seen since I came to Romania. I wish I had had the cash to collect valuable books and see that life without ones books is like living a half life. My friend is one of those men who normally dislike their own company quite strongly but with his books he tells me he never feels alone. I should unpack mine and make a life and home to share with them.

I am, I discovered, in Jungian terms, the intuitive type who sees romance in mundane things and is moved by the spiritual qualities of things in general including books. Books are after all the most spiritual and least material of material objects. My friend the bibliophile I think is the sense type. When he speaks about books or about women I am always struck that he talks only about their physical and tangible qualities.

I quote to him Wilhelm Stekel,  the psychologist and disciple of Freud, who very shrewdly said that a man’s work, in those rare cases where a man chooses his career for himself, or else a man’s hobbies indicate the subject’s hidden criminal proclivities. Stekel cites the case of the collector who is always a sublimated lothario wanting to possess as many women as possible. In fact there are many parallels between possessing and reading books and coitus.

Some of the illustrations to my friend’s seventeenth century volumes are obscene indeed but we are all used to obscenity these days (compare the reactions of John Buchan and Henry James to Lord Rochester's obscene poems which were not published until the 60s and which I read and enjoyed although they are nasty). These things are interesting to someone like me who is fascinated by the hidden things in history. Obscenity, libertinism, homosexuality, communism, the things society condemns. Our interest, to quote Browning, is on the dangerous edge of things. Reading and visiting art galleries gives one the idea our ancestors were much more chaste than they really were. 

However, though surrounded by books, which are my passion, including some interesting old travel books (the lucky man possesses the first edition of Boswell’s Visit to the Western Isles of Scotland, almost my favourite book) shamefully and  tellingly I prefer to spend my time on the internet instead.  O tempora, o mores. But I read enough to be saddened by his collection which seems joyless, humourless and heartless. The many (eleven?) volumes of the famous ‘Walter: a Secret Life’ are interesting to someone like me who is steeped in late Victorian literature and history. It is good to be reminded that Victorian propriety hid a carnival of carnal indulgence. But the sad and exploitative amours of a rich late Victorian paying chambermaids and barmaids for meaningless couplings is very bleak.  As King Solomon said long ago : "Of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh" (Eccl. 12:12). 

As recently as 1969 a man was sent to prison for two years for reprinting Walter which surprises me but though I believe in free speech it might be a sign I suppose of our decadence that it is in print now.

I saw very little of Budapest on my first day. Only Andrassy Ut in the gloom of an overcast April afternoon and then very beautiful in the light and then in torrential rain. Rain brings out the soul of a place, unlike for some reason sunshine. I like Budapest more than on my last couple of visits and it is a city with no sights which makes it very relaxing. 

But the place has been marred in the last twenty years by satanic malls, to coin a phrase of which I am proud and slot machine halls and other horrors of modern life. Many people dress like affluent working class South Londoners although thankfully shell suits are less common than a decade ago. Many faces look like they belong in a fantasy novel, perhaps Conan the Barbarian. Elderly people, be-hatted and in winter coats, look as though they have strayed from George Mikes' How to be an Alien.They all look much less happy than Romanians and this long pre-dated their economic problems. Like the English Hungarians take their pleasures sadly. Does Hungary still have Europe's highest suicide rate?

The internet evidence was very contradictory and inconclusive but it turned out the St Stephen’s Basilica did have a Latin Mass (Novus Ordo) at 10 on Sunday. The building itself is glossy, highly shone, magnificent in a slightly off-the-peg sort of way like an expensive, rather ugly Victorian necklace or brooch for sale at an expensive jeweller’s. A life size statue of the warrior-saint, St Stephen, stands behind the High Altar and dominates the church where a crucifixion or Madonna and child should have been. St Stephen was the King of Hungary who converted (himself and his people) to Catholicism on Christmas Day  1000 (such a memorable date). I am very sceptical of the saintliness of warrior-saints (though I chose as my confirmation name Edmund after St. Edmund of East Anglia). The statue of St. Stephen dominates the great church and looks like a statue in  a Hollywood film. It gives the whole church a flavour of Disneyland or the Prisoner of Zenda.

The Basilica is a monument to the national Idea clothed in religion, just as the large ugly Orthodox churches built after 1920 in Transylvania, after Transylvania had become part of Romania, are political statements. In those days nationalism was the spirit of the age, to  which the only possible intelligent attitude for a conservative was one of scepticism and pessimism. Nowadays internationalism is the ideology of our age and nationalists are considered Neanderthals and troglodytes. Sceptiscism and pessimism again are demanded. All received ideas, like all heresies, contain an important truth taken out of proportion and all are therefore dangerous and misleading. ‘Out of the crooked timbers of mankind no straight thing was ever made.’

But these thoughts crossed my mind in much less time than it takes to read them and then I concentrated on the choir which was magnificent and tried to concentrate on the Mass itself. For Easter the basilica was crowded – not only by Hungarians but a large number of tourists among whom I saw a large number of people who looked Japanese and who may have thought the building old and beautiful. Were they Catholics, I wondered? They did not seem to take communion. Mass in the internet age included a lot of people in the congregation recording the Mass on their telephones held above their heads like strange ritual objects. I allowed myself to record two or three minutes, slightly reluctantly. The Mass was magnificent but the church has the superficiality and insincerity of a Franz Lehar operetta.

It seems Hungary, unlike Romania, attracts the conservative type of tourists, particularly Americans and Japanese, who do not like edgy places. And Hungary is the least edgy, most comfortable city I think I know. (Apart from Exeter, perhaps.) Its many Italian restaurants seem chic whereas Romania, equally full of Italian  replicas,  never distantly approaches chic. Hungary might even pull off cool for all I know, something which Romania, thankfully, never does, except in one single spot, the bookshop/teashop Carture┼čti.

No two cities in Europe are in starker contrast than Budapest and Bucharest. In 1990 they seemed to me the two most romantic and exotic place names in the world and I preserved like a holy relic the railway ticket Budapest-Bucharest that I bought in September 1990, a stubby little oblong made of very thick card like the tickets we had had in England in the 1960s and 1970s. Even after fourteen years of living there, Bucharest, though it is not Havana or Damascus,  still seems a strange and mysterious place but Budapest seems very placid and comfortable,  except from the political and economic point of view. From these points of view life in Budapest at the moment is a thriller or  a horror film.

My sister once told me that the drivers of Budapest were the only foreign drivers she had even seen who were even more careful and law-abiding than the English. Driving styles explain at once why Hungarians and Romanians have been traditional enemies. Driving styles tell you everything you need to know about a nation’s economy or her politics. Romanians live like they drive, noisily, dramatically, with a lot of intense emotion but little apparent logic. As drivers and at work they are a  nation of individualists not team players, for whom traffic laws are hints or counsels of perfection. The object of a Romanian driver is not to get somewhere but, to steal a Martin Amis joke, to impress his personality on the road.

After Mass we drive, carefully as befits Hungarians, to a village an hour from Budapest where I have the good fortune to be invited by a family of Hungarians who when I first met them lived in Harghita, one of the Hungarian counties in the centre of Romania. They have now migrated like so many Transylvanians to Hungary. They keep up in Hungary the good old Transylvanian traditions of hospitality and wonderful cooking. Easter dinner is a delicious feast with many courses among which feature meatloaf with egg, a fine soup, schnitzel, roast chicken, stuffed cabbage and several types of cozonac, the Romanian and Hungarian  Easter cake. We drank temperately, drank wine after not with the food but the fiery spirit palinka or palinca was notable by its absence. 

Although the family do not talk about it I strongly suspect they all miss Transylvania  but there are few opportunities there. So they soldier on in and are unhappy in cold unfriendly Hungary.

A good friend of mine is a Jew from Turda in Transylvania. He speaks Hungarian and Romanian as mother tongues and is an Israeli citizen who has lived in Tel Aviv and Vienna and now prefers to live in Bucharest and be Romanian though he describes himself simply as a Transylvanian Jew. He says that Transylvanian Hungarians have more in common with Transylvanian Romanians than they have with Hungarians from Hungary. I think he is right.


  1. Why didn't you like Budapest the first two times you visited it?

    1. I loved Budapest on my first visits in 1990 and 1991 - I do not remember why I liked it more on this visit than the two before but it has become very normal and unexciting. I chose at random Hungary to be the Eastern European country in which I took a close interest back when i was at university. I told someone this recently and she said, 'You chose the most boring country of all.' I wonder if this is right and think it might be.