5 Contemporary Hungarian Writers You Should Read (In English)

Sharing about my favorite contemporary Hungarian writers and their best books – not our usual blog post. But dark, chilly days are coming, and what’s better than curling up on the couch with a good book and a delicious cup of hot tea on those days? Reading and traveling are just two different ways of the same passion for me, anyway: getting to know the world, the people – and ourselves in the first place. And I love reading contemporary Hungarian writers!

Each of them has their own style, but they also share qualities that are so uniquely Hungarian. Their novels dive deep into the typical problems of communist and post communist Hungary, but they’re also about issues that are universal and as old as humankind. I’d like to share my love for these authors with you, so I brought you a list of book recommendations from my favorites. Well, there’s one (major) limitation: I only picked books that are translated into English.

Péter Esterházy

He’s the master of contemporary Hungarian fiction, famous for his quality prose, playful and experimental style. Reading him is entertaining, and you can start peeling off layer after layer in his texts, but sometimes you just let the words and sentences amaze you. Like a violinist on his instrument, Esterházy plays with the Hungarian language.

He’s a descendant of the Esterházy family, one of the most ancient noble dynasties of Hungary since the Middle Ages. The family’s history is connected to the history of Hungary and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and Péter Esterházy’s most popular book is a unique 800-page work about his family history titled Celestial Harmonies. In most of his works he deals with the experience of living under the communist regime or in the post-communist Hungary.

He died of cancer in 2016.

What to read from him?

If you’re looking for an ambitious, epic postmodern novel: Celestial Harmonies

History belongs to the victors, legends to the people, fantasy to literature. Only death is certain.

Péter Esterházy, Celestial Harmonies

This is not an easy read, but deserves your time. It’s the record of the downfall of the Esterházy family, written in two books and in a unique style. It zigzags in time, consisting of short anecdotes and piquant pieces about Hungarian history or his predecessors, but it’s also about father-son relationship. However, to understand this book you need to know the context: both the history of Hungary and the Esterházy family. It’s also full of cultural references. Wikipedia is your friend. 🙂

“Hungarians are sexy motherfuckers. I have never read more heartbreak and hilarity in a single work.” – commented a GoodReads reviewer.

If you’re looking for a unique book about women and men: She Loves Me

Ninety-seven short chapters about love, hate, sex and desire – women and men. In a striking, profound, funny, witty, playful style. It’s also a much easier read than Celestial Harmonies. You’ll either love it or hate it.

Magda Szabó

Magda Szabó is the most well-known and most-translated Hungarian female author. Only a few of her novels have been published in English – but those are worth reading!

Between 1949 to 1956, the years of the Stalinist rule, she was not allowed to publish and worked as an elementary school teacher. In 1958, her first novel was finally published, and readers immediately loved it, just like the countless novels following it. She won many awards both in Hungary and Europe. Most of her novels focus on relationships, and I really like that she treats complicated subjects so sensitively, and her characters are very well-developed.

She died in 2007, at the age of ninety.

What to read from her?

If you’re looking for an adventurous YA novel: Abigail

This story of a strong-willed, spoiled teenager growing up during the Second World War is the most popular novel of Magda Szabó ever.

This was the first one I read, too, as a teenager – and I was fascinated! It’s one of those books you can hardly put down. It might not be among the best classics in the world, but it’s an adventurous story set in a boarding school (yes, Harry Potter fans, you’ll love this, too, even though it’s in a very different age), enjoyed by many teenagers, young (and not so young) adults.

If you’re looking for a thought-provoking book about relationships: The Door

It’s considered Magda Szabó’s best novel, but it’s definitely harder to read than Abigail. It’s a bone-shaking book, though the plot is simple.

It’s centered around a relationship between two women, a successful writer and her self-contained housekeeper, Emerenc. The writer’s name is Magda, and she’s telling the story (yes, the novel is semi-autobiographical), while Emerenc is a mystery. She starts to open the door of her secrets though, and we can see as the relationship of the two women develops and deepens. A relationship which is a mix of devotion and contempt, love and hate. This novel leaves you with a lot to ponder.

If you’re looking for a novel about mother-daughter relationship: Iza’s Ballad

Once I read this beautifully written, disturbing book with a well-developed narrative and characters, it has burned into my memory. Just like The Door, it’s about the relationship of two women, still it’s very different: this time it’s an aging mother and her adult daughter.

The story? A recently widowed older woman, Ettie, leaves her home in the countryside and moves to Budapest to live with her daughter, Iza. Both of them struggle not only to adjust to the new situation, but also to understand each other.

Ettie can’t find meaning in this new life, she misses her community and her home, and to no avail she tries to get closer to her daughter whom she has never truly known. Iza is a divorced physician, hard-working and conscientious, but lonely and just as unhappy as her mother. Yet they can’t even share their loneliness, the distance between them only widens. Iza wants to make sure her mother is well and cared for, and Ettie wants to do everything to her daughter’s satisfaction. But good intentions are not enough, mother and daughter live in two different worlds and have different ideas of what a fulfilled life means.

What does love mean? How to love well? Can we change our beliefs that we constructed over a lifetime? This novel leaves you with questions like this.

Noémi Szécsi

Noémi Szécsi is a journalist and author of six novels and four non-fiction books. She’s in the younger generation of Hungarian authors, and if you like sarcasm, you’ll adore her novels! I do, anyway. She’s the bright, vivid purple on the brown, burgundy, scarlet and black palette of Hungarian voices.

What to read from her?

If you’re looking for a sarcastic novel about finding meaning: The Finno-Ugrian Vampire

Reader, do not doubt the truth of my words, for the tale I tell is a lie from beginning to end. It is often said that the only way to tell the truth is through telling lies. But in my view reality is wholly devoid of interest. Yet every word of this tale is true.

Noémi Szécsi, The Finno-Ugrian Vampire

Finding one’s way, finding meaning and happiness – popular topics of novels and self-help books these days. The Finno-Ugrian Vampire turns it around and makes a parody out of it. This is a very Hungarian tale from a literary-vampiric angle set in 20th century Budapest. No, it’s not a vampire story, it only looks like one at the very first glance. It’s a satire which is full of symbols.

Let’s start with one: the young protagonist who is searching for meaning is a vampire. She doesn’t want to be one, she wants to pursue her literary ambitions, but her grandmother has her expectations. Can you get even more lost while searching for meaning? Sure, you can. Recommended reading for anyone being a Bachelor of Arts, young or feeling lost – or anyone who has never read anything from Noémi Szécsi.

If you’re looking for historical fiction (narrated with sarcasm): The Restless

Consisting of vivid characters, exciting historical events and social criticism, and narrated with sarcasm, the first historical novel of Noémi Szécsi is intriguing.

And what is it about? Emigration – and relationships. The Hungarian history of the 19th and 20th century is basically a series of emigrations. This novel is about the one after the failure of the revolution and independence war against the Habsburgs in 1848-1849. It follows the fate of Hungarian emigrant families through half of Europe and is centered around the Bárdy family. Focusing on a different character in each chapter, we see different perspectives – but the same feelings of being lost and disconnected from roots.

Krisztina Tóth

Krisztina Tóth works in both prose and poetry. After her son was born, she started writing children’s books, working as a freelance writer and teaching creative writing. Her prose is focused on traumas of both individuals and the society. Her voice is sharp and fresh, and it’s shocking how devastating her everyday stories about everyday people can be.

Her first book of short stories translated into English: Pixel

It’s a collection of loosely connected short stories that produce an interconnected web at the end.

Each story is a tale of love, loss or failure, and the stories altogether also tell a tale about relationships. The short stories are comic, tragic or both, and they’re a diagnosis of several decades of problems of Hungarian (and European) society. The full picture is made of tiny pixels.

Imre Kertész

Survivor of the Holocaust and the only Hungarian author who has received the Nobel Prize for Literature so far. Works of Imre Kertész (1929-2016) primarily reflect on the Holocaust and the future of survivors, on dictatorship and personal freedom. His voice is the black on that palette.

What to read from him?

The novel that won his author the Nobel Prize: Fatelessness

Fatelessness is a moving semi-autobiographical novel of a child deported from Budapest to Auschwitz, then Buchenwald.

14-year-old Georg Koves is the narrator, and the fact that he’s at a highly sensitive age and tries to make sense of what’s happening with him and around him makes this novel get under your skin and hurt even more.

A Holocaust survivor’s meditation: Kaddish for an Unborn Child

A difficult book – written to an unborn child. It starts with a “No” – which was the narrator’s answer to his wife when she asked for a child. Children are the future. A decision not to father a child is a decision not to have a future.

This man (who is unnamed in this semi-autobiographical book) has been in Auschwitz and deals with survivor guilt. Because Holocaust didn’t end with defeating the Nazis. There are scars that can never heal and will be carried from one generation to the next. This book lacks actions but is full of thoughts, and it’s definitely a slow read. It’ll stay with you for long though.

Overall

Well, it’s not the list of the happiest novels ever. But I like novels that challenge me, and I think the best books are looking for answers that we can never find, however, even looking for them makes us better – as a person and as a society. These books have a good chance to become classics and get places on the list of the best Hungarian novels of all times – but, of course, only time will tell whether they really do.

Finally, I’m sorry I had to miss out Zsuzsa Rakovszky and Pál Závada. They’re also among my favorite contemporary Hungarian writers, and I read several novels from both authors, but none of their novels are translated into English.

Now it’s your turn, recommend me books of contemporary authors from your country!

Disclosure: Please note that affiliate links are used in this post, and at no additional cost to you, we earn a commission if you make a purchase. This is how we pay our bills and keep our blog free for you to enjoy. 🙂


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By Beata Urmos

Bea is the co-founder of Our Wanders. She’s the writer and the trip organizer, and she’d love to help you plan your own amazing trips! She likes hiking, good novels and chocolate, as well. Her motto is: “A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.” (John A. Shedd)

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