Writer, researcher, translator, critic

The Nightmare


Mihály Babits, The Nightmare [Budapest; 1918]

This is the second Hungarian novel I've read in my attempt to swallow the literature of the 1910s whole, and I have at least six more on a list of potential candidates — I even own copies of two of them. Which for such a small country and relatively obscure language is remarkable; the extensive work of Corvina Press in translating Hungarian classics into English (begun during the Communist 1950s, but continued into the 1990s) is worth celebrating.

A Nightmare, the English title of what the original translates as The Stork-Caliph in reference to an 1826 German fairy tale in imitation of Arabian Nights-style fables, is a story of psychological fantasy (Wikipedia calls it science fiction, but it belongs rather to the Decadent tradition of spiritual alienation and aesthetic horror) which any reader of Poe would recognize both for its loose gestural suggestion of place and time and for its minute working out of the "rules" of the break with reality.

It's decidedly a post-Freudian work (there's even a veiled reference to Die Traumdeutung), even if there's plenty of the nineteenth century in its persistent association of bourgeois comfort with moral purity. But as an extended metaphor for the shame, wretchedness, and sexual and political awakenings of adolescence, it's pretty great. The ending is uncommonly satisfying after the manner of all great ghost stories, and if I never believed in the reality of either world depicted in its fantasy version of a split personality, I don't think I was meant to: it isn't meticulous Realism, but one more iteration of a fairy-tale.

August 11, 2018