My favorite things Hungary

The Austro-Hungarian empire does not count per se, so I will use the Hungarian language for demarcation.  As you might expect, there is lots:

1. Author: Peter Nadas, A Book of Memories, is a classic novel of ideas which is under-read in the United States.  Nadas has a new book coming out this fall.  Imre Kertesz doesn’t do much for me.

2. Movies: Bela Tarr, Satantango.  It’s over seven hours long, but don’t be put off.  It has some of the best shots of grazing cows and angry peasants committed to reel, and I wanted it to be longer.  It’s mesmerizing in a way that makes it one of the film classics of the new century.  I find Werckmeister Harmonies too corny but it has some fine scenes.  Less traditionally thought of as Hungarian is the great Emeric Pressburger, who collaborated with Michael Powell on numerous fine films.  Alexander Korda did The Thief of Baghdad.

3. Actor, Peter Lorre is the obvious choice, plus Bela Lugosi made the best Frankenstein ever, forget about Dracula.

4. Conductor: You have George Szell, Antal Dorati, Georg Solti, and Eugene Ormandy.  Szell was so often perfect, Dorati cut some of the best sounding records of all time, Solti’s whiplash style was either offputting or splendid, and Ormandy was deeper than he was given credit for.   Ivan Fischer is a more recent contender, for instance his Mahler’s 4th reflects a scrupulous concern with rehearsals.  Péter Eötvös is an excellent conductor of contemporary music.

5. Pianist: Gyorgy Cziffra and Ervin Nyiregyhazi are two memorable eccentrics.  Solti and Szell were underrated as pianists and Zoltan Kocsis is very good.  Don’t forget Franz Liszt, even though no recording has survived.

6. Scientist: There is Szilard, Teller, and von Neumann and many many others but can they come close to this top tier?  The options for Hungarian mathematicians defy belief.  Hungarian inventors were critical to the “great non-stagnation” of 1870-1940, including for the all-important electrical transformer; few if any of those names have survived much into general Western history which I suppose says something.

7. Artist: Victor Vasarely is the obvious choice, but I don’t like him so much.  This area seems oddly weak.  Am I forgetting something?  Mihaly Munkacsy anyone?

8. Economist: Janos Kornai comes to mind, and Melchior Palyi remains underrated.  I believe Milton Friedman’s parents were from Hungary.

The bottom line: You can’t gush enough about music and math and physics and science and invention.  The achievements from a small country are staggering and unprecedented.  Yet literature and painting are relatively weak.  Hungarian composers will get a post of their own, but there is a strong line-up of Liszt, Bartok, and Ligeti.  What else am I forgetting?  I can’t think of major films set in Hungary and I don’t count the Hollywoodesque The Shop Around the Corner even though nominally it is Budapest.


Comments for this post are closed