Memoir writing of the most varied types and persuasions has become a prominent genre in East Central Europe after the fall of the Soviet empire in 1989, attracting a large and varied readership. While many if not all of these memoirs are personal recollections as the genre demands, there are some that are more than descriptions of lives and views. Those texts, which are published in translation or written and published by authors who are residing outside Hungary, are especially of a nature that takes into account the reader’s unfamiliarity with matters Hungarian. Thus, these types of memoirs serve the purpose of cultural reading. Memoir writing of such cultural reading is, for example, where the rediscovery of the author’s cultural heritage is connected with personal history. Owing to its language as well as history, Hungary is one of the quintessential “Other” cultures of Europe, and this otherness is stereotypical as well as historically and linguistically determined. It is in this context of cultural reading, personal history, and otherness that I have read Susan Rubin Suleiman’s Budapest Diary: In Search of the Motherbook and Richard Teleky’s Hungarian Rhapsodies: Essays on Ethnicity, Identity and Culture.
Both Suleiman and Teleky describe their rediscovery of their “roots,” both familial and cultural—one Jewish Hungarian, the other Protestant Hungarian; both are intellectuals: the former a professor of French and Comparative Literature at Harvard, the latter an editor and director of York University’s Writing Program in Toronto. What [End Page 455] binds them together, apart from the personal and familial, is their emotional as well as intellectual interest in Hungarian culture.
Memoirs by exile and refugee Hungarians have been a frequent type of writing in Hungarian letters, obviously owing to the frequent exodus from a country habitually undergoing foreign invasions. Examples are many, from Prince Rákóczi’s (rebel against the Hapsburgs) or Count Benyovszky’s (king of Madagascar) to the numerous memoirs of refugees after the 1848 Revolution against Hapsburg domination and Tsarist intervention and the memoirs by refugees from the White Terror and Admiral Horthy’s semi-fascist regime between the two World Wars. The largest exodus of Hungarians occurred after the Second World War and after the 1956 Revolution against Soviet and Communist domination of the country. The memoirs of this more recent period of Hungarian history are particularly important because these texts published abroad—mainly in English, German, and French—in most cases are of a structure combining personal experiences with cultural descriptions and explanations, explicitly or implicitly, and obviously in response to the problem of the otherness of Hungarians in Western cultures and languages. Perhaps the most important of these memoirs is George Faludy’s My Happy Days in Hell (1962). Faludy described his experiences in a Hungarian Communist concentration camp, as did Solzhenitsyn in The Gulag Archipelago published later. Among English-language memoirs describing the double and/or consecutive rape of Hungary, George Gabori’s When Evils Were Most Free (1982) is notable, although there are, of course, also many fictionalized autobiographies such as Stephen Vizinczey’s In Praise of Older Women: The Amorous Recollections of András Vajda (1965) or Béla Szabados’s In Light of Chaos (1990).
While these memoirs about the post-Second World War period and others describing the semifascist interwar period, eventually culminating in the mass killing of Hungarian Jews upon the German invasion of Hungary in 1944, and the memoirs about the Soviet Communist oppression up to 1956 (or 1968, depending on one’s political sensitivities), are written by first-generation Hungarians, Suleiman’s and Teleky’s memoirs are exceptional because they are written by “second generation Hungarians.” Both authors are “Hungarian” in the sense that they severed for decades any interest in matters Hungarian, language or culture. Suleiman fled Hungary in 1949 as a ten-year-old and returned [End Page 456] there first in the 1980s for shorter visits and for...