"A Review of Kádár Judit’s Royal Flush: Kritikák a brit és amerikai prózairodalomról" by Péter Kristóf Makai
Péter Kristóf Makai is a PhD student at the Institute of English and American Studies, University of Szeged, and review editor at AMERICANA – E-Journal of American Studies in Hungary. Email:
Royal Flush: Kritikák a brit és amerikai prózairodalomról
Nyíregyháza: Bessenyei Könyvkiadó
The task of the literary scholar and the journalist-reviewer stem from the same lamentable fact about life: too many books, too little time. They write about books as discerning pre-readers, and we rely on their assessment to spare ourselves from dissatisfactory reading experiences. After all, they both write criticism, that is to say, a judgement of the qualities that separate airport novels from masterpieces, or works with revolutionary potential from the conventional fare (should that be the reader’s standard of merit). Nonetheless, if the task of the literary critic is to produce enlightening readings of remarkable or puzzling phenomena in literary works of art amongst scholars and argue for their (ir)relevance to our time, the reviewer is more of a literary matchmaker, as the book market is not at all dissimilar from the relationship market. We might flutter from novel to novel, perusing them at our pleasure, then cast them away, judging another book by its cover, and move on, always pining for Mr/s Right rather than Mr/s Right Now. And there are times when monogamy strikes: we find a book that we love and keep rereading while writing and talking about it ceaselessly. It is these moments the literary matchmaker seeks to facilitate; her job is to present the young hopefuls as honestly as possible so that happy couples can find fulfilment and maybe a life-changing relationship in the meantime… who knows?
Certainly, Judit Kádár in her Royal Flush: Kritikák a brit és amerikai prózairodalomról [Royal Flush: Essays on British and American Fiction] published in Hungarian knows how to see books as individuals worthy of attention, and she portrays every book she writes about as appealing to a lover of Anglophone literature, even though not all authors can arouse equal curiosity for everyone. Her collection of reviews, first published in Magyar Narancs, is now available for all of us to read in one go. And one go might not be a stretch, as the slim volume is easily consumed on a train ride or in a couple of hours of leisurely reading. This originates within the format of a printed review, which requires certain clarity of vision expressed in a constrained verbal space which, on occasion, can become woefully short even to whet the appetite of prospective readers. Since we can now see beyond the individual, informative writings as they appeared when reading them between the covers of Royal Flush, we get a clearer picture of Kádár’s tastes, and we can compare her critical sensibilities and emphases against our own palate.
The first thing that immediately pops off the pages is that Kádár masterfully encapsulates the general feel of entire novels: from Auster to Wolfe and from Beckett to Woolf, we are initiated into the diegetic worlds of fiction with ease. This, however, does not stop the author from unleashing the full potential of her analytical skills in getting in at least a sentence or two that strikes at the heart of each text. Nonetheless, the obvious delight of reading is tempered with the detachment of keeping the general, albeit well-educated reader at mind when providing commentary on as diverse writers as Lewis Carroll, Kurt Vonnegut or Bret Easton Ellis. She aids the reader in making the right decision whether to read the novel in question or not and educates her by highlighting the artistic choices that leave their most important mark on the work at hand, be it a realistic depiction of moral vacuity in I, Charlotte Simmons or Imperial Bedrooms, or the importance of ethnicity and its paratextual discontents in Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club or in the works of Jhumpa Lahiri and Mario Puzo. Even though―sad as I am to admit this―I have not yet managed to read all of the contemporary literature discussed, just by reading Kádár’s reviews I now know which ones I will never miss, not for all the tea in China. And especially, which ones to read in Hungarian.
Of course, and fortunately for us, being a scholar of Anglo-American literature who reads Anglophone novels also in Hungarian, she cannot avoid talking about the quality of the translations. Kádár’s reviews demonstrate that the responsibility of the translator is great in preserving the spirit of the original, whether it is playful or serious in tone, and much is lost when the translator thinks she can rise above the writer with whom she works. Kádár’s writings, in this context, are a delightful read, because she evidences a great willingness to go after the original works and compare them with the Hungarian translation in order to showcase the strengths and (more often than not) the weaknesses of the final text. For example, she mentions the clumsiness of some of Susan Sontag’s work in Hungarian, and she goes into full, delightful comparativist frenzy when she subjects Raymond Carver’s published fiction to a painstaking analysis of the author’s original, Gordon Lish’s heavily edited text alongside the translated Hungarian version of the stories. The result is an entertaining and illustrative short (hi)story of texts that incorporates and evaluates the translators’ decisions in making translated stories either more implicit or explicit than the original at times, and Kádár is not afraid to pepper her review with just enough excerpts from the texts to render them impressive without being oppressive.
It appears that the man most represented in the pages of Royal Flush is Kurt Vonnegut, whose works and opinions are memorialised on four different occasions. This includes a review of A Man Without a Country and The Flying Cat, two collections that frame the life of a prodigious author (with the former featuring the last and the latter the earliest of his writings). Especially touching is the interview Kádár conducted with the exemplary humanist, drawing an intimate portrait with seven questions, no more, no less. The ensuing confessions are moving, to say the least. Her eulogy of the man following his death in 2007 is eloquent, sombre and hopeful at the same time, mirroring Vonnegut’s outlook on life.
Still, Kádár or the book’s editors took great effort to find pieces that represent the great diversity of literature, not just white male authors, living or dead (and sometimes in-between, as with Vonnegut) in the books under review. Annie Proulx’s short story collection gives her an occasion to talk about the naturalism of the Wild West, complete with an instructive story about the oral neutering of sheep, as well as the problems of not having a Wild West of our own (it is the translators who suffer in the end, either resorting to incongruous Hungarian dialectal words or slangy vulgarism to substitute the Southern drawl and rustic language of cowboys). Also included are two reviews of Virginia Woolf’s works, Jane Austen’s novels and their contemporary rewritings, and a commentary upon the 2007 Nobel Prize of Doris Lessing, along with the aforementioned books of Amy Tan and Jhumpa Lahiri. The full tableau of writers is neatly pictured on the minimalist but visually enticing cover.
All in all, Royal Flush is a reader’s diary, a logbook of memories spent in worlds outside our consensually shared one, inviting others to take part in them, to explore and debate the significance and merits of the works Kádár Judit has found in hours and hours of reading, the activity most cherished by the literary scholar. Indeed, the voice of the scholar and the reviewer intermingle in Kádár’s astute summaries, arousing our curiosity but not revealing more than necessary, so there still remains a lot for us to discover when engaging with the books she sampled. It is to her credit as a scholar that she can condense her learning and infuse her reviews with a wit and a charm that is not occluded by jargon or theory, and as a reviewer, she makes us go out of our way to seek out novels we might not even have considered reading. So let me just slip away to get a head start on… well, thirty-five novels.