Letter from Budapest -- "A Magyar takes his pleasures mournfully."

We arrived in Budapest’s Ferihegy Airport late in the evening. I had been imagining a prize remnant of Stalinist architecture, perhaps even with decaying friezes of metalworkers and mechanics. It was, to my mild surprise, like the airport of a minor American city with aspirations – scrupulously clean, fully stocked with vending machines and payphones of oddly (to American eyes) rounded contours. The minibus service to our hotel, which lies in the central business district of Pest, cost us ten dollars – another oddity to an American accustomed to exorbitant prices for airport shuttles.  

As all appearances of similarity inevitably are, my first impressions proved to be superficial and banal. We were in Budapest for only four days, so I can claim no authentic knowledge of the city. But one of its merits, perhaps, is that even in such a short span of time it leaves remarkably distinct images and impressions in the mind, of its beauty, of its melancholy, and of its strangeness.   

It’s an imperial city. Huge boulevards, neoclassical buildings lining the streets, avenues of lindens and oaks (these totally bare in late February). A city of seven bridges, all of which save one, the crushingly beautiful Chain Bridge, which crosses from Pest to below the ramparts of Buda’s Castle District, were destroyed by the fleeing German forces, and have since been rebuilt. The coffee chops are elaborate and high-ceilinged, with fantastic moldings. The side-streets are narrow, hemmed in with the town palaces of aristocrats and blocks of apartments. Pest is flat; Buda towers above it on a scarp.

We were lucky enough to have a guide, Miklos Hernadi, one of the amazingly cultured men so common in Europe (or among Europe’s Jews) and so rare here in New York. He works in the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, and has written 18 books, both novels and treatises of social science. One of his novels, Weininger’s Ende, is a superior version of an Econian mystery about the suicide of the philosopher Otto Weininger. Steeped in intellectual and social history, and composed in a rich, fluent prose, it stands as a kind of admonition to the superficial efforts made in this arena of fiction — most recently, perhaps, in Neal Stephenson’s enjoyable Baroque Cycle — by Americans. Miklos’ modesty about his considerable literary and intellectual achievements — eighteen books! Can you imagine an American author of eighteen books being modest about it! — struck me as indelibly strange.

He took us to the old Jewish district, surrounding the Dohanyi Street synagogue and told us, in brilliant detail, the story of its ghettoization, of the incursions of the Hungarian Nazis, of the wooden fence that was erected fifty yards from the largest synagogue, one of the most beautiful in Europe. Hungary’s Jews, more assimilated and more assimilationist than even their German counterparts, thrived and were an integral part of the nationalist movements of the 19th century, to the point where Karl Lueger, the anti-Semitic mayor of Vienna, took to calling the capital Judapest. They survived until rather late in World War II, but were finally deported and murdered like their coreligionists throughout occupied Europe. This sense of the lateness of their sufferings draws the attention starkly to their senselessness and horror — as though they had been shipped off and gassed merely for form’s sake.

Miklos took us on a trip out of town, to an artist’s village called Szentendre, and took us to two small museums devoted exclusively to the works of two artists — a good artist named Bela Czobel and a great one, the equal of any other modern artist, named Lajos Vajda. Vajda’s portraits are among the best I have ever seen — spare, light, intense. His abstract work, particularly the work he produced immediately before his tragically early death, is, in a word, terrifying — huge, intricately drafted cancerous forms, outlines of misshapen birds, knives.  Szentendre is a beautiful town on a hill looking down on the Danube, full of Orthodox, Catholic, and Lutheran churches.

We went to the opera house, which looks exactly as the St. Petersburg opera house is described in War and Peace, with red-velvet lined boxes and galleries. The ceiling is a huge dome, dominated by a huge chandelier and an enormous fresco. On the facings of the uppermost boxes are printed in gold paint the names of operas. We sat in the front row, and heard Mozart’s clarinet concerto and Beethoven’s third symphony. We sat at the feet of the string section, and so were treated to a delightful imbalance in the performance. For a moment, also, I felt as the city itself was performing, as it attempted to out-Vienna Vienna, as it did for the grater part of the 18th and 19th  centuries, according to Miklos.

Budapest’s lost, still-visible grandeur, and the knowledge of the terrible things that happened there, are indescribably affecting. The people are friendly and Anglophonic, which makes the whole impression even more terrible somehow.

The Hungarians have a saying — “A Magyar takes his pleasures mournfully.” It’s harder to think of a better summing-up.

When we returned, the first news that greeted us was the suicide of Hunter S. Thompson. So goes America: loud, active, and full of misplaced honors and overblown passion as ever.

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