Vol. 4 No. 18 · 7 October 1982

Louis Baum writes about the book trade in Hungary

3073 words

Thursday 27 May. Flight MA 611 from Heathrow to Budapest. The purpose of my visit is to look at Hungarian Book Week. The Budapest Daily News, which I pick up on the plane, carries a short preview of the event: a record 112 new titles are to be published for this year’s festival, with a total printing of three and a quarter million copies. The books are on average less expensive than last year. Among the titles expected to be in particular demand is a biography of Janos Kadar, First Secretary of the Hungarian Socialist Party. It is by Laszlo Gyurko, and will be part of a larger study of Kadar to be published later this year by Pergamon Press. During my visit I am informed that this first-ever biography of Kadar was inspired by Robert Maxwell during a visit to Budapest.

People talk about Mr Kadar with an affection that surprises me. ‘He says in public what he says in private,’ says an editor I meet at a party, who considers that as rare a trait among politicians as I do. On the day the book comes out, the first day of Book Week, the Guardian has a report by Hella Pick on Kadar on his 70th birthday. ‘Mr Kadar has become that very rare species: a Communist leader who has achieved popularity. His small country has become an island of comparative economic progress within the Communist bloc. Gradually, under his leadership, Hungary has also, very quietly, gained greater freedom of expression.’

My host, Ferenc Zold, is the director of the Hungarian Publishers and Booksellers Association. He has several clearly defined aims in his job, which he pursues with a passion I find unusual, and a childlike enjoyment I find still rarer. And he’s deeply passionate about Hungarian culture: at dinner, or lunch, or in the car taking us to another appointment, he will tell a folk story or recite some memorable lines by a poet I’ve never heard of.

I pack my bag: I am going to war.
I mount my horse: it is firm and keen beneath me.
I look back and see my love waving.
There are tears in my eyes.

‘We are such a small country that we have nothing else to be proud of except our culture,’ he says heatedly. ‘We don’t mind if Der Spiegel publishes an article on Hungary saying our taxis are lousy, but we get very upset if they say our poetry is.’

One of Ferenc’s aims is to establish a training centre for publishers and booksellers, a dream that comes closer to realisation on the second day of my visit. Leaving the Ministry of Culture after an interview, he takes an envelope from his jacket. The money for the training centre, he says with a satisfied, almost conspiratorial grin: it will perhaps be finished in two years. His other aims: to establish an archive for the association; to reprint (the association, unusually, does some general as well as reference publishing) a 14-volume dictionary of biography (published last year); to computerise and otherwise modernise the trade’s bibliographical systems; to improve foreign relations. For a small country like Hungary, Ferenc runs a large trade association, with a staff of 40. There is a marketing department, a ‘propaganda’ department, a big training department, a legal department. The association looks after the interests of its publisher and bookseller members (there are about five hundred bookshops), organises Book Week, a Book of the Year competition, the results of which are announced at the opening of Book Week, and exhibitions in Hungary and abroad. This year, Ferenc tells me, it will put on three major exhibitions, of books from the DDR, from the Soviet Union, and of books published in French in Hungary, to tie in with a visit Mitterrand is soon to make to Budapest.

Book Week is a national event, started in 1929 and held annually towards the end of May. Streets, squares or marketplaces in Budapest and many provincial towns are closed off throughout the week and bookstalls or ‘tents’ erected. Each publisher has a tent – in fact, a plastic shell – and all the books sold in this way (the bookshops, of course, are open for business as usual) are new titles. The festival is covered on television and radio and in the newspapers, and a catalogue of all the titles published for Book Week is issued by the Publishers and Booksellers Association. A large number of organisations outside the book trade are involved in planning the festival: Budapest City Council, other local authorities, library committees, the Writers’ Union, the National Women’s Council.

In Budapest a street off Vorosmarty ter has been closed off, lined with tents and decked with flags. After a formal opening of poetry, speeches and music, long queues have formed at the tents, despite the rain. The equivalent, in London, of block-long queues of umbrella-bearing book hunters is hard to imagine. Ferenc tells me runs of 120,000 copies of some titles can sell out in a day or two. Is this, I wonder, a case of creating demand by limiting supply? There is some evidence that it may be with politically sensitive books (there seems to be reluctance to reprint some titles), but generally there are few signs of shortage. I discover later that 8000 titles were published in Hungary last year, with a total print run of 94 million copies. That makes almost nine books for everyone in the country. The biography of Mr Kadar looks like being the Book of the Week. But also much in demand, with a printing of 120,000 copies sold out on the second day, is Gyorgy Moldova’s The Heaven Cart. Mr Moldova is much read for his colourful and sometimes trenchant studies of the lives of working people, and he also has a way with titles. Earlier books include St Cow, an exposure of the working conditions of women in a textile factory, and The Person who was Touched by the Steam of the Engine, a study of railway workers. His new book is about an aerial crop-spraying team.

Each year a town is chosen at which to open the ‘provincial’ part of the festival, and this year all the trade, literary and political figures present at the opening in Budapest travel north on the following day to the coalmining town of Salgotarjan. A crowd has gathered outside the arts centre; there are speeches, poetry, a choir performance and a band playing Country and Western, with Hungarian lyrics. It is raining again, but the crowd is not deterred. In the square outside the arts centre are the publishers’ tents, and queues under umbrellas have formed up in front of them. Then indoors for the opening of the Book of the Year exhibition: more poetry, more singing, more speeches.

At first sight, Hungarian Book Week seems precisely the sort of thing the book trade would like to see taking place each year in Britain. A start has perhaps been made. The Bedford Square Book Bang was an early, local precedent; the Barnsley Book Bonanza, a week-long festival which started last year, is closer to the Hungarian model, with market-stalls, lectures, poetry ’n’ pints, signing sessions, lectures and seminars bringing books closer to the centre of the town’s attention. On a national scale, this would be very much like the Hungarian event, but the problems of organising it centrally, by, for example, a not generously staffed and already busy Book Marketing Council, seem insurmountable. Frank Delaney’s notion of a fortnight’s festival in London in the autumn, tied to a BBC 2 book festival, similarly needs to be extended nationally, and so does the newly conceived Edinburgh Book Bonanza, which ran during its Festival. Perhaps the closest thing here to Hungarian Book Week is National Children’s Book Week, with a central organising committee of booksellers and publishers based in London who rely on small, self-motivating committees around the country.

But would we really want a single, centrally-organised event that for one week in 52 would bring books to the centre of our national life? We’ve been going about things differently, and perhaps not only because of our apparently congenital reluctance to work collectively. There is, surely, some benefit gained from having a lot of different promotions at different times of the year in different parts of the country: Barnsley, Edinburgh, the Best of British Authors campaign, the Best of Young British Authors, Christian Book Fortnight, the Spring Military Book Campaign, National Children’s Book Week, Map and Guide Month, Thriller Week ... And the Hungarian book trade is necessarily a great deal more centralised than the British. There are far fewer publishers – not more than a couple of dozen, each dealing in a discrete part of the market – and very few booksellers are not members of the trade association (some loosening-up of the Hungarian economy has taken place in the last year or so, and some stores – grocers, haberdashers, bookshops – are now privately-owned). The trade association is itself in a not easily defined but certainly close relationship with the Ministry of Culture, one division of which is the General Directorate of Publishing.

On a visit to the Directorate I meet Laszlo Udvarhelyi, the director-general. Publishing and bookselling in Hungary should, he asserts, be determined by political and cultural considerations. ‘We want the most important and most valuable books to be published and sold. But it is not always the best books that sell best. Sometimes a publisher considers a book very important but the booksellers say there is no demand. Who will take the risk?’ The Directorate operates five-year and one-year publishing plans, based on market information gathered by the trade association. Other areas of commerce and industry also operate 15-year plans, ‘but we don’t: no one can tell what writers will write and what readers will read in 15 years’ time.’ The plans, Mr Udvarhelyi explains, are qualitative rather than quantitative, although his explanation appears to contradict this. ‘We look at the place of non-fiction and fiction – the role of children’s books, or popular science, for example. The aim is to get them in balance, and we survey the incomes and tastes of the population, and on this basis we try to decide whether the number of books in a particular category should be increased or not.’ One interesting aspect of this centrally-planned marketplace is the immense amount of market research it requires. The Hungarians have been doing market surveys for many years – into the reading or book-buying habits of factory workers, university people, schoolchildren. By comparison, the British book trade has only just begun to research its markets co-operatively. Individually, of course, publishers can be said to have been researching their markets since the year dot.

Book prices are government-controlled, Mr Udvarhelyi continues. ‘Books should be relatively cheap. We feel that even in a socialist system there are inadequacies, regional differences, differences in earning levels’ (Professor Rubik is a millionaire, I was assured elsewhere), ‘and we would like to give an equal opportunity to all the people to have cultural goods: we want people to buy books. The book is the most important bearer of culture, so book prices are generally lower than the production costs. For example, in 1982 the estimated value of all books published will be about three thousand million forints, and the government subsidy to publishers will be about three hundred to four hundred million forints. The prices of some textbooks have been unchanged for two decades. There are subsidies also for children’s and juvenile books, belles-lettres and popular science books. So there is a political conception of the subsidy. This does not mean that all books are cheap: in some categories – for example, art books, collectors’ books, crime fiction and so on – we try to make profits.’ Udvarhelyi tells me that in the last ten years the value of books sold in Hungary doubled. But the rate of increase has slowed, reflecting the general economic climate.

Imports and translations have increased greatly in number in the past ten years, with English and German vying for first place in the translation table, French running third. But there is an imbalance in the relationship. ‘The complaint of Hungarian literature is that it is undervalued on the world stage. We could have a greater presence in the world market.’ I recall Ivan Boldizsar’s impassioned description of the isolation felt within smaller cultures such as the Hungarian in a paper to the International Publishers Association in Stockholm two years ago. Later, in Ferenc’s office, I come across Small Countries, Great Literatures?, published three years ago by the association, in an introduction to which Mr Boldizsar writes:

The wide world does not know our poets and writers. We Hungarians, on the other hand, live, breathe, think, fight, love and die together with them. We, however, read not only Hungarian prose and verse but also writings in English, French, German, Italian, Russian and Spanish and therefore hold the conviction that our own literature is no smaller than any of those. Those who read the major languages, or write in them, know nothing of this or, what is worse, they entertain false views. Hungarians, however, to use a phrase of Endre Ady – a great poet still largely unknown abroad, and yet the equal of Baudelaire or Apollinaire – a phrase that is oft quoted in Hungary, want to be ‘seen, seeing’.

  Here we are right at the centre of the Gordian knot. What I have in mind is translation ...

Europa is a Budapest publisher that specialises in translations: indeed, it publishes nothing but translations. I am given a rundown on the place by Istvan Geher, part-time editor and lecturer in English at the university. He has made a lifetime’s study of Faulkner, watching the reception of Faulkner’s work in Hungary with some perplexity. ‘He started to be accepted here slowly, but we put out a translation of Absalom, Absalom and sold 80,000 copies. I don’t understand it. Where do they go? Who buys them? Are they read?’ Europa publishes around two hundred and forty books a year; next year’s list will be down to 217 titles, but with a total printing of eight and a half million copies. Its hardbacks cost about £2, paperbacks about 30p. Europa, Mr Geher informs me, is profit-making: it is one of the few Hungarian publishers able to survive without government subsidy. I muse on that reduction of Europa’s list: it is not explained. But Mr Udvarhelyi had talked about a slowing down of the general rate of increase and later I see other signs, warning signals, perhaps, of more serious cuts. In Salgotarjan I run into a journalist who expresses anxieties about the future: ‘Bankers in the West used to believe that the Soviet Union would bail out other Socialist countries if they ran into trouble. Poland and Rumania have run into trouble and the Soviet Union hasn’t lifted a finger to help. Hungary is suffering now: it is being put into the same category as all the other Socialist countries. The tragedy is that it has a working economy. But it has foreign debts, and it cannot repay them without raising more foreign loans.’

It is, surely, a pretty rusty prejudice that makes me surprised to hear that Updike’s Marry me, which Europa published in trade paperback last year, sold 140,000 copies. Or that there might be such things as film tie-ins in the Communist bloc: Kramer v. Kramer sold l65,000 copies. Or that Europa’s 1982 list includes reprints of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, John Fowles’s The Collector, Howl: Selections from the Beats, Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles, Isaac Bashevis Singer’s The Slave, William Styron’s Set this house on fire, and first-time publication of Dos Passos’s Three Soldiers, Truman Capote’s Music for Chameleons, Eudora Welty’s Selected Writings, Flann O’Brien’s The Poor Mouth. Next year’s list will have Good as Gold by Joseph Heller, Kurt Vonnegut’s Jail-bird, Joyce Carol Oates’s Unholy Loves, Michael Korda’s Charmed Lives, Arthur Hailey’s The Moneychangers, Bernard Malamud’s New Life, Richard Brautigan’s Trout Fishing in America, Philip Roth’s The Ghost Writer, John Cheever’s Selected Stories, Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor, William Golding’s Rites of Passage, Anthony Burgess’s One Hand Clapping, P.D. James’s Cover her face, Ruth Rendell’s To Fear a Painted Devil, Ginsburg’s Poems.

I am surprised that they have not yet thought of The White Hotel or Midnight’s Children for publication. The dated look is attributable, I suspect, to slow wheels rolling according to five-year plans – and to a lack of human contact. All their rights business is done through a central agency, Artisjus. They are in touch with some agents abroad, but not many. As for publishers: ‘It’s an old problem here: we don’t have personal contact with editors, with the publishers from whom we buy. A network has not been built up, and I think it is not only our fault. Yet we are very good business partners: after all, we only buy. We don’t have anything to sell. What ought to be noticed is that this country, though small, is a constant buyer of foreign literature.’ I venture to bet that, Robert Maxwell excepted, the number of British publishers who think of Budapest when selling translation rights can be counted on the fingers of one hand.

As for translations from the Hungarian, the flow is even more of a trickle. I meet Gyula Kurucz, editor of the Hungarian Book Review, who has just returned from West Germany, where he has been trying to generate interest in contemporary Hungarian writing. Gyula has written six novels and two collections of short stories, and edited a collection of stories by young Hungarians which he managed to place in Germany with Hoffmann and Campe – the first collection of contemporary Hungarian writing to be published in the West, says Gyula. ‘An understanding of Hungarian prose is unimaginable without my generation of writers,’ he says. ‘There was a great interest in Hungarian writing in 1956 and the years after. The Western mass media are interested in the scandals of the East, and 1956 is now quite far away: they are interested in other things. So the writers of my generation are working in a vacuum.’

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