Budapest. A Cultural and Literary History.

TitleBudapest. A Cultural and Literary History.
Publication TypePublication review
AuthorsLaczó, Ferenc
Author(s) of reviewed materialDent, Bob


PublisherOxford: Signal Books
VolumesSeries: Cities of the Imagination.
ISSNISBN 1-904955-26-6
Review year


Full Text

Bob Dent announces at the very beginning of his Budapest. A Cultural and Literary History that the main focus of the book is on “locations – streets, squares and areas in Budapest – and the stories they tell about the city, its history and culture” and that a number of thematic chapters were added to this coverage, such as the ones on cafés, baths, food and music (p. xiii). This work, as his previous book on the events and memory of 1956 and Budapest, is a combination of a historical study and a guide book, aiming to provide a well-founded, informative historical introduction to the contemporary city. Therefore, it is justified to see it in line with the prevalent presentism of our age (recently studied by Francois Hartog in his Régimes d’historicité: présentisme et expériences du temps, among others), when history is more and more often seen as no more than a backdrop to the present, and what are labeled historical values and called “a prestigious past” often become mere tools of marketing and potential sources of profit in increasing city competition rather than values that ought to be respected, protected and maintained for their own worth.
Budapest. A Cultural and Literary History is reliable at introducing the most famous sites and their history (such as the Buda Castle, Andrássy út, Hősök tere, and so on), at naming and discussing basic cultural figures (for example, among composers Liszt, Bartók and Kodály are treated at some length) and proves particularly useful for those interested in the local culture of public statues and their changing meaning, where Dent provides the reader with revealing and amusing stories by covering several historical periods at once. At the same time, as is so often the case with books on Budapest, this book is strongly focused on the emergence of the modern metropolis in the decades of the Dual Monarchy, and developments of the 20th century are accordingly pushed into the background. The siege of Budapest in 1944 – 1945 as well as the significant postwar developments and the massive communist imprint on the city are largely absent. This is not what one would expect after reading the foreword of George Szirtes, who aims to describe Budapest's present in the context of the recent past and writes that the city is still “in post-traumatic condition, half elated, half terrified” (p.xi).
A number of factual mistakes (such as Dent’s claims that Hungary in the Horthy era was “supposed to be a republic” on p.77) and spelling mistakes (such as in the case of the names of Batthyány, Révai and Aczél who are turned into Battyány, Révay and Acél, respectively, see. p. 143 and p.111) make Dent’s credibility as a well-informed guide to matters of Hungarian culture and literature somewhat suspect. Remarkable aspects of the book are Dent’s rather positive assessment of the Council’s Republic of 1919, which subsection he tellingly ends quoting Koestler’s words to the effect that “later knowledge” does not “invalidate the hopeful and exuberant mood of the early days of the Revolution” (p.103), and the also certainly one-sided and overly positive assessment of Lukács’s role. Here a leading Bolshevik is turned into “a kind of father figure of the post-war cultural scene and a supporter of its relative tolerance” (p.109). It is also informative in this respect that, in the words of Dent, Lukács did his best in 1919 to “defend and uphold the best literary and cultural standards, irrespective of party line,” while he only mentions “his ruthlessness” in brackets, using the following words: “though Lukács could be quite ruthless in non-literary matters, defending, for example, the summary execution of deserters from the Red Army” (p.99).
This leads me to another, much more serious problem of this work: the small number of sources on which it is based and, truly amazing for a book calling itself a literary history, the total lack of primary materials in Hungarian. Knowing this, it might not be surprising that literary analysis is consigned a minimal role, and for instance for the post-1989 period Anglo-Saxon books dealing with Hungarian themes take the place of first-rate Hungarian literature (Rubinstein and Blumenthal are discussed instead of Nádas, Spiró or many others). The occasional, but somewhat disturbing lack of empathy for local cultural matters can be illustrated by one of Dent’s paragraphs which starts and ends the following way “The relation of gypsy music to Hungarian folk music has long been a topic of dispute, as has the issue of whether such categories are in themselves useful. […] But does it matter?” (pp.161-2). Moreover, rather tellingly, his translation of irredentist slogans are inaccurate (“Justice for Hungary” becomes “Hungarian justice,” “Rump Hungary” is rendered “Broken Hungary”). All of this is accompanied by Dent’s question whether anyone could blame Liszt for not learning Hungarian, realizing the difficulties (p.37) – admittedly, this is featured in brackets and is meant to be witty, though in the context of this book it appears highly ironic.
All in all, while the text of Budapest. A Cultural and Literary History is highly accessible and pleasant to read, includes informative coverage of many basic places, themes and persons, and succeeds at using many clichés while also going somewhat beyond them, calling it a cultural and literary history is not quite justified. In my assessment, this book would not be the right substitute for the much better informed Budapest. A Critical Guide by András Török and does not prove nearly as sensitive and sensible as an attempt at cultural translation as for instance István Bart’s Hungary and the Hungarians: the Keywords. A Concise Dictionary of Facts and Beliefs, Customs, Usage and Myths.