With EasyJets and internets zooming us from our living rooms into the jungles and cathedrals of foreign lands faster than a speeding bullet, it’s no wonder that it’s becoming less and less possible to squeeze the contemporary writer into any particular geographical or literary pigeonhole. So let’s not call Zsófia Bán a remarkable Hungarian writer – although it is thanks to translator Jim Tucker’s acrobatic agility with Hungarian and English that we Anglos finally have the chance to visit the circus of her imagination. Born in Brazil of Jewish parents, Bán moved to Hungary when she was an adolescent, and has made a career teaching American studies in Budapest, while writing fiction and essays that have drawn the praise of the dean of the Hungarian literati, Péter Nádas.
Night School, written in 2009, the first of her fiction to be translated into English, is as much of a mashup as Bán herself. In one story, the cynical 18th-century aristocrats of Liaisons Dangereuses find themselves in the United States on the cusp of 9/11. In another the two Fridas of la Kahlo, linked by a single heart in the famous double self-portrait, are a pair of unfortunate twins dropped into the mean-girls midst of a communist-era Hungarian high school.
Bán is a citizen of history and a virtuoso of language, a reminder that Portuguese and Hungarian were once the tongues of empires. Her riffs – at least as brought to us in Tucker’s sizzling translation – are often long, loopy, sentences/paragraphs, as complex as the rococo curlicues of her compatriot László Krasznahorkai, but hipper and sexier, with overtones of Hunter S. Thompson, Frank Zappa, and The Firesign Theater.
Night School is subtitled ‘A Reader for Grownups’. Each chapter is headed with a subject topic (‘Geography’, ‘Biology’, ‘Recess’), pockmarked with Sebaldian photos and illustrations, and tied off with a set of discussion questions that do more to confuse the reader and make us wonder what we have just read. The confusion is consistently hilarious and bracing. Bán is one of those writers who is not only interested in everything, from the colour of Madame Bovary’s eyes to the origins of gravity, but infects the reader with the virus of her curiosity. The titles of the sections might seem arbitrary at first (‘Concerto’ – for a story about rape). But in symphony, they make up the stuff of life, the sounds and the silences, the lessons worth learning, particularly because they are never taught during the day and bear the forbidden licence of the night.
Some of Bán’s stories are cute, like the complaint of Edouard Manet about Victorine, the artist who modelled for his Olympe. Some are genuinely horrifying. Some require a cultural knowledge that her non-Hungarian, non-Brazilian readers may lack – for example, a familiarity with Hungary’s homegrown fascists, the Arrow Cross, or Brazil’s legendary football players Zezé and Edson Arantes do Nascimento, better known as Pelé. The pitfalls of reading literature in translation are often its joys – discovering yourself in a place where something is happening but you don’t quite know what it is. Nevertheless, ‘knowledge’ is a tricky word in Bán’s Night School. This is not dayschool learning, nor the stuff dreamt of in night-time philosophy class.
Reviewed by Jonathan Levi
NIGHT SCHOOL: A READER FOR GROWNUPS
Written by Zsófia Bán
Translated from the Hungarian by Jim Tucker
Published by Open Letter (2019)
Read an excerpt from Night School: A Reader for Grownups by Zsófia Bán, translated by Jim Tucker here.
Read The Queer Riveter in its entirety here.
US-born Jonathan Levi is the author of the novels Septimania and A Guide for the Perplexed. A founding editor of Granta, he currently lives and teaches in Rome.
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