Author: Robin Ashenden

Under the Frog: Why Tibor Fischer’s 1992 Booker-Nominated Novel May Have Found its Moment

In Szeged Hungary, while teaching at the university there, I met a student who read Tibor Fischer’s Under the Frog (1992) every single autumn. It was, she said, part of  her annual ritual, and I wasn’t that surprised. A crazy tale of a basketball team in post-war Stalinist Hungary—a time of terror retold with Fischer’s ink-black humour—it’s got something for almost anyone, and it’s rare to find readers happy to sample it just the once. Written following the fall of communism in 1989, a period Fischer covered as a journalist while living in Budapest, it nearly didn’t reach them at all. Under the Frog was rejected by all but two of the UK’s publishers, yet went on to become the first debut novel ever to be nominated for the Booker Prize. It is still Fischer’s most successful—and best known—book. Fischer knew what he was writing about. Under the Frog was based on his Magyar parents, both of them basketball players who, in the wake of the doomed 1956 uprising against the Soviets, fled Hungary for …

Bernard Rose’s Forgotten Tolstoy Trilogy

Much has been made in the press of surging sales during lockdown of “bucket list” classics such as Anna Karenina and War and Peace. One Brooklyn journal, A Public Space, has started a group called “Tolstoy Together” so that readers can urge each other on through his doorstep novels at the rate of about 12–15 pages a day. Tolstoy, it seems, is one of those writers we reach instinctively for in times of crisis. His capacious books and their themes of love, death, human conflict, and above all how to live and to find meaning, provide the kind of reading experience that is not so much escape from life as confrontation with it. But how many of those with less stamina or time on their hands have considered watching the Tolstoy films of the British director Bernard Rose? I would not include in these Rose’s 1997 adaptation of Anna Karenina, deemed a flop by its critics, not least the director himself, who was effectively banned from the cutting room as the studio hacked off half …

George Faludy: Hungarian Poet and Hero for Our Times

Had the poet George Faludy not written in his native Hungarian—arguably the most impenetrable of European languages—he would, as many have argued, be world famous. He died aged 95 in 2006, his life spanning the First and Second World Wars, the Russian revolution, and the Nazi and communist takeovers of his country. Having achieved literary fame at 20, he would be imprisoned by both regimes and spend much of his life as an exile in France, Morocco, America (where he was a tail-gunner for the U.S. Airforce), and Canada, where he fled communism, only to find his lectures picketed and disrupted by campus leftists to whom his experience was an inconvenient truth. A ladies’ man all his life, he surprised the world by suddenly entering a gay relationship with Eric, a Russian ballet dancer, who’d fallen in love with Faludy in print and then rushed across the globe to find him. In his 90s, after communism fell and Faludy, returning to Budapest, achieved living legend status, he married a poetess 70 years his junior with …