European Literature Night profile: Noémi Szécsi

“After the difficulties I have encountered in trying to bring my edifying and instructive animal tales to the public I would have sold my soul to get them published. Now I no longer have even a soul, as I passed on last spring and I’ve been sucking men’s blood ever since, just like my grandmother. I have, however, decided that if I were to write a story about my death, that might not perhaps be uninteresting.”

So begins the soon-to-be published novel The Finno-Ugrian Vampire by Hungarian writer Noémi Szécsi. In 2009 the book won a European Union Prize for Literature, and now the newly established UK-based publisher of Central European writing, Stork Press, is bringing it out in an English translation by Peter Sherwood in October 2012.

Set to appear in London for European Literature Night together with writers such as Quim Monzó, Zygmunt Miłoszewski and Laurent Binet among others, Szécsi answered a few questions about her take on the mythical bloodsucker, the importance of presenting the book in the UK and her vampire’s connection to Hungary.

The Béla Lugosi factor

The most obvious Hungarian link is the title, which describes the vampire with the linguistic group from which Hungarian comes. And from the novel’s opening pages there are signs that the author’s country’s history and culture will play a significant role, yet Szécsi points out that the Hungarian element wasn’t drawn from the distant past.

“Actually Hungarian mythology has nothing to do with vampires of folklore, but the vampire legend of popular culture has traces of a Hungarian contribution in it, with special reference to the story of Dracula starting in Budapest or the iconic Dracula, Béla Lugosi,” she told literalab.

“The metaphor of the vampire is exceptionally rich in historical references, but if I have to choose one aspect, for example, blood sacrifice is a central image when talking about our history.”

Szécsi says that she was inspired to write about a vampire in a large part by a BBC documentary on Hungarian music in which the presenter spoke about the infamous Vlad Tepes in front of a replica of the castle of Vajdahunyad. The 15th century Prince of Wallachia is often referred to as Vlad the Impaler, as well as by his patronymic as the son of Vlad Dracul – Dracula.

Portrait of the artist as a young vampire

The other source of inspiration Szécsi noted is less typically associated with vampiric lore though will make perfect sense to many of the novel’s readers – the growing anxiety of a student of humanities or arts.

“Nobody will ever need you, or the knowledge you are trained in. But you will need them in order to get by in life. In an economic sense you are just a useless blood-sucker, you won’t make a profit for your company,” Szécsi said.

This comparison isn’t purely symbolic but will play out in the plot of the novel as well, allowing for an even deeper exploration of the cravings and needs of the artistically inclined. “The greater the writer/vampire’s force of attraction, the more blood she or he can suck in a literal sense. But without the blood of readers, she or he will die.”

Mixed blood

In Bram Stoker’s novel, the dark and mysterious Count Dracula comes from his gloomy Eastern European lair to England on a quest for blood. In 21st century Britain, Szécsi thinks that the presence of so many Eastern Europeans and other immigrants still causes some discomfort and that the kind of cultural exchange represented by European Literature Night could bridge a cultural gap.

“In the past 30 years Britain has become a multicultural country. The British have struggled and are still struggling to accommodate this fact. As far as I can see there is a growing community of Eastern Europeans in the UK, so I think the mission of my publisher Stork Press is quite up-to-date at the moment, for through literature they can show what is the cultural background of these people.”

To read more about The Finno-Ugrian Vampire translator Peter Sherwood wrote a short essay on some issues of translating the book on Stork Press’s website.

And for those of you in London or possessed of the ability to turn into a bat and fly there here is a schedule of events:

Eastern European Outsiders: Ognjen Spahić and Noémi Szécsi

Tuesday, 15 May 2012, 7:00 PM
Waterstones Hampstead
European Literature Night

Wednesday, May 16, 6:30 – 8:30 PM

Conference Centre, British Library

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Categories: Interviews, Literary Events


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