Literary roundup: Art, tyranny and Hungarian summer reading

“In Italy, for 30 years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love, they had 500 years of democracy and peace – and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”

This is Harry Lime’s line of shameless rationalization in Carol Reed’s The Third Man, a line philosopher John Gray points out on The BBC’s A Point of View also tells a compelling truth about the conditions for creating culture.

The differences in cultural output between countries and periods of stability, despotism, violent social chaos and transformation and totalitarianism is a subject that would require a multivolume book, so it’s no surprise that Gray only touches on the issues involved. It’s a shame in a way, because this issue seems especially interesting today when no one knows if we are headed for stability, despotism, violent social chaos and transformation, totalitarianism or some horrible combination of all of the above. The way things are going I’m not too worried we’ll be stuck with cuckoo clocks.

Another reason Gray doesn’t have space to deal with the issue he brings up is that his essay is as much about the context of the quote that gave rise to his reflections on art and tyranny, namely the writing and filming of The Third Man and its postwar backdrop. The fact that Orson Welles came up with the famous lines himself together with a real-life spy involved in the film’s genesis are two of the interesting backstories behind this singular film. (And kudos to Gray for stating the obvious – that Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will is overrated.)

Hungarian summer reading list

At HLO they have a summer reading list that has at least a few different titles from the Hungarian-lit heavy summer reading lists we are all used to from the likes of The New York Times and USA Today such as a 1939 Hungarian comic mystery favorite Quarantine in the Grand Hotel by Jenő Rejtő. Other works mentioned include The Book of Fathers, The Door, One Minute Stories and Sunflowers.


Photo – Cesare Borgia by Lovis Cornith, 1914 (the painting of a despot from a culturally vibrant time done during a culturally vibrant and despotic – and soon much worse – time).

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