Review – 18th September, 2014

A crash course on historical Budapest

John Lukacs: Budapest 1900

Review–18th September, 2014


John Lukacs: Budapest 1900

Once upon a time, there was a city. Dirty-faced kids played rounders on empty building sites. Night watchmen called bakter roamed the streets after sundown, cabs and carriages drove on the left in the avenues.

Once upon a time, there was a city. Dirty-faced kids played rounders on empty building sites. Night watchmen called bakter roamed the streets after sundown, cabs and carriages drove on the left in the avenues. The Millennium Underground Railway took passengers from the Kugler confectionary (today Café Gerbeaud) to Wampetics’s restaurant in the Town Park, and the boots of people living in the outskirts soiled the concrete of the inner districts with mud. A city of around six hundred cafés, two dozen brothels, twenty-two daily papers and nine theaters. And yes, a city in which the Madam of Magyar Street brothel was in love with writer Gyula Krúdy. The city is Budapest, and the year is 1900.

However, the book of Hungarian-born American historian John Lukacs, published 26 years ago in English, and 23 years ago in Hungarian, can still very well be perused today. The conversational style, the wealth of information, and the clear argumentation all make it a book that I wholeheartedly recommend to lovers of Budapest walks. Especially those who are not averse to reading stories with an unhappy ending.

For Lukacs’s book is not only about the highlights; it also shows the dark side of Budapest. It is as if the portrait of this bustling, noisy city was composed to a meditative, melancholy tone. In this author's opinion, the Budapest of the turn of the century was in many aspects more provincial than cosmopolitan; misery and abundance, humility and haughtiness, wretchedness and power lived together in the city – a city which, according to Krúdy, had just realized its own beauty around that time, but also a city where development was beginning to lose momentum. Lukacs shows us the glorious agony of a newborn metropolis, marching towards nothingness. By the end of the 19th century quite a number of things – from eclectic architecture to sentimental poetry and liberal politics – had found themselves in a dead-end street in this largest mill city of the time.

In order to make a richly detailed snapshot of the year 1900, one must inevitably use long exposure and do some test shooting as well. Thus, the book sometimes ventures into previous and later years, and crosses the borders of the city, black with factory chimneys. However, these temporal and spatial transgressions are all well motivated; they serve to show that the year 1900 was a zenith, as well as a turning-point, in the history of Budapest.

Lukacs’s book is faithful to the best traditions of Anglo-Saxon historical essay-writing. The masterful style, the winks at the reader, the quotations from contemporaries and the parenthetical remarks and anecdotes in footnotes, arresting the main text from time to time, sometimes strike the reader as if she was reading the recipe or a skeleton of a text. First of all, we get to know the place from district to district; then the supporting characters – ordinary people; then the mechanisms of power; and finally the protagonists, the generation of the turn of the century: Gyula Krúdy and Endre Ady, actor S. Z. Sakall and conman Ignaz Trebitsch-Lincoln, Bartók and Kodály, Alexander Korda, John Neumann, Arthur Koestler, Georg Lukács, László Moholy-Nagy, Ferenc Molnár and Karl Mannheim. The first cosmopolitan generation of Hungarians. (It is especially interesting to see how Lukacs writes about emigrants and their relation to Hungary. After all, he himself was forced to leave the country at the age of 22. There is a sense of a caring and cautious yet resentful pride in the way the author writes about his native city.)

Each reader can put together the pieces of Lukacs’s Budapest puzzle for themselves: old-style, withdrawn, provincial Víziváros (‘Watertown’ in the 1st district); the Tabán district, with its mixed Serbian, Hungarian, Greek and Gypsy population; Frindt’s pub in Óbuda, where the archaeological finds of Acquincum were kept; Ödön Lechner’s buildings, decorated for the sake of birds; the Vígszínház, the theater where 22-year-old Ferenc Molnár’s first play was performed; market town-like Józsefváros/Josefstadt and Ferencváros/Franzstadt.

Although I would have liked to peep into a few other pubs of the time, as well as to leaf through restaurants menus, cosmetic ads in papers, the repertoire of theaters, and to read some more legends – in other words, I would have loved to read more in detail about the deep structure and the pop culture of the city, yet I must say that almost thirty years after its publication, Lukacs’s book is still a fresh, thorough and relevant volume – a spirited crash course on historical Budapest for locals and visitors alike.

John Lukacs: Budapest 1900. A historical portrait of a city and its culture
Grove Press, 1994

Norbert Vass


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