A refreshing, erotic and honest collection

by | Sep 11, 2015 | Book Reviews

The Greatest Jewish-American Lover in Hungarian History
Michael Blumenthal
Etruscan Press, 2014
218 pages

Michael Blumenthal has been called “one of the natural poets of his generation” by no less than the late Irish poet Seamus Heaney, a winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature. Blumenthal is the author of prize-winning novels as well as several highly acclaimed books of poetry.

In his introductory note to this collection of short stories, the author writes: “In my ‘real life’, I am, a professor, pledged and committed to seeking and finding the truth as best as we merely lawyerly humans can…In my ‘other’ life, I am a writer, committed to another kind of truth.… What follows are works of fiction, howsoever they may depend for their genesis and some of their details on actual occurrences and actual people in my life, myself included. What they are decidedly not… are mere autobiographical vignettes disguised as something else.”

The author takes the reader to a variety of places, including Texas, Cambridge in Massachusetts, Vienna, Paris and Israel and time and again to Hungary. One recurring feature in these stories are references to prominent representatives of the canon of Western literature such as Zola, Byron, Dostoyevsky and Thomas Mann, as well as their various literary heroes and heroines ranging from Anna Karenina and Madam Bovary to Hans Castorp in Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain, Hermione in D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love and Dostoyevsky’s Raskolnikov, one of his fictional protagonists’ favorite characters.

The obviously literary texts are interspersed with clearly autobiographical pieces which repeatedly describe the author’s life with his French wife. These texts represent good examples for his introductory explanation that writers are “embellishers, inventors… [and] exaggerators who[…] tell personal lies in order to tell impersonal truths.” Thus, a story like My French Wife provides the pseudo-autobiographical frame, within which the author is free to mix fact and fiction, thereby turning personal and cultural differences time and again into amusing and enlightening domestic scenes.

Being the son of German-Jewish refugees, Michael Blumenthal’s first language was German and accordingly, references to German culture and history surface repeatedly. But when having the option between speaking German or Hungarian, his literary hero sojourning in Hungary rather speaks broken Hungarian than fluent German, which the narrator calls his fictional doppelgänger’s “own, historically tainted, mother tongue.” Like Blumenthal who spends his summers usually teaching in Budapest and enjoying his free time in an artist colony on Lake Balaton, some of his alter egos follow him—although more or less under cover.

Certainly the most formative leitmotiv of the majority of Blumenthal’s texts is the theme of aging satyrs who are haunted by the memories of their youth, the halcyon days of “free love” in the 60s. Probably one of the most memorable and emblematic impressions of the author’s literary explorations are the rows of prostitutes offering their services along the touristic highway around Lake Balaton. Identifying Hungary as the “home to some eighty percent of the world’s porn actresses” these Hungarian fields seem to be the Promised Land for all sex-starved men hungry for erotic gratification.

In a follow-up story titled “The Whores” the author’s narrator continues to map this landscape of lust and lucre and in the process, reality begins to morph more and more into satirical graffiti, reminiscent of Nathanael West’s most famous novellas Miss Lonelyhearts and The Day of the Locust, where Amercian dreams transmogrify into Expressionist nightmares.

Although most of the authors’ literary heroes are beyond their midlife crisis, many of them are still restless and full of longing, while others are resigned to the erotic eclipse of their lives, like the aging professor in the story They: an Anti- Romance of whom we read: “He loved these late autumn afternoons—the air crispening, the light slanting toward melancholy and darkness.”

Michael Blumenthal’s short stories certainly reflect and match the sexual passions in the fictional universe of Philip Roth, with whom he has been compared, but in addition, he also brings to his narratives the personal memories and experiences of Old World histories and their present realities. Refreshing in their erotic energy and satirical vibrancy, and last but not least, in their elegiac honesty, these stories represent a remarkable contribution to the understanding of modern man and his contemporary condition.

—Dr. Frederick A. Lubich is professor of German at Old Dominion University.