I started writing Snow on the Danube in 1998, and I’m about to publish it 21 years later!
You can find details (including free tickets) about its launch here.
It was quite unlike anything I’d written before because it was not autobiographical at all, which most of my other work had been.
I became fascinated by Hungary because of my interest in the music of Franz Liszt and Béla Bartók; two very contrasting Hungarian composers. Liszt was the romantic showman, a dazzling virtuoso, and the composer of magnificent piano concertos that I fell in love with when I was a teenager. Bartók was, in many ways, the opposite to Liszt: an experimental composer who did very different things with rhythm and tonality. His Concerto for Orchestra is one of my favourite pieces of music. Reading about his troubled relationship with Hungary and his desperately sad and traumatic exile during the Second World War got me investigating the Magyar people’s history. I had also always loved Hungarian-born George Szirtes’s poetry; one of his early collections of poetry, Short Wave, greatly moved and excited me; I loved his elliptical Kafkaesque poetic narratives.
In 1998, I took the brave but foolhardy plunge to write a novel about Hungary. I visited the country a few times, following up on contacts provided by me by my New York in-laws, who knew quite a few Hungarian emigres. I had also met George Szirtes by then, and he helped me connect with some people in Budapest, including a wonderful editor of a Hungarian literary magazine. I spoke to them, and toured around Budapest, and bought the books translated into English. The internet had not become the great repository of information that it is now, and so the literature I found in Hungary had a magical, rare quality to me. I watched Hungarian films, and generally immersed myself in as much English-language based Hungarian material as I could.
I rediscovered Béla Lugosi’s interpretation of Dracula after watching Tim Burton’s Ed Wood (1994). Philip Glass wrote a new score for the film which was issued with the film in 1999. I felt drawn to the voice of a ‘count’ who was both a little similar to Count Dracula but in many ways very different: a coward, a hypochondriac, fussy, musical, someone who only adored himself and his sister. A voice emerged, and I found myself writing about the intense love between my protagonist Count Zoltán Pongrácz and his sister, Anna. I was reading Proust at the time, and used a sort of quasi Proustian voice for him in the sense that it was deliberately fussy, nostalgic, full of yearning.
History shaped Zoltán’s fate; he was born on the day of the Treaty of Trianon (1920), the disastrous treaty that robbed Hungary of its lands made in France after the First World War. In many ways, Zoltán’s fate was sealed by this denuded world; he was the last in a long line of Counts, doomed live on after his family lost everything.
Zoltan’s story, perhaps oddly, came relatively easily for me; I had completed a draft of it by 2001. But then I found it very difficult to give his historical story, set as it is before and during the Second World War, a ‘frame’: a contemporary story which explained why someone might want to discover his lost narrative. I felt the story needed such a frame; a reason as to why the reader might want to connect with the story, a British connection.
I wrote many contemporary ‘frames’ over the years, seeking to give Zoltán’s voice a suitable justification. Zoltan’s story was of interest to people. George Szirtes, as editor of an anthology of fiction and poetry, First Writing, published a section of it in 2001; an eminent agent liked the novel; other discerning readers such as a literary editor, now the editor of the New Statesman, Jason Cowley, and an audiobook publisher, Nicolas Soames, said nice things.
Zoltán was such a powerful character for me that I used him in my first published novel, The Last Day of Term (Shortbooks: 2011; new edition Blue Door Press: 2019). He was the great uncle of my main protagonist Béla Pongrácz, a disaffected teenager living in Bethnal Green and causing mayhem at the academy he had been expelled from. But Zoltán’s story remained hidden from Béla and all those around him; he was just a sad old man living in a down-at-heel council flat, listening to Radio 3, his head forever obsessing about the past.
It took the great editors at Blue Door Press to spot what the novel needed; Pam Johnson and Jane Kirwan read a draft and said they liked Zoltán’s story, but felt that the modern ‘frame’ for the story needed a lot of work. Pam suggested using the device of Béla finding Zoltán’s manuscript after the count died, and this, finally, was the trope that we all felt really worked. The idea of Béla thinking that he’d been left some money only to find a manuscript intrigued me; I saw the potential of Béla finding redemption in reading about his family’s past; the healing power of words, something that interests me a lot.
So, I’ve had to be patient. I’ve learnt to be patient. It’s made me also realise that fiction has a staying power which is quite unusual. Unlike journalism which ages very quickly, stories can linger, stay alive, stay fresh. You can’t easily pick up a piece of journalism you wrote many years ago, and revivify it, but with fiction this can be possible if there are still connections in it with the present day. I’d venture to say that the novel’s focus upon the destructive effects of fascism and anti-semitism have made it more relevant than when I started writing it in the more innocent era of the 1990s, pre-9/11, pre-Brexit, pre-Trump, and pre-the scary reprisal of Hungarian fascism which Victor Orbán’s terrible government seem intent upon resurrecting.