Hungarian Rhapsodies: Essays on Ethnicity, Identity and Culture


Like the renowned American writer Edmund Wilson, who began to learn Hungarian at the age of 65, Richard Teleky started his study of that difficult language as an adult. Unlike Wilson, he is a third-generation Hungarian American with a strong desire to understand how his ethnic background has affected the course of his life. “Exploring my own ethnicity,” he writes, “became a way of exploring the arbitrary nature of my own life. It was not so much a search for roots as for a way of understanding my rootlessness–how I stacked up against another way of being.” He writes with clarity, perception, and humor about a subject of importance to many North Americans–reconciling their contemporary identity with a heritage from another country.

But more than a collection of essays about ethnicity by a talented writer, the book is structured to share with the reader insights on language, literature, art, and community, from a cultural perspective. The book is also unified by the author’s attention to certain concerns, including the meaning of multiculturalism, the power of language to shape one’s thinking, the persistence of anti-Semitism, the significance of displacement and nostalgia in emigration, the importance of understanding the past, the need for a narrative tradition in the writing of fiction, and the power of books in Central Europe.

From an examination of photographer Andre Kertész to a visit to a Hungarian American church in Cleveland, from a consideration of stereotypical treatment of Hungarians in American fiction and film to a depiction of the process of translating Hungarian poetry into English, Teleky’s interests are wide-ranging. The book concludes with an account of the author’s first visit to Hungary at the end of Soviet rule, and a discussion of what he has come to see as the arbitrariness of ethnicity.

Because of its interdisciplinary nature, the book makes a contribution to several fields: Central European and Hungarian studies; North American immigrant and ethnic studies; contemporary literature; comparative literature; and popular culture.

Praise for Hungarian Rhapsodies

“Teleky sets out on a complex mission to challenge North American representations (or lack thereof) of Hungary and Hungarians, and to make a unique contribution both to studies of ethnicity and knowledge of Eastern and Central Europe. His effort is largely successful…It is the kind of book that is very much needed in East European studies, by virtue of its methodology and its subject. It provides a welcome break from the cold descriptiveness of many recent publications about Eastern Europe by social science experts, and stands out among works on ethnicity because of its conscious effort to call attention to the observer’s role and responsibility in introducing foreign cultures.”
Slavic and East European Journal

“Let me express my admiration of Teleky’s book. With regard to Hungarian culture, it may be unique in its genre, and it is definitely an eye-opener for those among us for whom the richness of Hungarian culture is easily accessible because of our proficiency in the language. In this book a sensitive and highly educated mind is expressing a moving yearning to belong to a culture, to be accepted by his heritage which himself has already accepted.”
Hungarian Studies Review

“Richard Teleky has written a book that is valuable for anyone with a Hungarian ancestry and for anyone who does not have the slightest idea of what it means to be Hungarian…a fascinating blend that helps rescue Hungarians from their normal obscurity…the University of Washington and the University of British Columbia deserve much credit for co-publishing a work that crosses normal academic boundaries.”
Ohio History

“A fine collection of essays on being Hungarian American.”
The Cleveland Plain Dealer

“Teleky…explores his Hungarian heritage in this splendid collection of interdisciplinary essays…Some of the pieces are intensely personal, such as ‘Adult Language Learning, Edmund Wilson and Me’, while others offer a survey of Hungarian influences on popular culture. Teleky writes knowledgeably about films, religious customs, stereotypes, the challenge of translating the language, Hungarian characters in the fiction of John O’Hara (and other writers), and the photography of Andre Kertész.”
Library Journal

“Although there is a well-paced humour in this tenderly written book there is also a wise man’s longing for a place and a tradition which, until now, has been dispersed by war, politics and other modern tragedies which, because of his own family’s distant immigration, remain at some distance from him…To read Hungarian Rhapsodies is to learn and enjoy and want more.”
University of Toronto Quarterly

“Teleky displays the same care and fastidiousness in his essays as he does in his stories, the same revulsion against striking a false note. This makes for a mental atmosphere which is sometimes a little severe in its restraint – and yet it is also an atmosphere in which the reader can feel complete confidence in the aesthetic and intellectual honesty of the author.”
-The Toronto Star

“Teleky’s book covers a good and digestible chunk of matters of Hungarian culture. What is novel and interesting in his book is that he obviously aimed at and achieved focus on cultural matter which either has some connection to cultures outside Hungary (meaning Western Europe and North America) or has become in some ways general culture property, such as the photographer Andre Kertész…Teleky touches on new territory in Hungary, such as ethnicity in Hungary, the problem of Hungarian ethnicity in exile, and his personal stand on these issues.”
Modern Translation Studies

“Tellingly, Teleky devotes more than half of his book to the relationship between being and language, opening the text with a chapter on his choice to study Hungarian as an adult. He returns to the theme with ‘A Short Dictionary of Hungarian Kitsch’; a call to a Hungarian language bookstore, ‘Visiting Pannonia’; a reading of the visual language of photography and film; essays on translations and representations of Hungarians in North American literature. This evolving exercise in identificatory re-vindication repeats strategies familiar to me from Black and later Chicano nationalisms which, as a first step towards difference and knowledges, sought to decipher, reevalutate and revalue imposed or assumed knowledges about personal and communal identities.”
Comparative Literature and Culture

“Richard Teleky, a third-generation Hungarian American, writes in a reflective mode about what it means to learn Hungarian as an adult…the activity is one that unites Teleky with eminent literary critic Edmund Wilson, who, Teleky reminds us, took up the study of Hungarian when he was sixty-five…Wilson’s case serves as a rich and complex counterpoint to Teleky’s, allowing Teleky to explore the process of language acquisition from a variety of unexpected angles…for he wishes to recuperate a neglected field of study; in his case, it is everything subsumed under Hungarian studies, whose survival as an academic entity depends upon the valuing of knowledge of Hungarian by third- and fourth-generation Hungarian Americans. As part of this recuperative effort, Teleky offers several riches.”
Journal of American Ethnic History

“In sum, I found this book useful for two kinds of teachers. The novice in teaching Central European studies to Americans (or vice versa) will find in it a treasure house of information filtered through the experience of an intelligent teacher. Those who have taught many such courses will appreciate the valuable experience of a fellow traveller in the boat of intercultural (North American and Hungarian) understanding.”
Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development

“A splendid book on all counts…This is the rare sort of work that opens up the inner life and its ambiguities of a people (and its emigrant descendants) to outsiders and makes us realize we’ve been awaiting it for a long time.”
– M. L Rosenthal

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