Sunday Book Choice

Robert's Thoughts

Comments (7) / September 30, 2022

It’s a late Spring Sunday afternoon in Budapest and the weather is warm enough this year to go for a walk wearing just a short-sleeved shirt.

Hurrah. Winter is definitely over. I’m nine years old and my friends are waiting for me outside. 

But I’m not planning to go to the playground.

My grandmother is puzzled. “Why?”

“Because some Sunday afternoons Father unlocks the cabinet in which he keeps the books he considers “too adult for my eyes”, and today is such a Sunday.” 

I was a voracious reader. My three favourite authors were James Fenimore Cooper, Karl May and Jules Verne. I read Cooper in English, May in German and Verne in Hungarian, my mother tongue. (I learned to speak French later in life, forced to do so quickly when we had to emigrate from Hungary.)

I could not quite decide whether I should really believe Cooper’s descriptions about how the Indians were able to creep up to the white men’s campsites without being spotted until it was too late. This puzzle was solved for me when, many years later,  I emigrated to Canada.  European forests have no undergrowth to speak of between the trees, whereas the “bush” in North America is so thick that it’s impenetrable in most places.

Nor was it easy for me to believe that it was almost always the sound of someone stepping on a dry twig that alerted the white settlers to grab their rifles just in time. Or that the Indians were able to follow someone’s footprints even in the sandy bottom of a shallow stream.

It seems that I was not the only disbeliever. Mark Twain wrote extensively – and humorously – about Coopers’ “woodcraft” exaggerations.  I, however,  forgave the author because the plots of his books (The Deerslayer, The Pathfinder, Leatherstocking Tales and The Last of the Mohicans – writtenbetween 1823 and 1841) were so breathtakingly exciting for a ten-year old.

Karl May was an entirely different proposition. With few exceptions, May had not visited the places he described, but he compensated successfully for his lack of direct experience through a combination of creativity, imagination, and documentary sources including maps, travel accounts and guidebooks, as well as anthropological and linguistic studies. He also plagiarized Fenimore Cooper.  And many other writers.

The books of Karl May I read were about his Travel Adventures in Kurdistan, and of course, Winnetou, The Story of an Apache Chief as told by his Blood Brother, Old Shatterhand (all written by May while he was in jail).

Jules Verne, who dreamt of a new kind of novel – one that would combine scientific fact with adventure fiction –  was the Ultra Trans, the Chimborazo,  for me, the TOP. He blew my mind with his book series called Voyages Extraordinaires: Five Weeks in a Balloon, Journey to the Centre of the Earth, From the Earth to the Moon, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and Around the World in Eighty Days.

Unfortunately, he did not live long enough to discover that he had inadvertently created a new genre of literature: science fiction.

I, on the other hand, was young when there was no such thing as Internet or television, so I had TIME TO READ and, consequently, WRITE correctly without using a spellchecker.

7 Responses to :
Sunday Book Choice

  1. Jacob+Potashnik says:

    Aaah… so now we know the roots of your tendency to tell tall tales of thrilling adventures. Spell-checking, highly overrated. Cheers!

  2. Hannah+Shapiro says:

    A fascinating memory of what you were reading so long ago! XxH

  3. Peter+Trutschmann says:

    As a 9 year old I did not have the same linguistic opportunities as you had, brought up in Vienna I did read Karl May’s books in german, most likely a third of his 75 or so volumes. I found it most disturbing that some group of activists in Germany tried to spin some of his stories as “racist”, against the indian population of North America. What a shame. Are there not more pressing issues in these times ?
    Peter T

  4. Erika says:

    I also read Cooper’s Indian books and Jules Verne’s books in Hungarian. But because of your current article, will be reading Karl May in English, for the first time…Thanks. :))

  5. Marika Kemeny says:

    Ah, memories. I was never a nine-year-old boy, but I arrived in Canada at the age of twelve, not speaking a word of English. My only refuge was in books, some in Hungarian (as you know, my mother-tongue), some in French, because I acquired a working knowledge during the previous year in French-speaking Switzerland. I also lunged into English novels, which helped me learn this new language through lengthy, romantic epic novels. Gone with The Wind had me riveted, even if I was missing some of the vocabulary. Yes, a library: a haven, an adventure, an escape. Thanks for sharing your story, Robi, we are kindred spirits.

  6. Veronique+Landory says:

    As you know,Robi,I shared your bookish enthusiasms and the many Sunday afternoons we spent sitting in a deep fauteuil, reading for hours. Of Fenimore Cooper I only remember the title Last of the Mohicans, (in Hungarian, of course) though I know I read at least some of the others. I dont’t remember the Karl May books, but I also adored Jules Verne, again, in Hungarian. As a matter of fact, I was convinced Verne Gyula was Hungarian and for years I argued furiously that he was! One of my greatest sorrows when we left Hungary was that we could’nt take our books with us. To this day, some of my favourite childres’ books I remember with fondness are Elhagyottan and Egy Gyermeksziv Rejtelmei whose authors’ names I have unfortunately forgotten. And I agree about the time to read and about the correct spelling without a spellchecker! We won’t even go into the correct grammar!!!
    As for books in English, Marika, I spent an entire weekend, days and most of the nights when I was 13, in London, reading Gone With the Wind — later repeating the exploit with Forever Amber!
    Those were the days………

  7. janice says:

    As always, I enjoy your reminiscences about your youth in Hungary. Hard for me to imagine a young boy there reading books that contributed to American mythology. Tragic that your tranquil life was so cruelly ended, but our gain that you landed here to carry on great storytelling.

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