Monday, 17 November 2008

A Slice of Nostalgia*

Muvesz is different now. Two years ago, when I was last in Budapest, the café, which occupies a prime position on the non-more-Habsburgian Andrássy Út, was dim, smoky, and snug. It might well have been Ilkley Bettys back in the Major years, perhaps, except with the Hungarian dailies, the Suddeutsche Zeitung, and the International Guardian on the newspaper hangers rather than the Daily Express and a 'Nidderdale Special' of Yorkshire Life. In other words, Muvesz belonged properly to last century, or at least to my image of the last century, which posits it as somehow alienating and homely, exotic and familiar, all at once.

I was in there this afternoon, following the flea market in the old communist community centre on the far side of the City Park. At the market, British boys in slim-fit jeans were fondling Lomo cameras and trying to craic with the stallholders. All young westerners visit the this place on the trail of dictator kitsch, and I'll freely (if shamefacedly) admit that such a pilgrimage would have appealed to me five or six years ago. What I suppose I mean by this is that I still find the market, the traders, and particularly the goods on sale - deactivated AKs, obsolete night sights, badges advertising membership of communist sports clubs, fall-of-the-wall vintage Bulgarian porn - fascinating, but I'm distinctly uncomfortable with the idea of picking up such items in an accumulation of ironic bounty. At best, I can credit such behaviour as concealing a nostalgia for a past in the west in which the junk-sifters did not participate; a nostalgia where communist-era Europe becomes a cipher for clearer, more comforting political demarcations than those we presently are asked to contend with. I suspect, somehow, that this isn't the case, and there's an element of jockish antagonism to this souveniring.

But am I really describing myself? In Muvesz, the coffee was still excellent, and the staff turned out to an almost parodic level of smartness, but the lights have been turned up and the fittings glint with flashes of a Slug & Lettuce. Most painfully, for me, the café bustle of two years ago has been masked with a too-loud soundtrack of limp breakbeats and acid jazz. I don't want this. I want to be in The Third Man; I want to be Stanley Ipcress eavesdropping on the neighbouring table while composing a shopping list for the ingredients of Bableves Jókai. I sat and ate my strudel - which was delicious, of course - and drank my coffee, and read Joseph Roth for its aptness, but it wasn't quite right.

Who am I, though, to make such demands? Perhaps the people of Budapest don't want to provide the stage setting for feelings which, I suppose, have much more to do with my own country than with theirs. Although, for me, the correlation between Roth's protestations for a more civilised, humane world and Kavehaz culture seem more than implicit, and that being assaulted by Jamiroquai while reading a passage like -

I always enjoyed reading about spiders, and about prisoners who wiled away the grim solitude of their cells with pet spiders. They stirred my imagination, which was a thing I had in abundance. I have always dreamed vividly, but with an alert mind. I never mistook my dreams for reality. And yet I can sometimes immerse myself in them so far that they become a second, an alternative reality -

is manifestly incongruous, I find it impossible to slough off an anxiety about my stake in or right to these essentially romantic images of eastern and central Europe.

I have mentioned her work often on here before, but Svetlana Boym's The Future of Nostalgia perhaps opens the way for a politics of what I'll facetiously call 'object relations' here. I'm currently writing a pair of reviews (one of Henry Green's Back, the other of Patrick Hamilton's The Slaves of Solitude) for Albion, an online magazine which advocates 'exploring Englishness'. Both novels, I argue, entertain Boym's 'reflective' nostalgia - a Proustian elegy for pastness - while rejecting the 'restorative' nostalgia of reactionary politics. Both play through the significations which are the currency of 'Englishness', and frame them as partially desirable, but refuse exclusive versions of 'national identity' (the idea which Roth became more and more hostile to as 1939 approached.) I might be talking about another country here, but I can't help but feel that the same questions are never far away when I touch upon topics such as the 'renovation' of Muvesz. What it was is something I would not equate with kitsch, but rather with a past which was worth preserving for its transnational values: a magic lantern in which one might glimpse various snapshots of European history.

* Pardon the pun. It was unavoidable.

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