Word of the week: Magyar - MOG-yor (Hungarian)

As the grandchild of TransCarpathian Ruthenian former subjects of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, who were born in what is now the Ukraine, learned their sums in Russian, spoke Hungarian among themselves and considered themselves Czech, I grew up knowing only the smallest and most confused details about where my maternal grandparents came from, or the language they spoke to each other.  It was only after their deaths that I realised that the very few words I thought I knew – dressing-gown, central heating – were not spelt as I had assumed.

I also realised how little I knew about Central European history.   When I began to write my fourth novel, which became Almost English, I flailed around briefly in the history of Hungary and the Carpathian mountains, before realising that what I wanted to write about was the lives of Central Europeans in England, and their silence about the past.  But in order to describe their world, particularly from the viewpoint of my English-born protagonists, I would have to include the odd word of Hungarian and, as I only knew forty words, my choice was limited.

Hungarian isn't a language one picks up easily. To English-speakers, it is impenetrable, unconnected to anything one recognises, and the pronounciations are, frankly, hilarious.  So, as a public service, from today I will be posting weekly in an attempt to educate my fellow Anglophones in such vital words and phrases as ‘I kiss your hand’ and ‘pancake’.

Good luck, my little dumplings.

On Talent

Some people can juggle. I don't know why they want to, but they can. Others can dive, learn languages quickly, play the flute, walk into rooms without crashing into the doorframe.  I can do none of these things but I do have *modest cough* other talents.  I can raise one eyebrow (self-taught); spit cherry stones impressive distances; recite a Latin poem about the death of a sparrow, find fossils and throw javelins (yes, OK, I live in the olden days).  And, more usefully, I can do shout lines. 

I don't mean the classic shout line: a moving story of love and war.  No; we're talking about the more (I hope) intriguing, catchy, possibly slightly facetious kind.  Tell me what a book's about (NB we're in the realms of theory here. Don't test me) and I might, might, be able to come up with a line which makes you want to read it.

Except, I discover, when the book is by me.

Tomorrow, I'm being filmed, videoed, I don't know, something modern, to promote the slowly-forthcoming publication of my new novel.  I need an elevator pitch.  I need snappy answers.  I need, in short, a tempting way to describe what the book's about.  

I HAVE NO IDEA.  Because those 85,000 words were dragged from me by wild horses, ahem, actually just casually tossed down on the page, I seem to lack the necessary perspective to describe the novel temptingly.  Or, indeed, at all.

Clearly – as Tom Lehrer, my guide to life, so wisely said – I need to plagiarise.  The problem is that because the book isn’t out until August, my plagiarees are limited.  One of them, a clever young bookseller from I think the Newham Bookshop, hadn’t even read it yet – but when I described its seventeen-year-old protagonist’s unfortunate burden of appalling squareness, sexual inexperience, immigrant shame and inchoate yearning, she said: ‘oh right, it’s about the Ugly Years.’ 

The other was the brilliant Pippa Wright, one of Britain’s funniest women and a fellow Macmillan author, who described it as ‘Prep, but with added elderly Hungarians’.

So there we have it.  It’s going to be a short video, yes, but very snappy.