Comparative Central European Literature II: Literature, Culture, History and Ideology: Select Masterpieces of Eastern and Central European and American Literature

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Course Information
Terms offered: 
Language of instruction: 
Contact Hours: 

Since the course is designed precisely for finding one’s voice in speaking about literature, it does not require any previous training either in literature (literary theory), or in history, or in any of the social sciences. Some interest in literature and related areas is, however, presupposed.



The aim of this course is to promote dis-course between various modes human beings try to make sense of the world and themselves. We will adopt a basically “New Historicist” perspective to watch the interaction, from the Modernist period to Postmodernism, between cultural phenomena, historical consciousness, prevailing ideologies and literature. In the Central- and East-European region, poetry, drama and fiction are especially interesting as they have often tried to refuse to be blind perpetuators of consciousness, fashioning themselves rather as disruptive and subversive forces, as major forms of resistance. We will read, in a rich historical, cultural and ideological context provided by the instructor, mainly Hungarian pieces but we will also take a look at other East-European countries (Russia, Poland, Serbia, former Czechoslovakia, etc.) as well, and we will ask if an aesthetic reading of literature is still possible. The speciality of the course is that the “strange” or even “alien” (and often tragic) Central European pieces will usually be compared with more familiar American ones to demonstrate parallels in subject-matter, motif, style, attitude and technique. The course will consider creative pieces (poems, short-stories or mini-dramas) as highly adequate responses to the literature under discussion and thus instead of a midterm exam, a creative piece might be handed in, yet this will by no means be compulsory.


Attendance policy: 

Absences should be excused. If you cannot attend for some serious reasons (such as illness or emergency), please contact, if possible, the Registrar in the Registrar’s Office (personally, or by phone) before the class you are going to miss. If you feel you have problems, come to see me, or send me an e- mail: [email protected]

Learning outcomes: 

By the end of the course, students should be able to:

  • Be familiar with the outlines of the history and cultural background of Central- (East-) European literature between the period of Modernism and the present day
  • Identify and put into appropriate context the main literary figures and the cultural and literary trends discussed in class
  • Be aware of the most significant movements in literary style and writing-technique
  • Have growing expertise in the ability to interpret and critically evaluate literary texts and to develop some arguments of their own about them.
Method of presentation: 

There will be 20, ninety minute-long sessions. We will be discussing the pieces below, assigned for each meeting. The compulsory readings will be available in the Library in photocopies in a course-packet or will be on reserve; please buy the course-packet. The course is intended as a real dialogue: it will, besides the traditional lecture-format, heavily rely on student participation in the form of short class-presentations and contributions to the discussions.

Required work and form of assessment: 

Required reading: the pieces below (no secondary literature required).

  • Midterm - 40%  
  • Final - 50%
  • Class-participation - 10%

Midterm: Take-home assignment (with creative option): an essay of approx. 5-8 pages on a freely chosen topic of the course (the juxtaposition of two or more pieces in all possible combinations, the description of two or more characters, some recurring metaphors in various pieces, etc.) OR: a CREATIVE piece of writing (poems, a short-story or a short drama)

Final: Take-home assignment (with creative option): an essay of approx. 5-8 pages on a freely chosen topic of the course (the juxtaposition of two or more pieces in all possible combinations, the description of two or more characters, some recurring metaphors in various pieces, etc.) OR: a CREATIVE piece of writing (poems, a short-story or a short drama)

Class participation: you are expected to be fully present and to take part in the discussions.

Composition (not graded, due on the third week of the term): “Observation and Memory”, or “A Letter Home”, or “A Letter from Home”: composition or already a creative piece of writing (approx. 2 pages), to give students a sense of the pleasure and the difficulties of writing and of finding one’s voice. Observe something in your narrower or wider context (your reading-lamp in your room, a cabbage in the market, a dog in the street, etc.) and describe it, or remember something at home (the Christmas-tree when you were a child, your desk at school, the first movie you remember, etc.) and write about it; or write a letter home or write yourself a letter as if it were coming from home, using, if you wish, imaginary persons.

Occasionally a "Quiz" at the beginning of each class


Meeting Content
  • Getting acquainted and course introduction
  • Miklós Radnóti (Hungarian): “Forced march” (1944) -- in various translations
  • On holiday in America and in Hungary
  • Ernest Hemingway (American): Indian Camp (short-story) (1921)
  • Dezső Kosztolányi (Hungarian): The Swim (short-story) (1924)
  • A dramatic start? Drama I: between realism and the absurd
  • Anton Pavlovich Chekhov (Russian): The Cherry Orchard (1903-4)
  • Drama II: The theatre of the absurd
  • Samuel Beckett (Irish): Waiting for Godot (1947-53)
  • Drama III: Is tragedy still possible?
  • Edward Albee (American): Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1963)
  • Drama IV: Alienation and history
  • Bertolt Brecht ([East]German): Mother Courage and Her Children (1936)
  • Drama V: To be home abroad?
  • Slawomir Mrozek (Polish): The Emigrants (1972)
  • An East-European in Western Europe:
  • Tadeus Rozevitz (Polish): In the Most Beautiful City in the World (novella) (1957)
  • West-European Hungarian in Eastern Europe:
  • Géza Ottlik (Hungarian): Nothing's Lost (novella) (1968)
  • Lost references and the working of history
  • Sherwood Anderson (American): I Want To Know Why (short-story) (1924)
  • Géza Csáth (Hungarian): Matricide (short-story) (1915)
  • Sexuality and murder
  • Ernest Hemingway (American): The Killers (short-story) (1922)
  • Iván Mándy (Hungarian): Ball-Game (short-story) (1951)
  • The reality of mass-murder
  • Flannery O’Connor (American): A Good Man Is Hard to Find (short-story) (1955)
  • Tadeus Borowski (Polish): This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen (short-story) (1947)
  • Helplessness, madness and survival
  • Nicolai Gogol (Russian): Diary of a Madman (short novel) (1835)
  • Self-identification
  • F. Scott Fitzgerald (American): Babylon Revisited (short-story) (1931)
  • Guilt, punishment and survival
  • Gyula Krúdy (Hungarian): The Last Cigar at the Grey Arab (short-story) (1927)
  • In quest of love; crime and punishment
  • Carson McCullers (American): A Tree. A Rock. A Cloud (short-story) (1942)
  • Milan Kundera (Czech): Edward and God (short-story) (1969)
  • The seeming innocence of cafés and the problem of exposure
  • Shirley Jackson (American): The Lottery (short-story) (1948)
  • István Örkény (Hungarian): Café Niagara (short-story) (1965)
  • Poems by William Carlos Williams (American), Sándor Weöres (Hungarian) and Vasco Popa (Serbian)
  • Poems by John Berryman (American), János Pilinszky (Hungarian) and Dezső Tandori (Hungarian)
  • Sylvia Plath (American), Zbignew Herbert (Polish) and Ágnes Nemes Nagy (Hungarian)
  • Take Home Final Due
  • Summary and poetry-reading



Required readings: 

The pieces above