The Penny Truth: May the Mischief Continue!

Receiving The Penny Truth in the mail is one of my postal highlights of 2021 so far. I have two pieces in it, a story and an essay, and won’t talk about those; instead, I’ll comment on what makes this bilingual literary journal exciting for a first-time reader.

Oh, and before I begin: the editors are holding a magazine release party in Budapest tomorrow at 8 P.M., on the Budapest Garden Fröccs Térász. Join them if you can! Because of prior commitments, I can’t go, but I hope a lot of people show up, and I hope to be at the next one.

This is the inaugural issue, over a year in the making. The editors, Will Collins and Kristen Herbert, borrowed the journal’s title from Jaguar, a 1914 novella by Jenő Heltai. In their words, “The story follows the adventures of a newspaper called The Penny Truth, staffed by (among others) an unfrocked priest masquerading as a society columnist and a penniless hussar. We have no clerics or cavalry officers on our masthead, but we hope to revive the spirit of Heltai’s paper.”

Through The Penny Truth: Budapest’s Bilingual Literary Magazine, the editors seek to revive the spirit of the old Budapest cafes, particularly their intellectual ferment and adventure. By bringing together, in print, a lively selection of pieces in Hungarian and English, they also hope to bring writers and true readers together. “Reading a magazine,” they write, “requires a degree of focus that is increasingly scarce in our Internet-addled age.” They offer readers a reprieve from Internet distractions, through a journal that follows Heltai’s blueprint: “An interesting, fresh, lively paper, above all inexpensive … and it would always have to tell the truth and nothing but the truth.” This means mischief, because truth is frequently mischievous, especially when it goes into writing.

And then it came: big, gorgeous in its layout, enticing. I carried it around with me with hopes of reading it on trains, but the reading began in earnest when I sat down with it at home.

I didn’t start with the first story, by Scott Beauchamp; it caught my eye with its title (“Budapest, New Mexico”) and the character Babits, but for whatever reason I skipped ahead. Now it’s one of my favorite pieces in the journal, possibly my very favorite. It’s brilliant, dark, and off-guard-catching. “Babits” appears in two forms: as a character in the story and as a quotation from the poet Mihály Babits (known for his brooding, ecstatic work, his linguistic adventurousness, his religious themes.) The quotation, from Babits’s “Jonah’s Prayer” in the translation of Peter Zollman, appears on the screens of Billy’s cargo container studio, and ultimately projects onto his skin. But wait, who is Billy? He’s the protagonist of the story, a young software developer who believes he has discovered the secret of advertising. The story begins with him pitching it to Babits, not the poet Babits, but another Babits, who has a blue whale tattoo “surfacing from the depths of his collar and beaching itself on his pock-marked cheek.” I don’t want to give away too much of the story, but the connections start to project onto you, and then you start getting it in flashes and convulsions. A great start to the journal.

Some of the stories and poems in the journal appear in both Hungarian and English; that means one treat after another for those interested in languages and literary translation. I do find myself disputing the translations, in places, in my head, but that’s part of the spirit of it all, I think. If they get you to think about language, they are doing their work. One of my favorite bilingual pieces is the poem “Ars Poetica” by Ádám Nádasdy, translated by Anna Bentley; another is Ottó Tolnai’s poem “Az a kő olyan keserű volt” (“A bitter stone it was,” translated by Miriam Grunwald). Still another is the story “Hús” (“Meat”) by Attila Mucha, translated by Timea Balogh, about generational conflict and the slaughter of a rabbit.

There’s a lot to learn from these pages, too; one of the editors, Will Collins, contributed a fascinating essay on the minaret of Eger, “the most visible reminder of Eger’s cosmopolitan history.” There are also two travelogues: “A Beginner’s Guide to Ukraine” by Paul Brian, which got more and more absorbing as I continued reading it, and “Mindig. Örökre – Dél” by Péter L. Varga (“Always. Forever – South,” translated by Kristen Herbert. (Both Will and Kristen have stories in the issue as well; I look forward to reading them soon.)

I love what the journal is doing and hope that it continues into a second issue and more. The editors devoted hundreds of hours to it before it came out, and the work—now distribution, publicity, fundraising—goes on and on; someone has to bring copies to bookstores, for instance. Now numerous Budapest bookstores carry it, and several cafes have reading copies. A partial listing can be found at the end of the review by Hungarian Literature Online. But while the work must be exhausting at times, I sense that they are having great fun with it. The mischievous art on the front cover, Alex Collins’s adaptation of a painting by Zalán Kertai (who, as it turns out, is Csenger Kertai‘s father!), shows a hussar wearing a Covid-suggestive mask and riding a wild-eyed horse. May the mischief continue!

Update: International readers can order a copy of The Penny Truth by contacting the Budapest bookstore Booksellers directly.

  • “To know that you can do better next time, unrecognizably better, and that there is no next time, and that it is a blessing there is not, there is a thought to be going on with.”

    —Samuel Beckett, Malone Dies

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

     

    Diana Senechal is the author of Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture and the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Her second book, Mind over Memes: Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies, was published by Rowman & Littlefield in October 2018. In February 2022, Deep Vellum will publish her translation of Gyula Jenei's 2018 poetry collection Mindig Más.

    Since November 2017, she has been teaching English, American civilization, and British civilization at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium in Szolnok, Hungary. From 2011 to 2016, she helped shape and teach the philosophy program at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering in New York City. In 2014, she and her students founded the philosophy journal CONTRARIWISE, which now has international participation and readership. In 2020, at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium, she and her students released the first issue of the online literary journal Folyosó.

  • INTERVIEWS AND TALKS

    On April 26, 2016, Diana Senechal delivered her talk "Take Away the Takeaway (Including This One)" at TEDx Upper West Side.
     

    Here is a video from the Dallas Institute's 2015 Education Forum.  Also see the video "Hiett Prize Winners Discuss the Future of the Humanities." 

    On April 19–21, 2014, Diana Senechal took part in a discussion of solitude on BBC World Service's programme The Forum.  

    On February 22, 2013, Diana Senechal was interviewed by Leah Wescott, editor-in-chief of The Cronk of Higher Education. Here is the podcast.

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    All blog contents are copyright © Diana Senechal. Anything on this blog may be quoted with proper attribution. Comments are welcome.

    On this blog, Take Away the Takeaway, I discuss literature, music, education, and other things. Some of the pieces are satirical and assigned (for clarity) to the satire category.

    When I revise a piece substantially after posting it, I note this at the end. Minor corrections (e.g., of punctuation and spelling) may go unannounced.

    Speaking of imperfection, my other blog, Megfogalmazások, abounds with imperfect Hungarian.

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