At this time of the year, when life more or less comes to a standstill for a few days, it is refreshing to do something different from my usual daily fare. I decided to satisfy my curiosity about the so-called “experimental” textbooks the government foisted on teachers and students in certain schools.
I settled for a textbook on Hungarian and world literature for grade 11 students together with its companion volume of literary texts. The textbook is only 168 pages long. Its main staple is plot summaries, but it also includes a list of terms, a pronunciation guide to foreign names, and a short bibliography.
The text covers the period between 1849 and “the first decades of the 20th century,” but this cut-off date is somewhat arbitrary. A lot of contemporaries of the authors discussed in this volume ended up in the textbook for twelfth graders.
Acting as if I were a conscientious student, I followed the first set of instructions in the text. After reading a short introduction to the era following the lost war of independence marked by political resistance, I dutifully proceeded to do my homework. I was supposed to read the first chapter of The New Landowner by Mór Jókai (1825-1904), “which one can find on the website of the Magyar Elektronikus Könyvtár.” It was not included in the companion volume, so I don’t know what happens if the student has no access to a computer. I guess the textbook authors didn’t think of this “small” problem. In addition, I was supposed to group together all the foreign words “on the basis of their roles and meanings.”
I got as far as reading the text which, given the archaic language full of bastardized Latin and German, was not an easy task. And if I had taken the assignment seriously and tried to do something with the hundreds of foreign words, I’m sure it would have taken me more than three hours.
My second homework assignment was just as strange. I was told to read about forty lines of an epic poem by János Arany (1817-1882). I was certain that this time at least I will find the text of the poem, or at least its relevant passages, in the companion volume. No such luck, although a great number of Arany poems are included in the collection. In fact, most of the reading assignments are not readily available to the students.
There are “interesting puzzles” hidden in the book. Among the homework questions I found a curious reference to a contemporary poet who expressed sentiments similar to Arany on a certain subject. Apparently, the student can find this contemporary poem “in the collection of literary texts.” Which collection? Perhaps the one the student will use in grade twelve?
Especially annoying are the clumsy efforts to make nineteenth-century literature relevant. One of Arany’s ballads is about a woman who has gone mad but who is in denial. The students are supposed to view the 1999 American film “Girl, Interrupted” and write an essay on “Where strangeness ends and where madness begins.” I do hope the film is available in the school so students can watch the “relevant scenes.” Continuing with the theme of madness, the authors suggest taking a look at John Everett Millais’ painting “Ophelia” on Wikipedia.
When it comes to prose, the “collection of literary texts” contains only short stories. Yet it seems that students are supposed to be thoroughly familiar with Kálmán Mikszáth’s The Siege of Beszterce (1896). Again, the authors resort to an American film, this time “Argo” about the rescue of six U.S. diplomats from Tehran, because they see parallels between the two stories. The suggested title of the assigned essay is: “Is there any practical use to looking at fictive films or novels?”
Until yesterday I thought that I knew Hungarian literature pretty well, but this grade 11 textbook proved me wrong. Here is a text that considers only a handful of presumably remarkable writers. Among Hungarians, it pays a great deal of attention to János Arany, Imre Madách (1823-1864), and Kálmán Mikszáth (1847-1910). Briefly mentioned are János Vajda (1827-1897) and Gyula Reviczky (1855-1889). And then comes the mystery man. Or at least for me he was a mystery man: István Petelei (1852-1910). Eventually I came to the conclusion that his inclusion has something to do with his being a Transylvanian who wrote mostly about village folks and the countryside. On the other hand, the much better known Sándor Bródy (1863-1924) is not mentioned, even though the “collection of literary works” includes one of his short stories. It’s no wonder that the teachers are not exactly thrilled with this thrown-together “experimental” textbook.
As for foreign authors, Russians are well represented: Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Chekhov, although it is unlikely that the students will have the time to actually read any of these great Russian authors. The textbook gives considerable (of course, “considerable” is a relative term here given the brevity of the text) space to French literature: Flaubert, Verlaine, and Rimbaud. From German-language literature only Rainer Maria Rilke made it. From Great Britain Dickens’s David Copperfield was included, but there is no sign of any work by Dickens in the “collection of literary texts.” However, the students are supposed to read the fourth chapter of the book, on the basis of which they are to draw a comparison between the fate and humiliation of David Copperfield and that of the thirteen-year-old daughter of a Jewish pharmacist in a Hungarian movie. Sorry, but these forced comparisons really turn me off. Walt Whitman is discussed for a page and a half and the two of his poems appear in the collection of literary texts. The plot of Henrik Ibsen’s play The Wild Duck is summarized in considerable detail.
I really don’t know what students are supposed to learn from such a superficial, ill-constructed textbook. Certainly not to enjoy literature.
By the way, anybody who’s interested in Hungarian literature might want to consult Lóránt Czigány’s A History of Hungarian Literature: From the Earliest Times to the Mid-1970s, available online. At least I know that you have a computer.