The Finno-Ugrian Vampire by Noémi Szécsi
30th Nov 2012
It’s very funny – but if you’re expecting a parody of modern vampire novels, then this isn’t it.
Szécsi focuses on the traditional English-language myths which locate vampires in eastern Europe (“We Hungarians do not have vampires in our folklore”, she has stated), and on a literary culture which obsesses over national myth and its useless clichés (‘Hungaric’, as it’s called in the book).
In the first half of the novel her vampire protagonist Jerne has a boring job in a small publishing house; she edits yoga handbooks and neuters old folk tales so that they can be sold to children.
She is obsessed with writing allegorical animal stories, but she doesn’t understand human morality, and she doesn’t properly remember or respect the twisted versions of folk tales that her grandmother taught her as a child – “I could never be bothered to wait for the end of the story. It was as boring as hell.”
The book is witty and bleak, and in the first half in particular it’s tightly drawn together. The second part is more absurd and defiant in its refusal to become what readers might expect.
Any of the small plots that start to build tension become shaggy dog stories, as Jerne simply walks away instead of finding any sort of satisfying resolution. Characters are introduced and never really do anything – Edward is a prime example of this – then leave as inconsequentially as they arrived.
This isn’t a criticism of the book, as this is exactly what it seems that Szécsi intended. Jerne’s grandmother is obsessed with her becoming the sort of vampire who meets notable historical figures and has her way with attractive young men, while Jerne is uninterested in this type of existence.
She longs for a more literary life – but she wants no real trajectory here, feeling that any book that attracts ‘a vast reading public’ would be something to be ashamed of – such popularity would reveal her as not ‘as uniquely spiritual a story writer as I considered myself to be’. All she wants is publication and a handful of readers.
At times, the logic behind characters’ actions is unclear – in the second half, why does Jerne’s grandmother give her a stipend to be spent only on the arts, if she is so displeased by Jerne’s own engagement with literature?
This leads to a nice little riff on the way that, when spending money is the only objective, engagement with culture becomes shallow – all about buying tickets and books and never actually attending events or reading – but it doesn’t fit the character of Jerne’s grandmother as we have understood her up until this point.
Part of the problem with understanding why characters do the things they do is that they all talk in the same stilted and expository way. This fits well with the unreal, vicious world in which they have been placed, but it makes it difficult to see any kind of progression or motivation.
But while in places the lack of variation in speech pattern and lack of reflected depth in the characters makes events seem false, it does help create a sense that nobody can connect; that everybody is shallow and self-obsessed; that they’re all really the same.
The human characters act like the vampires – they want gratification and admiration, and they don’t try to understand the people around them. All art here is narcissism.
Towards the end of the book, Jerne builds herself up to make what seems like a sincere confession of feeling – and all it comes to is a request to discuss the works of Dostoevsky.
Even Oscar, who believes himself to be a Marxist, is just waiting for his grandmother to die so that he can become rich. This novel is underpinned by a coming-of-age structure, but just like Jerne, it’s got no soul within – it walks dead-eyed through the tropes, shows them to be shallow, and sucks them dry. It’s brittle and sharp and utterly ungenerous towards the characters it displays – and all the better for it.
Recommended for: People who work in publishing, people who like or hate vampires, people who like folk tales, people who like Buffy the Vampire Slayer but who also like sleeping in.