BY ALEX STEWART
In one of those articles that academics love to write about a minute, previously unnoticed literary discovery, Michael Begnal delights in an anecdote about Nabokov, James Joyce, and the Hungarian national football team (so much so, in fact, that despite the anecdote comprising a small element of the piece, the whole article is named after it).
Begnal relates that in February 1937, Nabokov was asked to present a lecture in Paris on Pushkin, a late substitute for a noted Hungarian author, who was supposed to be speaking. This is likely to have been the female author Jolán Földes, who had moved to Paris from Hungary in 1921, whose prize-winning novel A halászó macska utcája (The Street of the Fishing Cat) was published in 1936 and set in Paris. Nabokov and Joyce’s mutual friend, Paul León, persuaded Joyce to attend. However, as Begnal notes, a large number of the Hungarian expat community turned up too, perhaps having not received notice of their man’s cancellation. Nabokov writes of Joyce’s attendance in Strong Opinions:
“The house had, however, a pied aspect since some confusion had occurred among the lady’s fans. The Hungarian consul mistook me for her husband and, as I entered, dashed towards me with the froth of condolence on his lips. Some people left as soon as I started to speak. A source of unforgettable consolation was the sight of Joyce sitting, arms folded and glasses glinting, in the midst of the Hungarian football team.”
Nabokov repeated the claim in a series of interviews given to Christopher Givan for the Los Angeles Times published in 1977, and it is referred to in both Andrew Field’s and Brian Boyd’s biographies of Nabokov.
But, did it ever happen? There seems little doubt that Joyce attended Nabokov’s lecture, as various sources attest to it. The confusion, in actual fact, surrounds the celebrated Hungarian football team’s presence. In an essay which takes this event (and indeed Bengal’s essay) as a starting point, John Turnbull writes on The Global Game website about the desire of football to achieve some form of alignment to culture. He says, wryly:
“So many questions jump to the fore it is difficult to set them all down. Why was Nabokov certain that this was the Hungarian national team? Did they introduce themselves as such? Did he know them on sight? Were they wearing Hungarian kit? Or was this a soccer team, of unknown provenance, consisting in the main of Hungarians? A touring club side? An age-group team? Did they ask questions of Nabokov? Were they disappointed that the Hungarian novelist had not shown up? Had Nabokov (or Joyce) invited the footballers?”
These are valid questions. Some answers may be found on the 11v11.com website, which claims a comprehensive collection of Hungarian national team results. It seems, in fact, that this probably was not the famous Magyars at all. The Hungarian team did not play in France in 1937. In that season, they played normal internationals and also took part in the Central European International Cup, latterly the Dr. Geró Cup, but did not visit France, at least not to play, and indeed the international closest to the February 1937 date of the lecture was an away game against Switzerland in April of that year. The next time that Hungary played in France was in 1938 when they lost the World Cup Final to Italy in Paris 4-2. Their goalkeeper in that game, and for most of the period internationally, was Antal Szabó. Nabokov was, of course, a goalkeeper, but it seems improbable that it was the great Szabó who listened with rapt attention to him that February in Paris.
In fact, it is possible that a, though not the, Hungarian team was in Paris at the time of the lecture. In 1937, Paris hosted the Exposition Internationale des Arts et Techniques dans la Vie Moderne, a paen to all things new and including pavilions from both Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. As a sporting adjunct to the Expo, Paris hosted the little known Tournoi International de l’Expo Universelle de Paris, which featured club sides from across Europe, including, unusually, an English one (Chelsea), as well as better known sides including FK Austria Wien, Olympique de Marseille, and the superb Bologna side who were Italian national champions at the time (and won the tournament 4-1 in a final against Chelsea). Included in this mix was a little known Hungarian team, Phöbus FC from Budapest, who came forth in the Hungarian league in 1935/1936 and 1936/1937.
Phöbus FC are not a big name in Hungarian football, not even registering a mention in Jonathan Wilson’s superb and expansive Behind the Curtain, and had a strange history, apparently only existing in two stints: 1932-1939 and 1945-1957. Though twice taking part in European competition, including the Expo tournament, they achieved little else and seem now largely a footnote. Their goalkeeper in the 1937 tournament is likely to have been Gyula Csikós, who served for four seasons with Phöbus. However, it is not likely to have been Csikós either who saw his amateur counterpart speak on Pushkin. The Expo tournament’s quarter-finals, the first fixtures for which we have dates, were played on May 30th 1937, and the final was only a week later, so it seems unlikely that the FC Phöbus team were in Paris in February. Incidentally, Phöbus were knocked out in the first round by Slavia Prague, so they probably didn’t stay long into June either.
There is one further possible explanation that allows for the presence of a Hungarian goalkeeper in the audience, and that man would have been Janós Aknai Acht, also known as Eugène or Paul Acht. He was, like the scheduled author who pulled out due to illness, a Hungarian émigré in Paris who had moved to France in 1933 to sign for US Tourcoing and by the 1935-1936 season was playing Paris for Red Star Olympique, as it was then known. Indeed, Acht, who played professionally for three French sides as well as Újpest FC in Hungary and one game for Valencia in Spain, could count at least two compatriots in the Red Star line-up: André Simonyi, who though born in Khust went on to play for France four times, and László Sternberg, who captained the Hungarian national side in the 1934 World Cup and who, interestingly, played in the United States with a predominantly Jewish team in New York before returning to Europe to play for Újpest FC and finally Red Star. While Acht did not turn out for Red Star in the 1936-1937 season, he apparently remained in Paris. Could it have been that at least some of these players, most recognisably Sternberg, but perhaps most likely Acht, attended the lecture, and these were the Hungarians Nabokov recognised?
Or was the whole thing exaggerated, or even made up, by Nabokov, a famous fabulists and a playful narrator even of his own life, to have a joke at the over-serious, not-very-sporty Joyce? We will never know, but, as Turnbull points out, firing recollections, even imagined ones, is part of what football is all about.