A guest post by David van Dusen, who has reviewed Szentkuthy’s Marginalia on Casanova for the Los Angeles Review of Books
Hungarian novelist Miklós Szentkuthy is not unread in Paris and Brussels. Ten of his works have seen French editions since his death in 1988. Nor is Szentkuthy unread in Budapest, where it is no trouble to find him in handsome, mid-century Hungarian editions. He is, however, unheard-of and unread in the Anglosphere, from London to Los Angeles. And if this is changing—as it should—it is only because a boutique publisher out of New York, Contra Mundum Press, has released superb, annotated translations by Tim Wilkinson of his 1939 novel-essay, Marginalia on Casanova, and his 1935 notebook, Towards the One and Only Metaphor. Contra Mundum has also announced forthcoming translations of Szentkuthy’s 1934 novel, Prae, which will be followed by his Chapter on Love, Narcissus’ Mirror, and Black Renaissance. (Marginalia on Casanova is the first volume, and Black Renaissance the second, of a ten-volume novel-essay titled St. Orpheus Breviary.) Szentkuthy may, then, be a writer no one yet reads in English.
In any case, he deserves to be read. In a 1949 letter postmarked Santa Monica, California, and addressed to Mária Hercz—one of Szentkuthy’s translators and lovers—in Budapest, Thomas Mann says that Hercz’s German translation of a Szentkuthy essay had “put me in mind of … some oeuvre with which I could satisfy a certain European fastidiousness created by Proust and Joyce.” Since Szentkuthy later translated Joyce’s Ulysses and had designs to “outproust Proust,” Mann’s constellation is not a haphazard one. But it is also not a stylistic one: no one could confuse Szentkuthy with an imitator of Proust or Joyce. He is fiercely, prolifically, unmanageably his own man. And this makes him, and his works, hard to classify.
Szentkuthy’s first novel, Prae, is rightly considered to be the first “modernist” novel in Hungarian, while his early critics also labelled it “experimental” and “avant-garde.” Szentkuthy was neither flattered nor convinced, and termed his own style “hyper-Baroque.” This is not the place to decide what “hyper-Baroque” means (though etymologically, baroque refers to an irregular pearl, which is apt), but there is a passage in Towards the One and Only Metaphor that gives an impression, at once, of Szentkuthy’s style and “Baroque” ideals. These pages take up one of modernism’s defining obsessions—language—and are occasioned by Szentkuthy’s reading of Sir Thomas Browne’s curious 17th-century treatises, Urn-Burial and The Garden of Cyrus, in 1934.
For Szentkuthy, these Baroque texts are “more Joycean than Joyce,” unparalleled exhibits of “the thousand-jointed undulations of language.” Language is “a living Neander-valley,” and any modernist’s language—like Browne’s, if less visibly so—is a dense matrix of “chance reflex crystals (which is what words are, after all).” If Szentkuthy is “hyper-Baroque,” then, it is not least because:
In the language of the 17th century, the prowling in time & space of all languages is perceptible: in the language of the 17th century it is precisely not the 17th century which is sensed but the 3rd, the 14th … i.e., each separate, undigested, raw temporal layer, preserved in various words.
Szentkuthy is a prowler in time and space, and he wants us to perceive the sediments—and revenants—within all that modernists call “modern.” He writes earlier in this book: “To every explicitly psychic phenomenon there always belongs some anachronism.” And in this sense, Szentkuthy is an “anachronist” as much as a modernist.
These pages on Browne are also interesting since they attest to Szentkuthy’s mastery of English. He recalls his wife Dóra, who herself wrote a dissertation on W. Somerset Maugham, reading aloud to him when he was ill. In Dóra’s mouth, the English words “do not reach the air by a direct route but after yachting, meandering about.” Because she is only “loosely, sketchily forming the syllables,” Szentkuthy is able to hear sounds prised away from their sense, which gives him a distinct sort of pleasure. His own reading of Browne is differently, but no less sharply attuned: “Instead of ‘blue’ all one has to write is ‘blew’ & that banal word becomes at once important, isolated.” When Browne calls the brain a “Metropolis of humidity,” for instance, or invents the word “vinosity” (“some yet retaining a Vinosity and spirit in them”), Szentkuthy is so nourished that he “almost put on weight due to it.” It is not difficult to argue that a man like this should be translated into English.
I have said that Szentkuthy is a prowler in time and space, and he is also a genre-prowler. His most recent translation, Towards the One and Only Metaphor, roves from erotic memoir to confessions, prose-poetry to burlesque, literary criticism to archetypal invention, “Stuart-collars of starched organdie” to “the bangs on Katherine Hepburn’s forehead,” in three hundred pages. There is a super-abundance of material in his books, much of which will satisfy you, and some of which did not even satisfy him. But regardless: when he is afire, Szentkuthy burns bright.
Szentkuthy in English
Miklós Szentkuthy. Marginalia on Casanova. Tr. by Tim Wilkinson. Intro. by Zéno Bianu. Afterword by Mária Tompa. New York: Contra Mundum Press, 2012. (Visit the publisher’s page.)
Miklós Szentkuthy. Towards the One and Only Metaphor. Tr. by Tim Wilkinson. Intro. by Rainer J. Hanshe. New York: Contra Mundum Press, 2013. (Visit the publisher’s page and read an excerpt at Asymptote)
Special Issue on Szentkuthy
“Miklós Szentkuthy Special Issue.” Hyperion. On the Future of Aesthetics VII.2 (July 18, 2013). 318 pp.
Other Recent Essays
Rainer J. Hanshe, “Entering the World Stage: Miklós Szentkuthy’s Ars Poetica,” The Quarterly Conversation (September 2, 2013).
András Nagy, “Masks behind Masks: A Portrait of Miklós Szentkuthy,” The Berlin Review of Books (March 25, 2013).
David van Dusen, “All That Exists Is the Only True Luxury: Miklós Szentkuthy’s Marginalia on Casanova,” Los Angeles Review of Books (May 2, 2013).
Situating Szenkuthy’s first novel, Prae (forthcoming in English)
[Szentkuthy’s first novel Prae has] “aspirations at least as ambitious as Ulysses or À la recherche du temps perdu, the two books with which it has been frequently and, in my view, misleadingly compared. It is certainly fiction, though not quite a novel, not even in a Joycean or Proustian sense of the term. A more accurate description of its fictional mode could be Northrop Frye’s ‘anatomy’ or ‘Menippean satire’: the basic concern of the book is intellectual, its pervading mood is that of the comedy of ideas.… If we must insist on comparisons, Prae is much closer to [Musil’s] Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften than to anything in Joyce or Proust, while it is as important to recognize an older tradition informing this apparently unorthodox work: ‘anatomies’ by Lucian, Rabelais, and, more particularly, Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy provide a loose generic framework we can usefully apply. (This latter connection is perhaps the most important: Szentkuthy is emphatically part of that already ‘classic’ trend in the modern which sees highly significant affinities between the baroque and surrealism, between metaphysical conceit and diaphoric juxtaposition.)” – Ferenc Takács, Professor of English Literature at Eötvös Loránd University (Budapest) and President of the Hungarian James Joyce Society
This is a guest post by David van Dusen, who has reviewed Szentkuthy’s Marginalia on Casanova for the Los Angeles Review of Books.
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