Posts tagged Hungary
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.
A guest post on Miklós Bánffy by Scott of the seraillon blog
I feel odd to be writing, for a site entitled “Writers No One Reads,” about a writer whose works people actually do read – at least when they can find them. Overcoming that obstacle has become easier with publication this summer of an Everyman’s Library edition of Count Miklós Bánffy’s “Transylvanian Trilogy" of novels: They Were Counted, They Were Found Wanting, and They Were Divided. Bánffy’s work – published in Budapest in the late 1930s but released in English only a dozen years ago (by Arcadia Books, in a run that quickly went out of print) – should now emerge from its cult following to recognition as one of the great works of the last century.
That it has taken so long for the trilogy to reach this point is a story in itself. After initial publication, the books were eclipsed by war and politics. Bánffy – a politician, cultural leader, and foreign minister of Hungary, denounced by the Nazis and out of favor with the postwar communist government as well – found his books ignored. Soviet dominance of Hungary ensured that they all but vanished. Only in 1982, as communism began to crumble, was the first volume republished, partly to offer insight into the historical roots of the contemporary political situation. The other volumes followed in the early 1990s to great acclaim.
Were it not for fortuitous circumstances, the novels might have remained little known outside of Hungary. Translator Patrick Thursfield, in his preface to the Arcadia edition, recounts learning about them by chance from his neighbor in Tangiers, Bánffy’s daughter Katalin Bánffy-Jelin, who had begun an English translation consisting of loosely bound pages partially mangled by her cat. A collaboration began, and the resulting publication, with a foreword by Patrick Leigh Fermor, won the 2002 Oxford-Weidenfeld prize and accolades from around the world. Unfortunately, the books’ scarcity kept them from wide readership.
As almost anyone who has read the trilogy will attest, the work presents an enthralling, hauntingly lucid panorama of an empire in decline. The three volumes – their titles taken from the warning lines that miraculously appear on a wall during the feast of Belshazzar in the Old Testament – are set largely in Budapest and the Transylvanian city of Kolozsvár between 1904 and 1914, and trace the fates of Count Balint Abady and his dissolute cousin Laszlo as Austria-Hungary ignores “the writing on the wall” and lapses into political mismanagement, corruption, pettiness, and abandonment of the principle of noblesse oblige that had governed class relations in a society late to emerge from feudalism.
With unusual clarity and occasionally scathing humor, Bánffy relates the commitment – or lack thereof – of those who were well-off towards those who were not. The trilogy’s depictions of the machinations of politics – both legislative processes and the nuanced array of mechanisms that maintain class and power – stand out as exceptional. A skillful sense of how to orchestrate a scene to evoke its political and social significances pervades the trilogy, a talent likely picked up by Bánffy during his work in theater and as a director of state political pageantry.
Through Balint Abady, Bánffy portrays the rare politician who accepts his privileges as part of a social contract that binds him to the rest of society. Abady represents a model of restrained indignation concerning the abuses of power, the laxity of the rich, and the failure to recognize the fragility of the nation’s assets: its political and cultural institutions, irreplaceable natural resources, and diverse peoples. With wisdom and compassion, Abady decries the decadence of his own short-sighted class while displaying keen understanding of the problems of the poor, the conditions of the lives of women (on issues of gender and sexuality, Bánffy shows disdain for conventions that restrict the independence of women), and the destructive prejudices directed towards gypsies, Jews, and the Romanians who work Transylvania’s forest holdings. Through Abady’s recurring visits to these woodlands, Bánffy conveys a profoundly atmospheric appreciation for these enchanting, priceless wildernesses, the descriptions of which stand out as one of the trilogy’s star attractions.
But it is the work’s modernity and immediacy that may resonate most strongly with contemporary readers. Bánffy’s far-sightedness communicates conflicts manifest in the modern world – not so much because he treats of universal themes as because he lances familiar political and social dynamics anathema to the survival of a culture: an emphasis on short-term profiteering and exploitation of resources; fractious, tribalist squabbles; the paralyzing self-interest of legislatures; an immersion in frivolous pursuits while serious ones are ignored; blind confidence that the good life for some, gained at others’ expense, will continue without consequence.
With this new edition, a literary event to celebrate, Miklós Bánffy’s Transylvanian Trilogy will hopefully achieve the wide readership it so richly deserves. The new edition, while unfortunately omitting Thursfield’s preface and Fermor’s foreword, offers compensation through a new introduction from Hugh Thomas that provides critical biographical and historical information previously lacking, a chronology of Bánffy’s life, a genealogy of Bánffy’s family, and helpful maps. Those new to this work will likely find a masterful testimonial to one of the most significant and premonitory collapses of political power in the 20th century (The Guardian recently ranked the Transylvanian Trilogy among the ten best books – fiction or non-fiction – about the Austro-Hungarian empire). They may also find, as in those startling ancient Greco-Egyptian funerary portraits of Fayum, a surprisingly recognizable world staring out at them from across the years with an enrapturing immediacy and a frank, beseeching clarity that looks to the future and asks: And you?
Editor’s note: Discover many more neglected books at Scott’s blog seraillon
Photography of Banffy via
No one reads Géza Csáth (1887–1919, pen name of József Brenner), a writer, doctor, opium addict, and suicide. [cont. reading on wikipedia]
—The Magician’s Garden and Other Stories, trans. Jascha Kessler and Charlotte Rogers (Columbia Univ. Press, 1980).
—In 1983 Penguin reprinted the above collection as Opium & Other Stories, part of their “Writing from the Other Europe” series, with a preface by Angela Carter.
—Opium: Selected Stories, Corvina, 2002, trans. Judith Sollosy.
—Diary of Géza Csáth, translated by Peter Reich (2004).
Columbia University Press paired Attila Sassy’s illustrations (pictured above) with Csáth’s stories in their volume. See more images and a quote by Csáth in the 50 Watts post “In combating myself I can only report one bloody defeat after another.”
—Arthur Phillips preface to the Diaries at The Ledge (“He is a bastard, of course, but so are a lot of people with nothing else to be said for them.”)
—"Little Emma" at NYRB
—Annotations to the “The Surgeon”