An interview with John Batki
What first drew you to Gyula Krúdy, and what led you to begin translating his work?
In Budapest no literate person can grow up without some sense of the Krúdy mystique that still hovers in the air, and harks back to the latter-day, “peacetime” splendors of the Monarchy that evaporated, along with so very much else, around 1918. Yet I had not read Krúdy until a return to Hungary in the summer of 1976, when I saw the film Szindbád (directed by Zoltán Huszárik)—a charming, if nostalgic and sentimental, compilation based on Krúdy’s “Szindbád cycle” of stories. On the flight back from Budapest to Boston I could not put down Szökés az életből (Escape from Life), the volume of Krúdy stories given me by a friend. For me it was one of those books you wish would never end. It led me to read most of Krúdy’s vast oeuvre over the following decade, in the 20-volume Collected published by Szépirodalmi in Budapest ca. 1976-89.
As a Briggs-Copeland lecturer at Harvard (1975-78) even as I had the privilege of watching my creative writing dwindle and morph into creative drawing, I conceived of translating Krúdy, who mesmerized me far more keenly than any literature of the day. (My idols had been Salinger, who stopped publishing in 1965 or 6, and Kerouac, whose oeuvre was complete by 1969.) The trouble was that Krúdy seemed so distant, so over-the-top, so impossible to “bring over” into contemporary American/English modes of narrative expression. So that the prospect raised interesting avenues of literary text-weaving. To this day my main fault as translator is a dull obedience, in trying to provide what I imagine as the literal equivalent in “today’s language” (whatever that means). But lately (too late-ly?) I’ve been saying that if I have a theory of translation, it is that a translation should sound like a translation: a literary artifact compounded of two entities, one of which will always remain in the original. This original gives rise to “re-cycled” versions in any number of languages and periods. These versions (largely) reflect the original work, but refracted as seen through the eye-heart-mind of the translator who cannot and should not remain “out of sight.” Ideally, a brilliant stylist will render Krúdy’s prose in a 19th-century English with overtones of Wallace Stevens (who was Krúdy’s exact contemporary).
You yourself are a writer of fiction and poetry. Perhaps an impossible question, but do you remember when you started writing, and why?
There were many starts. In fact my first “disciplined” effort was attempting a translation of Journey to Capillaria by Frigyes Karinthy. (A novella-length fantasy about Gulliver’s umpteenth travel, this time to the land of Women.) It was a stiff and creaky enterprise, perhaps still extant in handwritten MS. That was the summer when, in my need to meet a “real writer” I visited Edmund Wilson in nearby Talcottville, an hour’s drive from Syracuse, NY where I still live (after sojourns in Manhattan, Iowa City, Palo Alto, Cambridge M’ass). The following year (1967) I entered grad school (English and American lit) and, switching into the creative writing program, wrote a short story, “Never Touch a Butterfly” for a workshop. This became the first of the quartet of “stories” I now call Four Jays, published in The New Yorker (8 May 1970, 20 March 1971, 15 July 1972) and in Fiction (Fall 1972). These pieces have never been collected in what would be a way too slender volume.
As to the Why Write? question: To Teach. To Move. To Delight. (Hifalutin’ and Corny, but true.)
In Krúdy’s “The Landlady,” a character describes “a flavour to make you feel at peace with the whole world.” Does such a flavour exist for you, and if so, what is it?
Yes, I believe a flavour like that exists for me, too (and indeed, for each and every person)—except that happy are the few who actually know what that flavour is. Meanwhile, we go in search of it, sometimes all over the globe. In my case, the search has led me on repeated return visits to my native Hungary over the past fifteen years; in search of tastes, not only culinary but musical, literary, visual. Unless a better alternative offers, I shall always relish the flavour of “vajaskenyér zöldpaprikával” my mother used to give me, summer afternoons, mid-1950’s: a trinity of bread and butter with slices of green peppers... The bread: a thick oval sliced from the large loaf of brown-crusted, hearty wheat bread (wheat and rye perhaps?) freshly baked, and just about the only kind of bread widely available in the Budapest of those barely post-Stalinist years. The butter: unsalted and unflavored! and “organic,” that goes without saying in those days when the term hadn’t even been dreamed of. Ditto for the green peppers, which had nothing to do with the gigantic, thick-fleshed, waxy-skinned monsters served up these days (even back in Hungary, where they are called “California green peppers”). Whereas the “Hungarian Hot Peppers” at the local supermarket here in Syracuse, are the thin, yellow, superhot kind.
Have you any experience with cabbage trampling? What are your feelings on cabbage in general? (I love eating raw cabbage cores with salt, like the characters in the Krúdy story.)
Sorry, I’ve never had the good fortune to experience it. But at any open air market in Budapest you can find barrels of the stuff! Cabbage I relish in a variety of forms. In my childhood, a cabbage core was a special treat! You are a rare one, to love the stuff! I just bought a bottle of kimchee (mild)—it really hits the spot with any roast.
CABBAGE WITH TOMATO SAUCE
literally “Paradise Cabbage”)
1 medium head of green cabbage, trimmed and shredded
1 medium onion, peeled and left whole
1 green pepper, cored, quartered, (de)seeded
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon salt (max.)
fresh-ground black pepper
3 tablspoons butter
1 teaspoon paprika (only original unadulterated Hungarian import will do)
2 tablespoons flour
1 half cup cold water
16-oz. can of prepared tomato sauce
Utensils: 4-sided grater or food processor; 4-quart saucepan with lid; wooden spatula; colander; small saucepan, wire whisk; serve on 6 heated small vegetable dishes.
Put cabbage, onion, green pepper, bay leaf and salt into large saucepan. Add cold water to cover and bring to boiling. Cook in covered pan ten minutes, or until cabbage is barely tender. Drain; discard onion, pepper. Season cabbage with fresh-ground black pepper. Return cabbage into large saucepan and keep hot while preparing sauce.
Melt butter, stir in paprika and flour. Cook one minute and stir in the cold water using wire whisk. Stir in tomato sauce and pour mixture over hot cabbage. Simmer 5 to 10 minutes, until cabbage is tender. Season to taste (salt, pepper, a touch of sugar). Serve with roasts. (in: The Paprikas Weiss Hungarian Cookbook, New York 1979, 1983)
This interview was originally published in Suptropics. The literary magazine from the University of Florida. Gyula Krúdy’s story “The Landlady, or: The Bewitched Guests,” translated from the Hungarian by John Batki, appears in Subtropics 9.
Interview and kitchen testing by Rachel Khong (additional kitchen testing by Magdalen Powers)
Tags: John Batki