04. 11. 2011. 12:39

A river poet

An interview with Péter Kántor

"Politics is important, but it is not the most important thing in life. But since we can only skirt around the really important things, we tend to choose something that is less important but still important enough, and give our lives to it."

You give very few interviews, so there are no explicit autobiographical guidelines for your works, while a certain mythology of your family past and memory often comes up in your poetry.

It might be due to a certain shyness, but it might as well be laziness or excessive pride that I have never sought for opportunities to make my voice heard outside my poems. What I definitely want to say about myself I say in my poems; the rest just happens as it happens.

But as for the autobiographical guidelines of my poetry – of course there are some! First of all, there is the Danube. I know much more of it than just the section that flows through the city; as a child and in my youth I rowed a lot in our keelboat. I know what it is like to row upstream against the strong current and how it feels to drift downstream in the middle of the water in the evening, for example from Visegrád. I swam across the Danube on several occasions, once I almost drowned when I was small, but my father pulled me out. And for twenty-five years already I have started every day by looking out of the window and seeing the Danube, and the fact that it is there makes me realize that I am at home. I have written a lot about the Danube – this is the most secure objective base in my life. But I have very few poems that are self-portraits; I think self-portraits are more typical of painters. And of course they have a good reason for it: the cheapest model is the painter himself. But the writer has no such problems: the whole world poses for him for free.

The family past – that’s a different issue. I think every poet has his own favoured subjects; we cannot write about everything, there are some things that others should write about. And one of my favoured subjects is the family. This is related to memory and time, which reminds a river poet of transience: time flows by and new actors arrive on the stage. The current is so quick and we would so love to save something from the stream: something permanent from all the transient things. A name, a face, a fate – or even just a picture! When my consciousness was awakening, not long after World War II, I slowly realized that I used to have an extended family that was no longer there. I heard names being mentioned and there was no person to attach to the names. They had all died, they had been violently erased from the story. Like my whole family, the whole of non-Budapest Hungarian Jewry. I tried to draw them again first instinctively, then more consciously, from the scraps that I had heard about them. I worked against forgetting, with my own means. I also wrote about that relative of mine who survived the war only to die a violent death from the hands of the Communist security service, and those who somehow managed to stay alive but were not allowed to talk about themselves and perhaps didn’t even feel the need to do so. I was less interested in my own generation, at least from the family point of view.

How can the innocence and wise playfulness of the child’s perspective be preserved in adult age?

An adult does not write poems – except if he is a poet. If we start off from this statement, and why shouldn’t we, it implies that the poet is not completely an adult, or rather, to be more exact, he is not an adult like the others, but somehow differently. He has preserved something from the beginnings, something that adults mostly tend to lose, if only because of self-defence: his nakedness and the vulnerability that goes with it. The skin is thinner on the face of a poet. But this does not mean that he is innocent – how could an adult be innocent? And why should he be? Perhaps it is that a poet does not cease to be sincere. He walks in a masquerade,
unmasked. He regards life as a scandal; death as absurd; procreation as selfishness; love as violent. Normal people know that sincerity is dangerous. They learn how to protect themselves from their feelings, and in the meantime they forget them to some extent. But the poet reminds them of these skulking beasts. The poet also knows that sometimes he is playing with his life, yet he plays, for this is his life.

What kind of influences made your career easier or harder in the beginning?

It is impossible to tell who and what has influenced me during all these years, since I was and am reading constantly, and a writer tends to steal whatever he needs. But I don’t know of any influences that affected the way I write fundamentally and for any length of time. The spirit of the age, to some extent. When I started as a poet, experimentation and playfulness did not count as virtues, and neither did humour. For me, however, these were very important, especially the last two. I say ‘spirit of the age’ rather than politics deliberately (even though, of course, the two are related); it is easier to become independent of politics than of the spirit of the age which eats into the skin, even if one is not aware of it. I tried not to adapt myself to any expectations. I never forced poetic form one way or the other: I let the poem shape its own frame, and I continue to do that today.

At university, you studied English and Russian – two cultures with very strong and very different characters. Did you oscillate between the two, and if yes, did you decide in favour of one or the other?

I don’t know why but Russian literature had greater impact on me than English literature. Perhaps the fact that my Russian was better, so I read more in Russian also played a role, though
with time my knowledge of these languages became more balanced. On second thought, it was not because of my mastery of the language, but rather because of Dostoyevsky, Chekhov, Mandelshtam, Pushkin, Bulgakov and Babel. And Pilnyak, Remizov, Platonov. Platonov’s Dzhan, a novel that I read when I was still at university, and Remizov’s Sisters of the Cross that I translated into Hungarian, not only became part of my worldview, but I think they shaped it to a great extent. I truly appreciate the English, if one can overgeneralize like that, especially their sense of humour, their attraction to the absurd and the fact that they try to wage their battles on earth rather than in heaven or in some middle realm. Yet they had less influence on me. Those who got really close to me, except for Dickens, are all somewhat on the periphery, like Swift or Burns. Shakespeare is somehow a separate page in my head. I know this sounds stupid, but it seems as if he had somehow been allotted to the English language. Yet even if it happened like that, it could not have been by mere chance. But while a character in Chekhov is Russian from the moment he starts to speak, and only later do we learn what kind of person he is, for me, Shakespeare’s characters are first of all human beings, and only incidentally English (when they are English at all). I do not claim that this is important or even that this is true, but this is how I feel. Of course, I do not mean to rank either of these two outstanding literatures of two great nations above the other. I am simply talking about my affinities. And as for the second half of the twentieth century, the balance of my readings definitely shifts to English and American literature. In any case, I do not regret studying either English or Russian: I now have a Western and an Eastern half in the linguistic and the cultural sense as well. Being a Hungarian, I obviously have both to begin with, as I wrote in one of my poems: “a Western European in Eastern Europe, / an Eastern European in Western Europe, / this won’t drive me to despair, / I won’t put on another face, / I won’t blow up the world” (“Learning to Live”).

Your life and your poetry are concentrated “Between Margaret Bridge and Árpád Bridge” in Budapest, as the title of one of your poems says. You seem to know each and every street, and the streets also seem to know you. Yet travelling as a possibility and as a desire comes up regularly in your poetry. What are the motives that take you away and bring you back?

The space in which my poetry is located is the world, but it is true that the space of my life is concentrated in Budapest. I have spent sixty years here, though I travelled a lot, I’ve been to many European cities (and not only cities), America, Mexico, and even Africa. A large part of my trips is related to writing: I have been invited to various conferences on poetry. When I was young, I had a strong desire to travel – in my first twenty or twenty-five years it was mostly a desire, but then it became an opportunity, and I took it, even if I didn’t become a real traveller. Whether I could live elsewhere, that’s another question. I cannot say that I never thought about what it would have been like to live elsewhere. But I am so strongly dependent on the Hungarian language (even though I do speak other languages) that this in fact excluded the possibility and made it easy for me to resist temptations. And my parents. And my loves! The Danube. Yet I often felt and feel that the space in which I live is too narrow. But who knows, perhaps I would feel the same way elsewhere. Here I feel at home, and this is the most important, even though I couldn’t say that I always like it here. On the other hand, I am greatly impressed by people who always turn up wherever something important is going on somewhere in the world, like Capa or Koestler. And I also admire those people who get it into their head to do something and then go for it, even beyond the Amazonas – not the centre of the world at all, but somewhere in the middle of nowhere, the scene of their dreams. These are beautiful things. But it is also beautiful to know one street very well. Or just one house – that’s quite a lot.

In the years of the regime change (1989-90) you started to talk in a voice and with a sensibility that reacted to the events of the outer world in the wider sense; if you like, the events of history. Hope and ecstasy, but at the same time sour and ironic reservations were articulated in these quasi-public poems. It is not hard to find out which of these proved to be valid later. How did you experience this loss of illusions?

Although I am not a public poet and I never desired to be one, articulating public topics was never foreign to me. But in 1989 there was a short period when I tried to record the events as if I was writing a diary. And understandably so, for this was the first – and most probably, the only – really great historical event in my adult life: the regime change. That was when I wrote “Learning to Live”. Now that the regime has changed, I thought, it was time to learn to live. Or at least to write this poem. The great historical experiment that started in the beginning of the twentieth century with the promise of a better and more just society was gradually eroded (what I got was merely the rust, even though it was coming off in several colours), and although the ‘soft dictatorship’ lingered on for a long time, from the mid-eighties everything indicated that new (in fact, old) times would soon come. Yet when the change happened, it was so fast and so unsettling that I could hardly follow what was going on. Everyone was hoping for some miracle, and perhaps everyone was filled with anxiety, not knowing what was to come next. Most people expected their dreams to come true, but there were as many dreams as there were people. I was and I am still happy that there was no bloodshed. And then what happened, happened. It is hard to live without an enemy if one had got used to having one. And many people didn’t realize and still don’t realize that more freedom means more responsibility. Right now everyone hopes for law and order, and many people are hoping for a miracle again. I do not share their expectations.

Politics is important, but it is not the most important thing in life. But since we can only skirt around the really important things, we tend to choose something that is less important but still important enough, and we give our lives to it. It is power and politics that has caused the most bloodshed. Ever since people have learnt to speak, they have been saying all kinds of beautiful things, and while they are saying them, they perhaps believe them, but when it comes to action, they do such disgusting things that it is beyond even their own expectations. I don’t think that there is an ideal solution for societies. I don’t believe in any kind of ideal solution. The only thing I believe in is that good and evil do exist. With respect to human beings, of course. And that good is not there so that it could win every time. But it is there.

Lajos Jánossy, János Szegő

Tags: Péter Kántor