04. 28. 2011. 17:29

The joys of ice and darkness in László Fábián’s first short novel

An even quieter revolution II.

Just on its title alone many Hungarian readers in 1976 (and since) must have been puzzled by László Fábián's first short novel,  an astonishingly rich growing-of-age tale, told in a persuasively poetic manner.

Just on its title alone many Hungarian readers in 1976 (and since) must have been puzzled by the work that László Fábián gave to his first venture into print: Hazatérő lovam körmén virágos rét illatát hozza, avagy furcsa görcs a torokban: “On Returning Home, My Horse Carries the Scent of a Flowery Meadow on its Hooves, or A Strange Cramp in the Throat.” The first words of Chapter 1 (entitled ‘Roggenmuhme! My favourite memory or’) are “Grandmother sat up in bed…”; the first words of Chapter 2 (‘On a Long Journey with Uncle Gábor’): “Roald Amundsen’s true passion was for travelling…” How can these topics (and a great deal more) be fitted together in a short novel coming to just over 40,000 words in English?
    Not only are they magnificently reconciled but they are done so in a persuasively poetic manner which has few equals in Hungarian (and what’s more that carries over into English). The problem is not singing its praises but rather where to start and end.
    Born in 1940 in the SW Hungarian village of Zsennye, not far from Szombathely, after graduating from university in 1964 Fábián spent spells as a film scriptwriter, journalist, and freelance writer from 1976, before becoming a columnist for the weekly Film, Színház, Muzsika (’Film, Theatre, Music’). Since 1990, he has been deputy-editor or editor-in-chief of various daily papers and magazines – most recently of Életünk (‘Our Life’), the regional literary magazine for western Hungary. As an art expert, he teaches at the College of Applied Arts, Budapest, and has published monographs on several painters and sculptors.
    Perhaps one should make it clear that this is no retelling of Amundsen’s life, nor is it even about the great Norwegian as such or the polar regions, yet the name is repeatedly invoked, and the mystery which surrounds the end of his life comes explicitly into play in the final Chapter 12 (‘Amundsen Sometimes Pops Up Among the Ice Floes’). Yet the very fact that Amundsen is used as a major figure in a fictional work is certainly unusual, although in English there are endless novels about Capt. Robert Falcon Scott being beaten to the South Pole by Amundsen (and the heroics associated with the deaths of him and his team), but virtually nothing about Amundsen.
    The theme of polar exploration was probably inaugurated by Edgar Allen Poe with The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (1838), and it was certainly exploited by, among others, Jules Verne in The Purchase at the North Pole (1864) as well as Antarctic Mystery: The Sphinx of the Ice Fields (1897). British authors have harped on endlessly about Scott, but one of the most intriguing novels was on an earlier British figure: Arctic explorer Sir John Franklin, and was by German Sten Nadolny: Die Entdeckung der Langsamkeit (1983, transl. by Ralph Freedman as The Discovery of Slowness, 1987), though one should not forget Austrian Christoph Ransmayr’s equally striking Die Schrecken des Eises und der Finsternis (1990, transl. by John E. Woods as The Terrors of Ice and Darkness, 1991), which concerns aspects of the Austro-Hungarian polar expedition of 1872-74. Though both the latter novels came out a decade later than Fábián’s, one notes that Amundsen explicitly declares unequivocally on the first page of his memoirs (My Life as an Explorer, 1927): “When I was fifteen years old, the works of Sir John Franklin… fell into my hands, I read them with a fervid fascination which has shaped the whole course of my life…”
    The Amundsen most often encountered in the novel is, however, a boy who is clearly adopting the persona as a graphic way of relating how fraught his route to school was (along with schoolmates he is picked by horse and cart to take them to school):

…his mother was no doubt stirring, winding up the alarm clock between the two metal bells of which a tiny clapper would thrash madly back and forth, through his mind passed a swiftly discarded flannel night short (the possible cue for which may have been the flannel board on which the paper cutouts of “flannelgraphs” had been placed to tell stories at his Sunday School), flinging on his clothes in layers, and lots of them at that so he would not freeze in the cold if the train was late, pulled on his boots the smooth leg of which had become wrinkled under his chubby calves, the toes were square, as if they had been cut off, above it a khaki-coloured quilted jacket, onto his head he tied a scarf, then set off, stumbling through a village which was still shrouded in darkness and out onto the snow on the virtually untrodden road… (pp. 30-31)
The journeys, and the darkness in which the narrator has to prepare for them are a recurrent theme.
The horse-drawn carriage would be halted before the gate with a loud hailing, whereat Amundsen, as though at a command, will step out of the fate because he has already been awaiting for a short behind the gate for its arrival; the earflaps of his fur cap (army issue) tied under his chin, a hatchet slung over one shoulder and a big handsaw buckled for carrying, in his other hand; on the cart, seated and gassing, are the lads with whom he will lark around on the journey… (Chapter 8: ‘Make the Marsh Frog Hop it!’, p. 105)
As for the cramp of the subtitle, this is another case where bits relating to the Norwegian explorer’s life (and death) are seamlessly woven into key remembered moments in the narrator’s life. The following passage first appears in Chapter 6 (‘Fateful Impatience’) and is subsequently embroidered at later points:
    years later, when he went up in an aeroplane in order to fulfil his comradely duty (could he have said otherwise, however wishy-washy a character he might have been) he was perhaps again seized by a bad presentiment: the eyewitness’s throat was tightened by a strange cramp on seeing the mangled body covered over with wrapping paper… “Why did he have to die?” the question came involuntarily. When and by whom had his fateful mistake been committed… (a stone wall all along one side, a narrow winding lane it was, as far as the church—at the first crossroad, side-on, stood the sign on the side of the village’s theatre’s van which read: NORDISK TEATER, behind it a couple of passers-by were chatting, in front of the church some policemen wrote something down in some sort of notebook, and by the front heels a brown paper parcel, a prop of some description must have dropped, he thought, but as he drew near he saw a child’s shoe peeping out of the paper parcel while at the other end of the roll a few irregular pools of blood: the eyewitness’s throat was tightened by a strange cramp… (p. 74)
    The range of foreshadowings of works by other authors is striking. Thus, on a purely formal level Fábián’s work is punctuated as essentially a single sentence, articulated into paragraphs by semicolons and broken only by inserted chapter headings, admittedly with corresponding changes of focus and even language—very much in the way Péter Esterházy was to demonstrate in Függő (1981; ‘Depending’), which was published as a first small instalment in the very different, Ulyssean (and Gargantuan) project published in full in 1986 as Bevezetés a szépirodalomba (‘Introduction to Belles-Lettres’). That is even more obviously presented as a single sentence (with commas serving as full stops), which is about 56,000 words long in English without its elucidative footnotes. (It may also not be entirely irrelevant to note also that Esterházy’s very first volume—entitled Fancsikó és Pinta (‘Fannykins and Pinta’)—is advertised at the back of the first edition of Fábián’s work and is also a linked series of what are nominally short stories).
In Chapter 4 (‘Gothic’) one comes across the following
Roald Amundsen for his part among the innumerable pictures depicting suffering, torture, abasement, agony, cruelty, and persecution came across an 18th-century painting, which represented the Deposition, and where on a small table bloody and crooked nails (clearly bent on being extracted), hammer and pincers lay as proof of how laborious even the execution of the Teacher [Tanító] must have been; the figure of Christ in these pictures and in coloured statues sheds copious blood (“which is poured out for many for the remission of sins”) (p. 55)
That may spark memories of one of the most striking passages in Imre Kertész’s Kaddish for an Unborn Child:
…yes, an idea whose—how shall I put this?—inviolability, safekeeping or what you will was for him, ‘Teacher’ [Tanító úr’], his sole genuine chance of staying alive, without which his chance of staying alive would have been no chance at all, simply because he did not wish, and what is more in all likelihood was unable, to live without preserving this concept intact in its pure, untrammelled openness to scrutiny. Yes, and in my opinion this is what there is no explanation for….
    Among several other direct literary references, Chapter 3 (‘Spleen and Ideal’) carries the following epigraphs:

The shoemaker’s runaway wife was called Hermione, the Krasnoyarsk Mountains are in Siberia, Imogen’s little budgie is called Roald, the shoemaker named him after Amundsen.
[H.C. Artmann, Fleiss und Industrie. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1967 (Sweat and Industry, 1992. Acknowledgements are due to Derek Wynand, the translator, and to publishers BCM Atlas Press, London)]

…Amundsen, what a serious person that magnificently interesting Norman sailor is…
[Viktor Cholnoky: Kaleidoszkóp, with a Foreword by Aurél Kárpáti. Budapest, 1914, p. 240]

This morning…
[from Amundsen’s Diary]

A footnote indicates: At this point, in the author’s opinion, he displays a surprising identity with Hemingway, whose “life” was (indeed!—author’s comment) as if he himself had written it. A bit later in the same chapter are a couple more allusions, one referring indirectly to Dezső Szomory’s 1914 novel Harry Russel-Dorsan harctéri levelei [Harry Russel-Dorsan’s Front-line Dispatches] the other obviously to Mallarmé:
the kitchen was filled with a shuffling, a crackling of straw, a clattering of dishes, a cat’s mewing, and curses, with him losing any desire he might have had to go out as after all where would he fit in among so many uninvited guests, though on this particular morning he also was not so alone as with him was that poor teacher from the lycée at Amiens who did a two-year stretch for bigamy, Gaston Heliau-Torpe, the cannon-fodder poet (Pioupiou, tiens jusqu’au bout!) and Harry Russel-Dorsan (Old King Cole was a merry old soul),… and whether the over-refined poet (“…Mallarmé was very fond”) would be offended by the somewhat banal-seeming versified caption on the paper antimacassar:
carry on with your roaring, tractors
plough and reap, you contraption
as it is surely by some subjective poetaster… (p. 33-34).
A few pages later another writer’s name is tossed into the pot:
    Roald Amundsen really was a humanistic and philosophically inclined young person, the latter was served to great purpose by the sugary milk that he slowly sipped up, and the hard, thick-crusted bread about which he always supposed that his Grandma had baked some five or so of them in the oven at one go a fortnight ago. He had cut a tree branch to fire it, at baking time he would hand Grandma the poker and swab; at these times too the cat would always be slinking underfoot, then the next minute it would rub up to the feet, and Grandma would barely have time for a word of rebuke: drat that cat, she would remark,* Roald Amundsen (like other fellows of the same kidney), deeming it to be truly infra dig to intervene in this wrangle, observed his Grandma without a word as she by turns washed all five loaves of bread, placed them in the oven, jiggling the coals with the poker… (p.39)
The footnote here is: “This is a real danger; Gentle Reader only has to think of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s dog, Sultan.”
    Quite different from these, however, is the use of the initial W. to lend a sort of anonymity to a character:
    it is untrue that women played no role in Amundsen’s life, after all they could also have been important simply by virtue of staying outside his sphere of interest, but that was untrue in any case, especially if one thinks of the unfortunate fate of Elise W.; Elise W. (Werner, Weiss, Wittmann, Windisch, Wecker, Wiesenthal, Wohl, Wolf, Wünscher, Wolfstein, Wittinger, Wiedemann—in this case it may have been a matter of the late descendants of the outstanding Augsburg coppersmith and graphic artist, whose works, celebrated to the present day she carefully preserves at home*—Wieser, Widder—and then dear Papa fished them out somewhere in Haifa—etc.) in any case did not remain unknown to Amundsen even though their acquaintance came much too late and for just that reason remained much too unrequited;
(Incidentally, the footnote there reads cryptically: It is not at all sure that he was born in Augsburg, or possibly Olmütz, in 1619.) One cannot help recalling two other uses of the same initial, first by Ulrich Plenzdorf in Die neuen Leiden des jungen W (1973, transl as The New Sufferings of Young W by Kenneth P. Wilcox in 1979) and more notably Georges Perec’s W ou le souvenir d'enfance, 1975, published in an English translation by David Bellos in 1988.).
    And is it pure chance that the name used by the young protagonist and his sister for a name for a witch figure is Roggenmuhme, taken from very first volume of the Grimm Brothers’ collection of fairy tales (1826):
Mother in night-dress, holding the kerosene lamp in front of her, her huge shadow flickering for a moment on the door as it closed behind her, whereas the lamp would also take advantage of that split-second of movement to coat the glass cylinder, carefully cleaned beforehand with ashes, with a new layer of lamp-black as Mother’s path with the lamp was truly not a long one: her bed was right by the door, and in arm’s reach in the corner, next to the bed, the hastily improvised and equally extraordinarily wobbly table on which she usually placed, and from which she would pick up (having set down the lamp securely) the blue book of Der Märchenbaum,… the little girl (Does memory serve me right? Was it really a little girl?) went to pick poppies in the ripening wheat when suddenly up popped the… well, who might it have been, I wonder?… how should I pronounce it… the, the Roggenmuhme; and when Mother saw that we did not understand what was meant, she would try to explain that it was the Rye-Witch, or Rye-Mother, and suddenly spying help was at hand she would point to the drawing: there was the little girl standing in the rye field, and in front of her, threateningly, the Roggenmuhme. (p.6)
It should also be noted that in 1976, a few years before Fábián’s short novel was published, ergotism, the form of poisoning more popularly known in English as St Anthony’s fire, and caused by eating rye bread infected by the ergot fungus, was seriously proposed as the cause of the Salem Village witch trials. Of course, the world-famous first novel of J.D. Salinger (1919-2010) was Catcher in the Rye (1951; Hungarian transl. 1964). Even though, showing it can work both ways, the book was rather loosely but imaginatively translated (by Mrs Judit Sióréti née Gyepes) as Zabhegyező (literally ‘Oat Sharpener’).
    Make no mistake, there are repeated references to the real-life Amundsen, like this from Chapter 11 (‘The Wild Ducks Passed Across by Night’):
    because on this yarn-spinning tree, when all is said and done, the stories do gradually ripen, indeed start to wither and go rotten, thudding down like the chestnuts just before for mould to cover them amid dew-drenched blades of grass, green on green (“in the distance a white sail”); Roggenmuhme, on the other hand, transfers as a demented witch to some theatrical performance, perhaps gracing Shakespeare, putting the wind up Macbeth, and for a long time her contact with Amundsen becomes exceedingly loose: she does not venture into the intrepid explorer’s corner among the icebergs of Antarctica, into the whimpering of the dogs, nor into the cockpit of the Latham 47 sea plane;… (p. 143)
or this from the last chapter (“Amundsen Sometimes Pops Up Among the Ice Floes’}
    but now it is summer, the warmest summer, splendid weather for polar flying in a Latham sea plane (for once the purpose is not adventure but to assist: radio receivers had caught a radiogram message requesting help from airship designer, pilot and rival polar explorer Umberto Nobile, who had suffered a broken arm, broken leg, broken rib and head injury from the crashing of his dirigible Italia),… (p. 152)
It should be remarked that Amundsen was in fact aboard a Latham 47 sea plane when the aircraft disappeared over the sea on its way to the Arctic island of Spitzbergen in search for Nobile in 1928.
    As far as the approach Fábián adopted here is concerned (and he has since gone on, in at least six full-length novels, to show he is willing to venture each time on entirely new, unexpected approaches), he is good at letting his words speak for themselves, though at one point in Chapter 8 he notes,
…that’s realistic prose for you, isn’t it, with true-to-life dialogue the most flagrant example of which was by Hemingway’s protagonists, who babbled dialogue into world literature, or at least a national literature, but how is it possible to trust our hero to the mercies of irresponsible pronouncements, we cannot deny him a certain poeticalness which is amalgamated with his thorough, albeit far from complete, presentation, and at times may almost (to the immeasurable fury of certain theoreticians) slip, venture, trickle across or be assimilated into bluff—in accordance with its scale; so there is no alternative to re-rolling the whole scene once more, for the very last time (pp. 110-111).
A few pages later, in Chapter 9 (‘The Bang of Shutting Doors’), we find:
    Amundsen waited to reach the goal only he did not have any idea what the goal was; as a result he was readily enticed away by any spectacle; in the square Captain Ahab stood frozen in bronze, under the upturned brim of his vast top hat watches the spout discharged from Moby Dick’s blowhole, following its direction, though his fixation is barely changing in its direction: a church door waited wide open behind Ahab, the organ (or was it a harmonium?) rang out a hymn by Luther, conjuring up the mood of Sunday schools sunk in the past, although Amundsen knew that the only time he could have come into proximity with God was at best when he was led into temptation, all the same he now entered His home, took a seat somewhere in one of the pews at the back, opened the hymn book… (p. 119)
    Perhaps unsurprisingly, given Fábián’s long professional engagement with painting there are a scattering of specific references to particular artists. The final words of Chapter 3, for instance, are:
at such times he would rush off without saying goodbye, and he would be astonished to see in the garden, under the spiky pear tress Kandinsky, hard at work on a picture entitled ‘Marked Contrast’… (p. 42)
The heading to Chapter 10 (‘Lyrical Abstract à la E. W. Nay’) actually refers to a German painter (1902-1968) fashionable in the Sixties, while Chapter 6 ‘Fateful Impatience’) contains the following:
… he was forced into realising that for him this was the day of the dead, All Souls’ Day, hitherto he had not encountered a single living soul, the dead who were dear to him, on the other hand, had appeared before him one after the other, and he did not find it the least bit odd that he reckoned he could make out Franz Marc in the form of a blue horse galloping across the meadow (he was almost certainly sitting on his horse, blending with its body, its movement, its muscles;… the distance blossoms, on its leafless branches the four-petaled yellow flowers of the golden shower, even on smelling its fragrance is not heady, and it seems a bit as though it were an artificial so unnaturally rich and gorgeous are its flowers;… (p. 78)
That gives a clue as to where the first part of the book’s title may ultimately have come from (the subtitle is much more easily spotted but that would take one into territory that is not touched on here).
    The reader should not take away the impression that this is all just clever-clever dancing around. For one thing, it is probably obvious that ‘Amundsen’ is just a name used by the teller and main protagonist of the story for himself, and this is a person who is very much embedded in the Hungarian countryside and rural habits (and, indeed, to a small degree also in use of dialect vocabulary, though it is virtually impossible to demonstrate that convincingly in translation). Virtually every chapter gives a discrete insight whether it be into spices and herbs:
…he breathed in the Indian battles and the big Manitou’s odour of paprika, he sampled the mustard seeds rolling out from under the skin of the first pike he harpooned, with his fingers he rubbed marjoram and basil over his slaughtered favourite sheep, he pushed the coriander seed from the dawn harvest backwards and forwards over his tongue, his eyelids were heavy like the aroma of the cloves, his nerves were set on edge by the tarragon vinegar, slices of garlic were constantly forcing a way between his toes… (p. 40)
or fish:
memories are still alive in Amundsen, memories which barely emerge in light from the deep gloom of the yard and the past: a long-handled gaff for Matthias pike when they rose to feed in the small brook when it was swollen by floodwater, a basket for the nase carps, a net on the shrubbery for horned pout, bullhead, and a brass double hook with a frog or tiddler as bait for catfish and northern pike… (p. 109)
or flowers:
The flowers which overran the wheat field on the hillside explode for it to flow as in some places a confluent red river of poppies which had grown unusually large and swollen red, in other places as if the clear blue of the sky were reflected in an unpollutable little lake so suddenly had the cornflowers propagated, and elsewhere again the pinkish blue of a mountain lake flared up—a larkspur meadow gone crazy; and by now the wheat had yellowed as well, with white corn cockles here and there and the scattered blues of viper’s bugloss; at the edge of the field, where pebbles glistened from the rusty soil at the foot of sparse stalks of wheat, the tiny whitish trumpets of pink convolvulus kept modestly back… further away from those on the hillside (in haphazard order), almond trees slithered up, cyanide already exhaling its vapour in the depths of their velvety green seeds, getting ready for crime, waiting for a victim… (Chapter 10, p.126)
    This is just scratching at the surface. By the time you reach the end of this astonishingly rich growing-of-age tale and its ramifications you can be sure that any seeming loose ends it threw up have been neatly tied off—and with a wonderfully sonorous, graceful poetry about which almost nothing has been said. There can surely be little doubt that On Returning Home…, coming close to the start of what I have termed its “quiet revolution”, marks a milestone in Hungarian literature. Which to my mind only throws up the question of why is László Fábián not much more widely celebrated as a writer who offers an utterly individual poetic of telling stories about a person’s life.

[Lead picture: the 'thousand-year-old' oak tree at Zsennye, Fábián's village of birth, supposedly the oldest tree in Hungary. Unfortunately, it was thunderstruck in 2006, but it still lies where it used to stand, broken into two]

Tim Wilkinson

Tags: László Fábián