05. 17. 2004. 15:37

An Island of Sound

Hungarian Poetry and Fiction Before and Beyond the Iron Curtain

Would I be willing to write a review of this ground-breaking anthology of Hungarian literature in English translation, the editor of HLO asked. "No" was my instant reply, I simply couldn't. It would be simpler to write about why I could not. A foolish reflex. Why not write about why not was the response.

"No" seems plain enough in any language, but politeness does indeed sometimes demands explanation. The main "no-no" comes simply through being implicated, willy-nilly, as one of the 23 listed translators of 56 writers and poets who are featured in the volume - to be more accurate, as one of nine translators of the 23 pieces of prose writing that take up the some three-quarters of the pages in this volume (one writer ventures, Nabokov-wise, to act as his own translator, which I suppose would doubly disqualify him). And in saying that I would also have to confess to an abiding uneasiness about the rendering of poetry in other languages, except possibly as a parallel-text gloss, so that rules out my taking any helpful view on the one quarter of the volume that is taken up by the 65 poems from 33 poets (I have a bad enough conscience when it comes to rendering great prose adequately*).
Compounding that, is it possible to suppress one's own background knowledge and NOT to write about the validity (or otherwise) of the authors and works who appear in the anthology because one knows the intended readership has no real chance of judging whether that is fair or relevant comment. Why A and not, say, B? Or if you have one of C's poems, why not a piece of his/her prose? (A reasonable question with, say, Gyozo Határ, Dezso Tandori, Lajos here unfortunately renamed László­ Parti Nagy, or even Zsuzsa Rakovszky - all explicitly credited by Szirtes with innovative work as both poets and prose writers.) But beyond the endless possibilities for this sort of carping, how can one comment on the quality of what the reader actually sees -­ not the Hungarian originals but their representations in English, the actual translations by one's fellow translators?
Actually, there is nothing here of less than thoroughly decent standard, as well as I can judge, though who, I wonder, chose to render the title of Sándor Márai's 1972 memoir ­- not incidentally one of the volumes of his Journal properly speaking - literally as "Land! Land!", rather than "Land Ahoy!"? Then too it is so tempting to point out that yardsticks do exist for comparing at least a few of the pieces (certainly three of the prose pieces exist in alternative published versions, whilst Ferenc Juhász's justly celebrated Boy Changed into a Stag is here intriguingly presented in a version by Ted Hughes rather than the rendering by David Wevill, through which it first became known to English speakers, or by Kenneth McRobbie's later effort).
Still, there just isn't space within a review of any acceptable size to begin scratching at this level. It is a wonder, indeed, that George Szirtes has contrived to fit all 56 figures into some sort of coherent framework within his roughly 10,000-word introduction and, moreover, to supply necessary handholds to set his English readers in the right direction in tackling the very varied contributions.
In many ways, the fact that Szirtes doesn't betray the implicit trust that most of his readers must place in his judgement is perhaps the most signal feature of the whole enterprise. Even so, could I refrain from tipping off the reader to the existence of another recent and, though not strictly comparable, also very valuable anthology of Contemporary Jewish Writing in Hungary, edited by Susan Rubin Suleiman and Éva Forgács and published by the University of Nebraska Press (it also has a London imprint).
Of the 24 writers and poets in this book, 11 also feature in An Island of Sound, but only two pieces are common ­- indeed identical - between the volumes: György Spiró's short story Forest and a chunk from the opening of Mihály Kornis's Daybook or Lifebook (it depends which anthology you read).
Even if I could cap my instincts to parade my own very partial familiarity with the field, could I hold myself back from the Brutus role that Tibor Fischer takes upon himself in his review in The Guardian (1 May)? Having praised Caesar ("Szirtes and Vajda have done a splendid job in collecting the greatest hits of Hungarian literature in translation") Fischer then throws doubt on the value of the bulk of the enterprise ("the fact that, Márai aside, the real talents [in contemporary Hungarian literature] have been poets").
Is that a fact, though? It sounds more like an opinion to me, and a minority opinion at that. No, far better the careful contextual positioning of Peter Sherwood in his illuminating review in The Times Literary Supplement (30 April): "The anthology makes a point of not reprinting work, or from work, that is more widely available in English. This may be economical and practical but is also an admission that the day of the mainly historical-informative anthology is past, and therefore that the time has come for good (or better) versions of many texts that must, and can, stand up without special pleading."
What I really want to do is give uncomplicated and uninhibited thanks that an opportunity has been given at last for a volume of this sort to appear in one of the major English-speaking markets. As Boyd Tonkin, The Independent's regular book-review columnist, put it (30 April): "by far the best, and boldest, literary calling-card presented by any of the EU accession states. In literary terms, Hungary's purse is bursting with riches. Harvill's anthology lets British readers dip in at will. Do so, and you'll also be helping to resist our home-grown form of mind-control by means of the screaming headline and the squirming soundbite."
That is ultimately why I am in the translating "game" at all, and I couldn't put it better myself. So I'll just shut up.
* It intrigues me, as the guilty party, that all three English "reviews" that I have seen specifically mention the piece by Péter Esterházy, without actually saying anything about it. Admittedly, in Tonkins' column it is just a convenient segue from his prior mention of Judith Sollosy's translation of Esterházy's Celestial Harmonies, which was published a week or so before the anthology ("Esterházy also features in by far the best, etc. (see above)").
Sherwood elliptically notes "[the triad at the top of contemporary Hungarian prose ingeniously represented here by a rich array of responses to the 1956 revolution: Péter Esterházy by a piece from his seminal Introduction to Literature". Fischer takes immediate refuge in anecdote: "One of Esterházy's early novels is included in its entirety - I remember it appearing in 1983. But no one could agree on what it was about. I fear he will have trouble winning English-speaking admirers."
That's about as much of a come-on as, say, giving a book a title like Don't Read This Book If Your Are Stupid. Is it not conceivable that the Esterházy piece is "about" (i.e. an enactment of) ambiguity? Several earlier Hungarian reviewers (and indeed the first translator of the piece into English) were convinced, for instance, that the novel describes the rape of an innocent young girl, but László Szilasi, for one, has brilliantly (and very gallantly) defended Sophie's virginity.
For my own part, I even question Sophie's gender when I look carefully at the relevant work of fiction from which Esterházy appropriates the clearly identifiable Rilke quotations, to say nothing of the figure of Daisy elsewhere in the overall Introduction to Literature/Belles Lettres, an opportunity not offered to English-speakers (tant pis).
Tim Wilkinson

George Szirtes & Miklós Vajda (eds.): An Island of Sound: Hungarian Poetry and Fiction before and beyond the Iron Curtain (Leopard V)
London: Harvill Press, 2004

Tags: Hungarian Poetry and Fiction Before and Beyond the Iron Curtain