03. 27. 2010. 09:38

Good person wanted

Miklós Vajda: Portrait of a Mother in an American Frame

Accurate, succinct, and at the same time rich in detail, a shrewd but not cold analysis, elegant, distant, but not dispassionate, ironic, but not sarcastic – this portrait, and part autobiography, is a triumph of proportion and good taste. But most of all it is touching. And beautiful.

Miklós Vajda (b. 1931, Budapest) is known by many as the last ‘literary gentleman’, meant in the true English sense. For decades he has been one of the best literary translators in this country, and this means far more than his competence in the language or the elegance of his appearance. It entails also his inner harmony, his perfect sense of proportion and his politeness in the higher sense of being considerate of the needs of his readership without serving them in an unprincipled fashion. All of this implicitly renders him an ideal editor. A painting from 1955 shows just how early he committed himself to this profession. The work of great Hungarian painter Tibor Csernus, who died in Paris in 2007, is called Three Editors and shows the shockingly young and well-known trio of Mátyás Domokos, Pál Réz and Miklós Vajda, proving that already as a youth Vajda was considered a notable person. Even though his participation in the revolution was almost invisible, in 1958 he was fired from the literary publishing house Szépirodalmi Könyvkiadó. This is when he began his amazing career as a literary translator. He was editor of The New Hungarian Quarterly (later renamed The Hungarian Quarterly) from its establishment in 1964, and editor in chief from 1989 until 2005. Then he retired, and it seemed that his career had come to an end.
 
Thus it was a true surprise when, at the age of 78, he released his first prose work, partly reviving his childhood and youth but, more importantly, offering a portrait of his mother. This late decision proved a good move in every sense. Critics agree that Portrait of a Mother in an American Frame is one of the most beautiful and impressive literary achievements of the past decade, even though the author did not have any primary literary intention.
 
At the outset of the work he was probably inspired by a spirit akin to Dostoyevsky’s The Raw Youth. "Those who are capable of writing about themselves without a trace of any shame are despicably infatuated with themselves. I have but one excuse: the reason I write is different from everybody else's. I write not to merit the reader's praise, but driven by an inner need – I was so shocked by all that happened. I am not a writer, nor do I want to be one: I would find it impolite and demeaning to peddle at the literary market the contents of my soul, the attractive description of my emotions."

There is no sign of narcissism or navel-gazing exhibitionism. Although the portrait is inevitably intertwined with some of its author’s personal facts and emotions we certainly could not call it a memoir in the strict sense. This volume, as well as his other publications seem to lead to the conclusion that for Vajda the people who played an important part in his life provide the Archimedean point based on which he feels he might once again mobilize, or interpret and understand, a world which is now but a frozen image of the past. The will to understand is the main motive of these fragments of memoir, and their chief method is also continuous interpretation and analysis. It is the passion for analysis that makes Vajda’s writings so seething hot and plastic – the beauty of dissecting and exploring. Unlike Goethe, his passion is not the love of storytelling but that of analyzing.
 
The raw material itself offers little joy. The Arrow Cross, Rákosi and his men, imprisonment, the high security gaol at Márianosztra, forced emigration first to Vienna, then to New York and later Wayne, "a wealthy, carefully tended little town about 35 minutes by train from Philadelphia", and finally Bryn Mawr, the old people’s home "Chateau Nursing and Rehabilitation Center".  And the person to have suffered these uncalled-for adventures was the author’s mother, Mrs Ödön Vajda, née Judit Csernovitz (sister to the undeservedly forgotten, excellent short-story writer Erzsébet Kádár). All of this together adds up to 20th-century Hungarian history in a tiny nutshell. Vajda creates his picture not with a brush but an etching needle, or even a simple pencil, offering neat little sketches but refraining from anything like attempting the outlines of a monumental historical tableau. This is a matter of literary and personal proclivities. But then why should he talk a lot, when things speak for themselves?
 
A newspaper article from 1950 informed the readers that: "The ÁVH have detained Mrs. Ödön Vajda, an inner-city café owner" and two "accomplices", whom Mrs Vajda in fact never met until the trials – to be sure, such things were quite common during the Soviet regime. "The accused had spread the rumour, in a systematic and premeditated fashion, whereby 100 Forint notes would be sealed, which was based on malevolent disturbing broadcasts from British radio." This situation came to serve as the basis for a Hungarian musical premiered at the time and later to be made into a successful film, called State Department Store. The follow-up was in reality very far from an operetta finale: Mrs Vajda was sentenced to three years in prison and the confiscation of all her property.
 
This is the volume’s point of departure and also one of the strands of its plot. It is confirmed by documents published in the Appendix such as the correspondence between Stalinist party leader Rákosi and Gizi Bajor, one of Hungary’s greatest tragic actresses, as well as other related documents. It is a point of departure but not the main feature and not the real beginning. The outset, in fact, is quite Proustian. "... for example, I have taken to observing her secretly from my bed as she slowly removes her make-up at the antique dressing table with the great gilded antique Venetian mirror hanging over it, looking into the antique silver-framed standing mirror before her, going about her task in a business-like manner, applying cream with balls of cotton-wool, her hands working in a circular motion..." The little boy’s enthusiasm betrays a touch of eroticism. No steamy sexuality, to be sure, but the fundamentally erotic base tone of children’s curiosity. Vajda approaches all objective elements with the same sensual openness – the material world, the furnishings of the mother’s various homes in Budapest or the US, clothes and even pawnbrokers’ receipts become the objects of sensual interest, as well as of historical remembrance. It is the nature of a memoir to be historical in origin and character. However, Vajda’s objective was clearly not to present the workings of history but the way in which history may be captured in the smallest and most insignificants acts, too. For instance, at mealtimes. If there is such a thing as class warfare in bed, it must surely exist by the dinner table, too. The description of the mother in the act of eating is a masterpiece. "She pushes the meat to the right side of the plate, the garnish being neatly separated and ranged on the left. Turning the plate one way or the other is common, an unspoken taboo." So far is pretty clear. But now comes the conjurer’s inexplicable trick. "She cuts and spears a small piece from the meat, loads the appropriate amount of garnish on the round back of the fork and so carries it to her mouth. This is a far from simple operation…" Indeed, and highly risky to imitate by anyone for whom this irrational, unpractical way of eating is not second nature. But the mother eats in an elegant and distinguished fashion. "My father, whose education had been under quite different circumstances, ate differently. That which could not be speared, he swept into the hollow of the fork and stuffed into his mouth." Eventually, of course, it is the son who suffers from all of this. "In my first days at the university canteen I was laughed out of countenance as I was unmasked as a true-blooded bourgeois leftover from the old regime, when, out of habit, I started employing my mother’s technique." The recording of numerous small details of this kind is what gives special credit to Vajda’s book.
 
In contrast to many (otherwise often excellent) memoir authors, Vajda quite openly admits in the very first pages of his book the basic underlying sentiment of the book and his consistent narratorial formal principle, namely that his memory and consequently its narration are arbitrary. Remembrance always is, there is no point in denying this. It is always the remembering I which creates the figures of the recollection, its objective world, even if s/he mistakenly believes that the memory is a perfect preservation of the original image. "She is cooking for me. That's another new thing, a strange thing. But there she stands, repeating anything I want, anywhere, whatever I happen to want most, at the time I want it. I am still here: she is not. And there are things I do want. But even if I didn't want them she would carry on coming and going... I am insatiable: I am interested in all that is not me, in what is private, in affairs before and after me, in her existence as distinct from mine, and I try to fit the jigsaw together, but nowadays, whatever she is doing – and I can't do anything about this – is always, invariably done for me, because of me, to me, with me or on my behalf – or rather, of course, for me." Remembrance retains and revives the past and thus creates the beautiful dialectic of the relations of ‘is’ and ‘was’. After describing a terrible nightmare, in which the mother appeared as a Chinese soldier’, the summation is as follows: "What this dream says to me today is that I really cannot come in touch with her ever again, because she no longer exists, she has melted into the infinitude of the universe, and yet I can be together with her, because inside me she lives on, but the only way in which I can be in contact with her is by describing her, taking her to pieces and building her up again; interrogating her, confessing to her, understanding and presenting her as best I can."
 
The title of the previously mentioned Appendix – "Dear Good Mátyás Rákosi. Letters by Gizi Bajor" – is a perfect summary of what is most essential here. These are the letters of the great actress who did all she could when her friend and ‘relative’ (Ödön Vajda had been Gizi Bajor’s first husband) was in prison to get her released. It is quite astounding to see how Gizi Bajor mobilized all she could, including her full dramatic toolkit and seductive femininity, to attain her goal. Even more shocking is that fact that she was to some degree successful, as her friend’s prison sentence was interrupted. (True, shortly after Bajor’s death Mrs Vajda  was put in prison again.) Nevertheless the material of the Appendix, although in the spirit of the plot it is organically related to the novelistic part, could well form the subject matter of a separate book and also a separate book review. By presenting her mother, however, Miklós Vajda has also managed to erect a memento to another great woman.
 
Two excellent women, two good people. In an age when both are a true rarity. By presenting their portrait the book suggests that even in a faceless and inhuman age hope survives and that history can always be overcome. By memoirs of this kind, for example.

Zoltán András Bán

(Most of the quotations from the book are from an excerpt published in The Hungarian Quarterly, Autumn 2008, in the translation of George Szirtes.)
 
Vajda Miklós: Anyakép, amerikai keretben
Budapest: Magveto, 2009

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