07. 22. 2006. 11:23

“If I live in a swampy country, I must write about swamps”

An interview with Ádám Nádasdy

One of our most versatile poets. An arrestingly colourful personality. If you ask me, he is the person I would hire to popularise poetry in secondary school classes. His career as a poet started late, but has remained unbroken ever since; his life's course has been structured and criss-crossed by profound human drama.

I must say, you weren’t in much of a hurry to start your career as a poet. Your first volume did not come out until you were 37, in 1984… by that age most people are stuck in their nth writer’s block.

I had written some bits and pieces when I was around nineteen or twenty. But I was dissatisfied, perhaps nervous as well, thinking I wouldn’t go public until the writing was really good. This means that at the bottom of my heart I always knew that one day I would come along… “and then you’d all see”… but perhaps I would have been too ashamed if I had to hear that someone did not like what I had written…

The fact that you are a lecturer, a serious university gentleman – did that make it more difficult for you to come forth as a poet all of a sudden?

I was in my twenties. At that age, this can happen to anyone, even in the most earnest professions… doctors or physicists can all of a sudden turn out to be literary authors. That wasn’t what bothered me. It is hard to say…. Somehow the whole of the literary world seemed so far away at that time… it was still in the thick of communism, the 1970’s. There was some nice writing and good writing being done by some nice people and good people, but still, somehow, that ambiance, those editorial offices, the whole world of it was so entirely alien to me. What made things easier was that the editors of the magazine Mozgó Világ at the time were so different, not a traditional editorial board at all. It had a totally different ambience from other papers. Something like when you go abroad and someone says to you, “Oh, by the way, I also edit a magazine, why don’t you pop in and have a look at our offices…”

Did you just walk in cold, or were you invited by somebody?

I actually first took my poems to professor and critic István Margócsy, as we are roughly the same age.

Who advised you against it, as far as I know…

Who absolutely advised me against it, saying that this was no way to write here, and he understands that these… what he actually said was, and this was quite lovely, he said he felt like a valuer in a second-hand store or an antique shop who says, “I admit that this is made of fine stuff and is also lovely to look at, but there is no market for it at the moment.” So he did not deny that they had beauty, but just said that he would not buy them as a merchant, because he could not sell them, because it was sentimental, emotional poetry, because they were love poems, because one started with “Oh”. He said, I am sorry, but not this, not this way. I said thank yoIu and walked away.

Did this change anything inside you? Was this a harsh situation, a dramatic moment?

No, not really. Actually, I was outside of it all. My feeling was something like “All right, then I will take this vase home and put it neatly back on the shelf. If they didn’t want it, they didn’t want it; I will just keep on looking at it at home.” Then I wrote some more, and took my stuff to him several times over, and eventually he said, “Whoops, I’m sorry. If you are so earnest about this, and this is how it is, then let’s have it.”

How did life and your priorities change after your first volume came out? It cannot have raised particularly great ambitions, if your next book did not appear for almost another ten years.

I grew uncertain whether I should carry on or not. The early poems really did have something naively sincere. I wrote things down just as the Muse dictated them, as it were, and in most cases, it never occurred to me that they would be published. But then I got so scared that all of a sudden I grew conscious of my writing. Like someone who is a good dancer, and then someone says, “Wow, you’re really good at that,” and from that point on, the dancer starts stumbling all the time. This is what happened to me, and after that time, I had to keep looking which way to go.

Did you find any soul mates at the English Department or anywhere? One reason I ask is that in professional jargon, I often hear people talk of “the poetry of the English department at the university of Budapest”, meaning Gyozo Ferencz, Zsuzsa Rakovszky, István Géher or, to talk of the younger generation, Anna Szabó T. or András Imreh and others. Is there really a coterie around there, or is that just a myth? And, more generally, would you like such a thing to exist or not?

It is no accident that these people all come from the English Department. They have a good command of English, they have read English literature, and they have been open toward England and America. They have been able to function as cultural importers, bringing in, if not the words, the ambiance and a certain type of sensibility.

There certainly did exist a circle which met on a self-organised basis every month or every other month. We read our poems to each other, or we sent them round beforehand and offered each other analysis and criticism.

I must admit, I was sinfully late noticing your poetry: it happened around the mid-90’s, around the time of your volume The Skinand Times of Day. Still, this was a rather intense encounter. I was instantly struck by how fresh and unique they were. This language was very different from the kind of lyrical vernacular which was dominant in Hungary in the 1980’s and 90’s, in that it resembled the tone of the chanson, but not in a light and airy way – certainly not in a clichéd way, but through a kind of imitation. Was it a conscious choice for you as a poet to avoid the modes of speech customary in Hungarian lyrical prose with its traditionally weighty contents? Did you choose this language or did the language choose you?

I chose the language, I think. I most definitely wanted to avoid chewing old rugs; I thought it was time to do something totally different, and this might be the simplest and most market-like. Not market-like in the sense that it raises money, but that it attracts attention or manages simply to give something to the reader. I just thought there was room enough left for this kind of thing. If Tandori and people like him have gone a pretty long way toward a complicated, overwrought or at least highly-wrought language, then there was no point in my going any further in that same direction. So I thought I would go in the other direction instead, and maybe by growing simpler or, as you put it, chanson-like, I would find a language that was suitable and allowed me a fair amount of play.

Your third volume, entitled He Starts Rounding Things Off, was the point in your career when the profession canonised you, and you also achieved audience acceptance. Even time seemed to be working in your favour. It appears that after the second half of the 1990’s, Hungarian poetry started opening up toward the more popular registers. Do you see that kind of thing happening? 

Yes, certainly. But it is enough to think of classical music to see that something very similar is going on. There are surprisingly melodious things being written today by way of classical music, and the instrumental and minimalist stuff that used to resemble the sawing of a block of wood now appears to be less in the foreground. And in painting, too. Just look. There are figurative paintings, and you can actually see what is what on the canvas.

I suppose you have also noticed that this shift has contributed to poetry regaining a great portion of its audience after the 90’s. Have you noticed that? As though this kind of opening up, this handling of language, this school of poetic construction and the new forms had made reception considerably easier.

I am not sure. It is still true that there are not as many people reading poetry today as there used to be. This is partly to do with the emancipation of this country. There is a lot more you can do in life now, like start up in business. It is no accident that under communism the annual anthology of poetry, Szép versek (Beautiful Poems), was published in a hundred thousand copies, whereas today it comes out in three thousand, and I consider that a goodly number that we can feel satisfied with.

To me, the most attractive feature of Nádasdy poems is that they rely on banal, perfectly trivial everyday subjects, impressions and events, in order to re-conquer the truly weighty meanings around the ultimate foundations of our being. In doing this, they use a tone which is very boiled down, very honest and so free of pathos that it is rarely encountered. Who were your models, your forerunners or masters in this respect? Is there anyone who influenced you?

You might find it funny, but I think Tandori and Petri were actually doing the same; it just came out differently from their pen than from mine. But the banal subject matter is the same. 

Reading through your poetry, it becomes clear that its central formal principle is order and transparency, but this order and transparency always catch the light at odd, grotesque angles. The reader has the impression that order and structure are there, but for the poetic speaker they are always endangered, unstable and, most of all, suspect. Highly lucid structures shift as though you were distrustful of this order, constantly testing its boundaries.

My entire upbringing and the age in which I spent my youth were all to do with order. We had a very deep-felt need for it, and the question is also tied in with the history of this country. The feeling that we used to have, that whatever is happening here is not in order. That our Parliament is not a Parliament, our parties are not parties, the government is not a government, trams are not trams, and that even the opposite of what the papers say is a lie. On the other hand, there was this persistent and menacing sensation that the order in which we once existed could not have been all that good either. That it would not be all right if we woke up one day and found that it had all been a nightmare, and we were in fact back in 1938. On one hand, you wished it would all come back; and on the other, that was the last thing you wanted.

And what is on the far side of order? How does all this relate to your anxieties, which are clearly palpable, though coated in irony?

On the far side of order? There are questions like how one should die. And how one can make a decent job of all that goes before. What is the best way to do it? To keep on running all the way and then at the end, like on a serpentine road, suddenly drive your car into the sea? Or is it best to start putting the brakes on, slow down, get out, park your car and even put it back into the garage…? In other words, whether you should tidy up first. Yes, that is a really tough question, whether you should be tidy around death or whether that is going too far to an extreme which is harmful. And, of course, you can never predict precisely when it is going to happen.

Does that mean that you are in daily contact with the ideas of death and dying?

No, that would be misleading to say, but I do think a lot about it. My partner died a few years ago and since that time, this question has become extremely relevant to me. I had to do a lot of thinking about it. My partner committed suicide; he had planned it all out well in advance, did it in a very neat and tidy kind of way, prepared everything, left letters behind, what should go to whom, what to do with this and that. He made a tidy exit.

In an interview a few years ago you mentioned an encounter with an ex-schoolmate who had become a monk at the Benedictine abbey of Pannonhalma. You described that in one way it turned out to be a decisive experience, a turning point in your life. The conversations you had with him came to you almost like an absolution. Would you like to say anything about that?

At that time, there were very few places in Hungary like Pannonhalma. It was an incredible place. You forgot you were inside the “peace camp”, as they called the socialist countries here. There was something scary about it, too. It all smelt a bit mouldy, but on the other hand, it emanated an incredible intellectual freshness. I had been brought up a Catholic, but my grandma had never explained to me whether God actually existed or not, because she had a traditional faith and perhaps had never asked that question. Perhaps she was right, too. It is a stupid question. You could argue that you just need to go into a church and see for yourself… Well, that is something I could never do. I struggled and agonised and eventually went to see Pannonhalma. Of course, when I came back at the end, it was not with the certainty that I had been told that God existed. They had not said that. They told me about how they lived, and that monks there had lived like that four hundred, six hundred years ago. Generally, all of a sudden, I was so taken with that vast sense of culture, that huge feeling of safety and that huge building.

And how do you relate to God these days? Your curious, apocryphal religious poetry is saturated with the same kind of ambivalence as the whole stream of poetry to do with the nature of human relationships.

Well… I don’t know. People sometimes ask me whether I believe God exists, and I usually say, I know that God exists, but that is not the same thing. Whether I believe it is different, because, if I got it right, this means that I believe that in some way or other he watches over the course of my life. Yes, I believe in that, and I try to do my work according to what I think he expects of me. I sometimes stop and think about why he created me and whether I am doing what he created me for. This is what I think our job is, to figure out whether we are in the right place, whether we are the screw that fits into just that hole. Otherwise, the whole machinery will start creaking.

I seem to remember that in the interview I just referred to, you mentioned that the great turn your life took. Your decision to come out and reveal that you are different from most people also goes back to your conversation with the monk.

No, that is not how it happened. It is just that these two events took place roughly in the same period. Those were very eventful times for me. I got married when I was young, and I had two children, too. They are fine grown-up women now, but our marriage broke up, because I felt I just could not live that way. It was a suffocating situation, a role which I knew I could play if I wanted to, but I felt, “Why should I wear this uniform if it was not made for me?” It was roughly around the same time, when I was 28 or 29, that I started asking myself lots of questions: why was I doing this or that, what was the meaning of various things. Those conversations were also a part of this weighty period, but in no way should we create the impression that any of the priests there encouraged me to… No, quite the contrary. I must admit that they were most severe, as well as most affectionate, and in no way did they make my decision easy. But then, perhaps, this is their job.

Did you become a happier man? Was that a euphoric moment?

Yes.

And did that mean anything for your poetry?

Yes. That was the time when I started writing properly and more copiously. I thought, “I know this, and so this is what I must write about.” If I live in a swampy country, I must write about swamps.

Tibor Keresztury

Translated by Orsolya Frank

A poem by Ádám Nádasdy in The Hungarian Quarterly

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