02. 22. 2006. 13:33

Imre Kertész and the English

Tim Wilkinson

In advance of Imre Kertész’s first public appearance in Great Britain on 5 March at the Jewish Book Week, it seemed worth gathering together a handful of references that he has made to the English in various published works. This is mostly because they carry an amusingly equivocal edge, but they also highlight a few of the difficult choices translators sometimes face.

The obvious place to start is that wonderful long short story published as Az angol lobogó. I use the Hungarian deliberately to make the point that while ‘angol’ has long been used by Hungarians to mean indiscriminately both ‘English’ and ‘British’, a native Englishman or Brit has to be a bit more circumspect. ‘The English Flag’ could only mean the simple red St. George’s Cross on a white background, and would not correctly describe the banner draped over a British diplomat’s car radiator in the incident in question. So, “The Union Jack” is both accurate as a translation of the title and also has suitably derogatory overtones in the context of what is being said. (For what it is worth, this translator nearly plumped for “The British Standard”, but maybe the irony of that would be lost even on British readers.)

"…The weather turned autumnal; several quieter days ensued; down below on the street, of course, but especially on looking out from the window, I could see how much the street had changed: detached overhead tramway cables snaking between the rails, dangling bullet-riddled sign boards, smashed windows here and there, fresh holes in the pealing stucco of the houses, dense throngs of people on the pavements of the long, long street, all the way up to the distant corner, and very occasionally a vehicle, a passenger car or lorry, tearing by at great speed, with some highly conspicuous distinguishing marks, the more garish the better. A hurtling jeep-like motor suddenly appeared with the British red-white-and-blue colours, a Union Jack, draped over the entire radiator. It was scudding at breakneck speed between the crowds thronging the pavement on either side when, sporadically at first but then ever more continuously, evidently as a mark of their affection, people began to applaud. I was able to see the vehicle, once it had sped past me, only from the rear, and at the very moment when the applause seemed to coalesce, almost solidify, an arm stretched out hesitantly, almost reluctantly at first, from the left-side window of the car. The hand was tucked into a light-coloured glove, and though I did not see it from close up, I presume it was a kid glove; probably in response to the clapping, it cautiously dipped several times parallel to the direction in which the vehicle was travelling. It was a wave, a friendly, welcoming, perhaps slightly consolatory gesture, which, at the very least, adumbrated an unreserved endorsement and, by the by, also the solid consciousness that before long that same gloved hand would be touching the rail of the steps leading down from an aircraft on to the runway on arrival home in that distant island country. After that, vehicle, hand and Union Jack—all disappeared in the bend of the road, and the applause gradually died away."

(From: “The Union Jack,” in: An Island of Sound, eds. G Szirtes & M. Vajda. London: The Harvill Press, 2004, pp. 112-113)

This is, of course, followed immediately by a wonderfully apposite quotation from Thomas Mann, the impact of whose Wälsung Blood and Essay on Goethe and Tolstoy on Kertész as a young man in his twenties have already figured.

"So much, then, for the story of the Union Jack. ‘Johnny rejoiced wholeheartedly at the prospect of the fight; I think neither he nor Brattström felt shared any of my apprehension,’ I read during the severe winter that soon set in, during which my aforementioned ailment flared up again, so to speak, in the form of a fever of reading, or perhaps it was my reading fever which flared up again not long afterwards in the form of the aforementioned ailment. ‘Johnny repeatedly assured me, with that charming rolling of his r's, that the two boys really meant serious business, as befitted men; then, with a complacent and somewhat sarcastic objectivity, he weighed the chances of victory... He gave me my first impressions of that peculiar sense of superiority, so typical of the English national character, which I later came to admire so much,’ I read…" (Ibid., p. 113)

Much more sinister is a reference that will be familiar to anyone who has seen the film Fateless (and I won’t rehearse the arguments why there is no real excuse for not calling it Fatelessness, like the novel on which it is based - see footnote), although it does not appear in the original novel, but in A kudarc (The Failure)—the continuation of the György Köves story in the glory days of Kádárism, and, as it happens, just at the point where he has received a publisher’s rejection letter for the manuscript of his first novel (clearly Fatelessness):

"The old boy was standing in front of the filing cabinet and reading.
   'August 1973
   What has happened, has happened; I can do nothing about it now. I can do as little to alter my past as the future that implacably ensues from it, with which I am as yet unacquainted...'
   'Good God!' the old boy uttered aloud.
   '...Yet I move just as aimlessly within the narrow confines of my present as in the past or the time that is to come.
   How I have got to this position, I don't know. I simply frittered away my childhood. There are no doubt deep psychological explanations for why I should have been such a poor student in the lower classes at grammar school. (‘You don't even have the excuse of being dumb, because you have a brain, if only you would use it,’ as my father often stressed.) Later, when I was fourteen and a half, through a conjunction of infinitely inane circumstances, I found myself looking down the barrel of a loaded machine gun for half an hour. It is practically impossible to describe those circumstances in normal language. Suffice it to say that I was standing in a crowd that was sweating fear and who knows what scraps of thoughts in the narrow courtyard of a police barracks, the one thing that all the individuals had in common being that we were all Jews. It was a crystal-clear, flower-scented summer evening, a full moon beaming up above us. The air was filled with a steady, low throbbing: obviously Royal Air Force formations flying from their Italian bases and headed for unknown targets, and the danger that threatened us was that if they should chance to drop a bomb on the barracks or its environs, the gendarmes would mow us down, as they phrased it. The ludicrous connections and imbecilic reasons on which that rested were, I felt then and also since then, absolutely negligible. The machine gun was mounted on a stand rather like the tripod of a cine camera. Standing behind it, on some sort of platform, was a gendarme with drooping Turanian moustache and impassively narrowed eyes. Fitted onto the end of the barrel was a ridiculous conical component, rather like the one on my grandmother's coffee grinder. We waited. The drone's rumbling grew louder and then again faded to a low buzz, only for each quiet interval to give way to a renewed intensification of the rumbling. Would it drop or wouldn't it, that was the question. Gradually the gendarmes let the deranged good humour of gamblers take control of them. Is there any way I can describe the unforeseen good spirits that, after I had got over my initial surprise, coursed through me as well? All I had to do to be able to enjoy the game, in a certain fashion, was to recognise the triviality of the stake. I grasped the simple secret of the universe that had been disclosed to me: I could be gunned down anywhere, at any time. It may be that this...'
   'Fucking hell!' the old boy suddenly broke off his reading at this point as he lifted himself part way from his seat to reach over to the filing cabinet.
   The reason for this curious development lay in an event that, although it had not been anticipated, could not be categorised as unexpected (because it occurred regularly, practically every single day), but even the frequent repetition of the event had not robbed it, as we have seen, of its original, elemental effect on the old boy (indeed, quite the opposite, one might say).
   Obviously, it would be wrong for us to hold back on providing a satisfactory explanation.
   Still, this obligation undeniably puts us somewhat at a loss.
   It hardly serves as sufficient explanation for the words that erupted from the old boy's mouth, for the mild cramps that constricted his stomach, or the ever-so-slight nausea that shot up with a hurtling and a dizzying jolt, like some kind of elevator, through his chest and throat to slam against the back of his neck, for us merely to say - sticking to the bare facts - that a radio had been switched on above his head…"

Part of entry for June 1990 in Kertész’s diary-novel, Gályanapló (Galley Boat-Log, 1992) contains a reference to a recollection of the same period but a day or two later. The interesting aspect is the touching tribute to Márai, which might help point English readers to the aspect of his writing activity for which he is (now) most highly valued in his native country:

"The pages in Márai's Journal for 1944: ‘On July 3rd, the heaviest air raid of them all so far starts at half past nine in the morning.’ I still distinctly remember the attack. To me in the Budakalász brickyard-cum-ghetto, that half past nine in the morning seemed much more like noon (perhaps on account of my incessant hunger). A few of us climbed up on a hillock alongside the fence, and from the relative prominence of this earth mound we watched what was happening in the distance. It was just as Márai described: “The sky was now truly like an ice rink, completely covered by the capricious lines traced by skate-blades, or like a mirror on which drunken hands have scratched crooked lines with a diamond. At a great height, a few dozen silver-winged, butterfly-sized machines occasionally glinted in the sunshine. For two hours the machines droned... To travel into Budapest now would be like running into a burning house,’ etc. Márai made the trip into the city from Leányfalu with the suburban train service: ‘On the way the train passed the Budakalász brick works. Here amongst the brick-drying sheds seven thousand Jews from the Pest area are awaiting deportation. Soldiers with machine guns stand guard on the embankment.’—I don't know why I am gripped retrospectively by a surge of grateful delight that Márai caught a glimpse of me. He was then forty-four, I was fourteen. He caught sight of the boy with the yellow star amongst the brick sheds; and he also knew what that boy did not know at the time: that he would soon be transported off to Auschwitz. He wrote it all down – what else can a writer do? – in his Journal (and that Journal, incidentally, is the most untrammelled, comprehensive and significant intellectual impression of that era). What does it all mean? That is as hard to puzzle out as a strange constellation. Nevertheless, I have a quite distinct feeling of some profound sense, independent of both of us, which is quietly radiating in a slowly expanding circle, rather like a radio wave in the ether, exceptionally hard to pick up against the general background noise, but indelibly existent all the same."

Perhaps unsurprisingly, English (or even British) authors do not figure particularly prominently among the large miscellany of authors who are quoted by Kertész in Galley Boat-Log. By my count this rather improbable group includes: Malcolm Lowry, George Orwell (in Shakespearean disguise), Shelley (courtesy of Albert Camus), G.M. Gilbert (as the author of Nuremberg Diary), Frank Kermode, Arnold Toynbee and – perhaps most importantly but also disputably of all – Sam Beckett.

Kaddish for an Unborn Child offers two phrases that acquire an exquisitely acidulous tone in the light of the foregoing. Of course, angolkürt could be translated straightforwardly (for Americans anyway) as ‘English horn’:

"…I was assailed by the feeling that I was about to become party to a presumably confidential utterance by the philosopher; and that is indeed what happened when Dr Obláth finally spoke, and he said that in saying that he felt what had happened – or rather what had not happened – was a missed opportunity he was not thinking of continuity, that somewhat abstract and yet, let’s be honest, basically satisfying solace of knowing he had fulfilled – or rather, and that was precisely the point, not fulfilled – his personal and suprapersonal business on this earth, that is, the business, over and above sustaining his existence, of the prolonged and propagated perpetuation and survival of that existence, and thereby of himself, in descendants, which (beyond sustaining one’s existence) is, one might say, man’s transcendental albeit highly practical duty in life, so as not to feel incomplete, superfluous and, ultimately, impotent; nor was he even thinking of the impending prospect of an old age without support, no, but in truth he feared something else: “emotional sclerosis”, as he put it, those were his exact words, … and perhaps that is why, as I say (though I don’t say it to the philosopher, just to myself), there is no need to fear emotional sclerosis, one should accept it, if not positively welcome it, like a helping hand extended towards us which, for all that it is undoubtedly helping us towards the trench, is still helping none the less; because, Mr Kappus, the world is not against us... are dangers at hand, we must try to love them; but then, I interject (though I do not address this to the philosopher, nor even to Mr Kappus, the lucky dog to have got so many letters from Rainer Maria Rilke, I just say it to myself) that I am already at the point where I love these dangers to the exclusion of all else, though I suppose that is not quite right either, it too carries a false note that I perpetually pick out, just like an orchestral conductor who immediately discerns from the tutti if, let us say, the cor anglais tootles a note a semitone sharp on account, let us say, of a misprint that has crept into the score. And I perpetually pick out this sour note, not just within me but also around me, within my more immediate and my broader, what I might call cosmic surrounds, like here, in the lap of shifty Nature, within the surrounds of the sickly oaks (or beeches), the stinking brook and the mucky-hued canopy glimmering through the consumptive boughs, where I, my dear Mr Kappus, never feel an intimation of any “thought of being a creator, of procreating, of making” – a thought that, wouldn’t you agree, is nothing without its continuous great confirmation and realization in the world, nothing without the thousandfold concordance from  things and  animals..."

(From: Kaddish for an Unborn Child, New York: Vintage International, 2004, pp. 8-10)

The reason for sticking to ‘cor anglais’ in the published translation is the occurrence of the phrase ‘távozik angolosan’. In idiomatic English that would be rendered ‘take French leave’, but it seemed appropriate to stay as close as possible to what the Hungarian actually says:

"Yes, and I recall she started by asking if I was serious about what I had said in the heat of the discussion that had taken place beforehand; but I don’t know what I said, I said, as I really did not know, I had said so many things, and I had been just on the point of departing unnoticed (‘à l’anglaise,’ as they say) because I had been irritated and bored by the foregoing discussion, during which I had said what was said, driven by my habitual and loathsome compulsion to speak, a compulsion that assails me chiefly at times when I would prefer to stay silent, on which occasions the compulsion is nothing other than a vocal silence, a verbalised silence, if I may be allowed to overstate the modest paradox: so remind me, I asked,…" (Ibid., p.32)

Let me end with a nod to Noel Coward’s ‘Mad Dogs and Englishman’, as is only right:

"We tested one another in comradeship and became friends, just as we made friends with Iris Murdoch and John Bailey, that marvellous old couple who could have sprung out of a Beckett play. We strolled together around the Masada fortification, Johnny with his hair sprouting like a broom under his crumpled linen hat, wearing a sleeveless knitted jumper beneath his threadbare suit, strode imperturbably along rocky paths that were baking in the 37 degrees heat, at his side Iris, slightly ruddy in the heat and with a swimsuit in her bag just waiting for the chance to jump into some water somewhere. We spoke about profound things without any of us understanding a word of what the other was saying."

(From: Valaki más [Someone Else])

The readers, of course, are at liberty to draw whatever conclusions they wish.

[All translations are by the author.]

The editor feels that the argument may not be widely known, so I shall
rehearse it all the same. The Hungarian title of the work is "Sorstalanság",
which is a noun; "Fateless" (equivalent to "sorstalan" in Hungarian) is an
adjective. The argument I have heard used is that you don't find the
corresponding noun (viz. "Fatelessness") in English dictionaries, which is a
spurious reason, because you won't find "Fateless" either. (By the way, you
won't find "sorstalanság" in a Hungarian dictionary, but it is a regularly
formed word whose meaning is defined very clearly by the novel.) The second
line of defence is that the Germans translated the title as "Roman eines
Schicksallosen" (ie. roughly "Novel of a Fateless Person"), as if German had
any authority. (All one can say here is that the German translator should
have made exactly the same arguments for Schicksallosigkeit.) Since the new
translation of "Fatelessness" was already close to publication in the USA by
the autumn of 2004, there was no good reason why the film should not have
adopted the "correct" title, rather than the "incorrect" one of "Fateless".
This would all be of little moment were it not for the fact that the
"translation" of the book published under the title "Fateless" is
demonstrably such a poor representation of the Hungarian text. Rehearsal

Tags: Tim Wilkinson