10. 18. 2010. 12:08

Indian Summer

István Vas (1910–1991)

I cross Erzsébet bridge without a coat on.
I remember, once before, such a fine autumn.
Yes. October fell in love with us – so we thought.
It was all bright that morning. Then suddenly not.

 
                                        
                                                          INDIAN SUMMER
 
                                         I cross Erzsébet bridge without a coat on.
                                         I remember, once before, such a fine autumn.
                                         Yes. October fell in love with us – so we thought.
                                         It was all bright that morning. Then suddenly not.
                                         A hyena came, the carrion sun was devoured.
                                         And after that, what? After that, it poured.
 
                                                      Translated by Clive Wilmer and George Gömöri
 
István Vas’s ancestry is quite typical of that of Hungarian Jews in the 20th century: his ancestors were small-town rabbis, his father was an assimilating businessman, and he was a rebel intellectual. He was brought up in a bourgeois family in which he was considered as a misfit, since from very early on he devoured books, wrote poetry, considered himself a Marxist and was associated with the avant-garde circle of poet Lajos Kassák. His father sent him to study in Vienna, in the hope that his prodigal son would finally consent to learning a decent trade and working in the textile industry. In Vienna Vas fell in love with Kassák’s stepdaughter, Etel, whom he married in 1935, and who died in 1939. Back in Budapest he started working as a clerk, meanwhile participating in the literary life of the city as well. His poetry, initially influenced by that of Kassák and other avant-garde poets, became more and more traditional with time. Though he – like his friend and fellow poet Miklós Radnóti, and as sincerely as him – converted to Catholicism in 1938, he could not escape the fate of Jews and was taken to labour service several times during World War II, which was an extreme strain on his frail physique. He attempted suicide several times, and eventually was rescued by fellow writer Géza Ottlik and his wife who hid him in their apartment for months. After the war he obtained a job as publisher’s editor and married painter Piroska Szántó with whom he lived in a very harmonious marriage to the end of his life. Though he sympathized with Communism, and was even a party member, he found it impossible to agree with the obligatory socialist realist trend. As he narrates in his autobiography, he once told Georg Lukacs in 1946 that he did not consider the rose garden an apt battlefield; he reckoned that art should not be a weapon in the fight for Communism. In 1952, he stood up at a meeting of the Writers’ Union and asked to be expelled from the party because he was not psychologically fit to understand what was happening in history. From then on his poems were not published until 1956, but he had that refuge of Hungarian writers under dictatorship: translation. Besides poetry, he translated prose and drama as well. He also started to work on his autobiographical essay-novel, published in three volumes, a fascinating account of the coming-of-age of a poet, a subtle and detailed psychological and intellectual analysis, as well as an extraordinary and precise document of Budapest in the thirties and forties. Even the first volume, published in the 60s, is still highly readable today, although he treats topics that were political taboo at the time. In the introduction to the only volume of Vas’s poetry available in English (Through the Smoke, Budapest: Corvina, 1989), George Szirtes writes: “Vas's early critics were right to see a man in the poems, and it is characteristic of the man to maintain his independence and autonomy, quietly, without fuss, but with absolute determination. He was not his father's man, nor Kassák's, nor Kosztolányi's, nor the church's, nor the party's. To have maintained such a system of survival will seem like betrayal to the fanatic but it is in fact evidence of courage and faith. To be autonomous is to be lonely and exposed. Through Vas the man we discover a human history, a temperament and a moral world that lead us back to the poems, which, seen through the lens of Vas's humanity, will then appear bigger, more inevitable than at first we might have thought".

Poems by István Vas in The Hungarian Quarterly

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