The calling word of On Intimate Terms, the first volume of one of the most promising Hungarian prose writers, Edina Szvoren (1974), is alienation. There are unbridgeable distances, cognitive and mental abysses between the story and the narrator.
In this prose world lies are not tricks or adventures—they are simply part of a bleak everyday experience. Like the shabby wallpaper in a room of a housing estate building, which is supposed to hide an even uglier wall. Consequently, truth has a different dimension here. In Szvoren’s stories truth, revealed in rare moments, voiced in rare sentences, is a token of truth. Grace without grace.
Edina Szvoren’s prose is tragic and glorious in all its simplicity and ordinariness. Let’s take a closer look at the short story which gave the collection its title: “On Intimate Terms”. (Read an excerpt in English here and the whole story in Hungarian here.) Let’s see the first sentences of the first paragraphs: “Let the light slip on the row of spikes mounted on the windowsill.” “Have her dust, mop over the passage floor, iron the spare bed linen.” “Let Mummy and Daddy be the kind of people who always show up everywhere precisely at the appointed time, all but arousing twinges of guilt with their punctuality.” “Another year gone by, let them sigh instead of offering a greeting.” What are these? Imperatives? Commands? Suggestions? What is at work here—the will of the narrator, or the terrible-natural order of the narrated world? I am inclined to think that these merciless imperative sentences demonstrate the latter—unavoidable and unresolvable fate; or, to use a metaphor by poet György Petri, the existential state of “circumscribed fall”. In this narrative world both the setting and the characters are locked up; their every utterance and every move is determined. The imperative sentences create a detachment which in turn generates some ice-cold irony in each sentence. It is as if we were watching actors in a play. The situation might as well be called dramatic. On New Year’s Eve a divorced woman, who lives a lonely and slovenly life in her apartment on a housing estate, without her young child who chose to live with his dad, is visited by her parents who live in Slovakia. The situation unfolds from such dispassionate sentences as the ones quoted above. In the course of the preparations for New Year’s Eve and in the first moments of the new year the three of them try to bridge unspeakable emotional and linguistic distances.
This is grief work for survival. “Let a commonplace be called a rite; habit, intimacy; the calf, a shank.” There is a desperate search for flesh-and-blood gestures and meaningful words instead of alibi sentences and alibi gestures.“Let happiness arise through remembrance.” But this is impossible. Edina Szvoren’s short story is a linguistic record of such depths that it reminds one of Dezső Kosztolányi’s wonderful novel, Skylark. As we read the monotonous instructions, they sound as if a series of events were happening again for the thousandth time. As if we were watching a film through an industrial camera. The characters seem to have a repetition compulsion, and the Hungarian gestures of preparation for New Year’s Eve give them ample space to act it out. Lentils, champagne, clinking glasses. There is a time for everything. It is only the time of life that seems to flow away or to freeze. “Let there be sentences that can be repeated an infinite number of times.” As the situation warrants, the dramatic moment arrives at midnight when the woman must talk to her son on the phone. “Let the telephone ring at six minutes past midnight, and let there be a sort of low point here at which the sentences, setting off from the high ground, finally trickle together before coming to rest in a dark lake with no surface.” It is this dark, blind lake into which the characters—the woman, the father, the mother—must now look; even the young child cannot escape. He will also be a prisoner of this world. He is also pre-scribed by a greater power. “Language is more powerful than its users”, the above quoted Petri said. It seems that the story is also more powerful than its characters. “Let there be a newfangled note of sappiness in her son’s voice, a melancholy savagery that he has not shown anyone. Let the whisper of his flannel pyjamas be audible. Suppose it is credible that a telephone receiver transmits odours: the odour of the mouth, tightly shut for hours, of a person suddenly woken from a deep sleep, the scalp’s fragrance of tallow creeping onto the forehead.” In her best, (pre-)mature sentences Edina Szvoren seems to make a physiological-mental X-ray image of her characters. She sees through their saturated emptiness. We cannot call this narrative attitude indifferent—this is a compassion that knows no mercy.
The great critic and editor Pál Réz has remarked about Szvoren’s talent that she “pays attention most of all to the humiliated and the insulted (whether it is herself or someone else). Szvoren, however, goes one step beyond the religion of compassion of the great Russians: she almost transforms human solidarity into eroticism… This is very original and very beautiful.” In spite of (or with) all their repulsiveness, bodies start to attract each other. Perhaps this, the eroticism of compassion is the only way out as a distant, nevertheless existing possibility: “indeed, it’s better to strike than not to, just as it’s better to speak out loud than not to the sentences that come to mind, as if she had never thought them, although they had not come to mind for years precisely because she was always thinking of them. Let these sentences be the lowest point of that dark lake with no surface.” These sentences that should be spoken out loud most of all are suppressed, deep down. Szvoren avoids the magic formula of any clumsy or simplistic psychological approach. She writes about bodies, distances and alienation. Yet we read about souls, closeness and identity. This is what Szvoren’s great and authentic performance consists in. Her language is not unadorned yet it is lean. Her narrative optic changes perspectives from one moment to another. Extreme long shots turn into extreme closeups, to use film terminology.
Szvoren maps out the themes of family traumas, the bleak holidays of childhood, the lack of a father and loneliness in her own peculiar way. Edina Szvoren’s smothered, austere yet emotionally rich ‘chamber stories’ remind the reader of the taste of a bitter tablet, chewed rather than swallowed whole.
Szvoren Edina: Pertu
Budapest: Palatinus, 2010
Tags: Edina Szvoren