10. 21. 2008. 08:10

Man's greatest crime

Ernő Szép: My Crimes

If the voice strikes one at first as a bit faux-naif or affected, sentimental even, that is vastly to underestimate what Szép patently stands for.—Tim Wilkinson's literary ramble from Kertész to Joyce and Cummings via Tandori, Calderón and others a propos of a thin book of sketches from the 1920s by Ernő Szép.

There is no particular reason for throwing a spotlight on Ernő Szép—no significant anniversary (he was born on 30 June 1884 and died on 2 October 1953)—but a particular chain of circumstances conspired to intrigue me increasingly both about him, but more particularly his writings, both the poetry and prose. But before broaching the subject of Ernő Szép, I really have to start with Imre Kertész, or rather his magical novella “The Union Jack” (an early version of this can be seen online on the website of The Hungarian Quarterly (No. 168, Winter 2002), which celebrated the award to Kertész of that year’s Nobel Prize for Literature). Kertész is important to me simply because he unwittingly provided me with the reason to get out of a well-paid but utterly frustrating job into the not-so-well-paid vocation of literary translation—initially via his novel Kaddish for an Unborn Child, but then, as a second, then still spare-time project ten years ago and more, "The Union Jack" (or “The English Flag”, as it is sometimes still mistranslated).
Along innumerable other magic touches in the novella, few readers can have forgotten the riveting recollection the novella gives of his own encounter, as a “cub reporter”, with Ernő Szép:
a tiny old chap who seemed to be relieved of his own very weight, swept along the icy streets like a speck of dust by the wind of disaster, drifting from one coffee-house to the next… his hat… a so-called “Eden” hat, of a shade that had evidently once been what was called ‘dove grey’, which now teetered on his tiny bird’s head like a battle-cruiser pummelled by numerous direct hits. You would have had to see his neat, hopeless-grey suit, the trouser legs bagging on to his shoes…
The tag-line that Kertész retails is the formulation that Szép had adopted by then (and this is the late 1940s, when the hard-line Stalinists under Rákosi had grabbed power in Hungary): “I used to be Ernő Szép.”
And here, rather than my own translation (“I was Ernő Szép”) I deliberately opt to go with the more appropriate rendering by John Batki, who translated The Smell of Humans (Central European University Press, then of Budapest, London & New York, in 1994), both Szép’s unforgettable memoir of events in Hungary following the German occupation of Hungary in 1944 and in particular the three weeks he spent in a forced-labour squad digging trenches at the end of October. But before getting to that I need to say a word about Dezso Tandori. Now, early this summer I translated a marvellous review by Zsolt Láng which covered four fairly recently published books, one of which was A complete tandori—completely nutZ?, by—no prizes for guessing—Dezső Tandori (see The Hungarian Quarterly, 190 for Summer 2008). As Láng noted: “Tandori analyses poems by Ernő Szép… quoting from this poet, who was at the height of his fame in the 1910s and 1920s, to whom he declares himself to be a kindred spirit… signalling in a fragmented confession what the poetry means to him, how it expands attitudes towards human life, how his own life has become intertwined in it…”
I now see exactly what Láng was getting at because, thanks to the editor of HLO (in part-payment for something I did earlier) I was very happy to get a copy of Tandori’s book. It is genuinely moving to discover that Tandori regards Szép as certainly one of best—and perhaps the best bar none—of Hungary’s many extraordinarily gifted poets of the twentieth century. (And, to dispel any suggestion that he is himself merely an eccentric poet, the Tandori pantheon includes, among others, Dezso Kosztolányi, Frigyes Karinthy, Ágnes Nemes Nagy and János Pilinszky.) Being lucky enough to have in my possession (that in itself has a long history) a hitherto unconsulted 1917 volume of Szép’s verse entitled Emlék (“Memory” or “Souvenir”) I was delighted to find in it “Milyen jó nekem lefeküdni” (“How Good It Is to Lie Down”), “Itt volt benn a szívemben” (“It Was Here in My Heart”), “Egy magányos éjszakai csavargás” (“A Solitary Night Ramble”), “Ákom-bákom” (“Scribble-Scrabble”), “Álmos vagyok’ (“I Am Sleepy”), and “Néked szól” (“Message to You”), which are among the poems Tandori analyses, though maybe that was in his Poetry Novel of 2000, rather than in A complete tandori… It would be fair to say, though, that very few of those poems are accessible in English translation (George Szirtes’ typically smooth rendering of “A Solitary Night Ramble” for Corvina’s Lost Rider 1997 bilingual anthology is an exception, but the book’s distribution is limited to Hungary).
Anyway, Tandori has been plugging Szép for over two decades now; indeed, it is only now that I look at it again that I see he (Tandori, that is) wrote a beautiful Introduction to that John Batki translation of The Smell of Humans, which is where I noticed the “I used to be Ernő Szép.” And flicking idly through The Smell of Humans, my eye is caught by another detail: a character named Pásztor (‘Shepherd’) appears in both that and in Kertész’s account of Budapest life in the late Forties and early Fifties. A freak of chance, not surprising either, as Pásztor (like Shepherd in English) is a fairly common name in Hungary, Like Kertész (Gardener), in fact. Thus, The Smell of Humans: “Our coffee was being served by Zoltán Korányi, of the Café Royal… And reigning over the neighbouring cauldron was Zoltán Pásztor, Korányi’s brother-in-law, who had been an actor in his youth, Korányi was limping and Pásztor had a heart condition…” And in "The Union Jack": “The stenographer—I still remember him today, his name was Pásztor [i.e. ‘Shepherd’], and although he was at least fifty years older than me, I, like everyone else, called him Wee Pásztor, since he was a diminutive, exquisitely dapper little chap, with his neat suits, fastidious neckties, French-style footwear…”
But let us get straight to the point which is the work from which a selection is presented here. The word of the Hungarian title itself—Bűneim—denotes what in English are two rather separate concepts: ‘my crimes’ and ‘my sins’. One could argue for either (or both), but the reason for my picking ‘My Crimes’ takes me back to Kertész, and specifically to his Kaddish… One of the many haunting sentences in that runs:
And don’t ask, I said to my wife, why he must, because crime and atonement are concepts between which only being brings a living link into being, if it brings anything into being of course, and if it has already brought something into being, then being in itself is quite enough to qualify as a crime, el delito mayor del hombre es haber nacido [man’s greatest crime is to be born], somebody wrote, I said to my wife.
The quote is from the 17th-century Spanish dramatist Pedro Calderón’s Life’s a Dream: “Man’s greatest crime is to be born”.
And sure enough, one of the 85 pieces that make up My Crimes carries the title “The First, but Not the Last Crime”, the first sentence of which is “It was a crime for me to be born.” And, on closer inspection, that is not the only intriguing parallel. For instance, another one, entitled “I Have No Child”, starting “I have no child. Every now and again, when I get round to suffering, I suffer for the one who is not…” which is not a bad plot-summary of Kaddish… And the pieces translated for HLO cover the full range of lengths, from barely half a dozen lines of “I Dare Not Open My Mouth”, the opening piece, to the barely three pages (in translation barely 1,000 words) of “I Am Not Locked Up”.
And if the voice strikes one at first as a bit faux-naif or affected, sentimental even, that is vastly to underestimate what Szép patently stands for. He says right at the very beginning: “I dare not speak about the war. I still hold my peace. I dare not open my mouth….” Like many contemporaries who saw action in the First World War, it seems clear that Szép was devastated by it, and probably that set the scales of values for the rest of his life. And if Szép is thought of as in any way naïve, then what does one make of something like this: “i carry your heart with me (i carry it in my heart) i am never without it (anywhere i go you go, my dear; and whatever is done by only me is your doing, my darling)”. Well, as a lot of people will be well aware, that is not Szép, but e.e. cummings from around 1957 or 1958. And even if Cummings is in many respects a different poet—being born ten years later than Szép, in 1894 (and incidentally dying just nine years later than him, in 1962), Cummings had the advantage of being in the first after-shock modernist movement, whereas Szép was really part of it, at least in Hungarian terms, being just a few years younger than Endre Ady (1877–1919) and a close contemporary of both Dezső Kosztolányi (1885–1936) and Frigyes Karinthy (1889–1938). But then one only needs to look at The Smell of Humans to know that Szép was very alive to exactly how he was writing. One significant detail is the seemingly offhand inclusion of this sentence in “Terribly Sorry” (though the actual Hungarian might be rendered more accurately as “Mille Pardons”):
The alien smiles of calcite, apatite and apophyllite and the flabbergasted lucidity of… Sphaerozoum italicum, the very loveliest of the ocean’s radiolarial protozoa.
Now that definition has been added by the translator as otherwise Sphaerozoum italicum would be hard to place. Now where Szép got that from is a mystery, but he clearly knew more than he was letting on.
Then what about the sixth piece translated here. The very title “Me, Me, Me" instantly puts any reader of contemporary Hungarian literature in mind of the famous opening of the Diary of Polish author Witold Gombrowicz:
In the abbreviated form of “Me, me, me, me” it passed into everyday vocabulary ever since, more than 20 years ago now, Péter Esterházy published his Introduction to Belles-Lettres in its glorious entirety. It is also interesting, given that James Joyce’s Ulysses was a major inspiration for the structural template that Esterházy developed in his work, that the “Scylla and Charybdis” section of Joyce’s work contains the gnomic line: “I, I and I. I.”, of which the Notes to the edition that I own say: “in this shorthand Stephen illustrates the continuity (“I, I”) vs. the discontinuity (“I. I.”) of his existence; the former because of “memory”, the latter because of the “everchanging forms”, though “I, I” and “I.” can also be read as a Trinity of I’s”. Well, perhaps not. Surprisingly, perhaps, Joyce (1882–1941) was barely older than Szép, but one could not imagine a writer who, with his sophisticated language and literary games, was further removed from Erno Szép—unless, indeed, it be the splendidly acerbic Gombrowicz (1904–69).
To illustrate even more intriguingly the point that “great minds think alike”, let me also point out that Camus’s 1956 work The Fall contains another passage in the monologue delivered by judge-penitent Jean-Baptiste Clamence: “I have to admit it humbly… I was always bursting with vanity. I, I, I is the refrain of my whole life and it could be heard in everything I said”. Now that is getting much closer to what Szép himself is surely saying. That parallel is not entirely fanciful.
Think also of, say, Emil Cioran (1911–95), the much younger Romanian-born Frenchman by choice, whose subject-matter—his works include The Temptation to Exist and The Trouble With Being Born—and highly aphoristic style are not so far removed. Or, perhaps more congenially, Fernando Pessoa (1885–1935), whose best remembered work nowadays is his Livro do desassossego por Bernardo Soares (“The Book of Disquiet”). Since even a definitive Portuguese edition of the work was not published until 1982, Szép could not possibly have known of its existence (though he was clearly a much better-informed writer than he let on). The point is, though, that this is the sort of company in which Szép—and My Crimes as a work—should be judged.
So on with the show! My Crimes is clearly not a novel or a narrative work, nor a set of poems as conventionally defined. To my mind it occupies more the middle ground, and it is a work that has oddly disappeared from view even in Hungary.
Tim Wilkinson
Szép Ernő: Bűneim
Budapest: Athenaeum, 1924

Tags: Ernő Szép