02. 17. 2011. 07:43

Miklós Mészöly (1921-2001)

A Portrait

He was not an Oppositionist in the way that, for instance, György Konrád was; more a genuinely independently-minded spirit in a way that few of us can say of ourselves. He wrote the unformulable down. He created a world and did not catch it in the act.

Each and all of the master's sentences was constrained. This just a bit, the next so much so that a single word was all that was left of it. These became the weightiest sentences as from them virtually everything was missing. Between sentences were mute sentences from which every single word was missing, yet it was as if one could almost have said what those words were. As a result, what could not be set down on paper was not only written but is legible, and nor was it possible to keep quiet about the lack.
(Péter Nádas: "In the Shadow of the Master")
The sentences given here by way of introduction, though they may partly be traced back to him, can only hint at the essence of Miklós Mészöly's literary art. If I think about it, I have purely personal links with his oeuvre. Or to put it another way, I can only relate to him as an ordinary reader. His texts live deep down in me, they have become ingrained, but I must admit
that I do not nurture any so-called professional reading strategy in regard to them. I have no set of keys. Or if I did once have one, I chucked it away a long time ago. I read it, perceive its visions, sense its layering, despite which I am unable to approach it this way or that from some cunningvantage point as an outsider. More particularly, one has to stand into this life'swork, up to the waist, the neck, up to one's ears, as long as possible, and it is obligatory to lose oneself in them.

Mészöly was born ninety years ago in the small town of Szekszárd, under the name Miklós Molnár (19 January 1921 - 22 July 2001). He first used the literary nom-de-plume of Mészöly in 1947, a year before his first published volume, Vadvizek [Wild Waters] saw light of day. Between 1938 and 1942 he was a student at the Pázmány Péter University of Budapest, gaining a degree in law, before being called up to fight in the front line during World War II, his army service partly in northern Germany. He deserted and eventually fell into the hands of the Soviet army in Serbia. Having got back to Hungary, he spent periods as a manual worker, a cropper, and an inspector of water mills. For a year from 1947 he was proprietor of a newspaper. In 1949 he married Alaine Polcz, by which time he was working self employed in Budapest, taking on jobs as a copy editor under an assumed name for various publishing houses. In the early Fifties he was a dramaturge at the State Puppet Theatre, Budapest, before feeling obliged again to work under a pseudonym. For a fair time from 1950 onwards he was permitted to publish only fairy tales and adaptations of children's stories, but from 1956 he was a freelance writer. Though he did not take part in Hungary's 1956 Revolution as a combatant, he did play a role in working out how to formulate the demands of the Writers' Union. In 1957 a volume of his appeared under the title Sötét jelek [Dark Signs], after which a critique by the Party paper effectively put a ban on his work; he was put under surveillance, his phone was tapped. In the early Sixties, for a few months from spring until autumn, he spent time in a valley near Szekszárd, writing the novel Az atléta halála [Death of an Athlete]. In 1963 the experimental stage of the National Theatre at Miskolc presented a play of his under the title of Az ablakmosó [The Window-Cleaner]. This had a run of altogether two performances because it was summarily banned. The play was also printed, along with an explanatory piece, in the literary magazine Jelenkor, which stirred up a renewed political kerfuffle. After the new novel had received several rejections to publish it in Hungary, he came to terms with a publisher in Paris, which is why the book first appeared sooner in French translation as Mort d'un athlète than in the language in which it had been written, and indeed one year later it had also been published in German, and only then did it finally appear in Hungary.

It is perhaps unnecessary for me to carry on listing these biographical data, as even this little is enough to show that Mészöly was completely uncompromising. Politics, for which he was rarely the apple of the eye, was of no interest to him, at least at the level of the run-of-the-mill activist. In light of the absurd compulsion that administrations of the Kádár era felt to categorise everything with their 'Three Ts': of tiltás ('prohibition'), tűrés ('tolerance') and támogatás ('support'), or what in
English one might call the 'Three Bs' of 'banned', 'bearable' or 'backed', he was usually slotted into at best the 'tolerated' category. He was not an Oppositionist in the way that, for instance, György Konrád was; more a genuinely independently-minded spirit in a way that few of us can say of ourselves.

For some reason Miklós Mészöly is classed by the literary world as, first and foremost, a prose writer, in which capacity he is, undeniably, an inescapable figure. He was the defining creative artist of the revolution in prose-writing during the Seventies without whom Hungarian prose literature today would be very different. It is well known or may be ascertained of many contemporary writers including Péter Nádas and László Márton that they in some manner came out of Mészöly's overcoat. Mészöly is one of those prose writers who demand the active emotional and intellectual participation of their readers. His texts never take the reader by the hand but they grant the self-oblivious freedom of total immersion.

The foregoing notwithstanding, if one looks at the entire oeuvre, one should not discount the fact that he was creative in virtually every genre of writing. He wrote a great many essays, journalism, volumes of plays and children's stories, and moreover he wrote outstanding poetry. Literary critic Miklós Fogarassy writes somewhere that there were times when Mészöly felt obliged to apologise that, more or less as a sideline, he was also working on some poems. Could it be that he felt the poems were parts of his output that were not of the same standard as he rest of the life's work? This is unlikely. That would be odd if only because there was at least one poem which he intended should occupy an honoured place in that oeuvre, and that is his "Elégia" [Elegy] of 1980. This poem raises Mészöly into one of the greatest lyrical masters of the Hungarian language. It is a large-scale lyrical composition which is among my own favourites, so let a passage from
it stand here.

Zeus, Venus, Gilgamesh, Noah, Brahma, Osiris, Wotan,
Baal, Moloch, Valkyries, giants, Titans, Parcae,
Muses -
Mother stirred the soup tureen three times -
never more, never less -
before doling out our helpings.
Then the jacketed parade of pregnant cedars!
Face of yesterday's moon in unmeasured wells!
The sweep with which the bull paces its place
So as wounded, to shatter its horn!
Or the young miss with key on ring after the front gate is closed -
the shelves tidied up a bit,
piling the remaining debris,
the end of the carton of cigarettes sticking out,
in her mouth the inevitable boiled sweet -
a well-earned gift at the end of the day;
then her slow stroll with the rubbish bucket past the partition wall,
meanwhile herself squatting to pee
and in so doing is inscrutable like Gaia.
Or the mysterious mover
who circles all day long above the sea,
America bound, always saluting at the same spot -
the one-time harbour would that be? The prelate's lover?
What plans there are in the entombed coals!
What a quiet-mass
in the cultic cigarette interval of the explosion!
Or the brilliant decay of fruit picked off in after-thought
on the dish,
the Sun shining into the room,
a few harbingers stumbling into the meat with the draught
as if a bride-to-be were being got ready for the night,
and though there is no partner night-time blushes
as ceremony dictates.
The dreaming is inexhaustible.
The storm-petrels on waters that fade in the gloaming
are jut as white as otherwise.


Translated by: Tim Wilkinson

Tags: A Portrait