1. While writing Book 4 of my Orpheus Booklets [Europa minor, publ. 1941] I started composing this condensed, abbreviated form of c.v., and a bitterly smiling grimace of comico-tragedies “became impressed” (to use that old-fashioned expression) on my face: in the lower years at grammar school I regularly received the ‘low’ mark of 2, in the subjects of religious instruction, history and Hungarian language. In my young days can the Muses that stood by the cradle of my Orpheus really have been so wretched and ironic? When one of my main works is constructed on precisely the pillars of ecclesiastical and secular history, the most savage morality and the literary arts? “A fine start,” I might say a little vulgarly.
2. At school I had an excessive dread of teachers (except individual idols and idealised figures), and, with similar horror and repulsive force, I never liked studying. Similar fears made me avoid befriending boys who liked sports, dancing, the cadet force or fighting; I spent a lot of time playing, mostly, even at that age, my own theatrical ‘compositions’, but strictly with girls of the same age as myself, and since then, for my entire life, women have galloped with striking disproportion, in exceptional positions, through my fate; but both then and now I was and am acutely aware of who is worth anything, who just something, and who nothing at all; that hierarchy was, and has remained rock-solid and unshakeable. Of course the ’dramatis personae’ and plots, and when they are manifested, are the province of memoirs from beyond the grave, not in the sort of recollections that are pulsing under my pen right now.
3. During my later years at school I became top at Latin, with almost naïve, Renaissance furore, and many was the time that Dániel Zimányi—“Uncle Dani” as he will remain to me for ever—joked that I was going to be an archdiocesan coadjutor or some similar figure in the Church bureaucracy—and with right of succession, “cum jure successionis”, at that.
4. At the national essay competition in 1926, for which I prepared with high-strung reading of “everything” about philology, I won first prize in Hungarian literary history for an essay on a subject that was almost expressly not tailored to me: “The figure of the Gypsy in Hungarian literature.” This distinction was (at least in part) the reason why I enrolled with the Faculty of Arts at university; my father was only consoled by the thought that this way I might become a university don and thereby gain the right to be addressed as ‘your honour’.
5. The competition’s chief judge (or maybe rather: rabid chief inquisitor) was Jenő Pintér, district royal inspector of schools. The first prize gave me the right to choose what topics I could be asked about in all subjects except Latin and Greek; I imagined myself to be an out-and-out Metternich (given that Pintér was also chairman of the board for the school-leaving exam) for choosing to speak about Hungarian literary history for Hungarian, as it was Pintér’s book I had used as the basis for my preparatory work for the competition. When it came round to him to ask questions he put a stop to the oration that I had assembled with a large bibliographic apparatus. Even today, I am proud of the fact that I was able to render a genuinely difficult passage from Tacitus in a near-flawless Hungarian “literary translation”. This marked the start of the process that ended in [Szentkuthy’s translation of] Joyce’s Ulysses. Pintér was an extremely irritable, hot-tempered man; László Németh once related to me with mordant humour that Pintér was only of interest as long as he kept a check on his famously touchy tonsils and they poured out only ‘good’ toxins into the blood; after he had them removed he turned into a lamb by comparison with the ranting of earlier days. I had occasion to experience the effect of those toxins at first hand in my own career. When Prae appeared (in 1934) I once bumped into him in what was then called Apponyi Square, and he gave vent to his furious disappointment with such a huge yell that virtually a whole throng clustered around us on the pavement. I had also been a disappointment for him as a schoolboy, because my Hungarian teacher at the time showed him my first poems, in one of which I spoke of the “massive piety” of the Matthias Church [on Buda’s Castle Hill], and when the word “massive” was read out (and heard) he was so angry that he threw a fit. I gave cause for a similar eruption when I turned up for an audience with him wearing white flannels and a short-sleeved shirt: “This a Royal Inspectorate of Schools, not a tennis party!” my excommunicator thundered. And while on the subject of excommunication, when our grammar school was wheeled out to greet the papal nuncio, I was not wearing a hat to doff, and the headmaster, to my shame, expelled me from the ranks.
6. The way it looked, I had been born merely to cause others disappointment. At one Hungarian literature lesson a veritable pack of school inspectors made an appearance (this was in the heyday of the Horthy era), and the teacher, seeking to show off with me, had me stand by the teacher’s dais and speak about [the first great modernist Hungarian poet] Endre Ady. He knew that I was a Marian, and he was counting on my running Ady down dreadfully in giving my account. Whereupon I improvised a laudatory talk (not out of any heroism, purely childish unbridled enthusiasm). The upshot you can imagine.
7. My greatest joy in literature and theatre was to declaim, whether as a student, teacher, or later in my lectures at the Free University in Budapest. Hundreds, even thousands have been the times that I spouted freely with nothing more than a few key words written down on a slip of paper in my hand.
8. A decisive step in my life came in 1925, when I went with my parents on an anniversary pilgrimage to Rome, when I saw Venice, Florence, Naples, Pompei and Assisi. 17-year-old boy that I was, I was completely intoxicated by Europe’s history and art; I saw details of my travel log (modest Orpheus seedlings) in print for the first time, in the school newspaper, “Werbőczy Student Life”—the school that is nowadays named the Petőfi Grammar School was then named after Werbőczy.
9. During the years I was at secondary school and then university I went to the theatre practically every evening (this was the first such period), and later on I went with my father to every exhibition (my second big craze), after that the third was the daily visits to concerts. My voracity was just as “insane” as the trip to Italy.
10. As a result of all the theatre and concerts and (an ancient habit) unsystematic reading, I was nearly always up till dawn studying, and the bracketing of having homework to do and the early hours of the morning became intertwined in me. Ever since then, I have been a dawn-time worker, but however easily the pen may fly, the awareness of compliance with duty has remained ever-present beside the inspiration. Even today I recall my mother’s demure, gentle question, if she saw me on the balcony with a book in my hands in the afternoon: “Is that compulsory reading?”
11. My father and mother themselves personified goodness, love, compassion, kindness, and anguished sympathy with every form of suffering—but? Just because they came across so few who were equally good towards them, their protectiveness towards me led them to the thought, and the mistrust, that a large proportion of my fellow beings were fools or knaves, stupid or evil. I lived with them for 23 years, but we never received a guest, we ourselves never went anywhere as guests, and I had not even a clue that such a thing as a social life existed.
12. Life, for all that, is in reality a complex entity: I ought to mention that, along with the above-outlined traits, my father was constantly dangling the image of poor ideals before me (despite my most impressionable solitude, or maybe precisely because of it): he would dearly have loved to see in his son a future prince-primate of Hungary, a chief of staff, or a prime minister. His own job was in the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Education of the day, concerned with common affairs of state and church, as a result of which he was most deeply impressed by the very highest positions that he himself had not managed (for many reasons) to attain. I am lost for words to describe a scene in which what I see at the foot of Father’s death bed (in 1954) are stacks of unsold copies of my Prae. I am tormented to this day by the thought that I was the source of bitterest disappointment to one I held so dear and who as all to me.
13. My own wishes inclined me most to becoming a physician, or a Jesuit, and to this day the natural sciences remain at the centre of my most passionate interest. And what about being a Jesuit? In the Jesuit-minded periodical Magyar Kultúra I once read a series of articles in which Father Jablokay assembled, with the gravest liturgical researcher’s unease, all the errors that [the great nineteenth-century novelist Mór] Jókai had recorded in relation to Catholic ceremonies and institutions; so when one of my teachers went into a peroration about Jókai’s “universal cultivation”, I wove the main threads of those articles into my essay and my oral answers in class. At the time this was the chosen terrain for letting off my adolescent “destructiveness”. I still think a lot, naturally with many changes in views, about English writers such as Evelyn Waugh, T. S. Eliot, Graham Greene (or even G. K. Chesterton) when orthodoxy or dogma means “revolutionary destruction”, according to this or that fashion or notion.
14. At university, János Horváth, Professor of Hungarian Literature, had a demonic impact on me: I tried to immortalise him in a full-scale portrait in the figure of Johannes de Illyria of Orpheus.
15. During my university studies I became acquainted with a friend who has had a decisive influence on my life. I can thank László Vajthó for taking me, when I was still at grammar school, to editorial meetings of a periodical of the times called Napkelet [Sunrise]. It was from Gábor Halász that I learned how to uncover phrases, humbug and falsities with ferocity and irony; how to unmask unmercifully age-old ‘hallowed ideals’, to ridicule rotten romanticism; the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ sobriety of the Times Literary Supplement and Criterion in the face of the vapid stars and mists of the then-fashionable history of ideas. In place of the pompously flowery language of concert reviews, I also demanded note-by-note analysis, even if that was at the expense of polished, artistic elegance. Among the huge amount that I learned from Antal Szerb I ought to list my real acquaintance with the eighteenth century. It was he who inspired the Casanova commentaries of Orpheus; the extraordinary wit and irony of the letters he wrote from Paris disciplined my adventurous intellect and passionate emotional world—his essay on Prae (along with Gábor Halász’s “strict and unsparingly admiring” criticism) ignited in me the fearless joy of the greatest self-confidence. In my numerous articles and talks about him, I have still not shown enough proof of my gratitude to him. (À propos my Casanova, let me relate an anecdote. The structure of my commentaries [in each book of Orpheus] was determined by the structure of the 1919 magnum opus of the Protestant theologian Karl Barth on the Epistle of St Paul to the Romans; my bookmark was the prospectus for a Sicilian spa by the name of Cattólica [Eraclea] above which can be seen a sexy photo of a lady in a bathing suit. I got to know László Németh around 1932, during his Tanú phase, and we shared a thousand subjects, thoughts and plans, and every European issue of Europe, from microbiology to abstract painting, came up for passionate discussion at his home in Upper Göd, by the Danube [just north of Budapest]. By then I was hard at work on Prae (I wrote that between 1931 and 1933, in parallel with my doctoral dissertation): I read several extracts out of it to Németh, and I was over the moon when he published a truly spot-on diagnosis about it in Tanú. I bought the issue in The University Press Bookshop, then, with a mug of pale ale before me on the terrace of the Spolarich Restaurant, read through it a hundred times, with the waiters gloating sardonically at how quickly I had become intoxicated from a harmless glass of beer. It was likewise László Németh who published a few passages from Prae in the first issue of the periodical Válasz [Response]. I linked up later on, but all the more productively and permanently, with [poet] István Vas, who was the true matchmaker between the Hungarian language and English Baroque poetry—the articles that he wrote about that most certainly gave a fairly massive shove to the suspect cart of Orpheus. I then met with all my friends in the Kelemen Miklós Academy, the members of which almost without exception (and of course I am not speaking about myself) have since marked time on the erratically wind-swept porch of literary history. The Academy comprised two bare rooms in Benczúr Road, but it did have two telephones and wonderfully headed writing paper.
16. My doctoral dissertation (1931) was about Ben Johnson, from the standpoint of reality and unreality. Just a few brief words about what I meant by “unreality”. First of all, and even before that: no surreal dream of any kind, or cult of the sub-subconscious, but a game, a somersault, medieval initials, Chagall’s fairytale enchantments, carnival. It meant saturnalia (when the master played the role of servant, and the slave that of the owner), but these games always had a very moral basis, as do all my books. I saw, and put on show, the experimentalist playfulness of Nature, the thousand variants of sex (I also later wrote puppet plays); I was fond of the masks of exotic peoples, the art of the Mayas and Africans, never becoming detached from the iron positives of reality, the latter (as may be suspected) was not dashed off like an opportunistic curtsey, like a vulgar happy end. To this day, I sense that I too (like Nature) am merely an experiment.
17. I made a grand European tour (Paris, London, the Riviera etc.) with my father in 1928, living in such ceaseless ecstasy that I was almost ill.
18. I married at the age of 23, with a fellow student at university becoming my wife, after we had been brought together by work on her English dissertation—“philosophically” to love, so to say. My daughter was born in 1932 and takes very much after me (some flippant remarks may be inferred).
19. I travelled on a state grant to England (many other countries as well, both before and after) to work in the British Museum on a planned dissertation for the higher doctorate to obtain an honorary lectureship: I was attracted by all the ramifications of an overall picture of the Baroque era in the seventeenth century. This was at a time of rapturous rediscovery of the Baroque era, the marriage of reason and passion in poetry—and it was the daring combination of the two that entranced me in the essays that I wrote about contemporary Hungarian poets (Attila József, Lőrinc Szabó, István Vas). And yet, and yet, the more often I visited the cathedrals of England and France, that dissertation, bulky though it was, stayed forever in a fragmentary state and the almost supernatural artistic attraction of those cathedrals lured me to London to pick up the writing of Prae, embarked on long before; for à la Proust it was in them that I found (among a million other things) ‘ultraviolet’ richness of detail and healthy composition. The latter (all hostile rumours to the contrary) is still my ideal today, but it is a gigantic, still unfinished struggle and bloody battle to harmonise the millions of atoms of impressions into a unified structure, an organism.
20. Publication of Prae (1934) was made possible by my wife’s financial circumstances, for which I give eternal thanks. I should mention, first and foremost, that at the time what made a far deeper impression on me than any criticism, fuss and hoop-la was a man’s face, and specifically that of the most beatific and loveable printer’s compositor who set the type for the book on the basis of my barely legible handwriting. I paid a visit to the printer a couple of weeks after its appearance, and this holy man came up to me, tears in his eyes, meekly, with evangelical modesty, and in a quiet, barely audible voice complained that it was precisely he, who had put in the most work on the book, who had not received a signed copy. My heart almost broke in mortification, and I think that never in my life did I write such a sincere love letter as in that guiltily tardy dedication.
Perhaps even now I hear the name of ‘Joyce’ being cranked out, in what is virtually a hurdy-gurdy variant, in connection with Prae, with even the original cover being associated with Ulysses, although this too is a misconception on the part of people who have never read either Joyce or myself: I simply saw in the window of the old Eggensberger bookshop the cover of an Italian periodical entitled “PAN”, and that font was the model.
21. I never, in any shape or form, considered Prae to be a work that belonged to an avant-garde. At most it was different from [the middle-brow] Lajos Zilahy or Ferenc Herczeg. If I had chopped the whole thing down into neat chapters, it would have become, disregarding a few (never consciously created) stylistic features, a more or less sober-minded collection of essays, diary entries and novellas. I also visualise a naïvely romantically imaginary new edition of it the same way, though it would have the chapter titles in a detailed list of Contents (a separate booklet in 1934), or else set in the text, or in the margins. When people pigeonholed the book with ‘surrealism’ and other ‘isms’ I felt a bit like Molière’s Bourgeois Gentilhomme, who on being taught the difference between poetry and prose, exclaims in astonishment, “Good Heavens! For more than forty years I have been speaking prose without knowing it!” It was also on the basis of an honourable misunderstanding of Prae that I was invited to the what was catalogued as the avant-garde “European School”—perhaps more to address them as a speaker than a proper member—and there I delivered talks on Dickens, Shakespeare and a host of old classics, amply demonstrating that what the school fondly imagined were revolutionary innovations had also played a part, to a greater or lesser extent (better too), in the history of the arts. By the way, I felt that the style of the School’s members—to the extent that I was acquainted at all with such “ultramodernists”—was outdated, supposing that if they had already shown the (dubious) whites of their teeth before the second world war, what was the point of repeating themselves. I had a horror of any kind of manifesto, or the founding programs of any “religion” or fanatic sect, and it never occurred to me in my wildest dreams that I should be “avant-garde”. When I picked up Lautréamont’s Maldoror, for instance, that was where it stayed, to be sure; it never penetrated to my heart or brain. It was in the School that I first heard the name of Paul Klee (they owned one of his original drawings), and after Prae I really only got to know creative artists and theorists from the early years of the century, albeit with a host of reservations. I summed up those very definite reservations with jovial irony in an essay with the title ‘Children’s Crusade’. When I disclose my deepest gratitude to Magyar Műhely [Magyar Workshop] in Paris for devoting an entire special issue to my work, that gratitude is obviously not diminished by this modest observation, that I would most certainly be happy to dispute with them in an essay or two.
22. When people spoke about my “intellectualism”, I somehow again felt I was being made to wear a suit that had not been tailored at all to my measure. The so-called intellectual elements ended up in my books as naturally as a folk song would, in the manner of flowers of the field that had no knowledge of “high culture” or “deep philosophy”, and did not even seek it. Of course it would be foolish of me to deny or downplay “weightier” thoughts from my modest oeuvre, but I cannot fail, and I need to ring it out loudly and clearly, that I despised any sort of “intellectualism”, and, just like Rabelais or Joyce, I started off on my “cultivation” superciliously, playfully, with satirical grimaces, with an irate trampling on snobs. In one of the sections of Orpheus, in ‘Palmy Days for Old Spinsters, or About Intellectualism’ (in [Catholic monthly magazine] Vigilia), and in one of my older essays (‘Cultivation and Literature’) I set out, and illustrated with examples, that I am a thousand, a hundred thousand times more attracted to the simple thinking of simple people than to any philosophically overdressed or mouldy tendencies. The scholarly theologian Saint Bonaventura thought more highly of the faith of an illiterate old woman than of the tatty libraries of any worlds or heavens. That may be one of the reasons why I never, in all my born days, felt myself to be a “pro”, an accredited writer, just “an interrogatee of life”, the humblest child in the forest, who, every now and then, senses something and ponders.
23. Whether it seems contradictory or not, during my travels and while working on Prae I was reading Spengler’s The Decline of the West. It would be totally beside the point for me to digress here on his errors, but I had to put the name down because while I was writing Prae, and Orpheus was in an advanced state of germination it proved an excellent love potion—and in two respects. Firstly, the dancing “thousand and one nights of cultures” (was that a dance of death or an orgy?) drove my raging imagination even more wild; secondly, I was magnetically hypnotised by the most biological view and dissection of the phenomena of life, both then and to the present day.
24. Humorous anecdotes are much more interesting than any sort of “ars poetica”, so how about this: when I was at the very start of my career as a teacher I had an idiotic colleague who was in part a maniacal bigot, in part a crafty hypocrite, and he stuck to me like a leech, being obsessed with the idea of enticing me to go on a spiritual retreat, like Ignatius Loyola to Manresa. His first siren song was to persuade me to dedicate a copy of Prae to the director of the retreat, Father Rénay S.J., which I duly did, whereupon the colleague literally took me by the arm and sneaked me into the director’s study, where he placed Prae very handsomely among the devotional pictures, crucifixes, theological treatises, and colourful fetishes brought back by missionaries to the Orient, so that even today I tremble to think what could have been the fate of my poor Prae in such surroundings… My other little story is that at the time the book was published I was invited to be interviewed by a newspaper reporter at the ‘Országház’ (Parliament) coffee house, and when I duly turned up in the divine presence beside the velvet divan, he proceeded to tear me off a strip; no-one was going to treat him like an idiot or an object of fun: he was not going to make a report on a boy, only with my father, which is to say the real author of Prae.
(To be continued)
Translated by: Tim Wilkinson
Tags: Miklós Szentkuthy