04. 26. 2012. 12:43

Prae: Recollections of my career II.

The aim of my writings was a Catalogus rerum, an Index of everything in the Entire World: not a single novel in isolation, but a mirror of the world that takes in everything. 

25. My reason for publishing Towards the One and Only Metaphor (1935) was to show that I was not some kind of papier-mâché, abstract and crazy, plastic homunculus but a living, flesh-and-blood, natural human being. Ever since then I have produced similar notes (with greater or lesser differences) right up to the present moment, of which notes 40,000 pages (Diary) are now under lock and key in the safekeeping of the National Széchényi Library. In the very first paragraph of Metaphor I wrote that the aim of my writings was a Catalogus rerum, an Index of everything in the Entire World: not a single novel in isolation, but a mirror of the world that takes in everything. I am very clear that the goal has a certain naivety (and perhaps even more certainly, an air of impossibility) about it, but I find it impossible to renounce or repudiate the intention. The huge panorama of the twentieth century stands before me like a peremptory model, the world of Marx, Einstein, Freud, Schoenberg etc., etc., never in some gaudy art-for-art’s-sake display, without any sort of compass needle, but in franticly full knowledge of the historical, intellectual and artistic scale of values and hierarchy.

26. It is no accident, therefore, to declare that this is the place for my crying and screaming confession that the alpha and omega of every pronouncement I make is morality, the very highest social and individual morality (it is very evident that in the Middle Ages I would have written “morality plays”). I am put in mind of an episode in my 1936 novel, A Chapter About Love: one of the protagonists (later to become pope?) is waiting for a meeting with his lover, but when from a balcony he sees her turning cruelly away from a beggar he murders the lady of his heart. (Anyone who thinks that I have gullibly done with my agitation for social morality by handing out alms is doubly or triply blind!)
    Let me record here, under the heading of morality, that a group of my girl pupils (the prettiest as well as the brightest, miracles will never cease) always pays me a visit on my birthday and my name day: for me this is not just the most rainbow-hued fashion show, but also a great manifestation of affection and fidelity that I myself am fondest of and to which I am most faithfully attached.
    It gave me extraordinary pleasure that László Németh and Károly Szalay both spotted  in my work the dominant tonic of the most humane humanism. What else is the very end of Metaphor?: “Towards the one and only metaphor? Why should my fate not be exactly the opposite: out of a million metaphors towards the one and only—person?” Even when I was writing my satirical-clownish puppet plays, that sentence’s decisive weight and content was the only one with any validity: they were Morality Plays, as I suggested earlier.

27. Very few will be in a position to guess from the books I have published to date how intimately I experienced, on my skin, in my bones, viscerally, in my eyes and in my touch, through the most immediate family connections, a cross-section, maybe an entire (dreadful) cross-section, of Hungarian society: on my father’s side, a whole gaggle of dim-witted, title-crazed leisured gentry, bedaubed and plastered with decorations from head to toe, whereas on my mother’s side were the figures and slum dwellings of impoverished milliners, factory dyers and curriers, concierges on the look out for door-keeping tips, proprietors of provincial haberdashery shops. These contradictory impressions had such a deep and, to this day, subversively disturbing effect that I did not dare to express it (does not anyone feel the same who feels what can be said with words?) in the most convincing form: by full and frank confession.

28. Before bringing out the first of the Orpheus Booklets (1939), I collected subscribers by literally going door-to-door with prospectuses, and of course, instead of subscribers, I got sob stories from family men reaching for my pocket and my heart. It was again my wife who helped to publish all the same: the dedication “ad D” preserves the first letter of her Christian name.
    A sob-story intermezzo: I was just about to pay a visit on a wealthy acquaintance with my “alms-begging” list of subscribers when who but this acquaintance should step out of the lift. When I asked  him to pay 2 pengő 80 fillér every three or four months he clapped his hands together and went into an act about living on the breadline, gaping his mouth as if he were a fledgling in the nest waiting for its food—he, the pauper, could not find a scrap to feed his starving young, so how could I even think of asking him to pay out 2 pengő 80 fillér every three or four months for my absurdities!
    I started the prospectus for the first of the Orpheus Booklets with the following text:
The work, larger continuous instalments of which will appear quarterly, comprises an interlocking Essay series. At the beginning of each chapter there will be a longer or shorter life of a saint, and, appended to that, historical essays, extracts from a novel, short stories, lyrical poems and aphorisms that are connected with aspects of the life and times of the saint who stands at the chapter head. The designation ‘Breviary’ in the title refers to this manner of composition. The name “Orpheus” expresses the underlying conceptual tone: Orpheus wandering in the underworld is an eternal symbol of the brain straying among the dark secrets of reality. The aim of the work is, firstly, to portray the reality of nature and history with ever more extreme precision, and secondly, to display through variations in the history of the European mind an observer’s every uncertainty, the fickleness of emotions, the tragic sterility of thoughts and philosophical systems. The reason for placing the epithet “Saint” before “Orpheus” is because the work seeks to portray both European history and the vegetative world of nature from an essentially religious, supernatural viewpoint. Although both the lives of the saints, as well as the other figures, famous books and cultural manifestations of history are, in point of fact, nothing more than different features of a lyrical self-portrait, the various roles and masks of the author as it were, the work is in essence “religious”, because from love to politics the emphasis throughout is on the battle of the body-politic of God and the body-politic of the world.
    The part works, each approx. 100-150 pages in length, will not display the day-by-day  arrangement of a breviary as this would pose technical difficulties with issuing what, as far as possible, will be booklets  of uniform length. One such booklet (in the same format as the present leaflet) will appear every three or four months at a price of P 2.80 per booklet. The first section, due to appear in early April is:
    Marginal Notes to Casanova
    (A picture of the literature, society and art of the eighteenth century via the Memoirs);
    the next three planned booklets are:
    While Reading St Augustine
    (the antique myth, the Old Testament and Christianity, and finally the balance of European history);
    Sketches for a Portrait of Elizabeth Tudor of England as a Girl
    The Ten Masks of Orpheus
    (that is, ten chapter-head lives of saints).
    I published a second introduction after the first six booklets had been published, at the head of an index of contents of the parts so far:
    The goal of Orpheus: to find the human ideal and the most acceptable lifestyle that the reflective cerebrum and happiness-seeking sentiment could wish for after the widest-ranging historical, the most universal religious and the most profound natural-scientific experiences. Its goal, therefore, is most unmistakably a humanist goal: to seek what is human beyond every variant of culture, every promise and failure of sciences and mythologies, beyond the remotest eras and most distant lands; psychology’s myriad and yet finite shades: what is left behind out of all these masses of experiences? What will be usable in future? What part is the play of time, and what the indispensable essence and possibly eternal positive?

29. The “Baroque”, that much-remarked epithet both before my name and after, is truly justified, because if a mirroring, imitation and variation of the whole World (unbridled ambition) was my goal, dangling with everlasting pubertal or “Faustian” enthusiasm, what else could I be but “Baroque”, because that Goethean “ganze Welt”, the whole world, is composed of thousands and hundreds of thousands of elements, history is virtually inexhaustible, and vegetating Nature itself chose as its one and only path the “Baroque” kaleidoscope and waxworks, with its irresistible “crazy” fantasy in every flower, animal and mineral. My thousand-faced “Baroque” temperament stretches back into earliest childhood: it was only able to find its most consistently insatiable and nourishing expression in plays of the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras and the Spanish Baroque.

30. It is part of the nature of the paradox of man (my self) that (the bluff, however surprising it may sound, is always exiled to inexpressible distances from me): part of this paradox is my near-religious attraction (I have already indicated as much) to simplicity. Among my happiest of all minutes are the letters that I have received from my sharpest-eyed readers which informed me—much more elegantly than this—that “for all that you swagger, holler like a newspaper vendor or strut about in fancy dress, dear Szentkuthy, on the steps of Baroque altars and amidst iridescently, opalescently colourful, overcrowded scenery, we (—the exceptional readers—)‚ hear your heart beating more loudly: at the sight of the Nativity shepherds, lambs, cattle and donkeys, like most hallowed Spain among the lushly proliferating, magic, near-demented flora and ecstatic stone fauna.” The moral continuation of my childhood fantasies (luxury and poverty): the love and company of the simplest people, my biased thirst for the most elemental forms of life, my almost hypnotic attraction for the folk-tale serving of justice to the victorious poor. This eternal and indeflectable path of mine towards simplicity. I do also have, to be sure, a theoretical or scientific goal that is relevant here: to filer out from the world’s apparent chaos the simplest fundamental laws, the most comprehensive common denominators, and axiom-solid formulae in the way that the greatest historians, astronomers and psychologists do.

31. It follows, naturally, that in spite of all the colourful theatre dressing rooms, I was never, in all my life, a wisecracking jester, never a culture vulture, never a frivolous fair-ground merry-go-round chaser; I belong far, far rather among the prophets who preach moral judgement with lashing Last Judgements and knowledge of the promises of ultimate justice to be dispensed in paradise.

32. The aforementioned colourful stage outfits and activities of mine do not, therefore, contradict my hunger for simplicity and morality. My grandfather’s brother, under the name Alsdorf, was an actor, stage director, owner of a great many theatres (he spent his entire inheritance on that), and a theatre manager, playing in the German-language theatres of Pest and Buda, so there was someone to take after and something to inherit.
    I once turned up at a masked ball as Casanova, in a silver periwig and floor-length black satin cloak, and I felt marvellous in it, while my friends joked that I was now in my true element, and  my everyday wear was my disguise.
    While the Eucharistic World Congress was taking place in Budapest [in 1938] I had a cardinal’s chasuble and biretta made up of scarlet silk by a slightly surprised family seamstress, round my neck was a rosary of walnut-sized, lathe-turned wooden beads (crucifix at the end), and on my right hand (for want of anything better) a large black signet ring, and on the bridge of my nose frameless clerical eyeglasses. I went that evening by taxi to my friends, chatting with my wife in French; the taxi driver fell to his knees before me and kissed my ring, while I, at his request, bestowed on him an “Apostolic” benediction. Later on the opportunity arose for a much more stylish benediction when I went off with a big party at dawn to march to the top of Little Swabian Hill in Buda, where I climbed up a ladder to the “balcony” on top of the triangulation point (I delivered a speech as well) and, arms outstretched and making signs of the cross, I bestowed my blessing on the kneeling faithful. Mihály Babits’s wife photographed me in that cardinal’s get-up and made coloured slides. I knew a great deal about her life at that time; apart from the “cardinal craze” it was no everyday performance for me to give Latin lessons to her adopted daughter, Ildikó, in Mrs Babits’s kitchen, where there was a small school desk (on some occasions I too would squeeze myself into it, with my discomfort accompanied by gales of laughter), but what really interfered with the acquisition of declinations were some half a dozen budgerigars that flitted around the kitchen, so that my pupil inclined to this better part rather than to Livy.
    Shortly after my father’s death (1954), the director of the school where I was teaching entrusted me with producing a comic stage work with the help of the boys and girls who were my pupils. That was the last thing I wanted during that time of great sorrow, and I tried all I could to refuse, but the school’s director would not hear of it: we were to play in a competition and he, with my acting and theatrical assistance, wanted our school to win the competition. I chose Molière’s A Doctor in Spite of Himself. Seldom in all my life have I ever submerged myself so deeply, or with such extreme fervour, into artistic work as I did then, in my mourning black. In conducting the rehearsals for all the roles I myself must have played them a hundred times over, and even today I am amazed how my pupils managed to play with such startling near-perfection and also be so light-hearted about appearing on stage in public. (I set out the vast range of burlesque aspects of hiring costumes in a novella with the title Doomsday at the Costume Hire Shop.) It was a huge success, even with that blackest conceivable, negative portent. Not only did we win, but they hauled me up before a bloody assize at a teachers’ confab (on account of the scandalous immorality of Molière’s play, no less!), with the ethical outrage of the father of one of the girls who had a role being the cause of the inquisition. And why? Because the doctor in spite of himself traces in the air on the stage, yards away from her, the feminine curves of the chambermaid.
    I have left the most resounding punch-line to the end: together with my friends, male and female, for years on we only ever played commedia dell’arte pieces, with me writing a brief scene-setting and then all of us improvising for hours on end.

33. In essence the work involved in my books on Mozart, Haydn, Handel, Dürer and Luther was purely theatrical; they were my characters, combining my most subjective intellectual sympathies with the most objective historical reality. To confess yet another pipe-dream it is that if, by a miracle, they should one day all be published together as an omnibus edition, I would entitle it ‘Self Portrait in Masks’ (that is a thought I have been carrying for several decades). That would apply as much to my great fondness for acting as does the mathematically precise title of Definitions and Roles that was given to my [1969] volume of essays.
    The most moving and finest recollections are bound up with my casting as “Haydn”. In order that not the tiniest error should creep into its technical accuracy, I approached my long-time friend, [the musicologist] Bence Szabolcsi, with the aim of getting him to take me through all of Haydn’s late string quartets, note by note, from consonance to dissonance, with the aid of a piano. He did so, with tearful pride (literally), but when he wanted to play through the parts for first and second violin together with me, as a four-hander, my lack of practice in reading full scores and playing the piano naturally rendered this an impossibility. He personally played through and explained everything (I took more or less shorthand notes), and while he was at it, after the most thorough exertions, he told me how Bartók had been one of the very first customers for Prae. Having himself looked at the text, Bartók proceeded to draw his friends’ attention to it, so they might dip into it, just in case there was something genuinely novel in the seemingly hostile text. Szabolcsi also encouraged me to write a book about Bartók, but naturally humility and modesty held me back from doing so.
    They were no hindrance to such role-playing, however, with my translations of Swift, Dickens, and Joyce’s Ulysses, where I again had the opportunity to play with voracious zeal all the roles that suited, and stood closest to, my complex body and soul.

34. Two anecdotes connected with Orpheus, one distinctly uncomfortable, the other especially reassuring. To start with, the first issue (Casanova) had barely come out when something else—an almost illegibly typewritten scrap of paper—made an appearance at the Madách Grammar School, where I was working at the time as the most novice of probationary teachers. It was an official document that communicated the heart-warming fact (1930) that the public prosecutor’s office was “laying charges” against my ‘Casanova’ specifically for offending against public decency and affronting religious sentiment. (It was no mean feat, after that had been delivered to my hands, to go on and give two English lessons on the poetry of Shelley and Keats.) How had I offended against public decency? By the following: “… The streets in Venice are narrow, windows are vast and thus, in mystic comfort… it is possible to spy in on a woman, into her home, her boudoir, her soup and her washing basin.”  In what way had I trampled on religion? By way of introduction, I ought to mention that in point 11 of the book I write about how, when Casanova was a child, it was customary in Venice (at New Year?) for the sermon to be given, in memory of Jesus’s own childhood, not by an ordained priest but by a Venetian child, which tickled me no end. At the place where I was open to prosecution I expressed this by, among other things, the following: “We cannot help but think that Casanova was entitled to deliver the sermon, and that what is happening here is perfectly logical, quite free of hypocrisy. It is God’s will that the sermon should be delivered, not by St John, bearded and in the wilderness, but by a lovelorn rascal…” So how had the newfangled censor and the public prosecutor’s office turned that against me? “M. Sz. is teaching Christian Hungary that the sermons in church should not be delivered by professional priests but scoundrels.” In my naivety I rushed off to get a defence lawyer, and naturally could find no-one who was willing to take on my case, so that in the end the Attorney General’s office had to appear on my behalf, a taking of my side that consisted of getting the charges against me dropped, but at the cost of having distribution of my book banned. In 1940-42, with the war in progress, I only had to submit to the censor a typescript of anything I wanted to publish, and to my no little surprise, they did not even bother looking at this but mindlessly slapped on, every 20 pages, the blue stamp authorising publication, with the most eloquent “imprimatur” being given, for instance, to an imagined Chinese story that was a barely disguised scathing parody of Hitlerism!
    What about the tale that bears the motto ‘All’s well that ends well’? By then I was teaching at the economics technical college in Márvány Road, and on the corridor I noticed a very attractive lady entering one classroom after another in the company of the school’s director. He hastily whispered to me that I should hold a class as snappily as I could, because the lady was a school inspector. That alone was scary enough, but what was a hundred times more terrifying was that I happened to catch sight of one of the black-covered Orpheus Booklets under her arm. I thought that must surely mean the game was up for my teaching career. I held the lesson in a state of near trance-like high anxiety (at least that is how I recall it), and then what? Then came the redeeming surprise: the school inspectress was not carrying my Orpheus as a black shroud cloth, so to speak, but because she wished to speak with me as a very perceptive and thorough reader friend. I think that was the most colossal of all the imaginable heavy stones that was ever lifted from my trembling heart.

35. In the years following Liberation [13 April 1945] I did a huge amount of work for periodicals and the radio, and gave many lectures to the Free University. Among the things that appeared in [the short-lived literary critival journal] Magyarok was my essay on Thomas Mann, which, behind my back, had been sent to the editor in a scintillating German translation by a female literary reader, and Mann’s marvellous response to it, which was published in the papers of the day in Hungarian. The German text, along with Thomas Mann’s letter, appeared in Sinn und Form in Berlin. It was also in Magyarok that the first short story that I ever published appeared, following the six Orpheus Booklets, and I read it out in the honourable company of 30 Hungarian writers who had been gathered together by Dezső Keresztúry, Minister of Education at the time, after which László Kéry [then editor of Magyarok] asked me for a copy in a quite amazing setting as I had been bombed out of my home on Sun Hill in Buda and, out of force of necessity, had moved into what passed for a “flat” on Böszörményi Street, on the fifth floor and with practically no roof left over it—we did not have enough umbrellas, parasols, buckets and basins in our possession to protect against the veritable floods that resulted whenever it rained.
    One unforgettable memory I have is of one of the meetings (perhaps the first) of the editorial board of the journal Válasz [‘Response’] in the cellar of the Central Café [in the centre of Pest]; swirling in the air like half-chilled cigarette smoke, even that early on, was a fairly crude distinction between ‘Populist’ (or ‘Agrarian’) and ‘Urbanist’ writers, with Gyula Illyés as a good-humoured host and with good-humoured comments—he seated me beside Péter Veres at the board’s head table. Those who worked on Magyar Csillag [‘Hungarian Star’] met every Monday in a private room at the Dunacorso Café. Illyés again played the part of “form-master” with good humour. It was here, in the most threatening shadow of war, that I last had a chance to meet many of my  great friends. Each such never-to-be-forgotten Monday afternoon and evening was always like a three-acter in my life. The first act was the vivid literary encounter, after which came a walk with one of my writer friends or another along the deserted, blacked-out Buda bank of the Danube (Gábor Halász, in his immortal bowler hat, talked about the necessity for realism and Paul Valéry’s cobweb-wispy, overrefined aphorisms), with, as the final act, the adolescently full retailing of everything in a sparklingly lit drawing room, in dazzling female company, behind heavy black-out curtains.

36. In 1948, at virtually the same time, I was awarded the Baumgarten Prize and also a grant to travel to England. The Ministry of Education’s plan was to set up with the English, on a contractual basis, posts as “Hungarian language instructor” at the University of London or Oxford or Cambridge, with Gábor Devecseri as the first instructor, alongside my puny self, as the first assistant. My trip was supposed to have something to do with preparing for this, but the plan came to nothing. Instead of working as a language instructor, I roamed round half of England, with cathedrals remaining my “burning” obsession. This was a period when Kata Károlyi [wife of Mihály Károlyi, ex-president of Hungary in 1918-19] was still spending a lot of her time in England. She was well acquainted with the poet Dylan Thomas and the impossible circumstances in which he lived, and she agreed with me that I should try and get my essay on Joyce, which by then had even appeared in Swedish, also published in an English version, with my wife doing a fair English translation and Dylan Thomas being asked by letter if he could see his way to putting it into full-blooded English. Dylan Thomas was not willing to do that, but he did send an extraordinarily polite reply; Mrs Károlyi had already brought his poetry to my attention in Pest, and it was a deadly serious, stubborn thrill for me to get to understand his poetry just for its own sake. Kata Károlyi therefore took me to a reading at which T. S. Eliot and Dylan Thomas in tandem read out their works. The two of them together made much the same impression on me as if Goethe and Verlaine had shared a platform in a dream. It was also she who took me to a big underground exhibition hall on Oxford Street, where all the surrealists in the world were holding council on the walls, and this was in all truth where I first became acquainted with them, which did nothing to alter my long-held reservations and wish to keep at a distance.

37. Most crucial and decisive for my life was the year 1955, which saw the establishment, under the direction of Géza Képes, of the Magvető Publishing Co. He commissioned me to write a novel about Mozart for the upcoming bicentenary of his birth. I was 47, and this was the very first book that not I but (wonder of wonders!) a publisher would be bringing out, with the emoluments that befitted a writer. It was also to Magvető that I owed the subsequent publication (with a redoubling of the initial magic) of all three volumes to date of the St Orpheus Breviarium.

38. Having reached the end of the perfunctory record of these highly fragmentary and selective shards of memory, one thing that is constantly passing through my head in connection  with my consciousness and work as a writer is that the title “Recollections of My Career” somehow does not fit at the head of these pages; that the title Prae would still be a more appropriate title. In the midst of my gruelling struggles, I feel I am still only at the very beginning of carving out my own distinctive genre and mature form.

Previously on HLO
Outprousting Proust: Szentkuthy, the Proteus of Hungarian literature
Towards the One and Only Metaphor: excerpt

Translated by: Tim Wilkinson

Tags: Miklós Szentkuthy