03. 31. 2008. 12:42

Modus moriendi

Miklós Radnóti: a portrait

On 9 November 1944, Miklós Radnóti was executed by firing-squad. He was 35. When his body was exhumed the following year, a notebook full of poems – some written within days of his death – was found in his greatcoat.

On 9 November 1944, Miklós Radnóti was executed by firing-squad. He was 35. He had been encamped in Serbia, attached to a forced labour battalion under German command, but as the Axis armies began their retreat from the Eastern front, they drove the labourers westward across Hungary. Near the village of Abda in the north-west, those who were too weak to continue the march into Germany were shot by their guards and buried in a mass grave. When the bodies were exhumed the following year, a notebook full of poems – some written within days of his death – was found in Radnóti’s greatcoat. They are formal poems of classical precision: poems which, though overshadowed by the horrors of war and the poet’s certainty of a premature death, are committed to the most humane values our civilisation has nurtured. The formality and precision are themselves manifestations of those values, and, as such, declarations of the poet’s commitment. For nearly ten years he had been preparing himself for such a death. To read his work chronologically is to follow something of the process whereby an individual talent is moulded by historical events; at the same time, it is to perceive that talent discerning meaning in the events, even as it is transformed by them.
 
Radnóti was born in Budapest in 1909. Of Jewish origin, he seems to have felt no special attachment to his race or religion, though it is arguable that Judaism was to exercise an influence on his poetry. From the outset his life was marked by insecurity. His mother died giving birth to him and his father died soon afterwards. The wealthy uncle who adopted him was generous and bought him a good education, but the poet’s feelings toward him were never other than ambivalent.
 
His insecurity was exacerbated by the troubled political climate of the entre deux-guerres period. Between 1920 and 1944, Hungary was governed by Admiral Horthy and his pseudo-parliamentary regime. Horthy was an ultra-conservative nationalist whose policies, aimed at regaining ethic Hungarian territories lost at the end of the First World War, were ultimately to throw his country into the arms of Hitler.
 
By 1934, when Radnóti graduated from university, he already had three books of poetry to his credit. The main influences on his early verse are predictable: the French avant-garde, German expressionism and a Hungarian version of Constructivism associated with Lajos Kassák. Around 1932, the vague, undirected rebelliousness he shared with so many of his contemporaries began to take on a more concrete form: political protest started to figure in his poems. But before long the ”proletarian poet” stance had given way to a deeper concern with political developments at home and abroad. His work was gradually becoming a sort of political seismograph: it could register the slightest tremor in advance of an earthquake.
 
After the rise of Hitler he saw himself as a doomed man. His fifth book, published in the first year of the Spanish Civil War, bears the title Keep Walking, You, the Death-Condemned (1936). The question was no longer ”Shall I die?” in the coming war, but ”How shall I die?” For the eight years that remained to him, this modus moriendi was to be his central concern. His whole sense of the physical world changed. He began to read omens in the clouds, to hear strange squeals and whimpers in the hushed garden, to watch the splendours of autumn with the eyes of a man to whom little of life remains. Joy and anxiety seem to become as tangible as the images that evoke them. For joy is as present as anxiety. Though fearful of the future, Radnóti enjoyed domestic happiness: in 1935 he had married Fanni Gyarmati whose love was to sustain him through the suffering of the years to come, and whose constancy again and again redeems the world of the last poems from the chaos which has otherwise usurped it.
 
As the Second World War approached, Hungary drifted slowly but surely into the Axis alliance. Radnóti’s fears began to prove justified when, in 1938 and again in 1939, the Hungarian government began to legislate against Jews. Eventually, in March 1944, the Germans occupied Hungary and the German ambassador nominated the government.
 
In the course of these events, the fate Radnóti had so long foreseen was gradually fulfilled. From 1940 onwards, he was conscripted for service in various forced labour battalions. Shortly after the Nazi takeover of Budapest, he was sent to the German-controlled copper-mines at Bor in Serbia. There he worked on the construction of a railway-line between Bor and Belgrade. There, too, he wrote many of his finest poems. It was when the prison-camp at Bor was evacuated in the autumn of 1944 that he and his fellow-labourers began the forced march that was to culminate in his death.
 
The Radnóti of the late poems is basically a Christian stoic. As such, he now saw his own survival as of secondary importance: he had been called ”As witness to truth”. In the last decade of his life he had been striving for what his contemporary Attila József called ”diamond consciousness”: to focus all his spiritual and intellectual resources into one powerful beam of poetic energy. The whole structure of his vision was now fundamentally Judaeo-Christian, with Socialism as the secular complement to his religion. In the late 1930s it had seemed inevitable that poets would ”disappear” as strangely as Lorca (a figure of great symbolic importance for Radnóti) had – with maybe a few fragments of their work surviving for ”the curious who come after us”. In 1944, as Radnóti moved towards his death, to bear witness to he truth in verse had become much more than a gesture of defiance or self-defence. It had become a way of identifying himself with the values under threat and, thus, of sustaining them.
 
Commitment to such values involved commitment to the forms and language associated with them. By the mid-1930s, Radnóti’s aim was no longer to provoke admiration or opposition; his purpose now was to express certain moods and formulate certain ideas as clearly and exactly as possible. This involved a return to rhyme, regular stanzas and traditional metres. This retreat to classical metres was more than a gesture towards a dying tradition. For a man writing at the very edge of survival, whose finest work flowered in conditions of intellectual darkness and moral anarchy, the expression of thought and feeling within the clear but flexible order of the Latin hexameter came to seem a moral act. And it constituted a defensive bulwark against the uncertainty of the world.
 
Radnóti’s commitment to truth and form was – quite literally – ultimate. His ”Postcards”, more or less scribbled on the march, are brief messages from purgatory. They are unflinchingly realistic in their delineation of the horrors of war, yet never lose sight of the possibility of a better life. Against a background of villages on fire, he glimpses ”a tiny shepherdess” still going about her ordinary life and yet, in that setting, evoking the fragility of a porcelain figurine. Then finally, a few days before the end, he anticipates the manner of his going with uncanny precision:
 
Shot in the neck. ”This is how you will end,”
I whispered to myself. ”Keep lying still.
Now, patience is flowering into death.”
 
As Radnóti’s friend the poet István Vas said, his poems are ”among the rare masterpieces that combine artistic and moral perfection… Not just an exciting body of work, not just truly great poems, but also an example of human and artistic integrity that is as embarrassing and absurd as it is imperative.”
 
George Gömöri – Clive Wilmer
 
(A shortened version of the introduction to the second, expanded edition of Miklós Radnóti’s volume of poetry: Forced March, Enitharmon Press, 2003, translated by George Gömöri and Clive Wilmer.)

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