02. 27. 2009. 08:08

Ottlik’s Buda as Perpetuum Mobile

Musical and mathematical

In Géza Ottlik’s sparse oeuvre the posthumously published "novel" Buda claims a most special place. Appearing three years after the author’s death, Buda was not quite the long-awaited sequel to School at the Frontier (1959), his only other novel, considered by many as his major work. Yet Buda, fragmentary as it stands, is far more than a sequel. Buda stands free, an arbor vitae, Ottlik’s true monument.

Above, I placed “novel” in quotes for a reason. As writer Balázs Györe reminds us, “[Ottlik’s] message has to do with the genre of the novel itself”. The Hungarian edition of School carries no such designation, but the 1993 first edition’s title page, under the title Buda unequivocally adds the word regény, novel. As if someone had felt obliged to… suggest that Buda may be expanding our parameters for defining the novel?
Ottlik’s School at the Frontier, a novel that had come to occupy a central position in Hungarian fiction of the latter half of the 20th century, may be crudely described as a complex Bildungsroman of sorts, focusing on boys at a military school on the Austro-Hungarian border in 1923-26. A more nuanced reading would point to the narratological aspects of the novel, with its “framing device” of an introductory section appropriately titled “The Difficulties of Storytelling” that begins the narrative in 1957 by referring to events in 1944. Further complications: the story has “twin narrators”, the painter Benedek Both (BB) and his close friend and classmate, the writer and philosopher Medve (whose name translates as Bear). The latter, recently deceased in 1957, had left a manuscript to his friend with the instruction, “Do what you like with it…”
Well, Buda may be a “sequel” of sorts, since it continues with the same two narrators, and often refers back to events and characters in School. But as indicated by the profusion of wildly diverse critical opinions, Buda has proved to be far more than simply a sequel to the earlier novel, while raising debate about its being a novel at all. Buda is an aggregate of 31 titled sections of various lengths, eleven of them less than three pages, eleven sections twelve to twenty-five pages, the remainder four to nine pages long. Most of the longest sections occupy the middle stretches of Buda, and there is a discernible rhythm in the pace of the narrative, more staccato at beginning and end, stately and sustained toward the middle. This is one literary composition possessing many features that for lack of a better term may be called musical.
Musical, and mathematical. For Ottlik, true to his training as a mathematician, conveniently includes a set of mathematical notations and algorithms to represent relations between the degree of accuracy of a verbal description and the degree of certainty about the existence of the entity described – an entity such as a certain feeling that characterizes a boy’s love for his mother or grandmother. The rule of thumb seems to be: the longer and more detailed the description, the less authentic the phenomenon described. Ottlik’s strategy to overcome this problem is manifold, and consists of, among others, the technique of multiple exposures, a series of fits and starts in approaching and addressing a motif or event. A method, by the way, that Dezso Tandori repeatedly resorts to in his mini-essay on Buda in a volume of musings literary and otherwise that is labeled “fiction”, Hét fejlövés (Seven Head Wounds, Budapest 2002. This volume’s title itself alludes to Buda, where a certain testy officer, an instructor at the military academy, is excused for his irritability because he had received seven head wounds in the Great War.)
Tandori’s re-reading of Buda is titled “The Even Farther Out Buda”. That is, Buda is even more “far out” than readers have supposed, farther out than what critics have noticed and remarked about it (or about themselves). For openers, Tandori recognizes the awkwardness of Ottlik persisting in the device of making his central character and co-narrator BB a painter. This leads to cumbersome, strained metaphors such as the difficulties of “painting” the view from the dining room at BB’s old apartment on Fehérvári Road. Next, Tandori notes that compared to the structuring of Buda, Ottlik’s other works, including School, belong to an entirely different world. The 31 sections of Buda are full of bizarre cuts – (School itself is not without some unexpected breaks in continuity). Yes, Tandori grants, Buda may be a “hay wagon” of a book, to be grasped straw by straw, “read in any order whatsoever. Practically stochastically (pardon the expression!), without committing to any kind of structure.” – Naturally Buda links to School and its set of characters, which remain evident points of reference. ”But Buda is the book of ad infinitum.”  Its haphazard structure contains a myriad details that more or less cohere, but that is beside the point. You can rummage among these facts. "In Buda Ottlik had built his own perpetuum mobile, the endless story that moves in place." (Thus Tandori.)
Speaking now as the translator, I viewed the prospect of Buda in fear and trembling, all too aware of the revered edifice of Ottlik’s School “looming in the background”. I read the existing English translation of School by Kathleen Szasz (Harcourt, Brace & World Inc. / New York 1966) noting its many deletions and omissions, and then, thanks to a National Endowment for the Arts grant from Washington, D.C., went ahead with my translation of Buda, prepared to make certain cuts to ease the way for readers unfamiliar with the novel that preceded Buda. I need not have worried; less than a handful of lines required cutting in my final version. Buda may have been built on the foundations laid down in School at the Frontier, but it is a gloriously free-standing structure, “free as the sky”. Buda (the novel that “just grew”), may have sprung up from School, but because of its open form, with each reading it still keeps growing, branching, budding, flowering, and fruiting rather like the triple-trunked, humongously fertile mulberry tree on our front lawn in Upstate New York, imported twenty years ago as a six-foot stripling from a friend’s backyard in Cambridge.
In addition to the narrators and their inseparable sidekick Szeredy, Buda introduces another major figure, Kornél (Lexi) Hilbert; fully fleshes out Medve’s mother, who had been an occasional visitor in School, and adds a well-sketched portrait of their maid Veronika, as well as a memorable cameo of Medve’s grandmother Bianka. Most pervasively, BB’s wife Márta makes her presence felt in Buda, as does BB’s mother Éva and his elder sister Júlia. Moreover, the personages in this cast of characters around the central figures of Medve and BB do not merely register and reflect the “coming of age” of young men whose identity had been in danger of being steamrollered under the rubric of “military school cadets”. These “new characters” add dimension upon dimension to the incidental details stacked up in Ottlik’s “hay wagon” of a novel.
For epigraph Buda carries a quote from Leopardi: "Stolta virtu, le cave nebbie, I campi / Dell’inquiete larve / Son le tue scole" [‘Daft virtue! In this misty void / where restless shadows sway / I can see what you are’].  Samuel Beckett’s essay “Proust”, published in 1932, also carries an epigraph by Leopardi, "E fango e il mondo’" [The world is muck]. Beckett’s essay, moreover, says much about novelistic Time that is applicable in a discussion of Ottlik’s Buda.
 “There is no escape from yesterday because yesterday has deformed us, or has been deformed by us. …Yesterday is not a milestone that has been passed, but a daystone on the beaten track of the years, and irremediably part of us, within us, heavy and dangerous. … Such as it was, it has been assimilated to the only world that has reality and significance, the world of our own latent consciousness, and its cosmography has suffered a dislocation… And possibly the perpetuum mobile of our disillusions is subject to more variety. The aspirations of yesterday were valid for yesterday’s ego, not for to-day’s.” And, further along, “The creation of the world did not take place once and for all time, but takes place every day.” 

I take these statements to imply that the main task of narrative art is achieving the rare and difficult feat of sharing a single moment’s life-experience, making a single moment speak for a whole life’s experience. But in prose fiction this considerable trick can only be accomplished with the reader’s active help, especially so in the case of Ottlik’s Buda, where the longer “chapters” among the 31 sections present bewildering sequences of seemingly arbitrary cuts, making the narrative skip and hop in jagged staccato. For example, the nineteenth and one of the longer of these sections, (A Room Upstairs), starts about halfway into the novel, and in rapid succession discusses events in the following time frames: Medve’s nanny Veronika in the 1930’s, Medve in 1952-53 unable to save her life, Medve and Hilbert in 1926 discussing patriotism near the Hentzi pedestal (“I piss on my homeland!” shouted Medve); Lexi Hilbert starting to reminisce (“There was a room upstairs”) sometime in the later 1920’s; BB and Monostor, post-1926; senior year at the Buda military academy, 1929-30; Medve’s MS about Hilbert and the Gordon girls, “Conductor?” written in May 1956; Lexi asking BB to take the MS to Klari Gordon in London, 1962; BB on Tottenham Court Road on November 19, (his mother’s birthday, “She had been dead for fifteen years, and I had no need to recall her – for she was present in my way of seeing things.”) The following section, (“Conductor?”) starts out as Medve’s narrative, switches to Hilbert’s track and field career at school; meanwhile the narrative voice almost imperceptibly shifts to BB, who carries on without missing a beat, skipping ahead ten years to his moving in with Marta, and so on… This is strobe-light narration, a vibration that requires all of a reader’s concentration, and then again some. Perpetuum mobile, indeed.
Balázs Györe: Géza Ottlik
(a poem in prose written for Ottlik's 90th birthday, translated by John Batki)

“That which exists, is what we call reality.”
“I am.”
“Something exists.”
“Something arises.”
Géza Ottlik’s writing career is full of breaks, silences, patience, mute silence. “Yet stubbornly persistent, like Buda.”
His aspiration: “…as long as we have managed to get here along with others, we must not crawl off to some ‘no man’s land’; a certain recognized congruence forever ties us together – even as we are suffocating on the brink of annihilation.”
His aspiration as a writer: “taking the entire lived and experienced material of one’s whole being and putting it into some degree of order, creating a clear, connected, artistically coherent and composed whole.”
His message has to do with the genre of the novel itself.
School has taught us that “defeat is our truer possession (it consists of a truer substance, and is more important than, victory)”.
School is a communiqué. Buda is realization. Concentrated.
Buda is a four-letter word (“the number of numbers is four”: f-o-u-r). “The city is ruled by the number four.”
Ottlik has style. One of the ones whose style is free of even the slightest trick. Appreciate it!
Buda is a logbook. Ottlik’s “Logbook” is a staccato. (“A dutiful, pettily precise diary.”) Buda is a jagged logbook. In place of hauteur, a New Humility. “A new degree of nakedness.” (“Every book wants to be a logbook.”)
Buda guides us, conducts. (“You can ramble and roam in it.”) It draws you in. Points the way. One can rummage around in it. And find streets, bridges, places – as well as illnesses.
The streetcar conductor says: “Tickets, please! New passengers? New humility?”
You can get on Buda, as you get on a streetcar. You can ask the conductor, “Where are we?” And the conductor will answer each time, tireless.
School is a closed whole. Buda is open and free as the sky. And fragile.
School is here on earth. Buda, up in the sky. Buda is solace.
Ottlik’s oeuvre is connected, whole. A Connected Whole. Ottlik’s books interconnect, are interdependent. “The trees know and accept him.”
“The defeat built into running” propels Géza Ottlik to the stars. To quote his favorite, Leopardi, “ Your schools are the deep clouds and hosts of restless shadows”.

 Ottlik Géza: Buda
Budapest: Európa, 1993

John Batki

Tags: Géza Ottlik