07. 03. 2008. 19:35

Outprousting Proust

Szentkuthy, the Proteus of Hungarian literature

For the English-speaking public, the oeuvre of Miklós Szentkuthy (1908–1988) is completely unknown. Yet there is a large camp of ardent Szentkuthy readers in his native Hungary, and in France his ten translated works have created something very close to a cult.

He has also been translated into Spanish, Portuguese, Romanian and Slovakian. But not into German, even though this language has been a most welcoming host to Hungarian literature, nor into English. In his home country the latest, canon-centred literary histories take no notice of the immense role he played in 20th century Hungarian culture. They brush him off, claiming that as someone who neither inspired followers, nor created a school he is of no interest for literary history. What they fail to mention is that for someone to follow Szentkuthy the candidate would need to be an author of no lesser calibre with a similarly superhuman breadth and depth of erudition and a comparable gift for language. There was only one Proust and one Joyce, and Hungarian commentators agree with foreign critics in ranking Szentkuthy on a par with these two authors. The translators of the neo-romance languages instantly recognised that here was a genius of European standard. The fact that he has not been translated into German might partly be explained by something that Szentkuthy himself covertly alluded to – namely, that German is most of all the ultra-precise language of philosophy and is thus unsuited to show the nuanced richness of artistic thinking. To the English he has probably remained unknown for the simple reason that no translator with the right kind of interest has come across his books to raise a publisher’s interest – the way it happened, say, in Paris.
Szentkuthy’s monumental novel Prae, published in 1934, was anything but what the Hungarian reading public called a novel. Thus it was only natural that critics were scandalised. A narrow segment of intellectuals, however, instantly spotted what literary historians were not to declare for decades – namely, that this anti-novel actually marked out a possible direction in the development of the Hungarian novel. A grand linguistic achievement, Prae became its own undoing – it was impossible to carry any further, and indeed Szentkuthy himself refrained from pursuing that track. According to its first critics, Prae was the touchstone of 20th-century Hungarian literature and its author its first “pure-bred, full-blown monster”. Today we know that the phrase monster was not necessarily pejorative – it was used to denote a mind which rejects any tradition and convention by a daring will for the new, whose products differ from anything that went before. Linearity of time, coherent characterisation and plotline disappeared from his work and were replaced by something alien, a mysterious secret: authorial method. For Szentkuthy, art is identical with intellectual analysis striving for absolute perfection, i.e. an exhaustive use of nuances (“outprousting Proust”) and the exaggeration of metaphor. Someone so much absorbed in nuances, with a near-neurotic degree of self-awareness, does not see the world split into phenomena this side of life and beyond; nor does he dissociate poetry from science, but reflects the world as a whole, noting its minute resonances while maintaining an analytic stance towards the scientific and poetic to the extent of myth creation.
When it was first published, Prae did not become a success. (It ran to two more editions later.) Next, still in a private edition, Szentkuthy published a book called Az egyetlen metafora felé (Toward a Single Metaphor) which forged a path towards the diary genre in Hungarian literature and in his own oeuvre. From this time onwards, his thinking followed three main directions. The first is that of his novels among which Prae is a separate unit, followed by a flow of novels consisting of four thick volumes and a thin one called Szent Orpheus breviáriuma (The Breviary of St. Orpheus, 1936; 1993). The art novel Önarckép álarcokban (Self-Portrait in Masks) and the surrounding (pseudo-)historical novels need to be mentioned separately, as well as a line of textual interpretations also closely tied in with the Breviary: Ágoston olvasása közben (While Reading Saint Augustine, 1939; 1993); Cicero vándorévei (Cicero’s Journeyman Years, 1945; 1990); Divertimento (1957); Burgundi krónika (Chronicle of Burgundy, 1959); Doktor Haydn (1959); Hitvita és nászinduló (Religious Debate and Wedding March, 1960); Arc és álarc (Face and Mask, 1962); A megszabadított Jeruzsálem (Jerusalem Delivered, 1965); Saturnus fia (Saturn’s Son, 1966); Händel (1967); Szárnyatlan oltárok (Altars without Wings, 1978). Another large body of Szentkuthy’s work comprises his giant diary written on 300,000 large sheets of paper and sequestered partly for 25 and party for 50 years, as well as his monumental confessional piece Frivolitások és hitvallások (Frivolities and Confessions, 1988). Between these two poles we find the works which have some points of connection with the novel and many others with the diary: Toward a Single Metaphor, 1935; Az alázat kalendáriuma (Calendar of Humility, 1935–36; 1998); Bianca Lanza di Casalanza (1946–47; 1994) and Bezárult Európa (Europe Closed, 1949; 2000).
For the duration of a novel Szentkuthy donned the masks of Mozart (Divertimento), Haydn (Doktor Haydn), Handel (Händel), Goethe (Face and Mask) and Dürer (Saturn’s Son). True, this was partly a forced decision, following editors’ orders, as the rest of his work could not be aligned with the literary policy of the time. He spent just as long behind the mask of Luther, Cicero, Pope Sylvester II, Monteverdi, Brunelleschi and thousands of other figures. Shifting identities offered an excellent chance for recklessness and adventure. Permanent transfiguration allowed different ideas and attitudes to clash, either winking at each other in collusion or swishing off in different directions, while the writer – besides sharing with the audience the experience of momentary otherness, as well as identity – is evidently having a whale of a time.
Thus, for instance, in the first fifty pages of Europe Closed exiled Roman king Tarquinius Superbus, as he is saying farewell to this world, in an association with the myth of Helen (more precisely the story of Castor and Pollux) enumerates every single basket that he has seen throughout a lifetime as a sage and a lecher. This episode, an insert aimed to lend more roundedness to the image of the dictator, is a more colourful adventure than any fantasy novel or chronicle play. It juxtaposes Ancient Rome and Budapest of the 1930’s, the memories of a pilgrimage to southern Italy taken as an adolescent in the holy year of 1928; the lush creepers of mythological imagination and the biologically rooted artistic inclinations of raw nature, as well as the self-destructive strength of created art.
Naturally, Tarquinius, the king of Rome saying his farewell, exiled from life by life itself, reminiscing with wisdom and lyrical sensitivity, is none other than Szentkuthy himself. In Escorial (1940), a volume of the Breviary series, he created a hideous parody of Hitlerism in a Chinese guise, with the great debate between Confucius and Lao-tse, the former protecting the established order of the state, the latter representing anarchic mysticism. Szentkuthy’s affinity for Asia is further reflected in the chapter Europa Minor published in 1941. Preparing for the second edition of Face and Mask, he said in a 1982 interview, “on the front cover of my Goethe book [...] a sculpture by Canova brings back to life the poet’s classic features. And what about the back cover? That shows his ‘mad’, romantic, demonic aspect. In his mask I got a chance to express the multiplicity I sense about myself. And this ranges from the gentleman to the devil.” The story of Handel’s life is related by his friend Hogarth the painter, but subsequently British actor Jimmy Quinn sheds a different light on it. In other words, even in a pseudo-biography, such a typical one-man genre, Szentkuthy cannot resist using ever newer masks. The three-part novel Doktor Haydn speaks in three consecutive voices: Mr Salamon the world-famous, internationally travelled concert agent; the Count of Dungammon, friend to the Prince of Wales; and finally Pythia Crane, a romantic yet highly practical young authoress.
Knowing the world that Szentkuthy created is a must. And perhaps it is not too harsh to say that English translators have a moral obligation in this direction – in gratitude for Miklós Szentkuthy translating Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens, Spartacus by Howard Fast, Ulysses by James Joyce, The Romance of the Swag by Henry Lawson, Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift, twenty-six stories by Mark Twain, a multitude of English essays and short stories and an American novella.

József J. Fekete

Tags: Miklós Szentkuthy