Archive for June 25th, 2011

Meeting cyber-friends in Kraków: George Gömöri and Miłosz’s “Antigone”

Saturday, June 25th, 2011

Working on an edited volume is a lonely business.  One’s “relationships” with contributors are often no more than characters on a screen, as you work through the cycles of cyber-fights and cyber-calms, editing and proofreading back and forth in what passes for “together” online.

Inevitably, I developed imaginary pictures of the objects of my ether-relationships while working on An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czesław Miłosz.  For example, I imagined my Hungarian contributor, George Gömöri of Cambridge, as a slightly crotchety curmudgeon, set in his ways and writing on an antique Mac with an enlarged screen for the sight-impaired (with a thick Hungarian accent). Nothing in his writing style or our correspondence suggested such a portrait, it was cut out of whole cloth, probably based on something as random as someone from my distant past with a similar name.

Travel always brings surprises, and one of mine on my trip to Kraków in May was meeting contributor George, the author of many books on Polish and Hungarian literature (Miłosz maintained there is a particular affinity between the two peoples), at the Jagiellonian University conference where we both spoke.  He was hardly a creaky recluse. He was charming, good looking, and cosmopolitan (with a pronounced English accent).  And he had a lovely wife, Mari, by his side – she is the dedicatee, it turns out, of many of his poems.

He also had a letter in the most recent Times Literary Supplement, which now I read through his wit and affability:

A Hungarian traveller

Sir, – Julian Evans mentions a Hungarian traveller, in his review of three books about travel (June 3), whose “erudition” according to him “is not to be trusted”, for he mixed up Cambridge (Cantabrigia in Latin) with Canterbury (Cantuaria). This error was made by Márton Szepsi Csombor, the author of the first great Hungarian travelogue, Europica varietas, who visited London in May 1618 and whose description of most foreign lands is usually accurate and rich in verifiable detail. Mixing up the Latin names of two towns in England does not mean that Szepsi Csombor was not erudite. He had certainly wanted to visit, as he puts it, “the famous academy where Whitaker and Perkins taught” and when, reaching Canterbury, he realized his mistake, the only reason why he did not make his way back to Cambridge was his lack of money – he found England too costly for his purse. Yet some weeks later, our Hungarian spent a whole day at the Sorbonne, listening to an immensely long academic discussion in Latin and enjoying it fully. Perhaps his erudition was after all in better shape than his finances.

Darwin College, Cambridge.

Anyway, one of the pleasures of An Invisible Rope was the chance to publish George’s (and Richard Berengarten‘s) translation of Miłosz’s “Antigone,”  that had not appeared in previous collections in English, but was published in The Hungarian Quarterly in 2001:

To accept what happens just as one accepts
Seasons piling pell-mell on one another,
And on our human world to cast the same
Indifference as on mute Nature’s transformations?
So long as I shall breathe I shall say—No.
Do you hear me, Ismene? I shall say—No.

That passage, as well as this one, are vintage Miłosz, touching on themes haunting his poetry:

Fools alone believe they can live easy
By relegating Memory to the past.
Fools alone believe one city falling
Will bring no judgement down on other cities.

Meanwhile, my clumsy Droid photos above right – they are among my first, taken in the the Miłosz Pavilion set up in Szczepanski Square. But you get an idea of the hustle and bustle of the setting – you can see better photos of it here.