Posts Tagged ‘George Szirtes’

Krasznahorkai on “bottomless idiocy, unbounded aggression.”

Monday, January 21st, 2013
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Justifiably nervous … and absolutely not normal.

Last month, I wrote about attending the László Krasznahorkai reading at the London Review of Books bookstore, with his translator George Szirtes and Irish novelist Colm Toíbín sharing the stage – it’s here.

On that evening, the Hungarian author read “a lyrical essay about the terrible meeting between boorishness and aggressiveness,” about the kind of guy who floods him with  “the deepest personal anxiety.” It began this way:

I’ve been living in complete silence for months, I might say for years, with just the usual dull sounds you hear at the outskirts of town, the occasional echo of steps in the corridor and, further off, in the stairwell, someone dragging a sack, a carpet, a package, or a corpse, God knows what, along the ground; or the sound of the elevator as it slows, stops, opens, then closes and starts to rise or descend. Every so often a dog barks briefly, someone laughs or shouts. But everything dies away, soon lost in the constant low-level murmur of the street outside. That is what complete silence is like round here.

There are of course times I put on a Zelenka mass  or listen to one of Schiff’s “Wohltemperiertes Klavier” interpretations, or take out Spoon, Karen Dalton or Vic Chesnutt, but after a few bars I turn it off so it may be quiet again, because I want to be ready and I don’t want anything disturbing going on when he arrives and finds me.

To be honest I wouldn’t have been surprised if he hadn’t knocked but beat at the door, or simply kicked the door in, but now that I hear the knocking, it’s clear there is no difference between his knocking and beating or kicking the door in, I mean really no difference, the point being that I am dead certain it is him, who else; he of whom I knew, and have always known would come.

The most tragic figure in history is the one in whom two terrible conditions meet. The two conditions that meet and combine in him are bottomless idiocy and unbounded aggression …

Now it’s in the New York Times.  Read the whole thing here.

George Szirtes and “a spirit of place”

Friday, December 14th, 2012
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“My ancestors are an absence.”

Poet George Szirtes and I have something in common, besides the memory of speaking about Czesław Miłosz last week at the glorious British Academy on Carlton House Terrace (the site a longtime residence of Prime Minister William Gladstone).

We share a heritage. The Szirtes family left Hungary in 1956, when George was an eight-year-old.  My family left a generation earlier, and it was only in recent years I had a chance to visit Budapest. He returned to Hungary in 1984, although “there had been a brief, curtailed family visit in 1968 when the invasion of Czechoslovakia sent us scurrying out.”  The 1984 return proved decisive in forming him as a translator – for which we are grateful, for not many venture into that alien tongue, whose closest antecedents are Turkish and Finnish.

He is mostly known, however, as an English-language poet, and has won a long list of awards, most notably the 2004 T. S. Eliot Prize.

Author and poet Bethany W. Pope (a recent Twitter acquaintance of mine) interviewed the poet-translator for Quarterly Conversation.  Here’s a snippet:

B.W.P: Translation seems to me like something very similar to what I do when I write in the person of my ancestors. In my collection A Radiance, I wore their psyches as a way of inhabiting the people I love and bringing them closer. Has the fact that you were forced out of Hungary influenced your need to reconnect with your heritage in this way, and is that what you are doing when you engage in an act of translation?

G.S: It wasn’t so much the language I was reconnecting with back then as with a spirit of place that was, I felt, latent but unembodied in my own work. That is a more precise way of putting it than I felt at the time. The language was in the place. Since then I think it is likely that the language itself has reoccupied part of my neural system.

My ancestors are an absence. I never knew any of them as people and have no record of them in terms of documents. Two or three photographs, that’s all. I have no dynastic sense except in that I am of a race of people that have generally been chased from place to place and are occasionally murdered, which equips one with a vulnerability based on expectation. [Writer Gyula] Krúdy didn’t have that problem. He had a Hungarian version of it: the evanescence of location.

B.W.P: How has living and working so long in the UK influenced your take on Hungarian culture? I was wondering if existing for such a long time outside of it made it easier or more difficult to connect with the writers with whom you work?

Gladstone slept here.

G.S: I really only know Budapest culture at first hand. Capitals are not the same as the provinces. Budapest offered so many possibilities. There was a democratic resistance there before 1989 that was intelligent, deeply read, ironic, inventive, affectionate yet brusque. I think that culture has turned out to be more brittle than I thought it would be, but I could be wrong. In terms of their relationship to me, they were welcoming of me, but my nine months there in 1989, under the historical pressure of that year, showed me I could not be of them. In terms of my working relationship to them, they have given me far more than I could have hoped for. My “real” life is in my immediate family and in the English language. They have enriched that language for me, by entering it with me. They have expanded me. There’s nothing difficult about working with them.

Read the rest here – including an account of that 1984 trip.

László Krasznahorkai to Colm Tóibín: “I was absolutely not a normal child.”

Monday, December 10th, 2012
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A place for “Literary Friendships.”

It was not an easy interview, but Colm Tóibín did his gamely best to interview László Krasznahorkai at the London Review of Books inaugural event for “Literary Friendships” last week.

The event was sold out and crammed into the LRB bookshop on Bury Lane,  which were already with crammed with books.

Until recently, Krasznahorkai was better known by reputation than by output in the West.   Susan Sontag called him “the contemporary Hungarian master of apocalypse who inspires comparison with Gogol and Melville. W. G. Sebald said, “The universality of Krasznahorkai’s vision rivals that of Gogol’s Dead Souls and far surpasses all the lesser concerns of contemporary writing.”

Satantango, first published in Hungary in 1985 and now regarded as a classic, was finally published in English this year, translated by the Hungarian-born English poet and translator George Szirtes.

“I had to write only this book and no more.  You try to write only one book and put everything you want to say in one book, to create my own literary world with my sentences,” Krasznahorkai told last week’s audience.

The Irish Tóibín made a stab at describing Krasznahorkai’s style, which he saw as “removing the need for objects in novel and seeing whether a novel can live in a different space.”

Tóibín described the novel as “a secular space,” yet this one “deals with spiritual questions rather than material questions.” God “interferes” with the novel and its characters.

“Bringing God into the novel, it’s dynamite,” Tóibín said.  Comment?

The Hungarian Krasznahorkai demurred.  “Hmmmm,” he said.  Then again, “Hmmmm…”  Finally, he concluded, “The question is wonderful, but I couldn’t answer. It’s too difficult for me. I’m not that clever.”

Maybe Tóibín should have read last August’s Guardian article for a clearer, post-communist spiritual statement from Krasznahorkai:

He gestures to the computer sitting on the table at his elbow. “This is the result of 10,000 years? Really? We have microphone, laptop, this technical society – that’s all? This is sad, and very disappointing. After so many geniuses in the human story from Leonardo to Einstein, from the Buddha to Endre Szemerédi, these are fantastic figures, and their work is unbelievably important and we cannot do anything with it – why?”

According to the LRB website touting the event, he remains an optimist: “You will never go wrong anticipating doom in my books, anymore than you’ll go wrong in anticipating doom in ordinary life.”

Krasznahorkai was born in Gyula, close to the Romanian border.  Tóibín quoted Auden saying that a writer’s childhood should have as much neurosis as a child can take.  “I was absolutely not a normal child,” replied the Hungarian writer.

“I chose that.”

For awhile, he lived in a village in the countryside “very far from Budapest, very far from the next village,” a place that was filled with “houses with peasants and tiers,” he said, switching briefly to German to refer to the cows and livestock that cohabit the spaces.  “Rain and an absolutely hopeless sky. … no heaven, no questions about heaven.  Only how can I drink the next pálinka?  What can we eat?”

“I had the feeling that this kind of people only lived down below.  They were not 30 or 60 years old, but 6,000 years old, without names. Everyone was the same, every fate was the same – like rain.  A drop came down, and then another.”

“I chose that. I was 19 years old.” He compensated by reading Dostoevsky, Dante, and ancient Greek literature.

Before 1989, he said, “Hungary was an absolutely unreal, crazy country.  Abnormal and unbearable.  After 1989, it became normal and unbearable.” In what he called “Old Hungary,” there was “very big misery – the mood was unbelievably sad and hopeless.”

He’s not worried about finding readers.  “Most of us need only ten, maybe six on a bad day,” Tóibín agreed.

He knows his place.

George Szirtes was in attendance (in fact, it was the night before our talk at the British Academy), and the affable translator was invited up to the podium for a few words:

“It was slow. I had headaches regularly,” he said describing the process of translating Krasznahorkai’s work.  He thought it would take a year and a half.  It took four.  His first words on meeting Krasznahorkai were an apology.  Not to worry, said Krasznahorkai, “it took me six years to write.”

As he’s translating, Szirtes asks himself, “What is this sentence up to?  What is it looking for? … When you turn it into English, what kind of noise is it?”  The noise in translation is not the same as the noise in the original: “The noise is distinctly related, but transplanted.”

And, after four years of translation, he tackled Tóibín’s questions:  “I know that world more, but it’s a visionary world – a visionary world looking for order. The characters are not looking for God, but looking for their place.”

The session continued with questions from the audience, but Krasznahorkai made a plea to the audience as he asked for questions.

He put his hands together, prayer-like, “Only I beg you, nothing about God.”