One book is never enough


Last week, it seemed that a new subspecies of lumbersexuals was emerging in the most unlikely of places: among Budapest intellectuals and activists. It turned out that all these checked shirts were popping up in my feed for a reason.

Hungarians have had enough Orbán’s education policy; over centralisation, one party-approved textbook only for every subject, and daily PE lessons are its main features. A former government official criticised the teachers who protested as ‘dishevelled types in checked shirts’. So they and their students started wearing checked shirts to school. Hungarians are among the most curious and critical people I know; their children shouldn’t grow up without a choice of what to read or write. They had quite enough of that in the last century. As their poets will tell you.

Hungarian poet Radnóti Miklós stared publishing in 1930 and died in the Holocaust; but even on his final death march in 1944 he didn’t stop writing, and his poems were found in his jacket pocket. These were published posthumously and are available, with his earlier work, in – not one, Orbán, but two! – bilingual English editions. Foamy Sky (tr. Frederick Turner/Zsuzsanna Orvath, Princeton UP 1992, my ed. is Corvina Books 2002) is quite different from Clouded Sky (tr. Steven Polgar, Stephen Berg, S. J. Marks, Sheep Meadow Press 2003); the former kept the form and the latter was more visceral and free. I got to know Radnóti through Turner and Orvath, but after reading Dick Slackman’s analysis, I’d like to see more of the Polgar team translations. Sadly both books are now out of print.

Here is Radnóti writing about writing in 1935, from my copy of Foamy Sky, pictured with the original above.
While writing
As loath to the clean tree-trunk as the flaked snakeskin cast
By the snake of which it is discharged, is my disgust
At this time-turning world, and the wolfish people in it.
I, fecund only of flowers, was taken the minute
I came, and raised among gunbarrels by murderers:
I am inured to battle now, and flee no horrors.

True, it’s good to let them have it now and then; but then
How sweet that peace would be, to be pure saint of the pen.
Let me not tempt myself to skulk and hide: how lovely
To live closed up in a far-off workshop it would be.
O now I think if you, my right hand plumed, old friend,
Old master, Kazinczy,* now I come to understand.

* Kazinczy Ferenc was a poet and language reformer who was imprisoned for his Jacobin activities around 1800, and devoted himself to a country life of writing on his release.

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Posted in books, education, history, language, poetry, translation

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