Tuesday, 10 December 2013
Someone asked if we were happy back in, what was it, 1951? I certainly wasn't unhappy. I suspect my parents were as happy as one could be in a poor totalitarian state. If this is indeed c. 1951 then my father is thirty-three or -four and, for the first time in his life, enjoying his work in the Ministry of Building after years of lowly manual work, forced labour and near extinction. My mother, not in the picture because she is taking it, is twenty-six, six years out of concentration camp, working as a photographer, albeit restricted because she is registered as a class alien and under surveillance, as was my father, as was everyone, but class aliens more than most. My father had lost his father, my mother had lost everyone. If this is 1951, my brother is not yet born. We do not even dream of a car, a TV, a fridge, a vacuum cleaner or any mod com except a radio with very restricted reception. Dad walks to work. We have a flat on the edge of the 7th district opposite the Liszt Music Academy which stands in a square that is still barren. The city is still partially in ruins, but I suspect this might have been the happiest period of their lives. So, surely the answer must be yes, we were happy and our lives were OK.
This is mid-sixties, say 1965, in north west London and we are all dressed up to go for our Sunday meal, probably at Schmidt's in Charlotte Street which was our favourite proper restaurant. On alternate Sundays we ate out at an Italian cafe, served by a beautiful young Italian woman called Filomena, with whom I was probably shyly and morosely in love. I am about fifteen, going on sixteen in the picture. If this is 1965 my father is forty-eight, my mother forty. Ask me that question about happiness again. I am not happy, nor do I look happy in the photo. Why would I be at that age? Who is? I vaguely remember that we had exchanged a few cross words before leaving and had stopped by a car, probably our car, a Morris or an Austin, probably a company car, to allow someone I can't now remember, who might have arranged to come to Schmidt's with us, to take this photo. We're too smart for the Italian cafe. My mother insists on smartness. Are they happy, my mother and father? It's not a bad life, surely. My father has given up a potentially exciting if dangerous career back home for a steady job in England. My mother has no real hope of being a press photographer now. Too ill, she might still be working as a retoucher in Oxford Street, but might already be working from home. This isn't our last family house in London, it's probably the penultimate one, in Kingsbury. My brother and I are at school, of which more another time.
The question of happiness
The way such a question is posed always leads to confusion. We start by considering our conditions and trying to work out whether we were moving up or down, were stable or unstable, well or ill, fulfilled or not fulfilled, and balancing these things up leaves us flummoxed. Was there more happiness than unhappiness? I would not say my school days were happy or fulfilled. My brother's were troubled and very difficult. My father was at least keeping the ship afloat. My mother was probably the least happy of us all. What does that add up to?
Consciousness of happiness does not take into account all the factors that might make us so. What is certain is that things might have been a great deal worse but we didn't spend time thanking our lucky stars for that. No, we are transient beings in transient times. There we are standing by a car on a foggy winter day, well wrapped up, presenting a face. My parents put their backs into the moment and try to make it work. I love my mother's outfit in the second picture. I love my father's hat and coat. I love his hat and his expression in the first. The curious little figure that is me stands beside him looking frightened. What is there not to be frightened of? I wear my hat the way my mother has arranged it. Cute! she might be thinking. And I have to admit it does look cute. Cue the conditions for happiness.
Tuesday, 3 December 2013
Peter Zollman has died.
Who was he? A remarkable man. Born in Hungary in 1931, a scientist in the first place, then an industrial scientist, and then, after he retired, an extraordinarily gifted translator of Hungarian poetry into English.
That in itself is something of a miracle, partly because he believed in form-for-form translation and practised it with great skill, but even more because a man of Peter's age, that is to say someone who did not enter the English language very early as I was fortunate to do, usually finds it impossible to develop a keen ear for English language poetry. Peter went through a period of 'apprenticeship' as a verse translator but over the last twenty years or so could 'hear' English verse, feel its balance, and shift gracefully between registers while keeping true to form.
He was a dedicated and copious translator. He translated all the major Hungarian poets from the 16th century to the present, and in considerable quantity. His work rarely appeared in the English publishing world, but it did appear in book form on many occasions, often through Hungary-based publishers but also through the US.
We sometimes translated the same poem and there are a good number of occasions on which I would recommend his rather than mine.
I am looking to write a proper obituary for either the Guardian or The Independent if I can persuade them. He certainly deserves it.
He died in his sleep last night. His widow, Denise, rang this afternoon to give us the news.
Saturday, 23 November 2013
From the digest of that year's TW3. Millicent Martin singing Herbert Kretzmer's words
23 November. But who is the poet? I'm pretty sure it's P J Kavanagh. Confirm if you know.
I was at home in Kingsbury, a none-too-smart North West London suburb.
I was a week short of fifteen - we'd been in England almost seven years - and remember it quite clearly as it came through on our B&W TV on Friday, interrupting programmes, then amplified into a long news item on the later evening news.
It was an enormous and disorientating shock. I don't imagine I grasped the full significance at first but was aware that we regarded him as a heroic figure, someone who was handsome, glamorous and oddly unpresidential - not a grey man like most politicians - someone who had spoken out in Berlin and had faced down Khrushchev in Cuba. I too found him exciting.
There was a very popular pioneering satirical programme on TV that came late on Saturday, That Was The Week That Was. That day, the 23rd, it was only fifteen minutes long, no laughs, entirely about JFK, the programme itself dark and shocked. Millicent Martin is singing a little unsteadily and out of key on it, her own emotions on edge.
It was possibly the first time that I thought, 'Oh the whole world is like that, even in America.'
I had already understood from the revolution in Budapest that the world could be violent, perhaps even that violence was not an abnormal state of affairs, but the news lay oddly on top of my own broken fragments of memory, like a fallen hoarding.
Friday, 22 November 2013
The current editor of the Hungarian Quarterly tried, and for some reason failed, to post this as a comment on my own postings on the subject. I give his reply more prominence because I want to address his points in this slightly more visible space of a private blog. His comment:
As the person you are badmouthing I would like to post a comment. You write: "The latest editor ... had begun his defence of the new regime at the HQ by bad-mouthing some of my translations in order to demonstrate that the old editorship was far from perfect." I do not want the non-Hungarian speaking world to have to trust this ridiculous distortion, so allow me to clarify. I wrote in an article in Élet és Irodalom that I would not characterize one issue of the journal as bad just because I found a few translations in it less than perfect. The relevant passage is: "I found the translations of poems by Dezső Kosztolányi problematic in several places, though they were the work of internationally recognized poet and translator George Szirtes." I explicitly acknowledged your renown as a translator and the former editor in chief, Zsófia Zachár's excellence as an editor. My article had nothing whatsoever to do with the current regime, not a thing. The contention is utterly unfounded, as anyone who could read the original would know.
Regarding the website, which you note has vanished, the website was gone when I inherited the HQ, the company that had managed it was out of business, and all the material that had been uploaded was no longer available online anywhere. I have been working very hard to upload old issues to a new website currently under design. You write on another page: "It may be that the site is simply being revamped, but it wouldn't surprise me if it was taken off for much the same reasons that it was taken over." Since you and I have communicated by email, why not ask before posting a baseless conjecture?
In any event, as far as I can tell you are the person the most determined to kill the Quarterly. I simply don’t know why, except you don’t seem to be able to let go of the idea that I am somehow a stooge of the government. You say you know nothing of my politics, which is true, yet you argue I defend the present regime. Please, be so kind as to substantiate that. Find one citation in my article in Élet és Irodalom that makes any reference whatsoever to the present government. You published in a journal that included writings by György Aczél. I would not have characterized you as a stooge of the Kádár regime, and of course I would do anyone the professional courtesy of letting them know if I am accusing them in a public forum.
I will be curious to see if you publish this post. Perhaps you will censor it. At least I will see if you are actually supportive of open discussions.
I have italicised and emphasised in bold the substantive points the writer makes. I reply to them, not in the order they appear, but in order of what seems to me their importance.
First of all - here is your post, uncensored. All I have taken off is your name since I did not mention you by name in my original postings.
Secondly, this is not a public forum but a private blog with a very restricted readership. Having said that, I would in fact be happy to say the same things on a public forum if I thought anyone would consider it worthwhile publishing. At this level, I doubt it. For most of my anglophone readers - and I am first and foremost a poet in English - this is a skirmish about an obscure if honourable magazine in a far away country of which most know little. In any case, I stress, it is a private blog. Not like Élet és Irodalom, Hungary's equivalent of the TLS.
Thirdly, I certainly published in both the NHQ and the HQ in the past because I knew and grew to love the literary editor, who later became the editor. I was fully aware of the history of the periodical and understood the magazine, specifically the literary and cultural wing of it, as doing its independent best in the circumstances. The current editor - I mean you - has been in Hungary a while but has never made the least effort to contact me before.
Fourthly, the disappearance of the archive was brought to my attention by those who worked at the HQ. They didn't seem to know of any problem with the website, and what I say above - and what you quote me saying - is that I allow it may be being revamped, but that I have some doubts that is the full reason. Those doubts remain.
Fifthly, and least importantly, there are two aspects of your remarks on my work that strike me. The remark appears in the context of a counter-charge against the Hungarian Quarterly (as to say: look, they let this happen, which reflects badly on their judgment), in other words I am a means of criticising the previous editors. I don't like being a means. That is what I mean by bad mouthing. As for what you actually say, it is you, personally, who criticise a specific work, and, as your quotation shows, it is others - not you - who you admit have spoken well of my work generally. I am not stupid or vain enough to fret about your views of this or that particular work of mine, and if you were to point out what were the problems with the work I would consider them, as I consider any rational view. I am as capable of making mistakes as anyone and have never replied to a review, good or bad. It is simply poor policy to do so. Nor did I or will I reply to yours. I suspect this may be difficult to understand but it is not your views of my work that rankle, it is the context of those views.
The fact is I respond the way I do on the blog - really the only reason - because you then go and ask me for work. Since you do not give your own view of my work at any time, only that of others, and since, in our correspondence, you have actually worried that not having me in the magazine will make it look as though you had shut me out for political or other reasons, I think it reasonable to assume that it is the look of the thing that matters to you.
I am not prepared to be part of 'the look' of things, because the look of things is how I have perceived the current government - which is financing this magazine, as previous governments have done, for purposes of their own - to be proceeding in its appropriation of as many channels of cultural communication as it can.
I am perfectly prepared to believe that you have no political affiliation (I have said so on the blog), and that as an individual you may hold any views you like and want the best for the magazine. The fact is there was a Hungarian Quarterly with people I actually loved. Those people are gone. There was a hiatus in the publishing of the magazine, and here it is now, with new people. This happens in a political climate of which I am not ignorant and I doubt you are either. So, lastly,
My article had nothing whatsoever to do with the current regime, not a thing.I am sure no-one was dictating your article to you. I believe you have not consciously considered the views of the government in writing it. But you know the context as well as I do. The Hungarian Quarterly is an English-speaking face of Hungary. The magazine was founded for political reasons and it is pointless telling people it is without political significance. The context matters.
Sunday, 17 November 2013
Friday, 15 November 2013
Apropos of my post about the reasons why I will not be writing for The Hungarian Quarterly in the foreseeable future it is very much worth noting that the HQ, whose archives used to be open online, has now disappeared from the net.
It may be that the site is simply being revamped, but it wouldn't surprise me if it was taken off for much the same reasons that it was taken over.
Best tuck it away and out of sight. It never happened. Everything is for the best in the best of all possible worlds. As in (from Bad Machine)
The Best of All Possible Worlds
The best of all possible worlds is asleep
having turned in for the night.
It is dreaming of snow a mile deep.
The best of all possible worlds contemplates
its own reflection in the mirror,
its eyes two enormous plates.
The best of all possible worlds is at the bus stop
in a steady shower of rain
watching water fall, drop by drop.
The best of all possible worlds is tired
of waiting for the promised improvements.
It has run out of things to be desired.
The best of all possible worlds becomes
a nervous, clumsy abstraction
all fingers and thumbs.
The best of all possible worlds is a dark star
in a universe of its own making,
muttering: things are fine as they are.
Things are fine as they are, says the sun on the wall
Things are fine as they are, says the cold in the bones
Things are fine as they are in the best of all possible worlds.
One needs to watch such spaces. I expect to see more of them.
A little madness - or what might seem madness - is good beyond the age of 60. You're going to be buried anyway. You might as well be buried mad and dancing.