Saturday, 3 October 2015
It has been busy since the last entry. Last night was the reading with Billy Ramsell, Pascale Petit and I. Today it was my workshop in the morning, and, as they say, my pleasant task to introduce the launch of new publications by Breda Wall Ryan, Victoria Kennefick and Maeve O'Sullivan in the afternoon. It all went very well indeed, but me telling you so without you being there is not of much value.
Let me ask myself questions instead. Were Billy and Pascale and Breda and Victoria and Maeve, and the ten poets in my 'masterclass' (essentially a workshop) - including Victoria and Breda - really good? Yes, of course they were. (They really were.) And was the welcome and organisation of Eleanor Hooker (also in the workshop) and all her volunteer team marvellous? Yes, you can bet your life on it. Really. I could give more detail on Billy's energetic, coiled recitation by heart of his strongly lyrical but tough work, or say, as I have done before, that Pascale is a sui generis poet of the magical, animistic and tragic with a brilliant visual imagination, but adverting to this so briefly and lightly will seem somewhat like blowing kisses into the air. Nevertheless, these things are true, so please assume them.
I could say more - and did - about Breda's work where emotional intensity presses through richly detailed lines that lodge in the ear and about her sense of the world as bitter and dark but full of verbal pleasure and close observation. I could tell you that Victoria is an exciting and thoroughly blown-through poet whose work feels fresh on the pulse, but also carries a lightly-registered but deep apprehension of what can lie below. I could perorate on the haiku as a form that has established itself in the English language as a medium of meditation in which perfectly ordinary and apparently incidental things hold still and allow us to look through them as in Maeve's poems. And, there! I have made a gesture towards it and I mean it, and you will see I am registering something that is - at least as far as I can gauge - really does exist.
I hope you will forgive me if I now return to what has concerned me directly, in so far as it was part of my own reception. That takes me back to the reading on Friday.
It was back in the Nenagh Arts Centre theatre and was introduced by the poet Thomas McCarthy who is one of the great men of Irish poetry and literature generally. We each answered a few questions from him before our individual introductions and readings. Thomas is a great poet of great reading, knowledge and understanding, so it very much interested me what he would say about me. It turned out that, in his view, I am primarily a European rather than an English poet. He was very generous, beyond hostly obligation, in his evaluation. I was, naturally, flattered and delighted with the generosity and it gave me to think on the difference between being an English and a European poet.
I think what Thomas meant was that my sensibilities were formed by experiences outside England, which is probably true. Although I have spent close on fifty-nine of my years in the country of my family's refuge and only eight in that of my birth, no doubt the lives and expectations and some of the deepest instincts of my parents were passed on to me: the family house remains the family house even when it is far removed from home, which was probably why that first return visit to Budapest in 1984 made such a huge impression on me.
What were my parents' expectations and instincts? The world had behaved savagely to them: the world might therefore be expected to act savagely again. What precisely was the world? It was the urges, prejudices, passions and furies of those around them; of societies, try how they might, they could not be a full part. It was an unstable world whose grip on order was tenuous. What once seemed to be solid buildings were lying in ruins around them. What were once families were now bloody severed or missing limbs. They felt, if not quite alone, part of an entity they did not fully want to claim. The very language they spoke was spoken against them: it imprisoned and tortured them so when they escaped its clutches they were relieved yet bereft. It was their individual strength that saw them through, not their societal strength, but there were other individuals, some even stronger perhaps, who did not make it. That which offered security was perhaps overvalued if only because its supply was short.
As a child one resists the values of one's parents but one cannot help learning and internalising them so they become the walking spectres of the imagination. The instincts one consciously resists are all the more real for being knowingly resisted.
And is this so with me? I don't know but I do recognise something of the spectral as I describe it above. In describing it I make it real. The time accumulated since then, the good life stored in the bank of security takes precedence, of course. One has a life to live and obligations to the immediate necessities of the world and all one has learned to love in it.
One question that has arisen a few times here at the festival was whether it is possible to write happy poems - poems of, or about, happiness? I think the question first arose out of Billy's work but did so in the course of the book launch. It is a hard task, Billy had said when Thomas asked him about it in public. After the reading, in the pub, we talked about the idea that happiness wrote white, a thought I attributed to Paul Valéry, wrongly, since it was Henry de Montherlant. What if, I suggested, one wrote white on dark paper? What if happiness was to be seized because that which is not seized does not convince us that it is happiness? What if happiness was not something one wrote about - although one might - but what the achievement and shaping of some response to life actually was. The poem then was not about happiness: the fact that such a thing as a poem can exist at all is the happy thing. The awareness of brevity is embedded in the poem about happiness in the same way mortality is embedded in poems about life and vigour.
The very fact that I speculate about such things is, in its way, evidence that what I psychologically inherited from my parents continues on it spectral rounds and produces instincts and values that are the ground out of which poetry might spring.
And perhaps does so. The Europe of Central Europeans, of Central European Jews particularly, of which Thomas spoke, and at more of which he hinted, means something like that. It is a field of expectations and values that point to an unattainable security. It is, necessarily, a spectral place: fugitive ground on which good is something seized and lost. It is a harsh, erratic disciplinarian that can disorder the bones of Paul Celan should it see fit.
But we all know that, don't we? In our different places, at our various points on the map and the clock we recognise it. Some of us will have some more recent historical experience of it. Or if not the experience the memory trace of it.
There is no hierarchy of dread. One does not deserve, or get, medals for one's apprehensions. A Europe of apprehensions seems intensely real to me. Maybe it disorders my own bones in a much smaller way than it did Celan's.
But let me, since I work out of England, in English, be less dramatic about this. Let us agree, not on the grand term 'disorders' but on something more delicately poised, more modest, something more like 'distresses' perhaps. Something there is that distresses the bones. Yes, I think that is probably fair.
Friday, 2 October 2015
|In Nenagh Art Centre Theatre|
I have made many visits to Ireland and was the first International Writer Fellow at Trinity College in Dublin for three months, of which I am very proud - and, needless to say, I had a very good time, as indeed I have with all my other literary trips here, from Clifden, Sligo and Galway through to Listowel, Limerick and Tralee, not to mention Dun Laoghaire and Gort. It was as if I had a relative in the country, and maybe, in someways, I have.
I wouldn't say it was a relative I knew well, nor do I now, but Ireland has always been a hospitable and warm-hearted welcoming relative. I sometimes think being Hungarian by birth has helped: two small countries with some similarity in their histories. So here I am again for the Dromineer Literary Festival where I am to read with Pascale Petit and Billy Ramsell, be interviewed by Thomas McCarthy tonight, run a masterclass tomorrow, and introduce a poetry launch of publications by Victoria Kennefick, Breda Wall Ryan, and Maeve O'Sullivan tomorrow.
Arriving last night we were met by Eleanor and Bernie at the airport and driven to Nenagh, which is the noise our children made, and now our grandchildren make, when playing at police and ambulance cars. In that sense it is doubly familiar. The wide streets, the small shops with the dark rich colours and Celtic style signs, the stone, the dark green of the grass, the morning mist, the shops that go back and back, as I remembered from previous visits when, in a different place, in another inn, about four rooms back from the main bar Ciaran Carson was singing and playing.
Brian's B and B where we are staying is very comfortable and the food is angelic, Brian's daughter being home from Florida where she is a top pastry cook. Brian himself makes bread. We are the only guests here at the moment but others will arrive this afternoon.
Last night we were offered the option of seeing Peter Sheridan perform his one man play, '44 Seville Place', which is based on his memories of living in a poor part of Dublin and runs the chronology from the early fifties to 1970, preceded by prologue involving a missed movie production that would have starred Sean Penn, and involved a drive across the US with him.
The theatre is a very simple affair with far too high a stage so Sheridan performed, unamplified, from floor level. He doesn't need much, just a cardboard guitar and a real one. He is a very assured performer and raconteur, seamlessly weaving together anecdotes of early and late childhood, the amusing and the tragic, full of cultural resonance for an audience who were mostly of the right vintage and well prepared for a performance as intimate yet as bold as this. The local references mostly lost me, all I remember is that Dublin looked one way to me in the 1980s and quite different by the late 90s. Dublin had become an international city quite different from the relatively monocultural place it had been some dozen years before.
Intimacy and monoculturalism are twins: we trust what we know, we know what we trust. It tends sometimes to have a slightly excluding-while-welcoming sense to me if only because I know - as I do in England too, though in a different way - that being in a place is never quite the same as being of it.
So Sheridan's virtuosic trawl through Dublin life, and by that token Irish life too, was familiar to me in the sense that I already had the general picture and have had it for some years. The characters step out of a landscape I have visited before. They rise and perform. There's the church cracking down, the school with its harsh ways, the dodges, the whispers, the bawling, the early death, the first love, the family (always the family) and the singing (always the singing) though in this case the songs are by Lennon and McCartney. And, while Sheridan sings snatches of songs in a fine baritone voice, we end with community singing, everyone joining in with When I'm Sixty-Four.
It is what the tribe has been through and survived. It is what has held it together and kept it going. In the film of the tribe this is the scene from It's a Wonderful Life when the suffering gives way to the close warmth of true friends.
Life is myth: but what else is there?
Sunday, 20 September 2015
Steel reinforcing bars reclaimed from buildings collapsed in the Sichuan earthquake.
Yesterday we met Sam at the Royal Academy. We have cards that would get us in free anyway but he, being editor of the RA magazine, offered to take us in to the Ai Wei Wei show on its very first day. The privilege of knowing Sam came through his commission of a poem for Anselm Kiefer, after which I asked him for space to write about the forgotten Polish artist, Felicia Glowacka, about whom more later. That article is done now and waiting to appear.
We had, of course, read Sam's fascinating article on the now world-famous Chinese artist in the magazine and since I link to it now I don't think it is necessary to write any thing particularly informative in this post. We know something of the scale of his work, of his arrest and imprisonment, of his tense relationship with the Chinese state. In any case Sam was very generous to show us around (and I hope he forgave me having forgotten details of the article)
These then are just brief observations.
ScaleThe sheer physical scale of the work is as overwhelming as the earlier Kiefer exhibition was in some respects but is so neatly divided into specific pieces that most rooms comprise a single project with related supporting work, which allows the mind to rest and gather itself. The scale, nevertheless, is industrial. The work requires more or less an industry to produce, employing not just assistants but top crafts people. We don't know their names but we are in no danger of forgetting them.
Balancing craft, concept and contextThe balance between craft, concept and context is the most dramatic aspect of the show. Handcraft has been derided and excluded from fine art for a long time with few exceptions apart from Grayson Perry, the comedy and irony of whose work have helped make it bombproof, so to produce an art that rehabilitates and adapts craft - in the form of joinery, casting, carving and modelling - on a conceptual level is a bold and refreshing move.
The Chinese contextThe context is China and, increasingly, as he grows ever more famous, Ai Wei Wei himself becomes a kind of screen on which China continues to write. But that writing is crude graffiti on beautifully made objects that disdain them. The work prefers its own commentating. The artist is so located in relationship to the work and to what it references that he becomes intrinsic to it. That ambiguity of status, the line of tension between personal history, art history, and political history, is the fault line Ai Wei Wei treads with ever more flamboyance.
Concept without chatGiven all that, the conceptual element is remarkably simple. It is conceptual art without the art bollocks that generally accompanies it. No specialist language, no cloud of theory, no reference to the usual concerns of contemporary western art is required to gloss it. The art actually has a subject. There is, for example, the destruction of several badly constructed school buildings in an earthquake in Straight (see top image). Rusted steel rods, salvaged from the ruins, constitute the floor while the names of the dead schoolchildren (never officially published) run right round the same room. The formal element of the rods is as important as the fact that they are there - the actual rods, the actual names. The whole is not only monumentally simple: it is, in effect, a monument.
Beyond the voidThe melding of highly crafted traditional form with rough material (such as you can find to a far greater extent in Kiefer) raises the role of irony to a humane dramatic level in the same way that post-modern techniques were adapted by Eastern European writing of the seventies and eighties to the social realities of their own human situation. There was no void at the centre of it. The game was about something that was really there. The rough in Ai Wei Wei is seamlessly joined to the crafted, through craft.
Dioramas and selfDifferent from the rest of the work, the set of dioramas at the end is a sort of Stations of the Cross recording Ai Wei Wei's own imprisonment. The temptation to present one's own life as martyrdom is never too far from the autobiographer. But even here we are invited not so much to observe a personal martyrdom as to note the working through of a system.
China as contradictionChina is immensely complex, of course. Our first contact last time in China (we are going there again next month) involved an entirely informal call on an artists' quarter full of vast studios and big modernist works that had already found a global market. The artists had monographs, catalogues, the lot. On another occasion we visited an artist in a much smaller studio who was frowned on by the state because of his figurative satirical subjects. The small studio was in an art college where he was not allowed to teach. So much happens side-by-side, one side the ghost of the other. On one hand the Waldorf Astoria in Shanghai with its cocktail-bar and girl pianist: on the other the dirt-cheap labourers sleeping rough and raising still more exclusive buildings.
GlobalismA very early work by Ai Wei Wei, The Hanging Man, a joke (in silver) based on the profile of Marcel Duchamp, illustrates one key experience of the exhibition beyond the specific context of China. It is the global context. Modernism was the first movement that may be described as genuinely international even in its early days, extending well beyond Europe into India, Africa and South America. We are beyond internationalism now: we are all globalists within easy reach of a keyboard. Ai Wei Wei is clearly a product of late technology but, at the same time, retains Chinese motifs as well as referencing events in China. It is another part of the complex layer
Person and scaleThere is, at the same time, a certain niggling concern about the sheer scale of both the enterprise and the persona. Each of the monumental works on show would have occupied an army of people. That costs money and know-how. There is the apparatus of global success. We are a suspicious sceptical lot. But our scepticism is the product of circumstances quite unlike Ai Wei Wei's. He is running real risks: the dioramas are a public witness to that.
The bubble and the questionsWe live in a complex, sometimes contradictory world of which China is a kind of emblem. What is the meaning of the authoritarian state in a wildly free market? How can we be global yet local? How can a society venerate both Mao and cash? Outside the bubble we live in, the world has been showing signs of cracking, particularly in the Middle East. Questions are being asked, even in Europe, of values we assume are necessary to a good society. Those questions are bloody and absolute. They make grim shapes and haunt the bubble. China remains a high and ancient civilisation but it too is at tension with itself. Ai Wei Wei thinks the younger generation will look to resolve that tension in its own fashion. His art is delicately made yet monumental in both scale and ambition. It is itself part of that tension.
Monday, 14 September 2015
I think the relationship between the sexes / genders owes a great deal to the fact that before the second half of the twentieth century, and certainly in times before, most women had babies, a great many babies when they were poor, partly because they couldn't help it for lack of reliable contraception, and partly because having a lot of children offered some economic security through the extended family when the children turned into adults and the state wouldn't provide. It should also be added that a good many of the babies, and often the women themselves, died in giving birth. During her lifetime a woman might have been pregnant ten times or more.
Under the circumstances the role of the husband was to provide by any means, and the vast majority of men who did so did not do that through 'careers' but by means of a job, often a very hard one. Even in the lower end of the middle class, hours were long and jobs tedious or dangerous. Manners, sometimes crude, sometimes courteous (because courtesy, like, say, dancing, was a welcome change from the harshness of work) sprang out of that.
With older men like my father, who really did work very hard to provide for us (six days a week, seven to seven back in Hungary, with night classes on top) the manners he regarded as courtesies were by no means patronising or belittling. They were what helped him, and the very hard working women (including my mother), make the world go round. His own father worked on the shop-floor of a shoe factory. His mother took in sewing, as did her sisters.
As to 'power', beyond my father's very limited power at work I did not think he had more power than my mother, indeed rather less, since she made all the important domestic decisions. His work was never brought home. We never saw it but it was he who had the industrial accident that meant he had to walk with painful pins holding his ankle together for the rest of his life. We did see the results of his work.
I sometimes feel that younger, educated middle-class women have no idea of what life was like. All they see in their own lives and their idea of gender relations is the potential indignity and disadvantage to themselves. They are full of self-righteous anger - which is a form of idealism - and can be arrogant and bullying in their language without realising this.
I myself am now getting on for sixty-seven, have retired from teaching (though not from writing, of course) and have no stake in permanent employment. Besides all that I have been very happily married for forty-five years and have two grandchildren so have decided not to allow myself - or indeed my father (especially not him!) - to be verbally chastised by someone younger than my own daughter, who has lived a great deal less and seems to have little historical perspective.
I am of course glad of the changes. I am thoroughly glad that women have many more options than they once had, and am sorry indeed to see them patronised or mistreated. I have both a son and a daughter and wish the very best to them both.
Beyond that life goes on as it does. I am very fond of our women friends and they seem to like me. I don't behave like my father who, as far as I know, never made a pass at anyone but whose ideas of courtesy now appear quaint to some and offensive to others. I don't behave like him because I was born later among different circumstances.
I wish sometimes younger people realised this, or were a little more charitable in their thoughts and imaginations. I realise I now sound very old indeed. There I go again, 'mansplaining'. And somehow I don't care. I really don't care.
Monday, 7 September 2015
I am writing this on Monday, the 7th, when we are due to leave. Our flight is quite late so the day remains. Yesterday we met, Gy, another old friend who used to be a radio journalist in the English language section of Hungarian radio back in the previous dispensation, in the eighties. She lost her job in the changes chiefly as a result of political pressure. The media in Hungary are always being seized by whatever government happens to be in charge though Fidesz has exceeded previous post-1989 norms not so much by direct take-over but by shifting money, licences and permits around so much that its people are in charge of all the most prominent radio, TV and newspaper organisations.
Our journalist friend does voluntary work now. She helps to feed the hungry of the VIIIth district, one of the poorest in Budapest. Her group is responsible for twenty-five families, some Roma, some just very poor. In fact she has just finished her shift. I know the district. The grand old buildings are rotten, the streets are like Skid Row. Some streets and squares here are distinctly underclass territory.
Over a light lunch by the Corvin cinema (a great centre of armed resistance in the 1956 revolution and well marked as such) she tells us that some four and half million people in the country are under the poverty line. That is almost half the population. Other estimates might vary but the government has banned research into poverty so it's hard to know. Gy is very apprehensive about the future, particularly about the prospect of far-right Jobbik forming a government.
Knowing that we are part of a privileged, intellectual circle when we come, I continue to be curious about the Hungarian populace at large. Why would they vote for a fascist party? I ask. Jobbik is very well organised, she says. They send out volunteers to help with daily tasks in the rural areas and the smaller provincial towns. They act like scouts. Local people are not interested in politics and still less in ideology, they are simply grateful for help so they vote Jobbik. Other parties have been incapable of grasping this and have no clear leading figure. Jobbik has toned down the rhetoric without toning down the ideology. They are still a quasi-military force.
So much hatred in people, she sighs. She has seen them in the street. Ugly to look at, she says. There were the louts who set out to attack the migrants at Keleti station. And there are the respectable looking middle-aged malicious ones. But it is the young she fears, the young who are intelligent and educated, but work for Jobbik. She too feels she is surrounded by people who are sympathetic to her own views, so she feels alienated from the potential Jobbik voter. The average Hungarian, says Gy, is mildly anti-Semitic but that latent anti-Semitism and anti-Roma feeling is there to be exploited.
And Fidesz does this too, she says. Orbán's talk of Islamic hordes swarming through Hungary to take over Christendom is a story that plays well in a country that had a century and a half of Ottoman occupation and feels itself isolated and vulnerable. Both Fidesz and Jobbik rely on raising fears they can then claim to address. Orbán won't care that liberal Europe loathes him: he glories in it. He could turn to Putin for help and Putin might give it, not because of any sentimentality towards Hungarians but because it might help him extend his power base. The irony is that the Hungarian state makes far more of Russian tyranny than it does of the German in its official House of Terror.
It demonstrates how confusing modern geopolitics is. Left and Right are interchangeable on some issues and diametrically opposed on others. I wouldn't be the first to suggest that in the contemporary world ideology is a post-modern parlour game, a way of seizing, maintaining and directing power. I wouldn't be the first either to suggest that our emotions are intense but thin, our talk is of humanity but our tempers are frayed and ever ready to scream blue murder. We are natural prey for demagogues and quick-fix radicalism.
What would Gy do if Jobbik took over? Where could she go? She is seventy years old and alone. She is a EU citizen until Hungary decides to leave the EU. But how could she afford to move? Her English is excellent. She has no Swedish. Perhaps there will be Hungarian refugees flowing across the borders again. And indeed there may be as many as 700,000 Hungarians abroad right now, young, intelligent, highly-trained people, who may decide not to return.
In the evening we return to our closest and dearest friends and go for a meal at a favourite Buda restaurant, the Szép Ilona (La Belle Helene). It is pretty full and we spot of a couple of diplomats and politicians among the diners. We are soon joined by J, the poet Ottó Orbán's widow. She is in her eighties now but is always out at exhibition openings, and theatre and cinema premieres. She goes to every event she can. She has just returned from a Joyce and Yeats tour of Ireland led by a mutual acquaintance, a retired Hungarian scholar. Though her voice is quieter than it was - it can be hard to hear her - she is absolutely full of life. Her attitude is that if you leave life, life leaves you.
Today the temperature is more like England. We are under 20C for the first time. A nice day for flying home. Meanwhile the refugee crisis goes on. Nothing is 'solved'. Temporary measures are everything. The old empires continue to fall and reassemble themselves over the bodies of the dead and fleeing.
Sunday, 6 September 2015
We have another Hungarian theoretical mathematical friend, J, who works in the genetics department of the botanical institute at our local university. We were introduced to him by a mutual friend a couple of years ago and we have had a number of thorough discussions since. He is fascinated by poetry and language and is seeking to connect his mathematical research with his love of poetry. It is Hungarian poetry of course because that is what he has grown up with. He is also - for very similar reasons - interested in translation.
He went to school in Kecskemét and is in regular touch with a group of his school mates there who have all gone on to conspicuous careers in various fields. Last year he invited us to a dinner at his Norwich house to meet them and their partners and we conducted a conversation - in Hungarian as best I could - about translation. It was a lovely friendly occasion, the light dying as we talked on.
Wherever else I am invited in the world I am invited as a poet. It is perhaps inevitable that when I come to Hungary that I should be treated first and foremost as a translator. Oh yes, he is a poet, people say, but the important thing is that he is translating us, what we love, what we feel. And should I win a prize or so in the field I become all the more interesting in that respect. It is an odd feeling. I resent it sometimes. An interviewer here (a very nice man) recently asked whether I wrote poems too. I dislike it because answering it or even responding to it makes me feel petty and prissy. I feel a little petty and prissy just noting this.
On this occasion J and his wife, Z invited us to two days in Kecskemét entirely at their own expense. A night in a lovely pensione, meals, wine-tasting, friends, and a visit to a tanya or homestead, a smallholding which, for the small tenant farmer, is a lifeline; for the city-dweling professional a summer dacha. But also a continuation of the Norwich discussion with the same friends.
This was most kind, though as it turned out J was thinking in terms of something bigger than our Norwich conversation, more a public event (including the local friends) on the rough theme of Genes and Memes in language. There would be an interview for local television, who would also record the conversation. Being self-conscious of my limits in Hungarian I told him I was not quite prepared for a technical conversation on scientific concepts of language and translation, so he downsized the event a little shortly before we arrived.
We drove down on the morning of the 2 September and established ourselves at the pensione before setting of on a walk round town. Kecskemét is a country city about an hour or more away from Budapest, on the Great Hungarian Lowland. It is the eighth biggest city in the country (which makes it smaller than 'Hungarian' London) but it doesn't feel like a city at all, not at least in the centre. It is more like a comfortable, quiet, genteel town with a fine sprinkling of art nouveau architecture (see last link), big laid out squares, and streets with glazed ceramic cobbles. It is friendly, peaceful, amiable, leisurely, a less urban Bath or York - or even Norwich. We walked round the city hall, stopped for lunch, and rested before going down to the library where the conversation was to take place.
First the TV interview then the event. Some twenty five or so people. I managed all right in Hungarian though I am not sure that 'genes and memes' was fully descriptive of what we talked about. It was more about translation as an activity and some games translating sayings from one language to another. My own New Proverbs of Hell (from Notes on the Inner City) provided a few challenges. It was good humoured, gentle and, it seems, entertaining. Whether it went any way to established connections between mathematics, poetry and translation is uncertain.
Then the wine-tasting. One of the company, once a high tax official and government adviser until he got fed up of the politics, was a great wine expert and was full of splendid analogies as we worked our way through the six wines of his choice, while nibbling and chatting in the dark. It was late by the time we walked back.
We did more walking around the next day and visited the Gallery of Naive Art and the Toy Museum, both on the same site, both officially open but needing a call to the caretaker lady to physically open the buildings. Both were fascinating but I will write a separate post on them.
In the evening we drove out to the tanya deep in the country. Our host had already downed a few pálinkas and was very welcoming. A skittle game somewhat like petanque was set up on the grass and four of us started playing, Clarissa and our host again J and I. Little by little the rest of the party arrived until there were ten of us. The pálinka kept flowing. The wine expert friend had promised to cook us the best non-vegetarian lecsó of our lives and did so outside on an open wood fire in a great cauldron. The women laid out the rest of the table, the game was declared a draw, and we sat down to eat.
Afterwards we lit a camp fire and the singing started. It was led by the men and consisted almost entirely of love songs romantic, lyrical, melancholy and bawdy, addressed by the man to the woman. Life in Hungary can be like that. It is unreconstructed. The wine analogies were mostly in terms of various beautiful women ("this one seems like a plain typist, very competent, very nice, but at a certain time of day the sunlight strikes her just so and she is suddenly transformed"). The singing goes on a long time. Everyone knows the songs: old gypsy airs, old poems set to tunes, cabaret pieces. Some are comic some are tragic: they have similar melodic and harmonic structures. One person strikes up, the rest join in.
The male-female communal relationship is not so clearly defined in intellectual circles but outside them it is. Men talk, women chip in. The men laugh, the women are demure. That's in mixed company. Then the sun goes down, the fire dies and the only light is in the cottage that constitutes the heart of the tanya. We have hardly been in there. We drive back down the country road and join the highway.
There are holes in the diary because of the refugee crisis. I have been following it, reading about it and posting about it on Facebook and Twitter, not writing the blog. As the UK press has reported, prominently, the Hungarian government has swung one way then another while continuing to snarl. What a repulsive bunch they are! But the rest of Eastern Europe are equally unwilling to help. Germany and Austria have leapt into the breach and shown a human face. The UK continues to point to its financial assistance while wanting to back away from the whole thing, with some minor adjustments here and there. The UK, of course, is not immune from blame for the situation in the first place.
Here in Budapest many people we know have been offering practical help, bringing food packages, toys and other gifts. There is much kindness in those we meet. We do not tend to meet those who are hostile. Our experience is limited by our history and contacts.
The refugees have crowded onto trains, have been taken off trains, been detained, have set out en masse to march along the main motorway to Austria, have been picked up by buses taking them to the Austrian border and have been cheered to the rafters on their arrival into Austria and then Germany. I do, of course, understand that those doing the cheering are not those who are not doing the cheering. It is hard to generalise from the actions of those in sympathy with us, or hostile to us. We cannot say simply: Germans, Austrians good; Hungarians bad.
But I do keep wondering about the balance of such things in Hungary. Our circles of kindness may not extend very far. And I am not even sure that kindness is the right word but I can't think of anything better at the moment, since everything else has an air of grandiosity or piety. I am equally aware that my own feeling, that the best way to approach opposition is by reasoned, respectful, courteous argument, without any sense of superiority or outrage may be more than is humanly possible - but, again, it is just that I don't see a reasonable alternative.
We have dined with old friends, new friends and people we bumped into that we haven't seen for years since they were students at school or university. One is a theoretical mathematician at Cambridge. He has three children. His wife takes food to the refugees. Another is a school teacher who also has three children now. We meet him for a drink at a cafe. He is a handsome boy who studied literature and history. He is clearly concerned by how his country is perceived and how the government is handling the situation. Another is a scholar of Dutch whom I met only a few weeks ago at a translation summer school. Her husband is Dutch, her two boys are helping them deliver supplies to the refugees and have been doing so for weeks.
I see my dear old friend - my father in Hungary - the editor and writer. He writes beautifully. We have known him for over thirty years. He is very ill now and can hardly move. Four of his toes have had to be amputated. He uses a frame but moves at snail's pace. His new pacemaker keeps him alive though he would prefer to be dead. We sit down in his small flat and talk books and friends (some dead now) and politics. His face relaxes, becomes absorbed, animated, healthy. His mind is as brilliant as ever. He is as humane as ever. He is from an old 19C aristocratic liberal family. He reads everything even now. He despairs of the country. He despairs of the divided, corrupt, left wing opposition. He cannot see any focus or immediate future in it. He is waiting to be allocated a place in a care home. His books and papers are gathered around him. 'We may not meet again,' he tells me. 'I know,' I reply. What else to say? Stupid consoling things neither of us believe? He has been one of the great lights to me since my first return.
A dinner with poets, novelists, dramaturges. Marvellous novelist and poet. Transylvanians, like my mother. We talk of writing, who's in who's out. How stories are constructed. How books may be made in the near future. All these people are in the circle of known kindness.
This too is real - and there is much more of it than we might think. But is there enough?
Today to meet another old friend who has been feeding Roma families in the impoverished 8th district.
Next post about the visit to Kecskemét.