2/25/13

Miklós Szentkuthy - Vast lyrical self-portrait, colossal historical scrapbook, odyssey of travesties, inventory of human feelings, polyglot entropy...


Miklós Szentkuthy, Marginalia on Casanova, Trans. by Tim Wilkin­son, Contra Mundum Press, 2012.

www.szentkuthymiklos.hu/#
Excerpts


 Szentkuthy’s objective is not the sanctioned masterpiece, but the circus where the carnal and material origin and purpose of all art are revealed in their total nakedness. In his circus, the tent arches over all of human history and the whole of existence; Casanova treads the tightrope with Elizabeth of England, and Mozart conducts the orchestra.” — Csaba Sík
Marginalia on Casanova, the first book of Szentkuthy’s St. Orpheus Breviary, has been translated into English for the very first time. Originally published in Hungarian in 1939, as Csaba Sík noted, St. Orpheus Breviary “represents the greatest enterprise in scope, in worth? – undertaken in the Hungarian novel.”
ginalia on Casanova is the first volume of the St. Orpheus Breviary, Miklós Szentkuthy’s synthesis of 2,000 years of European culture. As Szentkuthy’s Virgil, St. Orpheus is an omniscient poet who guides us not through hell, but through all of recorded history, myth, religion, and literature, albeit reimagined as St. Orpheus metamorphosizes himself into kings, popes, saints, tyrants, and artists. At once pagan and Christian, Greek and Hebrew, Asian and European, St. Orpheus is a mosaic of history and mankind in one supra-person and veil, an endless series of masks and personae, humanity in its protean, futural shape, an always changing function of discourse, text, myth, and mentalité.
Through St. Orpheus’ method, disparate moments of history become synchronic, are juggled to reveal, paradoxically, mutual difference and essential similarity. “Orpheus wandering in the infernal regions,” says Szentkuthy, “is the perennial symbol of the mind lost amid the enigmas of reality. The aim of the work is, on the one hand, to represent the reality of history with the utmost possible precision, and on the other, to show, through the mutations of the European spirit, all the uncertainties of contemplative man, the transiency of emotions, and the sterility of philosophical systems.”
Marginalia on Casanova relives the spiritualization of the main protagonist’s sensual adventures, though it is less his sex life and more his intellectual mission, the sole determinant of his being, which is the focus of this mesmerc book. Through his own glittering associations and broadly spanning array of metaphors, Szentkuthy analyses and views the 18th century and its notion of homogeneity from the vantage point of the 20th century, with the full armor of someone who was, perhaps, one of the last Hungarian Europeans. While a commentary on Casanova’s memoirs, it is also Szentkuthy’s very own philosophy of love.
Passion, playfulness, irony, and a whole gamut of protean metamorphoses are what characterize Marginalia on Casanova, a work in which readers will experience both profundity and a taking to wing of essay-writing that is intellectually radiant and as sensual and provocative as a gondola ride with Casanova.
ENCOMIUMS
“… a genuine avant-gardist … Just to know that Hungary has such a writer is, in itself, enriching for ourselves and for Hungarian literature as a whole.” — István Vas
“Szentkuthy is a poet to the core: this is evidenced in the vibrating emotional tension of every sentence, the high sensitivity of the inner recorder, the novel, often daring, but always suggestive images, comparisons and associions in which his recitation moves. His attention turns to all manifestations of life with the same intensity [...] and offers the reader stimulation and immersion and deserves to be regarded as one of the values of the new Hungarian literature…” — Pester Lloyd, 8 November 1936
“It is not just that Szentkuthy has not written down the word ‘Hungary,’ but the name of not one Hungarian book, person, or event crops up in this work. Homelessness, as we have seen, is one of his main distinguishing marks, as compared with kindred Western writers. I sense that homelessness to be a higher form of protection of the mind.” — László Németh
TITLE INFO
Miklos Szentkuthy, Marginalia on Casanova (New York: Contra Mundum Press, 2012). ISBN 9780983697244. 20 USD, 16 GBP, 14 €. Bookstores can order through Ingram. Otherwise, copies can be acquired through local retailers or via Amazon and similar sites worldwide. For a review, desk copy, or interview request, write to: info@contramundum.net
    

Marginalia on Casanova is the first volume of the St. Orpheus Breviary, Miklós Szentkuthy’s synthesis of 2,000 years of European culture. As Szentkuthy’s Virgil, St. Orpheus is an omniscient poet who guides us not through hell, but through all of recorded history, myth, religion, and literature, albeit reimagined as St. Orpheus metamorphosizes himself into kings, popes, saints, tyrants, and artists. At once pagan and Christian, Greek and Hebrew, Asian and European, St. Orpheus is a mosaic of history and mankind in one supra-person and veil, an endless series of masks and personae, humanity in its protean, futural shape, an always changing function of discourse, text, myth, and mentalité.
Through St. Orpheus’ method, disparate moments of history become synchronic, are juggled to reveal, paradoxically, mutual difference and essential similarity. “Orpheus wandering in the infernal regions,” says Szentkuthy, “is the perennial symbol of the mind lost amid the enigmas of reality. The aim of the work is, on the one hand, to represent the reality of history with the utmost possible precision, and on the other, to show, through the mutations of the European spirit, all the uncertainties of contemplative man, the transiency of emotions, and the sterility of philosophical systems.”
Marginalia on Casanova relives the spiritualization of the main protagonist’s sensual adventures, though it is less his sex life and more his intellectual mission, the sole determinant of his being, which is the focus of this mesmeric book. Through his own glittering associations and broadly spanning array of metaphors, Szentkuthy analyses and views the 18th century and its notion of homogeneity from the vantage point of the 20th century, with the full armor of someone who was, perhaps, one of the last Hungarian Europeans. While a commentary on Casanova’s memoirs, it is also Szentkuthy’s very own philosophy of love.
Passion, playfulness, irony, and a whole gamut of protean metamorphoses are what characterize Marginalia on Casanova, a work in which readers will experience both profundity and a taking to wing of essay-writing that is intellectually radiant and as sensual and provocative as a gondola ride with Casanova.

“… a genuine avant-gardist … Just to know that Hungary has such a writer is, in itself, enriching for ourselves and for Hungarian literature as a whole.” — István Vas

“Szentkuthy is a poet to the core: this is evidenced in the vibrating emotional tension of every sentence, the high sensitivity of the inner recorder, the novel, often daring, but always suggestive images, comparisons and associations in which his recitation moves. His attention turns to all manifestations of life with the same intensity [...] and offers the reader stimulation and immersion and deserves to be regarded as one of the values of the new Hungarian literature…” — Pester Lloyd

“It is not just that Szentkuthy has not written down the word ‘Hungary,’ but the name of not one Hungarian book, person, or event crops up in this work. Homelessness, as we have seen, is one of his main distinguishing marks, as compared with kindred Western writers. I sense that homelessness to be a higher form of protection of the mind.” — László Németh

Boudoir & Theology:
Vast lyrical self-portrait, colossal historical scrapbook, odyssey of travesties, inventory of human feelings, polyglot entropy... hyperbolic phrases naturally surge to mind as soon as one risks a definition of the utterly unclassifiable work of Miklós Szentkuthy (1908-1988). Struck by a perplexing fascination, critics seem incapable of going beyond the level of enchanted stupor—and evoke pell-mell, by way of prudent delineation, the names of Rabelais, Proust, Joyce, Borges, or even those of Gadda or Lezama Lima. Szentkuthy, moreover, contributed greatly to impose this image of a demiurge, who intended in the serenest of manners to “melt all in a single universal time.” Solitary, splendidly isolated, long confined to silence, he continued building after the eruption of his first novel, Prae, an emblematic constellation without parallel in European literature.
Prae, or general pre-figuration, or else alchemical precipitation. Published in 1934, this inaugural book contained the foundational elements of what we must call an illuminated rhetoric: a romanesque structure promoted to the level of character, a burlesque marriage of all antinomies, an exhilarating science of pastiche, dizzying culture deployed as rustling, haughty, and playful, "a classicism of dissemination"—in short, a completely fragmented narrative no less comparable to the dynamiting advocated some years previous by Joyce (whose work, incidentally, Szentkuthy introduced in Hungary). Despite the lucid support of some inspired criticism (László Németh, Antal Szerb, and Gábor Halasz), the "thing"—a monster block of six hundred dense pages, naturally published by the author—was declared by the good spirits of time as "unreadable," and its major fault "non-Magyar," that is: "cosmopolitan."
But it was in 1939 that an even more unexpected fireball landed on Hungarian literary ground: Marginalia on Casanova, nothing less than the first book of the St. Orpheus Breviary, to which nine other volumes would be added: Black Renaissance (1939), Escorial (1940), Europa Minor (1941), Cynthia (1941), Confession and Puppets (1942), The Second Life of Sylvester II (1972), Despair Canonized (1974), The Bloody Ass (1982) and On the Trail of Eurydice (unfinished).
The careful reader will observe a break of thirty years in the accomplishment of this ambitious project. During these long years of suspension, mainly from 1947 to 1957, Szentkuthy adopts the mask of the "internal refugee." Between the translation of a communist Greenland hack and the compulsory study of the Grammar of Stalin during joyful seminars destined to deaden thought, he wrote, according to the Hungarian expression, "for the drawer." He published nevertheless some "invented biographies"—and as many veiled self-portraits—devoted to Mozart, Haydn, Dürer, Handel, and Goethe. The latter, brilliantly entitled Face and Mask, was well worth the wrath of his publisher, who criticized him—oh sweet retrospectives of history!—for not conforming to the image that the German Democratic Republic had of Goethe! For good measure, this professor of English, elected by his peers, peremptorily refused an important position at the university and chose—the thing is rare enough to be reported—not to write a single line honoring the regime up close or from a distance. So much for a minimal biography of this singular temperament: purity and stubbornness...(1)
But let us return to the great work: St. Orpheus Breviary. Basically, this opus can be read as a long mythos of the marginal. From his room-library with some twenty-five thousand volumes, Szentkuthy annotates and revisits history. Mixing with ease and joy hagiography, literary study, fiction, narrative, the lyric poem and the aphorism, this roman-cathedrale, whose denomination "breviary" must not mislead, with the humor of his antiphrasis, offers an unprecedented recrossing as unheard-of as much as it is ironical of all literary and artistic forms cultivated by the West, from early times to the twentieth century, with major milestones: Rome, Byzantium, Venice, the Italian Renaissance and the Spanish Baroque. As archivist buffoon, Szentkuthy feeds the extravagant theater with his rigorous bulimia of a thousand networks of burgeoning stories, palimpsests in abysses and apocryphal pitfalls. Appropriating countless masks, pacing the epochs, this emotional athlete has no other aim than to break time until it stills the whirlwind of history into one continuous present.
Lord of illusions or exhibitor of shadows, there is something of the devourer in this man, who cannot bear to live cramped in one body, one life, one language. He prefers to cultivate double replicas of being, invest all fates—saints, libertines, popes, musicians, emperors, writers, eunuchs, painters or biblical girls. "I always wanted to see everything,” he confessed, “read everything, think everything, dream everything, swallow everything."
From whence the art and manner of travelling across languages and playing the Argonauts of Planetary Writing (is it a coincidence that Szentkuthy was the translator of both Ulysses and Gulliver?). In truth, this stubborn survivor of the Enlightenment seems motivated entirely by a furious encyclopedic desire. A simple glance at the table of contents of the Breviary suffices to show the profligacy of this inner odyssey, where a few characters who were never in search of an author marched pell-mell: Casanova, Mozart, Adonis, Toscanini, Turner, Rubens, Brunelleschi, Keats, Herodotus, El Greco, Pythagoras, Voltaire, Puccini, Ariosto, Tintoretto, Shelley, Abelard, Monteverdi, Tacitus, Messalina, Theodora, Akbar, Lao Tzu, Palladio, Mary Tudor, Donatello, Philip II, Buddha, etc.
As many roles as Szentkuthy assumes in the manner of a comedian or an absolute dreamer, writing thus a sumptuous catalogus amoris. Here truly resides the infinite song of an Orpheus with Apollonian harmonies, god of metamorphosis, "being whose role it is to celebrate," in the words of Rilke.
In an age where anyone—even under the sign of the worst conformism—prides oneself on marginality, Szentkuthy appears, all in all, as the writer of the absolute margin. Throughout his life, he continued to write in the margins of his books, covering and recovering—maniacally, scrupulously—volumes, newspapers, journals, and other documents. An infinite mosaic of notes, footnotes, keywords and various doodles, continuous shuffling between reading and writing—one without the other is here inconceivable—interminable bubbling of the library-universe in the heart of the Opus Magnum. Borges reminds us: "Another superstition of those ages has come to us: that of the Man of the Book. On some shelf of some hexagon, we reasoned, there must exist a book which is the key and summary of all the others; there is a librarian who has read this book and who is like a god."(2) If there is a writer who is a Man of the Book, according to the wish of the Argentinean master, it is Szentkuthy, in relentless pursuit of a magnum opus that would contain and even restore all creation.
Such was his passion, and his method as well. A process inaugurated in the first book of the Breviary, precisely titled Marginalia on Casanova. Strangely—but can we talk of strangeness when discussing a man who claimed to "work in co-production with chance"?—the structure of this founding volume owes much to theology. In 1938, Szentkuthy read the Römerbrief of the famous Protestant exegete Karl Barth, a commentary that is based on an analysis, phrase by phrase, even word by word, of the Epistle to the Romans. Literally enchanted by the effectiveness of this method—"where, in his words, every epithet puts imagination in motion"—he decided to apply it on the spot to Casanova, whose memoirs (a German edition in six large volumes) he had just annotated with gusto.
Simultaneity of all epochs, anachronistic audacity, chaos erected into a system ("the order of the random," as defined by the same author)—was what this flamboyant opus quietly gave to read. The reception? Actually, there was none, since as soon as it was published—and even though Szentkuthy dutifully went to the church to "give thanks to all competent authorities of Catholic Heaven" to have authorized this iconoclast publication—the Royal Hungarian Court condemned Marginalia on Casanova for blasphemous profanity and assault on decency. Enjoying the protection of a prosecutor of the crown, the accused barely escaped trial—but all copies of the work were immediately confiscated. Thus was inaugurated the series of "Orpheuses"...(3)
Let’s measure once more the eternal stupidity of the censor. What are we really being told about in Casanova? Of literature, of metaphysics, and of sensuality ("the thought is as sensuous as the smell of a rose," T.S. Eliot already noted about the Baroque poets)—certainly all things scandalous, but that would not likely undermine the social order of the country, which stood so strong in the bounded zeal of the régime of the censors. Our "blasphemer," known for his obsessive taste for transvestism, borrows in the space of a book the panoply of the Venetian, and makes a breathtaking inventory of forms dear to the eighteenth century. Through one hundred and twenty-three notes radiating around these cyclical themes (the mask, the ball, the bath, impossible youth, Venice, the boats, the night, autumn, lethal romanticism, intoxication, the asceticism proper to dandyism, gardens, opera, etc.), Szentkuthy reinvests, with his unique, playful, and tragic tone, the Memoirs of the perfect lover. Anxious to break down barriers between genres (here the scholastic treatise and the fashion magazine), associating baroque crests flowing together like endless rows of pearls, multiplying the set pieces (we recommend the l’“inédit” of Abelard, namely the portrait of Heloise reconstituted in macaronic Latin, also a bewildering description of Tintoretto's Susanna), he locates the metaphysical ideal in Casanova, able to reconcile elegance and bestiality—or, if one prefers, boudoir and theology. In short, beautiful as the encounter of Leibniz and Gloria Swanson on the stage of the Fenice!
Notes
(1) For further consideration, the reader can refer to the magazine Caravan (No. 2, 1990), which published the first five chapters of the Frivolous Confessions—an extensive protean autobiography now being translated by Éditions Phébus.
(2) “The Library of Babel,” Fictions.
(3) It was not until 1973, thirty-four years later, that the book finally saw the light of day, on the occasion of the reissue of the first six of Books of Orpheus. An opportunity that Szentkuthy would take to recompose and unify once more the Breviary by opening each volume with the "life of a saint." - Introduction by Zéno Bianu

Marginalia on Casanova is the first volume in Szentkuthy Miklós' unusual, decades-spanning 'St.Orpheus Breviary'. Mária Tompa's Afterword quotes from Szentkuthy's own planned prospectus-text , where he describes it as "interlocking essay series" ("which will appear quarterly" ...) and explains that:
The name "Orpheus" expresses the underlying conceptual tone: Orpheus wandering in the underworld is an eternal symbol of the brain straying among the dark secrets of reality. The aim of the work is, firstly, to portray the reality of nature and history with ever more extreme precision, and, secondly, to display through variations in the history of the European mind an observer's every uncertainty, the fickleness of emotions, the tragic sterility of thought & philosophical systems.
       First printed in 1939, but, Tompa reports, immediately impounded, "so that it never reached bookshops", Marginalia on Casanova was followed by several more volumes Szentkuthy wrote during World War II -- with the author then again returning to the larger project of the St. Orpheus Breviary beginning in the 1970s, ultimately bringing the total to ten (the last unfinished). (While a significant part of his œuvre, it does not nearly represent his entire life-work; he wrote several other novels and a large variety of similarly difficult-to-classify works.)
       Marginalia on Casanova is, in fact, less marginalia than a full-fledged reading of Casanova -- the diaries, to be sure, but also the man, and the times. The memoirs are central, and Szentkuthy can't get away from them (following them closely in how he structures his own book), but he understands:
     Casanova is life, not literature (though his book, his book ...), 'he is' and he is not fantasizing.
      Marginalia on Casanova is also a personal book, as Szentkuthy uses Casanova for personal reflection; indeed, the Casanova he presents is, as he admits, one: "whom I am styling, if need be forcibly, to my own Orphean image".
       Using the massive History of my Life (over 4500 pages in the six-volume Willard Trask translation -- though Szentkuthy relies on (and quotes from) the German translation), Szentkuthy takes Casanova as a starting point. The choice may, on the basis of reputation, surprise, but Szentkuthy sees and takes Casanova rather differently -- arguing:
     Casanova is many things but specifically not a libertine, someone hungrily on the look-out for any cheap pleasure.
      And he makes clear that from his standpoint:
one must continually emphasize that Casanova is the Brunelleschi of love, not its Rubens.
       Instead, he makes a case for the idea that: "Casanova is not an adventure so much as thought". Indeed:
We are now at the very essence of Casanova, his before-and-after-all-else intellectual character. This whole life (or, to be more exact: book about the life) could only be pulled off by having a thought functioning in it, not some dream or physical desire. A swindler could not have been so successful, only a philosopher.
       It is this thread that Szentkuthy reaches for and tries to untangle -- or wrap around the rest. He is fascinated by Casanova's mind, and sees the carnal simply as one manifestation of that. So too for Szentkuthy:
Casanova is a furioso of raison, the Orlando of logical loves
       The events and observations he finds in Casanova's memoir inspire Szentkuthy to his own flights of fancy, as well as to a variety of interpretation and philosophizing. Love is central, sex a (more complicated) part of it. Particularly fascinating is Szentkuthy's take on the times and culture, where theater boxes are not for watching what's being played on the stage, and where there were many "passionate literati" among the ruling class -- but where that love of and engagement with literature was:
more of a social game, an impromptu & dry philological cultivation in general, thus befitting Casanova
       Szentkuthy admits to his own "'barren' mania of descriptions" -- but, as he explains:
     I am convinced that the most monotonous fiasco of a landscape description lies closer to the natural history of logic, the truth, and intellectuality than all the philosophers from Plato to Kant.
       Presumably, part of the attraction Casanova holds is that there is, so prominently, that physical element: however one sees his philosophy, it can hardly be said to consist solely of 'dry thought', as personal action constantly offers real-world affirmation of it.
       This appeal of Casanova's more-than-words holds throughout (even as Casanova himself was reduced to words, the mono-manic/graphic super-prolix exercise that became the memoirs). Very near the end Szentkuthy admits:
     There is no greater antithesis in the world than this: to run aground in prose or to lose one's mind in dreams, to crystallize sobriety or to push the luxury or luxuries into Art Nouveau.
       Marginalia on Casanova is an odd, fascinating book -- a philosophical work, but also one of interpretation, in several layers, from eras and context, to Casanova's own words as refelection of his life, times, and deeds, and finally also as a work of self-reflection. Living in such very different times -- 1930s Hungary ! -- Szentkuthy does travel to nearby Vienna and Venice but even these descriptions seem removed from the reality of the times, and these asides are more aesthetic mind-voyages than physical ones; the bulk of the book is grounded entirely elsewhere, situated in even more distant times. Szentkuthy comments little on the present-day -- but then Casanova also allows him to focus on the timeless universals, love first and foremost among them.
       How baffling and complicated love is is also nicely conveyed in one of the passages near the end, as Szentkuthy winds his undertaking down and concludes:
Love is anyway unliveable, cannot be dogmatized about, is unrealizable,: the whole thing is just an abstract staccato moment, then possibly a second, completely independent of the first, and then again an alien third staccato, but to make a connection, a legal legato, from it is to be: narrow-minded. Love is a fraction of a fraction of a second: a constellation of color, taste, and mood; it has no antecedent, still less a future; when that mode is at an end, then everything is at an end, and has to be begun again from the beginning.
       So too, of course is art -- music, in particular, but the written word as well: always passing moments, never quite the same, even when returned to. Casanova, living always in the moment, especially for love, embodies this ideally.
       Marginalia on Casanova is not so much digressive as involuted, its arguments and observations turned and repeated in a structure that is complex, ordered, yet also strikingly creative. Rigorously argued, offering a broad and deep vision, it is also surprisingly entertaining.
       Szentkuthy suggests:
People have no idea how immeasurable the discontinuity is between the freewheeling of thoughts ad absurdum and life.
       Yet Marginalia on Casanova -- as 'freewheeling of thoughts' as any book one is likely to encounter, but grounded in (Casanova's) life -- ultimately does give a good sense of this.
       Marginalia on Casanova stands well entirely on its own, but one can't help but be curious about its place in the larger undertaking that is the St. Orpheus Breviary (and one hopes for forthcoming translations of the remaining volumes ...). It's difficult to describe just what this book is; to call it philosophical fiction or historical-literary commentary and analysis or, indeed, just marginalia, doesn't nearly do it justice. It is all this, and more; it is certainly worth engaging with. - M. A. Orthofer

Today, ambition lacks nuance. Perhaps influenced by Americanization, world literary discourse traffics in gross superlatives, announces the next big thing, the cathartic breakthrough, in a declarative way that, as Paul de Man warned us in “Literary History and Literary Modernity, violates the way any true sense of innovation must exist in tense dialogue with the tradition it steps beyond.
Even when rediscovering works from the past, there is often a frenetic, insistent quality on the greatness of these works, that they will alter the canon, that just as, fifteen years or so ago, it was proposed that Lake Champlain be considered the sixth Great Lake, so Proust, Joyce, Musil, Faulkner, Woolf will have to welcome somebody else to the club. This language, seeming to speak in the tones of aesthetics and culture, is merely hype and marketing veiled with a velvet glove.
So I want to avoid this kind of hype when talking about the publication by Contra Mundum Press of Tim Wilkinson’s translation of the first volume of Miklós Szentkuthy’s  St. Orpheus Breviary, Marginalia on Casanova. But I think this is truly a seminal work, both because of the breadth of its range and the nuance and slyness whitch which it traverses this breadth. Szentkuthy reminds us that to be intellectually omnivorous is a wasted asset without a sense of irony; he is, in a sense, Arnold Toynbee as written by Henry James. He writes of the rise and fall of civilizations as if they were extended drawing-room conversations—that is to say in what James would consider a civilized way. Szentkuthy will unquestionably enter and alter the canon of twentieth-century literature as we know it.
Szentkuthy--often known by his fans as SzM, bearing in mind that, as in Japanese, in Hungarian the last name precedes the first and his name was in fact Szentkuthy Miklós--was one of the youngest of the successive generations of Hungarian modernists that flourished between the wars. This period was no utopia—no one would confuse the regime of Admiral Miklós Horthy with anything resembling democracy or tolerance—but it was a time of true independence for Hungary, no longer in the uneasy condominium with Austria as it had been in the prewar years and infinitely more benign than the nearly half century of rigid Communist control that succeeded the second war and also was laden with the trauma of the Holocaust and its aftermath, which, as chronicled in the works of writers such as Imre Kertész, nearly annihilated and irretrievably dispersed the once-vibrant Hungarian Jewish community. In this era, Hungarian writers were genuinely modernist, much as was the case in Czechoslovakia—fully conversant with the Western European avant-garde and perhaps even exceeding them in self-conscious experimentation. In a sense, that the best-known cultural figures of this era from Hungary are composers like Bartók or Kodály who, albeit in a very intellectual way, used folk-motifs in their music. Although some Hungarian writers like Gyula Illyés were roughly analogous in their refracted populism, there were also figures like Szentkuthy who were rigorously intellectual, and highbrow even to the point of, as in the manner of Wallace Stevens, risking dandyism.  In his lifetime, Szentkuthy was best known for his 1934 Prae, still perhaps one of the most experimental works in the century, described by Zéno Bianu, in his introduction to the Contra Mundum edition, as a “completely fragmented narrative.” St. Orpheus Breviary was Szentkuthy’s epic riposte to this initial deconstruction, but as with all the truly worthwhile writers these epic assertions were questioned, called into doubt by Szentkuthy’s cognitive astute clowning, his deliberate refusal of his text’s overwhelming aspirations. Another factor came in here, though: Communism, whose iron grip prevented Szentkuthy from pursuing, or at least publishing, a work so obviously aesthetic and inutile in any banal sense. After doing five volumes of the Breviary in quick sequence, Szektkuthy paused. Instead, Szentkuthy wrote what seemed to be novelistic biographies, mainly of composers, but also of writers and artists. It is interesting that this was also the recourse of the Russian Formalist critic Boris Eikhenbaum who presumably under Stalinist pressure renounced his linguistically provocative aesthetics and turned to a traditional biographical project on Tolstoy. Communism on the one hand would seem an unlikely correlate for the biographer, with its denial of individual agency in favor of the mass. But Eikhenbaum and Szentkuthy both turned to the form in order to delude and thwart their censors. Is there something Communist about biography?
The lead persona of the Breviary, St. Orpheus, (who presumably emerges more in the subsequent volumes)  is so obviously a non-traditional object of biography—a phantom, a composite, an untenable hybrid of classicism and Christianity, hagiography and sensual song. The fact that St. Orpheus is a concept as much as a person makes the Breviary different from the other twentieth century examples of the roman fleuve with which it might be compared—Proust,  Robert Musil, Anthony Powell (who was also interested in Casanova, Venice, and voyeurism). All of these,  despite their intense intellectuality, tell the life story of one person. Szentkuthy’s more essayistic approach uses different eras and motifs to illustrate fundamental, constitutive tensions in his work and in European identity—between classicism and Christianity, between Eastern and Western, European and Asian identities, between narcissism and altruism,  Enlightenment and romanticism, between a civilization and a barbarism that not only, as Walter Benjamin intuited, potentially co-author documents but also share virtues and flaws alike.
The entire series does not focus on Casanova; only this first volume. As such, it is difficult to tell the reader just what they might be getting. Casanova is associated with sexuality, with promiscuity, even if in a very intellectual mode. But this book is not at all titillating or prurient. Indeed, Szentkuthy’s intellectual is, as a Venetian, somewhat like Mann’s Gustav von Aschenbach without the sex; a dilettante speculating on himself. And yet, we miss a huge part of this book if we do not realize that, even if Casanova puts the experience of sexuality several levels away from his persona, it is always there, always a reservoir underneath or noumenon above, the persona’s garrulous musings. He is (91) "life, not literature”. He is just out of touch with reality. He is "aware of the essence of love” but does not exemplify or embody it. He is “vegetative instinct” and “curious about variants in female personality", a curiosity as probing, inquisitive, as it is merely voyeuristic. Poised liminally between instinct and intellect, in Venice Casanova is also poised between land and sea, continent and island. Rome and Byzantium. (”'Venice in Byzantium’, that is as colorful a tautology as Venice in Venice”, 166). If to stand between pure sensuality and pure intellect is “the unluckiest spot in the world” (252), especially in a twentieth century that insists on annihilating all such independent stances that defy its insensate intellectual currents—it is at the very least a productive one for author, character and reader.
In this handsomely produced edition, the odd numbers are on the left side, the even-numbered pages on the right. The book begins with zero, as if to say, in the spirit of de Man, every beginning must try to be a new beginning even if it knows it ultimately cannot, that encrusted expectations must be jettisoned with each new read.  Without zero, nothing can exist. This can stand for how genuinely innovative—without, again, merely participating in the rhetoric of the large,  the ambitious, or even the revived classic—that this remarkable book is, and will be again and again on the many rereadings it merits.

I suppose if you wanted to bait a trap for me, you could do little better than to do so with a book from an unfamiliar small press, by an unfamiliar Hungarian author, with a simple but classy design and a title like … well, like "Marginalia on Casanova". I would be drawn to it as a cartoon mouse to cheese.
I have since done my research and discovered that, once again, my ignorance of Miklós Szentkuthy (1908-88) is down to the shameful indifference, only rectified now, of the English-speaking world. (The publisher who has rescued him is based in New York.) A ground-breaking novelist, utterly original, he was, in a strange way, both worshipped and vilified in his native Hungary: worshipped by the intelligentsia and the avant garde, sniffed at by the cultural establishment (which likes authors arranged neatly into categories and influences and shies at originality), and nearly prosecuted for blasphemy when this book came out in 1939, the first in a series of volumes whose overall title was St Orpheus Breviary. (As the series ran to 10 in the end, the word "breviary" here is a fantastic joke.) The title by and large is an accurate summary of what the book is about. It's not a moment of literary whimsy, although there is something whimsical about the whole enterprise, if an attempt to synthesise and summarise 2,000 years of European thought – for this was Szentkuthy's mission – can be called whimsical. This is not a novel as we understand it, with people doing things at an author's command. It is full of incident, but mostly at second-hand, it being a long, philosophical discourse, full of irony, audacious juxtapositions and anachronisms, on Casanova's memoirs.
Those memoirs themselves come to six fat volumes, and I haven't read them all, but those that I have are great fun, and you don't have to have read them in order to enjoy this book. (Although if you have, it is pleasing to have certain incidents recalled by Szentkuthy's narrator.) It also means that, while the author might be adopting so many masks that one cannot say with any certainty who the narrator is, he is, in the deeper sense, on the level.
What we have here is thought turned into something so sensuous it almost becomes erotic: this is the clever point that the book makes, that Casanova was not at all just the serial seducer we have decided he is, but a philosopher, in whose every action we see a principle of thought. This is a proposition we assent to at once, because of the style, which, for my part, induces in me the feeling that any minute I am actually going to groan with pleasure. A huge salute to the translator here; Tim Wilkinson's capture and then retransmission of nuance is awe-inspiring. This could not have been translated by someone with anything less than a brilliant English prose style: "Only in Roman Catholicism would the eerie proximity of St Ignatius Loyola and Don Juan be possible. In any case it would be interesting (if it were possible to believe in anything other than reality, for example in so-called thoughts) to juxtapose three figures: Don Juan, Casanova and Cagliostro. It would be just as exciting to compare the Casanova of Venice and the Casanova of Rome. Venice is always the Atlantic tragedy of the whole of existence, of reality – Rome is no more than the joviality of the gods, the ephemeral splendor of Elysium."
It's almost all in this vein, and I find it enchanting: vertiginous and elusive, but worth the effort, because right. Some others might well make a noise like a retired colonel, and consign it to Pseuds' Corner. Their loss.
I come back to scandalous neglect (other European countries are fine with him). Wilkinson himself once said that English literature is "boring", and compared to this, it is: with a very few exceptions, and they know who they are, English writers (I refer specifically to the English) may as well be producing Ladybird books, so formally conventional, so stylistically timid, are they. Open your minds, then, to the European enlightenment, sit back and let this exquisitely thought-provoking book seep into you. Let's hope the remaining nine volumes, and indeed the rest of Szentkuthy's oeuvre, get translated soon. - Nicholas Lezard

Miklos Szentkuthy, Prae, Vol. 1, Trans. by Tim Wilkinson, Contra Mundum Press, 2014.

excerpt 

Considered an eerie attack on realism, when first published in 1934, Miklós Szentkuthy's debut novel Prae so astonished Hungarian critics that many deemed it monstrous, derogatorily referred to Szentkuthy as cosmopolitan, and classified him alien to Hungarian culture. Incomparable and unprecedented in Hungarian literature, Prae compels recognition as a serious contribution to modernist fiction, as ambitious in its aspirations as Ulysses or À la recherche du temps perdu. With no traditional narration and no psychologically motivated characters, in playing with voices, temporality, and events, while fiction, Prae is more what Northrop Frye calls an anatomy (à la Lucian, Rabelais, & Burton) or Menippean satire: the basic concern of the book is intellectual, its pervading mood is that of a comedy of ideas. As a virtual novel that preempts every possibility for its realization, it is a novel but only virtually so, a book which is actually a prae-paration for an unwritten (unwritable) novel. In this, it maintains the freedom and openness of its potentialities, indicative for instance in the Non-Prae diagonals, a series of passages that intercut the novel and continually fracture space and time to engage in what one of the figures of the book calls the culture of wordplay or dogmatic accidentalism. "The book's title," said Szentkuthy, "alludes to it being an overture. A multitude of thoughts, emotions, ideas, fantasies, and motifs that mill and churn as chimes, an overture to my subsequent oeuvre." By challenging the then prevailing dogmas and conventions of prose writing, Szentkuthy was said to have created a new canon for himself but later derided as insignificant for supposedly not acquiring followers. Largely unread at the time, Prae eventually gained cult status and would be reprinted in 1980 and 2004. To some critics, the book is not only one of the representative experimental works of the early 20th century, but in its attempt to bring 'impossible literature' into being, it also presages the nouveau roman by almost 30 years. And in its rejection of sequentiality and celebration of narrative shuffling, long before Burroughs & Gysin, Prae enacts what is conceptually akin to the cut-up. Few of Szentkuthy's contemporaries would reveal with equal bravura and audacity the new horizons that were opened up for narrative forms after the era of realism. In Frivolities & Confessions, Szentkuthy said that his goal with Prae was "to absorb the problems of modern philosophy and mathematics into modern fashion, love, and every manifestation of life." Translated for the first time since its original publication in 1934, upon its 80th anniversary, this legendary and controversial Hungarian modernist novel is now at last available in English.


Ever since its first publication in 1934, Miklós Szentkuthy’s Prae has continued to baffle generations of critics and readers alike. Regarded as a seminal work by some, dismissed as a pretentious monstrosity by others, Prae, Szentkuthy’s first work, was published when the Hungarian author was merely twenty-six years old.[1]
To date, the book has never been translated in its entirety into any language, though excerpts appeared in French and Serbo-Croatian in the 1970s, and sections had been translated into German in the 1930s but were never published. It is quite an enterprise, then, on the part of Contra Mundum Press, to commit to publishing Prae[2], following two other works by Szentkuthy—Marginalia on Casanova and Towards the One and Only Metaphor—all three translated by Tim Wilkinson. For a translator, the sheer bulk of the book is daunting enough, not to mention its myriad stylistic idiosyncrasies: long, convoluted sentences, stunning metaphors and neologisms, the references to branches of learning as diverse as art history, physics, philosophy, and biology, as well as Latin and German phrases, often invented by the writer.
When it comes to writers of stature, comparisons used as advertising catchwords are usually more misleading than helpful, but to give an idea of what reading Szentkuthy may remind the reader of, I would say that he is Joycean in his masterful juggling of European culture in describing everyday life, Rabelaisian in his grotesque extravagance, Sterneian in his predilection for digression as a structural device, and Proustian in his keen and precise recording of sense impressions and their sediments in our mind. He is certainly similar to these authors in that he invariably evokes strong—positive and negative—impressions in his readers.
What are we to make of the title? It seems to indicate that the book is a mere introduction, a series of finger exercises, or notes towards what will then presumably be “the real thing.” That sounds like irony or false modesty, seeing that the two volumes run to 1,200 pages in the original Hungarian. Yet it is neither: one can certainly read Prae as a work of conscientious preparation for writing; or, indeed, as an anatomy of the writer’s trade.
To think of plot (and character development) in regard to a text like Prae is somewhat senseless, since plot and character have no priority in the book, being just two constituents among many, but whatever plot the book has is certainly meager—a summary of Prae is comparable in length to a summary of Ulysses or Finnegans Wake: Leville-Touqué, a French philosopher and editor of the journal Antipsyche, and two English students, Halbert and Anny, meet Leatrice, a Russian Jewish interior designer who works as a prostitute in a nightclub called The Perspective in Cannes, and discuss her plan to quit her job and start a new life. The novel, if one can call it that, is a proliferation of characters’ internal monologues; descriptions of landscapes, people and scenes; philosophical meditations on the theory of art, architecture, and society, as well as extended metaphors and similes. The book betokens an author who seems to have had more than the usual five senses, and an extremely acute consciousness which registered a thousand sparks of perception within a mere second, so the reader feels she has all her life been walking around deaf and blind. The overabundant metaphors and descriptions are at times revelatory, a glimpse of a true genius, though sometimes they can be absolutely maddening. A typical Szentkuthy metaphor is like a Baroque concetto, or conceit: the juxtaposition of far-fetched things that, seen together, cause great delight, or even a sense of sudden enlightenment.
Incongruity extends to point of view: there are constant, dizzying changes of perspective—the consciousness at work behind the text moves with animistic ease from man to statue, from plant to particle. Time is slowed down; proportions are monstrously distorted; cause and effect, tangible and intangible realities are subverted; and synaesthesia is rampant. All these devices are deployed to serve the same goal: not to leave the smallest minutiae of perception undescribed—from the mechanism of adolescent desire to an expression lingering pointlessly on a person’s face.
Amid this flow of material are perfect gems of stories, stunning descriptions of landscapes and people, and witty dialogue so chiseled and well-proportioned it could certainly stand its ground in traditional novels—business cards, as it were, dropped by the author to signal that he surely knows his trade and could write otherwise if he chose to.
However, it is neither well-rounded character nor a finely constructed plot that Szentkuthy is after in Prae, and neither is the book a novel of ideas. What is he after, then? One way to characterise Prae is as the enactment of perception and artistic expression. Life is viewed as an endless series of masks and metamorphoses—”the most primal principle of life is theatrical,” Szentkuthy writes in Towards the One and Only Metaphor. However, as things metamorphose into something else, they become even more themselves: when the eyelids around a woman’s black eyes are likened to beach parasols over a black powder compact, we feel they become even “more” eyelids and beach parasols, plus something else that has an even more powerful and, so to say, untameable existence than those aforementioned things. And that “plus” is artistic expression—form—if not the principle of life itself: constant form-making, metamorphosis. The “agents” of metamorphosis in Prae are mostly gentle, Ariel-like: there are lengthy descriptions of how light/darkness, silence/sound, sleep/wakefulness transform a scene or a landscape; how a person’s facial expression affects another person; how the beauty of a woman affects a man—hardly perceivable metamorphoses, similar to the transformation of the world in the hands of artists.
Prae, however, is also about inexpressibility: Szentkuthy likens artistic expression to the Catholic practice of confession—as the sinner pronounces the name of the sin, and the number of times he committed it, he immediately feels it is untruthful, simply because the realm of truth is so different from that of life, which is unrepresentable. And it is precisely this unrepresentability that Prae tackles, while admitting that the spark of reality itself falls away in the act of expression, with only words remaininglike smoke after the explosion of a firework in a “neutral horizon,” a no man’s land between truth and life. And behind the words—behind Szentkuthy’s hyperintelligent and hypersensitive prolixity—the cantus firmus (the pre-existent melody) is “No Word,” that is, inexpressibility.
But as much as Prae is about inexpressibility, it is also about the aching desire to find “the one and only metaphor,” expressing the root cause of all things, the desire for which, Szentkuthy claims, is as likely to be found in the most tasteless dresses, buildings, or writings as in abstract concepts or numbers. As he puts it, “the most paradoxical sexual straying is also, in essence, a logical impatience of Platonism.”[3]The world is not secretive, one of the book’s characters claims, “only at most it may sometimes speak quietly, in which case I move my ears a couple of centimeters closer and everything will be alright.”[4]
Whether we regard Prae as mere raw material, disordered proliferation, or something more than that, depends on our expectations of form. Surely, Prae does not have a focus or a clear structure, and whatever plot it has is certainly slight (so much so that the reader, kept on a meager diet, starts to squirm in her seat with expectation and excitement at the first sign of a plot, like when Leville-Touqué notices a lost love letter floating in the water while walking toward another lover). This makes reading the book extremely challenging, often like cutting through a jungle.[5] Yet it is by no means formless. Some critics have said about Prae that it charts the process of the workings of the human mind. However, take a passage like this: “The dawn quiet does not tolerate, so it seems, any sort of bungling dualism and sought to fuse Touqué into itself: he was ashamed of himself, just like when he attended a social gathering for the first time—here everyone was either a caryatid or a canal or a window shutter left open, according to the rules of etiquette—he alone was in human dress.”[6] One surely cannot say that the human mind works like this; there’s a great deal of form-making here from the raw material of impressions, sensual and mental associations, and emotions.
On the whole, though lacking a clear structure, the book has a certain fractal nature—similar patterns, ideas, images, etc. are often reiterated on various levels. Natural phenomena are interpreted in terms of artistic intention; the structure of “the new novel” is imagined by the narrator with analogy to modern building, vector analysis, typographical solutions, and an aquarium (Chapter 5); or just take the title of this subchapter: “lessons of the coastal waves for the history of ideas, simile from the science of electricity: the separation of power and intensity; its appearance in fashionableness.” Szentkuthy discovers such analogous patterns in multifarious aspects and levels of reality. Nature, the history of ideas, sense impressions, the mechanism of desire, physics, architecture, fashion, nonverbal communication—these are some of the realms he most frequently visits, walking in and out of them and entering another with dizzying ease.
Indeed, Szentkuthy is second to none when it comes to squeezing a maximum of cultural information into a scene. Take, for example, the subchapter[7] in chapter 8 entitled “the pedagogic Guignol commences”: who would have thought that an episode as banal as a woman calling a doctor could contain so much psychology, anatomy, sociology, as well as literary and religious allusions—all the minute movements, shifts of tone and attention are perceived with a keen eye and noted down effortlessly and with a sense of humor. One should note that his parallel interest in all these subjects, as well as his non-hierarchical treatment of them prefigures popular culture studies and cultural anthropology.
Apropos of cultural anthropology: there is something of the magic of pre-scientific consciousness in Szentkuthy’s similes and metaphors; he often looks at natural scenes as if he was the first man on earth, trying to make sense of the drama of nature with his limited means. Under the layer of early twentieth century European bourgeois consciousness there is an undercurrent of a more primordial—at times savage, almost animalistic—gaze: the inorganic quality of a new dress on a woman reminds the narrator of masks used in tribal dances; the movement of the muscles of a woman in stilettos is described as a mini-drama between nature and culture. There is nothing naïve about this gaze; if anything, it is eminently modern in its clairvoyance about how easily the veneer of civilization can and does strip off of humans, in spite of sophisticated efforts to the contrary.
Though there are some weak moments of sententiousness (which can be put down to age—twenty-somethings, especially if they are as bright as this author, tend to be more sententious than when they get older and wiser), Szentkuthy certainly does not lack a sense of humor, and many of the descriptions and dialogues are extremely funny and witty. Somewhere in the book he describes one of Prae’s characters, or rather, the gesture of that character, as that of “a magician in whom there is something of the chic of self-irony,”[8]and this description is actually quite fitting for Szentkuthy himself. He wrote just as he talked in life: effusing and pontificating, gesticulating widely, then suddenly stepping back, mocking his own gesture, or changing to a hush, only the eyes gazing and moving intently—all in all, giving the impression of a clown or a jester.
Perhaps the main reason why Prae remains such a hard nut to crack is that it certainly challenges our reading habits in more ways than one. Over a period of half a century, Szentkuthy wrote a cycle of ten novels entitled St Orpheus Breviary. Apart from the irony in the title,[9] treating his works like “breviaries” certainly makes sense as a way to approach Szentkuthy’s works: they can be perused in a way monks and priests use their breviaries, rather than read in a linear fashion and at a steady pace. One needs to slow down, and then slow down even more, to read his sentences. In this sense, reading Szentkuthy in our speedy age is untimely but therapeutic: like a long walk in a forest or by the sea, it reminds us that we should live more slowly and attentively.
There is another way in which reading Prae is a peculiar experience. After working her way through those endless pages about a thousand ways of perceiving a gesture, a wrinkle in a dress, a habit, or an idea, the reader finds herself resonating with landscapes and works of art in completely new ways, and much more strongly. (This is certainly my experience as a reader, and when I shared it with some other people who have read Prae,they immediately knew what I was talking about.) In a way, then, reading Prae can be compared to training, say, for a martial art—while training, you sometimes feel that all you do is scream and sweat and kick and jump, but it eventually leads to an altered consciousness. In this sense, Prae is not only a preparation for writing but also a preparation for living. All those painstaking descriptions and endless variations add up to something unique: the recording of the genesis of expression, charted in extraordinary complexity. Reading Szentkuthy certainly requires dedication, and perhaps sometimes forgiveness, but it is ultimately deeply rewarding. - Ágnes Orzóy 


Miklós Szentkuthy, Towards the One and Only Metaphor, Trans. by Tim Wilkinson, Contra Mundum Press, 2013.

excerpt

"A Catalogus Rerum, an "Index of Phenomena" – I am unlikely to free myself of this, the most primitive of my desires. ... is that a sentimental fear of death guiding me, I wonder, a grandpawish fondness for knick-knacks, or some desire for universal knowledge, a Faustian gesture?"

Unique in Hungarian literature, at the time of its first appearance in 1935, Towards the One & Only Metaphor was greeted with plaudits by such leading Hungarian critics as László Németh, András Hevesi, and Gábor Halász, with Németh declaring: "Szentkuthy's invention has the merit that he pries writing open in an entirely original manner. . . Where everything was wobbling the writer either joins the earth-shaping forces, or else he sets up his culture-building laboratory over all oscillations. Seated in his cogitarium, even in spite of himself, Szentkuthy is brother to the bellicose on earth in the same way as a cloud is a relative to a plow in its new sowing work." Szentkuthy referred to this nearly unclassifiable text as a Catalogus Rerum, "an index that is of entities and phenomena, a Catalogue of Everything in the Entire World." In a sequence of 112 shorter and longer passages, Szentkuthy has recorded his experiences and thoughts, reflected on his reading matter as well as political, historical, and erotic events, moving from epic subjectivity to ontological actualities: "Two things excite me: the most subjective epic details and the ephemeral trivialities of my most subjective life, in all their own factual, unstylized individuality - and the big facts of the world in their allegorical, Standbild-like grandiosity: death, summer, sea, love, gods, flowers." Similar in kind to the ruminative waste books of Lichtenberg and the journals of Joubert, while Towards the One and Only Metaphor is a fragmentary text, at the same time, it is ordered, like a group of disparate stars which, when viewed from afar, reveal or can be perceived to form a constellation - they are sculpted by a geometry of thought. Szentkuthy conjures up and analyzes spectacle and thought past and present with sensitivity, erudition, and linguistic force. As András Keszthelyi observed, the text is essentially something of a manifesto, "an explicit formulation of the author's intentions, his scale of values, or, if you wish: his ars poetica." Through dehumanization, Szentkuthy returns us to the embryo and the ornament, but so as to bring us into the very particles of existence. Towards the One and Only Metaphor is also a confessional, a laying bare of the heart, even through masks, but in moving beyond the torpid self-obsession that rules our age, Szentkuthy's revelations yield forth the x-ray of a typus, and like Montaigne and Rousseau, he is equally revealing, entertaining, and humorous. Now available in English for the first time, Towards the One & Only Metaphor is destined to stand as one of the principal works of world literature of the 20th century.

With this, the second of Szentkuthy's works made available in English by Contra Mundum Press, after Marginalia on Casanova, the author begins to take on more of a shape. Towards the One and Only Metaphor (1935) pre-dates the Marginalia -- itself only the first volume in the larger-scale project of the St. Orpheus Breviary -- and in his Introduction Rainer J. Hanshe notes it is, in part: "a response to criticisms directed against Prae", Szentkuthy's first novel -- a volume not yet available to English-speaking readers (though it is expected soon); the bigger picture will require more patience, but like the Marginalia this volume stands strongly on its own, too.
       Towards the One and Only Metaphor consists of 112 chapters/sections of varying length, ranging from personal, philosophical, and literary reflections to pieces closer to actual fiction (realized and planned). Rather late in the day -- in the book's closing lines, in fact -- Szentkuthy acknowledges that the title might have suggested a misleading progression, or a blind alley:
Towards the one & only metaphor ? I wonder if my own fate will not be precisely the opposite: out of a million metaphors towards the one and only -- person ?
       Metaphors are central to his undertaking, but hardly the sole focus; "metaphors are the tadpole form of reason", he suggests, and his interest is as much in their outgrowths.
       Fundamental, too, is "the question of questions": "should I be a life or a work ?" -- even as he finds: "'Vita' & 'fictio' are equally suspect". Dualities abound -- with Szentkuthy dithering (as he puts it) between them --, including in an almost Wittgensteinian obsession with (living-)space (and his uncertainty whether his: "terrible spatial torments are torments of my bourgeois or artistic side"). This collection is certainly a manifestation of another duality, that:
Two things excite my interest: the most subjective epic details and ephemeral trivialities of my most subjective life, in their own factual, unstylized individuality -- and the world's big facts, in all their allegorical Standbild-like greatness: death, summer, sea, love, gods, flowers.
       Szentkuthy is trying to find himself, as person and, especially as writer -- to see what he is capable of writing, and how, the approaches to take. He considers his limitations, as well as his obsession (particularly with language itself). He diagnoses:
I am dramatic by nature, which is to say, a human mixture of mendacity & primitive facts of life, flashy prose and tragic ever more predestination; to be a great actor was my family's pride and joy; my imagined heroes were all actors -- why don't I write plays ? [...] 
Playwrighting: for me that is in point of fact self-contradictory nonsense -- it's either writing or a play; the two exclude each other in my life.
       He also realizes:
In recent times there has been no literature for me, only language -- every book is inundated, drenched, destryed as a 'work' by the language in which it is written. (That's why Joyce's Work in Progress is important above all others: here the writer only wants, or only knows, first and foremost language -- though of course such only-language-language is no longer language but something else).
       Impressively, Tim Wilkinson's translation manages to retain and convey much of the sense of language(-play) here -- with English-in-the-original words and phrases printed in a different font, helpful in a text that effortlessly traverses languages. So, also, for example, Szentkuthy suggests:
Philomèle und 'shorts'": a good title, don't you think ? Let the lamenting songbird of impressions be French, the coordinating conjunction German, and the garment English.
       Szentkuthy's world is entirely Euro-centric here, but deeply and broadly rooted in continental and English culture (and languages), an impressive example of the Central European intellectual melting pot of which he is clearly one of the last, great exponents. As his embrace of Joyce's most radical work suggests, he's not stodgily anchored in the classical (though Sir Thomas Browne is equally inspiring to him -- and, he suggests: "Browne is more Joycean than Joyce"); there are also nice pop-cultural bits, Szentkuthy not shying away from, for example, a clever mention of "the bangs on Katharine Hepburn's forehead" (a good catch (for Hunagry, 1935 !)).
       Rich in allusion and reference, the useful endnotes provide most of the necessary information. [The only major slip comes in fn.163: when Szentkuthy compares Browne to: "the far madder and precisely on that account much more monotonous Burton" he surely meant The Anatomy of Melancholy-author, and not polylinguist and explorer: "Sir Richard Burton (1821-90)" (a figure who no doubt would also have fascinated Szentkuthy but whose focus on India and Africa is too far afield for this work).] Despite the far-flung references, Towards the One and Only Metaphor isn't overwhelmingly dense; if anything, Szentkuthy's work can feel flighty, as it jumps from one idea to the next -- a great part of its charm, but also what makes the book as a whole ... difficult to see and digest in any 'whole' way (part of his point, too, no doubt).
       As noted, Tim Wilkinson's translation manages Szentkuthy's (different-)language fascination particularly well, but is also impressive on the more basic level -- and includes some inspired and appealing turns of phrases (such as: "Under your white skin lay a lurking freckliness"). There's an (intellectual) playfulness to both subject and style here, and Wilkinson captures both near-ideally.
       While there's very much a sense of this being one building-block of a larger œuvre -- far too much of which remains, as yet, inaccessible to English-reading audiences -- Towards the One and Only Metaphor is nevertheless a rewarding text on its own, a fascinating and diverse personal catalogue from the pen of an exceptionally cultured writer (which manifests itself both in his style, and in the substance of his writing). - M.A.Orthofer
“Those simple formulas: on reading my own writings: those over-intellectualized, over-sensualized sentences, I get a feeling of Christian, ascetic happiness: even in the poor quality of the style there is something massively absolute, fatefully and unbrokenly homogeneous” — this is how Szentkuthy contemplates his own way of wording the world. Indeed, Towards the One and Only Metaphor is a book in which fragments aggregate in a remarkable unity, much like raindrops or pictures in a kaleidoscope eventually form a homogeneous whole in our experience regardless of the initial fragmentariness of perception.
Written in 1936, the book occupies a distinct and solitary place in Hungarian literary history, being experimental not only in its language but its belonging as well. The initial reception was rather poor, the literary world was not ready to step away from realist prose; it was only decades later that an almost cult-like appreciation emerged for Szentkuthy’s work, which slowly rippled to some continental European countries. Stepping on the stage of the English-speaking world almost 80 years after it was first published, Towards the One and Only Metaphor brings with it an allure of peculiarity. The book is a sequence of 112 sections, compact brief anecdotes, contemplations, sketches and, according to Szentkuthy himself, is an experiment of ‘primal vitality’, an experiment that does not aim to answer or explain anything, but which rather lets meaning and form simply emerge organically, leaving the 19th-century dream of self-consciousness and total representation behind.
This radical modernism is unique not only because of its distinctive conception of form and language, the lack of final solutions, but also because of the archaic material of which it is made. A collection of references, a book on books, this text is set apart from oft-mentioned contemporaries like Joyce and Proust by its alliance with the classical, be it Hellenic or Shakespearean, Goethe’s German or Racine’s French. It is ultimately a list of intellectual companionship in its struggle to grasp the fragile experience of the inner journey — an epic attempt of a deeply poetic task.
With such content, such deep embeddedness in the entire canon of European cultural history, Szentkuthy’s modernist, experimental aim gains an almost medieval aspect. It becomes an ordering of the known, a reiteration of its peculiarities in order to place the world in a new perspective. Thus ‘primal vitality’ is reached not only by the unfolding sequence of the sections, but by a certain atmosphere of timelessness too. A timelessness of hovering over history, over so much time that precise moments cease to matter.
The intellectual and the sensual, the bare and the abundant, are contained together in Szentkuthy’s words in a single modality of meditative attentiveness; a readiness to absorb, observe, but never to taxonomize. The aesthetic and the intellectual do not exist separately; they do not even seem meaningful and distinct categories in Szentkuthy’s world, which becomes almost Platonic in its deep assumption of the equity of the beautiful and the meaningful.
If his monumental work, Prae, is supposed to be a mock-encyclopedia, a catalogus rerum compiling all things in heaven and earth dreamt of in our philosophy, Towards the One and Only Metaphor is a similar attempt to record the minutiae of the inner life in all of its possible colors. The external world is replaced by the imprint it leaves on the mind, nevertheless presented in the same neat, delicate manner. Women appear in slow erotic yet innocent motion, feeding babies, lying almost naked in the sun; there are portraits of Saint Augustine and Caracalla, Freudian inspections on destiny, mother and father, or associations to a Beethoven sonata.
The book could almost fool the reader in its posing as a diary, but there is a well hidden, perceptible pattern in the order of the sections. Not so much an analytic awareness, not an attempt to construct a coherent typology, but rather a self-conscious awareness of free association is what links these bits of text together, whereas one can have a sense of what could possibly come next, no certainty or predictability is involved at all. It is somewhat like the undisturbed line of thought in an infinitely long, sunny afternoon.
The twofold character of the text allows two utterly different ways of reading. We can either slow down and let every single microcosm unfold and reveal all the richness of its details at its own pace, or hover over them in search of links and connecting sequences of thought. Either way, the sentences are not self-contained; the more they absorb the reader, inviting her to get lost in the delicate details of the language, the more they also push her away, back to the enormous globe of European culture Szentkuthy so freely moves in, connects to and assumes as a lingua franca.
Szentkuthy is the exact opposite of an audience-seeking author. He requires the reader to adapt to the pace of his gaze as it slowly gauges the world, to maintain the laborious engagement of noticing and recognizing the profusion of knowledge he compressed in each small section. Writer-essayist Zoltán Onagy once jokingly suggested that the Ministry of Culture advises that one not read Szentkuthy if under the age 30, thereby ensuring the erudition needed for appreciating him. And it is rewarding to wait, to slow down, to enter into every intricate detail, because the resulting experience is singular in Hungarian literary history. And it is something even more out of the ordinary in the Anglo-Saxon cultural sphere.
Following Szentkuthy through this labyrinth of repetition and novelty, through motifs repeatedly woven into each other in different combinations, always reveals new perspectives. It leads one into the world of ritual, a fusion of utmost intimacy and abstraction, archaism and actuality. The final section deliberately leaves the search open, towards and not to the one and only metaphor; and away from them all. The overwhelming abundance of experience ultimately silences language, shunting the attention back to the source of all the perception: the self. Instead of the uplift of a literary climax we are left with the sense of a vulnerable and finite personhood.
This finale is what makes the book so deeply contemporary, so postmodern in a sense. The acceptance of the human condition per se being incapable of measuring the world, being left in the modality of towards instead of to, silence instead of well-formed sentences, is a statement that speaks to us here and now. Again it shows how, in a way, Szentkuthy has much more in common with Feyerabend’s The Conquest of Abundance than with either Proust or Joyce. Feyerabend claims that a superconscious mind, capable of grasping the world in its totality, would be paralyzed; that the motion of understanding is made possible only by processing the world, reducing, explaining away complexity. Szentkuthy’s journey towards the one and only metaphor does precisely this: noticing, assessing sensory and intellectual abundance, conquering time by dwelling in the moment, conquering totality by finding it in allegories of details. With this he surely achieves the ‘primal vitality’ he aspired to; his volatile yet delicate line of thought expresses yet does not explain away the rich inner ornaments of the thinking self. A conquest — and according to the current zeitgeist, the only possible one.Diána Vonnák

Entering the World Stage: Miklós Szentkuthy's Ars Poetica
In 1827, long before globalization and the institutionalization of multiculturalism, Goethe forecast the disintegration of national literature and the burgeoning of world literature, whose epoch he saw near at hand and sought to hasten. To achieve that, he accentuated the necessity not only of reading works in their original languages but also of studying their times and customs in order to best understand them; this was not to offer world literature as a mere cultural product but had the more elevated aim of fostering the "true progress of mankind," which Goethe thought could be achieved through the concerted efforts of all cultures. The bane of progress aside, that was the grand project. Too, despite its shortcomings, he recognized the fundamental role translation would play in acquainting people with world literature, and the eventuality of it supplanting national literature was inevitable to Goethe, who anticipated its swift realization due to the "ever-increasing rapidity of human interaction," "vastly facilitated communications," and the "constantly spreading activities of trade and commerce." What he envisioned, at least superficially, we have in part witnessed, and many would optimistically affirm that we live in a compact global community where literature and the arts are less and less dominated by a central canon; whether that's true, such utopic pronouncements and empty optimism necessitate scrutiny. In the late twentieth century, Gadamer and other critics questioned the validity of Goethe's concept as Eurocentric, potentially homogenizing, and possibly normative while Erich Auerbach made the incisive observation that, "in a uniformly organized world, only one single literary culture—indeed, in a relatively short time, only a few literary languages, soon perhaps only one—will remain alive. And with this, the idea of world literature would be at once realized and destroyed." If the once largely Eurocentric canon shunted other cultures to the margins, at least there were margins in which to exist—Auerbach's analysis of Weltliteratur is that of a tenebrous, near-apocalyptic dialectic where nothing remains.
Whether these critiques of Goethe's more nuanced concept are entirely accurate is open to question, as is exactly what world literature is or can be, if something of the kind is even possible; however, such appraisals warrant reflection and, in our epoch, where the speed of human interaction is Zeus-like, world cultures make contact with a rapidity in excess of our ability to digest them, even moderately. If there is a more global consciousness and culture, its sheer abundance often leads to its near figurative obliteration, certainly to obscuring what is there, waiting to be discovered, with even the most noteworthy achievements often being left unrecognized. To focus on one culture long marginalized by the world stage, consider Hungary. Although Hungarian composers such as Kodály, Bartók, and Ligeti are commonly known throughout the world, and were known during their own lifetimes, that has not been the case with many if not most Hungarian writers. If music is more readily accessible, writers such as Sándor Petőfi, Imre Madách, and Miklós Radnóti should, certainly at this date in history, not just be better known, but read. In the last two decades, a considerable shift toward expanding the impact of Hungarian culture has occurred; as its literature gains more and more worldwide prominence, contemporary writers such as Nádas, Esterházy, and Krasznahorkai are becoming nearly as familiar to readers of world literature as Saramago, Banville, and Bolaño. Yet, whereas the Nobel laureate Imre Kertész is widely known, another Hungarian writer, Miklós Szentkuthy, who has at different times been compared to the holy trinity of Proust, Joyce, and Musil, still remains something of an obscurity even though his work predates the former trio, who represent the new, late Cold War generation, all of whom didn't begin publishing until the end of the 1970s and early '80s, long after Szentkuthy had produced all of his major works and established himself as Hungary's foremost modernist. In some ways, though, Szentkuthy is not really a "Hungarian" writer, not in any folkloric or nationalistic sense, for his work doesn't deal with Hungarian reality or culture, except perhaps in extremely covert ways. "Homelessness," said László Németh, "is one of his main distinguishing marks, as compared with kindred Western writers." Elaborating further, Németh suggested "homelessness to be a higher form of protection of the mind." Since the first volume of Szenkuthy's St. Orpheus Breviary was censored and he was forced to vet each of his publications with the state and eventually interrupt the writing and publication of the Breviary—only to return to it thirty years later—to write biographical "fantasies," essentially for hire, on the likes of Dürer, Goethe, Mozart, and others, the fortification of that homelessness was clearly vital. If Szentkuthy was not persona non grata under the Communist regime of his time, he was in part forced to become a kind of internal émigré.
When Prae, Szentkuthy's first novel, appeared in 1934, the book was so startling that András Hevesi deemed him a "monster" and, despite his own misgivings about the term, Szentkuthy essentially inaugurated the Hungarian avant-garde. He would see such "experiments" within a vaster historical continuum, "amply demonstrating" that what were "imagined" as "revolutionary innovations" by surrealists and others "had also played a part, to a greater or lesser extent (better too), in the history of the arts." To Szentkuthy, the style of the ultra-modernists was outdated. In Towards the One and Only Metaphor, he outlines what he sees as the two principal forms of experimentation: "one is strictly rational, self-analytical, and overscrupulous, simply a pathology of consciousness," and the other is "the perennial experimentation of nature," such as biological forms of development, where there are no distinctions between "final results" and "undecided, exploratory trials." "If Prae and other works I have planned are 'experimental,' " he counters, "then they are so in a specific biological sense: not an apprehensive, exaggerated self-conscience, but experiments of primal vitality, which are in a special biological relationship with form (cf. the 'forms' of protozoa: experiment and totality of life being absolutely identical, they coincide)." Denounced as non-Magyar, the mercurial Prae was considered "an eerie attack on the Hungarian realist novel," a curse then against nationalism and folk-culture, with Szentkuthy suffering from the reprehensible malady of cosmopolitanism. This raises a thorny political question to which there is perhaps no definitive answer: what does it mean to be Magyar, Asian, or, for that matter, Sicilian? If modern physics has sundered the very solidity of matter, how can any form of identity be sustained as solid and absolute, let alone infinitely sustainable? And what happened to the sea change from national to world literature that Goethe envisioned? The Magyar of 1848 is no more, nor the American of 1950. To Nietzsche, "what is normal is crossed races," and they "always mean at the same time crossed cultures, crossed moralities...Purity," he continues, upending any nationalistic conception of the term, "is the final result of countless adaptations." Our artists and philosophers, the visionary ones, are often far in advance of our politicians...Each case is distinctive and particular, and no parallels are exact, hence such is not meant, but more than fifty years after Szentkuthy was denounced for being non-Magyar, Kertész would suffer similar attacks after winning the Nobel for a body of writings that do not glorify Hungary, prompting many people to question whether or not he was "a real Hungarian writer." The intractability of that question aside, as Szentkuthy himself knew all too well, cultural diversity has its perils. Although the monstrum had its champions, aside from an excerpt translated into French in 1974, Prae has never been published outside of Hungary, severely circumscribing its legitimate place in literary history. Despite the fact that it foregrounds and presages many of the innovations of later literary movements, Prae currently remains lost to the world, despite the initial intrepid efforts of the French. If, as József J. Fekete observed, "linearity of time, coherent characterization, and plotline disappeared from his work and were replaced by something alien, a mysterious secret: authorial method," Szentkuthy is then a true innovator whose work will force us to reconsider not only the genealogy of the nouveau roman, but also perhaps other genealogies, too. Countering the parallels often made between Szentkuthy and Proust or Joyce, parallels that even Szentkuthy rejected as misconceptions "on the part of people who have never read either Joyce or myself," Németh perceives a more accurate corollary in Kant:
What is important here is not the sensual material but the introspection of the artistic spirit that goes with it. If we wish to compare him with one of the big monsters, then Kant is much nearer the mark than either Proust or Joyce. The Critique of Pure Reason in point of fact is an introspection of the emptied mind. The mind jettisons the world from itself and strives to grasp what is left. As an experiment, it then again repeatedly gobbles one thing or other from the world and watches how space, time, and the categories chew it. It is not the item of food that is important, but the chewing itself; the food is only placed in the mouth so that there should be some chewing to investigate. It is like that with Szentkuthy as well, with the difference being that it is not the scholar's brain that is observing its own mechanism of chewing, but the on-looking and shaping artist. He is the sort of poet who, before throwing himself into his poetic work, carries out extraordinarily extensive prosodic studies, though not in the way that scholars of prosody usually do, but as only a scholar-poet would do it, who, struggling to reach for a novel system of poetry completely suited to his temperament, practices the ideas he has for substitute meters and contents on a hundred different examples. Any of those examples might be a masterpiece in regard to its meaning and content, but the true goal is a prosodic foundation carried to an unheard-of scale.
Although this risks hyperbole, to convey the genuine significance of Prae, that it is a rosetta stone of Hungary's instrumental role in the development of world literature: imagine Joyce's Ulysses, or Einstein's theory of relativity still being unknown, and the shock—and knowledge—our encounter with them would now bring. But that is the mantle of the posthumous; the works of those who are Unzeitgemässe are always in advance of their time. Thus began Szentkuthy's strange fate, with him struggling in the shadows during the Communist era, yet all the while writing original tome after tome, producing a prodigious body of essays, novels, and those aforementioned biographical 'fantasies,' to translations of Gulliver's Travels, Joyce's Ulysses, as well as a host of other works, including a diary of more than 100,000 pages spanning nearly sixty years, which the author declared three years before his death contains his "real" writing. The first part, which dates from 1930 to 1947, an undeniably fertile and significant historical period, will be opened on the anniversary of his death in July of 2013. Revelations surely await, especially since Szentkuthy probably appears in the diary as unmasked, for it may have been the one place where he could stand naked, as naked that is as anyone can be, free of fortifications, at total ease in the safety of—a home. Through the mask of St. Orpheus, he did avow that, through the perspective of his own life, he could "provide (the malicious of course will say 'to mask') a rationale for the diary style of my entire oeuvre, my utter homesickness for an endlessly complete diary," for it is the diary that is his "ultimate ideal in place of the honest superstition of the old-fashioned 'objective opus.' " Like all the great confessional artists, Szentkuthy is laying his heart bare, with even his biographical fantasies being masks in part of himself; more even than Nietzsche, he is every name in history, and he is as much of a jester, too. If in his pursuit of fulfilling the Delphic injunction he betrays what he himself called a "mystic penchant for self-torment," that is oft if not consistently tempered by humor, a genuinely comic—not bilious—irony, and in Szentkuthy we have one of our great clowns.
While Szentkuthy would experience a renaissance of his work within Hungary during his own lifetime, following his death in 1988, his works were translated into French, Spanish, Portuguese, Romanian, and Slovakian, leading to some recognition for him outside of his native country, though not in the Anglophone world. His lack of such a reception here is in part ironic considering he began as an Anglicist, penned a dissertation on Ben Jonson, and would later translate into Hungarian not only Poe, Twain, and Dickens, but Donne, Milton, and even Sir Thomas Browne, who figures—along with Mauriac—at the end of Towards the One and Only Metaphor as a key typus for Szentkuthy's conception of writing. More, that he still remains almost entirely obscure to the readers of world literature despite his existing in translation since 1991 lends heft to Auerbach's foreboding dialectic, confirming that it is only with his translation into English that Szentkuthy will enter the world stage. And this is doubly peculiar since, as is well known, the number of translations published in English every year is scant, but that is the magic of hegemony. With the publication of Marginalia on Casanova, volume I of Szentkuthy's St. Orpheus Breviary and the first of his works to be translated into English, Contra Mundum Press (CMP) is seeking to make his name more familiar. In selecting him as their featured author, CMP will publish further translations—all to be rendered by Tim Wilkinson—of his work over the coming decade, including Prae, at last exporting that infamous text in its entirety. This summer, Towards the One and Only Metaphor will see the light of day, making for the second English translation of Szentkuthy's work to date. For those who have yet to encounter him, it is this book that Asymptote is now introducing.
As a text that defies classification into any particular genre, Towards the One and Only Metaphor is perhaps most accurately thought of as literature—in Blanchot's expansive sense of the term, literature is that which "ruins" distinctions and limits in its creation of a unique and amorphous hybrid beyond the distinctions of a particular genre. Originally published in 1935 and republished in 1985, Towards the One and Only Metaphor is, as Dezső Baróti elucidated, comprised of "unconventional journal-like passages expanded into short essays, plans for novels, poetic meditations that have the effect of free verse, and paradoxical aphorisms," all of which reveal a moral philosophy, a politics, an erotics. "Its predominant motifs (insofar as one can succinctly describe it in a few words) are most especially nature, love, eroticism, sex. All that, however, is constantly painted over by the vibration of the unconcealed presence of a writer constantly in search of himself, and rife with beguiling, stimulating, and ever-renewed surprises." In this sense, it is an essayistic and confessional work à la Montaigne, or like the ruminative waste books of Lichtenberg, or Joubert's keen-eyed observations. Yet, if as fragmentary as those texts, Towards the One and Only Metaphor is at the same time ordered, like a group of disparate stars that, when viewed from afar, reveal or can be perceived to form a constellation—they are sculpted by a geometry of thought, for, as András Keszthelyi observed, the text is essentially something of a manifesto, "an explicit formulation of the author's intentions, his scale of values, or, if you wish: his ars poetica." And when reviewing the book upon its original publication, Németh elucidated its geometrical and biological dimensions, noting how, through dehumanization, Szentkuthy returns us to the embryo and the ornament; however, such is done to bring us in closer alignment with his gestures and words, to take us into the very particles of existence, and the word is germane:
There is no form and content in humanity; our protoplasm is more geometrical and our form more formless than the geometry and biology bubbling up in Szentkuthy's U-tube. His method is dehumanizing; he dehumanizes man by mutilating him in the direction of the embryo and the ornament. The dehumanization, at root, is irony, and the type of writer who simply wishes to keep on smiling during the puppet show and gut-wrenching may well feel just fine. But Szentkuthy is not that type; indeed, he is greatly preoccupied with humanity, and in his ecstasy as lyrical agitator-cum-preacher would far sooner push our eyes, ears, and heads under his gestures and words.
In Marginalia on Casanova, through the figure of its narrator, St. Orpheus, Szentkuthy offers a key to his very art when speaking of what he described as "the most savage battle of his life": "the battle of the 'descriptive' versus the 'anecdoticizing,' the Romantically luxuriant in statics versus the French moralizing style of a La Bruyère or La Rochefoucauld." While both figure prominently throughout his oeuvre, description is undoubtedly victorious, and in it he finds "many more novelties, variations, elements, and shades than in any kind of so-called rational thinking. The most complex thoughts, poetic sensibilities, or philosophical sophistications are all stupefying platitudes, oafish homogenizing beside the infinity of nuancing an object. Thinking, however, imposes a demand for nuance, a microscopic madness; it goes where it can best satisfy that insatiability for atoms." And so he brings us into the very particles of existence. It is not only objects that Szentkuthy nuances, though, but concepts, historical phenomena, consciousness, and a host of other things, including language itself, which he turns into a living creature, animating it with endless undulations, making it vibrate, turning it into number, endowing it with color, sound, and sensuality, and it is scintillating, for to him words are "chance reflex crystals" that he plays with like a great chemist. And through this play, in every book, whether masked or unmasked, his ars poetica always includes a philosophy of love, and Eros is put through a thousand and one permutations, all of which we witness dancing in his texts, animated like the thousand and one figures of the Kharjuravāhaka monuments.
As one encounters more and more of his work, it is evident that the twenty-first century will be the one in which Szentkuthy at last has his renaissance, surely confirming what Nicholas Birns avowed when reviewing Marginalia on Casanova: "Szentkuthy will unquestionably enter and alter the canon of twentieth-century literature as we know it."  - Rainer J. Hanshe


The Nile’s nymphs, Christ’s mysteries - excerpt from The Breviary of St Orpheus

A comedy of ideas. Miklós Szentkuthy: Prae

"Prae" is a huge mock-encyclopaedia of whatever we know (or its author knows) about mind and matter, history and self, language and reality, fact and fiction, man and woman. Its stance is a sort of Olympian irreverence of the writer as philosopher-clown toward controlling and ordering constructs of every  description.

Prae: Recollections of my career I.   Prae: Recollections of my career II.

Devoutly gossiping humanists: Antal Szerb and Miklós Szentkuthy
Outprousting Proust

Miklós Szentkuthy: Towards the One and Only Metaphor I.

Towards the One and Only Metaphor II.

Hungarian Literature Online  

A Portrait of Miklós Szentkuthy by András Nagy

The name is already a “mask”, a metaphorical incognito and a personal statement, the composition of Szent, “holy” (sacred, saint), and of kút, “fountain” (source of water, well), with archaic orthography (“th” at the end instead of a simple “t”) in Hungarian and with a reference to noble origins (the “y” instead of a common “i”). The somewhat grand pen-name was to be a substitute for the family’s German-sounding name Pfisterer (hard to pronounce in Hungarian due to the two consonants in the beginning), while its meaning had lost its concrete reference to its ancestral identity, which was not of noble origin either. This statement however created a very meaningful identity from the very first steps of the author Miklós Szentkuthy, one of the greatest in Hungarian literature and certainly one of the most original, most challenging, and most productive writers of the 20th century, with many aspects still to understand, to reveal, and to come to terms with, both in Hungary and beyond.
Relatively or absolutely “small” nations — like Hungary — can and do produce great works of art that make significant contributions to the self-esteem of the relevant nations, in aesthetic and spiritual dimensions, often opposing the turbulence of national history. This may also serve as “secret” knowledge about the real wealth of a nation deprived of material wealth. It may be even more important in those countries that were denied freedom and independence for a long time in history, thus their accumulated political frustration could have been compensated for in more abstract or more sophisticated ways. Szentkuthy’s magnificent oeuvre is a perfect example of a genius living through the most difficult and often highly tormenting historical times of the 20th century yet remaining untouched by the different totalitarianisms, by wars, and by revolutions; and it is his oeuvre which emphasizes the importance of ideas, values, and achievements which are far beyond everyday crises and conflicts, whether they be social, political, or economic. It recalls the archaic and paradoxical Epicurean wisdom that “they” can kill him but can’t really cause any serious harm to him.
The “secret” knowledge of national greatness is particularly true for Hungarian literature, as it is a basic ingredient of the national identity and self-consciousness (contributing greatly to national pride of the “Magyar” people), while it is nearly impossible to “communicate” it to those living outside its linguistic borders. The language is ethnically isolated, not Indo-European in its origin, hard to translate faithfully to any other language, however extremely fit for artistic use. All these difficulties become nearly “visible” in Szentkuthy’s texts, for in his oeuvre language includes everything, even if narration, metaphors, description, reflection and all possible (and translatable) poetic and rhetorical categories are substantial in his novels, yet the real medium is Szentkuthy’s language, used and paraphrased in an originally poetic way, which is deeply rooted in his knowledge and in his experience of the philosophy of language, while applied with a very personal and playful emphasis of artistic communication.

Miklós Szentkuthy, in his library/study, during the recording of 'Frivolities and Confessions', 1983. Photo Edit Molnár, with kind permission of the Fondation Miklós Szentkuthy (c).
Thus Szentkuthy’s literary individuality is created and presented by his characteristic use of Hungarian, deeply rooted in his own history, both in the given (inherited) and in the chosen (willfully obtained). He was born into a family in which significant ancestors on the father’s side already paved the way toward artistic sensitivity, mainly in the world of theater; that later also shaped Szentkuthy’s rhetorical patterns and helped in per-forming his texts, which sometimes were composed as “staging” different characters, conflicts, ideas, with their typical voice, role, influence. His artistic identity beyond writing was often manifested by theatrical features; once, for example, while dressed in a cardinal’s robe, Szentkuthy blessed Budapest, the sinful city; while in social situations, when arguing, talking, and entertaining friends, he was a remarkable master of performance. These ancestors were followed by Pfisterers who represented a typical Central European bourgeois life, based on modest professions that excluded any kind of “extravagance”, art included. In the case of Szentkuthy’s father, this resulted in the lack of appreciation of literature in general, as practically useless and uncertain for making a living. However, once his son showed signs of his enormous talent, this paternal rejection turned into an absolute devotion to the young Pfisterer’s ideas, wills, and choices, even if contradicting the ones the father shared. On the mother’s side, the Jewish historical and spiritual tradition was transmitted probably on a more subtle and suppressed way than the father’s inherited identity, influenced by the mentality of a lower middle class ancestry, thus religious and “racial” differences were further deepened by a social abyss. Finally, Mrs. Pfisterer represented the nearly maniacal “Victorian” avoidance and negation of anything sensual, erotic, thus absolutely excluding sexuality. Both parents were “madly” and unconditionally loved by their only son, prodigious in the respects mentioned above, and the offspring’s love accompanied his elders far beyond their presence in this world.
The schism between devotion to and negation of the family’s values, the ambiguity of unconditional love for the parents versus unconditional rejection of their mentality and preferences, created a tension that proved to be highly inspiring for the young writer, who soon devoted himself mainly to art, literature, and aesthetic joys; jointly and sometimes un-separately with his sensual “intoxication”, that included a constant and insatiable longing for pleasure, should it be carnal, aesthetic, physical, or spiritual. It originated in his extreme sensitivity, expressed also in Szentkuthy’s overwhelming eroticism, yet in the archaic sense of the world: Eros being the ultimate driving force for all that moves in nature, as those are being driven by pure desire. This schism soon concluded in his works with the simultaneous presence of polar opposites, in the constant oscillation of extremes, a dynamic switching between the two mutually excluding Weltanschauungen. All that became determinant for the author in his works to follow, in all levels of his production, from composing metaphors to building characters, from forming sentences to drawing conclusions, providing one of the most typical features of Szentkuthy’s oeuvre.
The sacred connotations of the pen name referred to the author’s chosen identity concerning both the nation (Hungarian) and the religion (Catholicism) that pre-determined the texts flowing from the “holy fountain”. The ethnic and linguistic identity was expressed by the use of the language, extremely “flexible” on the one hand, yet focusing on the difficulties of the messages to communicate, resulting in a distinct and highly recognizable style of the author. The “holy” mandate and the erotic motivation were permanently confronted in the young mind by all the challenges of life, serving as a permanent source of temptations, usually successful, thus concluding in failures and in sins that inversely demonstrate the power of pure and unconditional faith. All in this case reveals the somewhat encyclopedic approach of the author who, by creating an immense body of texts was consciously focusing on the reinvention of a Catalogus rerum, an inventory of all things. The emphasis on the fullness and the “Gargantuan” drive behind embracing totality was modeled more on medieval monks and on patristic and scholastic thinkers (hermits, heretics, saints, church bureaucrats, etc. — all familiar to Szentkuthy and often presented in his novels) than on the encyclopedia-champions of the Enlightenment, as for the author unconditional faith was needed, expressed also by daily rituals and supported by theological and philosophical revelations. Szentkuthy was one of the few great religious authors of the 20th century of striking originality, while his sincere and ardent Catholic belief included attending ceremonies as well as being absorbed in solitary prayer, obtaining contemporary theological and philosophical knowledge to face the immense contradictions of the contemporary world. Augustine and Pascal, Heidegger and Nietzsche, medieval mystics and contemporary physics contributed to the forming of Szentkuthy’s religious Weltanschauung, which did not exclude closely observed dogmas and the continuous study of the Bible, accompanied by the biography of saints — but also demanded regularly committing sins of different types, so as to repent afterwards and to have first-hand familiarity with the challenges and torments of the unconditional faith of a fallible human.
This dynamics of the heavenly and of the infernal often served for Szentkuthy as synopses for novels as well as for individual chapters, for shaping characters presented and for episodes to demonstrate, influencing metaphors, images, aphorisms — providing a complexly epic interpretation of his very own experiences, doubts, and revelations. His extensive knowledge and his intense religious belief together with his very special angle of observing the world, however, seemed inadequate in comparison to the inherited conventions of late 19th-century/early 20th-century Hungarian novel-writing, which was still dominated by realism and by psychology, even if more and more often questioned. While using a narrative structure for the novel was central for the young Szentkuthy, its dominance seemed to be somewhat dated when it came to writing about his experiences and his ideas, not to mention his overflowing erudition of story-telling, offering dozens of epical directions, angles, and scenarios, all leading to the same conclusion simultaneously. The complexity of the composition together with doubts about the linear and causal logic of narration, the questioning of the exclusive role of psychology, culminated in Szentkuthy’s radical renewal of the epic form, as expressed masterfully in his first break-through novel, Prae. The landmark book, published in 1934 (at the author’s own expense, or rather at his father’s) was preceded by shorter and less ambitious works of the adolescent writer (published mainly posthumously). These texts already revealed the author’s originality and his artistic power, together with the search for a method of writing which, in its extensity and dynamism recalled a historical type of identification, expressed in the title of the novel written when Szentkuthy was a teenager, Robert the Baroque. The time of his shaken and then renewed Catholic faith, the recreated totality of the world in the Baroque “passion”, with the universe permanently in motion described by overflowing metaphors, adjectives, events, and references remained characteristic of Szentkuthy’s prose in the decades to come.
Prae was incomparable, unparalleled, and unprecedented in Hungarian literature, and probably beyond. The inspiration for writing the novel came on a trip the Pfisterers, Sr. and Jr., took together in 1928 and had a fundamental impact on the author’s imagination, creativity, and writing method for years to come. Prae took the form of a monologue mainly, in thousands of pages, playing with voices, times, characters, identities, and events, enough for dozens of novels, in a text flowing without any interruption (avoiding any typographical or “formal” structure as well), reshaping the form and the very meaning of the novel for the 20th century. European culture and history was infiltrated through the mind of a highly cultured and visionary youth, applying masks as characters and as incognitos, focusing on the dual character of mind and body, of soul and flesh, of desire and fulfillment. The novel served also as an immense “inventory” of the intellectual sensitivity of the young Szentkuthy, filtered through an extensive knowledge obtained by every possible book he could lay his hands on and through the no less enormous amount of sensual experiences he had had by that time. The novel has no traditional narration, no psychologically motivated characters, and applies the most incredible settings, which seemed to be “monstrous” to some of the critics and to many readers as well, challenging the dogmas and conventions of prose-writing, creating a new “canon” for himself. Even if the book did not sell and remained unread for years to come, few contemporaries of the author revealed the new horizons that were opened up for the epic forms after the era of realism. Prae was a contemporary of Musil’s The Man without Qualities, not much “younger” than Joyce’s Ulysses (to be translated later by Szentkuthy himself), and it came on the heels of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time published less than two decades before. The Hungarian author could have been inspired by the renewal of the novel as demonstrated by his European contemporaries, yet his version of redefining epics, prose, and narration was different from the aforementioned writers. Easy to read and yet profound in its conclusions, Prae overflows with stories, ideas, and dialogues yet is strictly and masterfully composed, playing with the different layers of history, art, and culture, just as with various traditions of literature — despite appearing chaotic, it remains homogeneous as an entity. It is an early chef d’oeuvre while being “only” a draft for the “real” novel to be written afterwards – as indicated by the title Prae.
It is part of the ill fate of Hungarian literature rooted in the artistic and intellectual traditions of Central Europe that Szentkuthy’s novel remained substantially unabsorbed in its time, unappreciated, and sometimes ridiculed,  even if the best minds and the most sophisticated literary critics understood the magnitude of the undertaking and the importance of the originality of the novel. The lack of substantial coming to terms with Prae has a lot to do with the Magyar difficulties of collective identification, with the problems of national and literary self-consciousness, with the hopeless making up for lost historical time — and with many more factors that determined the fate of the novel and of its author in a country where literature was considered more than just one form of art. Szentkuthy fully understood the ambiguous critical responses, together with the basic indifference of the intellectuals, which was often emphasized by the sharp and often vitriolic criticism of colleagues, and even of friends. He had to realize that the traditions of the novel in Hungary would strongly resist his efforts to change the genre, that his renewal of the language, his method of composition, and the whole idea of the novel as redefined by him became more of an isolated episode than a new trend that others would observe and perhaps follow. It must have been a bitter pill to swallow, particularly for an ambitious and talented youngster who had sacrificed so much of his time and energy for the enormous undertaking. When Prae was published for the second time, nearly half a century later and finally appreciated by a larger audience (due in part to slight modification in the book’s composition, creating typographical metamorphoses in the text for easing its reception), it was already too late, both for the author and for the public, even if modern and postmodern novels were modeled on the “monstrous” masterpiece and were inspired both by the creation of Prae and by the understanding of its historic “failure”.
The promised and proposed future that was pr(a)e-pared by the young author had to take a different direction then, so in subsequent years Szentkuthy broke up his imagined greater composition of a novel into smaller pieces, as if to offer the audience, in a piecemeal fashion, the work that was too much to stomach in one go. The series of novels were composed as chapters for a larger body of text to be written consecutively, however obviously differing in their contextual meaning, as the larger opus was based on smaller segments created as autonomous entities. The vision of the author, together with his belief in the larger epic forms, took the shape of a Breviary belonging to the legendary St. Orpheus, unknown to the Catholic tradition yet clearly and exactly referring to the recreated identity of the author. Work on this project was interrupted for decades and was only completed by the older Szentkuthy.
The inspiration for writing The Breviary of St. Orpheus arrived again when travelling yet, strangely enough, it came from the direction of music and the visual arts, proving the complex and thorough sensitivity of the writer. It happened during a trip to Italy when Szentkuthy suddenly understood Greco’s technique of painting and his method of “compressing” visions, ideas, and narrative structure into one image, while the religious crisis expressed in the pictures culminated also in breaking with the conventions of his artistic contemporaries. The title was borrowed from Monteverdi’s Orfeo, for the composer was a hero of Szentkuthy’s novel and his famous musical piece was masterfully described in it. The protagonist Orpheus, the mythical poet and symbol of love and lyrics, did and could communicate with the whole world around him for he was both human and superhuman; he could even communicate with plants and animals, was loved by the gods, and could finally defeat death. The symbol of the artist later became a metaphorical image for Christ himself, as someone entering the underworld and returning from it, representing the “Good Pastor”, bringing His divine word as songs to this world. The beginning of the author’s name is identical with that of the title (Szentkuty: Szent Orfeusz) and indicates the autobiographical inspiration of the novel, the shaping and modifying this self-portrait, expressing also how the young writer was facing crucial issues of his life and of his time. However, both the composition and the poetic and rhetorical patterns were somewhat “domesticated” in this text as compared with Prae, for each segment included narrative histories and thoroughly described conflicts of different characters, building more upon the traditions of novel-writing than before. Episodes were unfolding based on a narrative structure, even if often on symbolic ones representing great saints and sinners, like the story of Casanova and of 17th- 18th-century Venice. The hagiography of different popes, the emphatic description of heretics and of inquisitors, determined the horizon of the novel, which was set mainly but not exclusively in history, seen from the contemporary world, and the author regularly and willfully (yet somewhat anachronistically) recalled many requisites and approaches of modern civilization.
History was not “only” the setting but also the context of the creation of the novel, and political events would soon interrupt Szentkuthy’s ambitious and outstanding undertaking for no less than 30 years. The flow of the segments of the projected novel first stops temporarily in 1942, then is postponed again and again, not to be continued until 1972. It is hard to imagine more active and more productive years for a writer than those of the three decades spent without the writing of the imagined opus magnum, which, however, he always kept in mind. The fatal interruption did not mean silence in any sense, “only” the suspension of the Breviary and a preference for different forms, as dictated by time and conditions. Szentkuthy started to write shorter epic pieces and composed studies and essays; later, translations were included in his oeuvre and when novels finally started to emerge again, they were more official commissions than self-conceived works. As is obvious from the years mentioned (1942-1972), history played the lead in determining the very conditions of writing, and sometimes even those of surviving. First Hungary’s pre-fascist cultural and spiritual context created unfavorable conditions for the young and radical writer who was even sued by the state prosecutor for defamation of religion and for pornography. Later the approaching war became devastating and hard to survive, while the Soviet liberation was utterly revealing and hardly less dangerous than the German occupationother. After some hopeful and productive years (1945-1948), the Stalinist dictatorship created unfavorable conditions for Szentkuthy, as the official cultural policy rejected the Weltanschauung and the style of the religious and bourgeois writer,  as a result of which his works were banned. When in 1949 the book Europa Minor was published, Szentkuthy clearly referred to a new stage in history that brought the openness of a cultural tradition to a bitter end. Szentkuthy’s character helped him not only to survive the most tormenting times but to keep his integrity, his intellect, his morality, and his sense of humor, not being tempted by any of the totalitarianisms or intoxicated by their ideologies, nor destroyed by them. He hardly touched directly upon current historical or political issues, but indirectly dealt with them in a critical fashion — an oblique reading of his novels reveals his ideas, experiences, and fears of the 20th century, with a great amount of criticism in an indirect manner and in a context that included metaphysics, theology, and the philosophy of history.
Besides his intellect and his character, an emotional shelter was also needed to survive the difficult years, and it was provided by his life-long love turned into a marriage at quite an early age. However, this bond “arranged in Heaven” did not exclude his constant need for new, inspiring, and controversial adventures on Earth, ranging from wonderful conquests  to the most vulgar services of prostitutes. It was a way of compensating for a fatally broken self-esteem – “another flower to the grave of the cross-eyed kid” as he reminisced about his many successful affairs once  –  yet there was the overwhelming drive  to both break the commandments as often as possible in order to repent and, thereby, to fight against the anti-sensual legacy of the beloved and betrayed Mother, defeating her maniacal shyness and chastity.

Miklós Szentkuthy, age 26, photographed in 1934, the year of the first publication of 'Prae'. Photo with kind permission of the Fondation Miklós Szentkuthy (c).
It is hard to know who was the real Szentkuthy: the devoted husband or the insatiable seducer. Probably both. The mask in general is an important part of the identity of the personality; paradoxically it may be even a synonym for it as the use of the borrowed “face” tells more of the person applying it than the features he is born with. The experience with identities was regularly developed into novels applying different protagonists, characters, and roles, yet Szentkuthy had to realize in the years to come that daily life must also be lived in different masks. A mask was needed to hide those features of his very self that were rejected by the more and more intolerant authorities that directly and indirectly attempted and partly infiltrated his life and even his works. However, with Szentkuthy’s intellect and unlimited free spirit, the attempts to control him regularly failed as he was happily using different incognitos and roles, while keeping deeply hidden what was behind the masks. These secrets were carefully registered and kept in a “giant-diary” as he liked to call it, hundreds of thousands of pages of the most authentic chronicle from his early age until almost to his death. It included significant entries for each day, obviously touching upon the most personal and the most abstract issues, being both extremely vulgar and extremely subtle, as well as ideas and recollections of people and events he came across, likely matching the same high artistic level and aesthetic quality as the rest of his work. Even if it will not be revealed still for many years to come, it is an important part, if not the most important one of the author’s oeuvre. Szentkuthy suggested in an interview that his whole oeuvre could be defined, described, and interpreted as a “giant-diary”, modeled on the textual corpus of Saint-Simon and of Montaigne. Stories, novels, studies, essays, etc. may turn out to have a wholly different meaning once read in the  larger context. It is easy to imagine then that once the diaries will be opened – this will occur for the first time in 2013 – readers will have to reinterpret all of Szentkuthy’s writings in a radically new way. Surprises, and even revelations, of literary history are to be expected in the years to come.
The diary’s ultimate frankness and uncontrolled sincerity probably assisted Szentkuthy greatly in accepting the sometimes strange roles he was offered, as he could be sure that his integrity remained untouched due to the psychological process of writing the diary day to day (recalling also the situation of confession). This helped him maintain his ardent belief that once new generations would come they would be able to reveal and to wholly understand what happened to him and to his writings. His focus on the next generations could well have been the conclusion of his praxis and devotion as a teacher, both a mask to wear for leading a “bourgeois” life (once he could not live from his writings), and also a happily accepted duty he spent many years of his life with. “Fityó”, as he was nicknamed by his students (importantly enough making fun of his family name Pfisterer [pronounced Fisterer] and not on the writer’s chosen identity), was a legendary teacher, a charismatic personality and an often capricious man to work with, a “larger than life” figure not only in virtue of his tall figure, but more importantly, in virtue of his enormous intellectual capacity and rhetorical skills, which seemed to be wasted on a world of undisciplined adolescents. Yet he could, on occasion, save important moments to be able to write, which might happen in a pub close to the school, in his studio, or in the lovers’ rescues.
Many years later Szentkuthy characterized his literary output of the difficult post-war years as a “self-portrait in masks” and a paradoxical way of expressing the unchangeable features of the personality in the process of permanent metamorphoses. Though the definition refers to novels written in a different tone from his early masterpiece, the created identities clearly reflect his outlook. Szentkuthy’s “voice” can also be clearly identified in those literary works he was translating, partly as a way of making a living and also of being present in the literary life, through masterpieces that were also windows to a continent that was not always “closed off”. Swift, Dickens, Twain, Joyce, and many other – mainly Anglo-Saxon – authors were interpreted by Szentkuthy in those years when his own works were not allowed into print. Translation however was never an “applied art” for him, but another creative way of playing with identities. The challenges for the translator were often enormous, like in translating Ulysses many years later, which practically became a form of co-authorship with the great Irish writer, whose novel was obviously untranslatable word by word. Thus, an emphatic and creative re-writing was needed to give back to Hungarian the sense of the radically new prose born close to Szentkuthy’s early masterpiece.
 Yet there is another mask that changed and influenced the writer’s and translator’s creativity: that of the essays and studies, sometimes inseparable from the fiction-writer’s work and often reflecting the translator’s challenges. Szentkuthy sometimes experimented with different ideas; in other cases he was commenting on and analyzing works of art, whether they be visual, musical, or literary. Starting already at a young age (for example composing an original and thought-provoking thesis on Ben Johnson after graduation), Szentkuthy wrote landmark studies throughout his life, dealing with contemporary issues “masked” as works of art, with trends and traditions to come to terms with, being very concrete and yet framing the argumentation by philosophy, theology, and/or the social sciences. Szentkuthy’s remarkable intellectual capacity, together with the drive to read as much as possible of contemporary literature, of art, of history, of philosophy, of theology and of different sciences resulted in a series of masterfully composed and passionately written theoretical treatises. All these reflect the style and eloquence of a writer, yet with the metaphysical depth of a great thinker. Accidental ideas and editorial assignments together with research conducted and summarized for his novels revealed the intellectual capacity of a writer, in the archaic sense of the word, for whom a real Catalogus rerum was the focus, behind the varying phenomena of existence.
Facing all challenges and temptations of his time, the writer’s drive was the strongest in Szentkuthy’s life, as the short segments that have since become available from the “giant-diary” suggest. His whole life was serving “only” the writer’s needs and passions, while experiences and influences supported “only” the forming of the artist’s identity. The hundreds of thousands of pages may reveal that the entire chronicle of a long and rich life was nothing else but raw material for the author. This became visible when the historical pressure somewhat eased following the 1956 revolution, when finally Stalinism was over and over time the terror became somewhat milder. At least one of the masks could have been removed then, so professor “Fityó” could ask for retirement. At the age of 50, while still full of energy and of accumulated strength to continue his authorship, Szentkuthy could finally dedicate all his capacity and time to further develop and to conclude all that he had started 25 years ago, hoping with good reasons that the different detours and literary role-playings might serve the author in him. The time hadn’t arrived yet to further compose the interrupted Breviary; however, in various ways the novels started to flow again. These books were auto-portraits also, in the forms of masks that finally could be published by the state-controlled publishing houses and thus it was possible to have some critical reactions and readers’ responses, which were important even for the most self-assured writer. The gigantic figures Szentkuthy would use as a template for his masks were mainly artists like Dürer, Haydn, Mozart, Goethe, Händel, and that turbulent ex-monk of the order of St. Augustine, Martin Luther. while popular and easy to read, these texts contained many elements of the artistic achievements of Szentkuthy’s novels produced by that time, all of which took the form of the so-called “artist biography”, and also paved the way for the genius’ final masterpieces, which concluded his authorship in the 1970s.
When the author was well over sixty, the artistic tolerance that partially characterized Hungary’s “soft dictatorship” opened the way for Szentkuthy not only to rejuvenate his creativity, but finally to throw away the masks he was forced to wear. While there remained enough of what he willfully created, the literary tradition he once established also became visible through a new generation of writers who were indirectly influenced by him through his Hungarian translations and publications of novels that broke with the novel-writing traditions the same way he had many years ago. Time thus “opened up” and the young Szentkuthy’s works were published, read, and discussed together with the texts of the old one, who could finally turn back to his most important and most ambitious project, the Breviary of St. Orpheus, no longer with any restrictions, and with no concerns blocking his inspiration or the very process of creation. His imagination, his sense of composition, the expressivity of his language and immense erudition remained the same as before, as it became obvious when one novel after the other was written, presenting the author’s all-encompassing vision of the world as he had found it and as he left it. Virtuosity and discipline, incorporation of contemporary novel-writing techniques and the polemical relationship with the conventions of prose shaped the masterfully written books that finally found their way to timely publication and provoked vivid and appreciative responses from readers, critics, and colleagues.
The time of “harvesting” thus overlapped with the rediscovery of the early phase of Szentkuthy’s authorship in which the “torso” of the greatest Hungarian modern novel – Prae – reemerged from the depths of the literary-historical memory and confronted the representatives of the renewal of novel-writing traditions with a glimpse of the opportunities that had been missed in Hungarian literature many decades ago. This was also the time when Szentkuthy’s presence and authority was of major importance for literary historians, writers, and intellectuals, thus interviews and radio and television programs regularly featured him, often  themselves resulting in books — since the author’s eloquence resulted in texts that were, though improvised, nonetheless ready to go to print. The later series of his books, when viewed as part of the collected works, clearly showed the magnitude of Szentkuthy’s oeuvre. At the same time, it shows the enormous potential which had emerged in Prae, yet which was not further developed the way it could have been.
However this may not be the last word. Szentkuthy’s masks will not be wholly removed until the giant diary is opened this year and we are confronted with the personality’s naked face. Or, we may be involved in another masquerade – could it be an eternal one in which life and death no longer matter, and to which Szentkuthy invites us along as participants?

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