János Pilinszky - one of the great European poets of an extraordinary generation: that of Celan, Herbert and Bonnefoy. Like them he grew up to a world physically and morally devastated by the Second World War and the Holocaust
János Pilinszky, Passio: Fourteen Poems, Trans. by Clive Wilmer and George Gömöri. Worple Press, 2011.
János Pilinszky is one of the great European poets of an extraordinary generation: that of Paul Celan, Zbigniew Herbert and Yves Bonnefoy. Like them he grew up to a world physically and morally devastated by the Second World War and the Holocaust.
Ted Hughes and János Csokits translated Pilinszky’s work. Hughes described his achievements and stature thus: “His ‘greatness’… is not a greatness of imaginative and linguistic abundance. It has more to do with some form of spiritual distinction. The weight and unusual temper of his imagination and language derive from this.”
Translator George Gömöri writes:
“Pilinszky’s colleague, Ágnes Nemes Nagy wrote somewhere that Pilinszky was as rare as a white antelope. He was an extraordinary phenomenon even among poets. And although there are some people who appreciate his poems written after 1970 in free verse, today it is practically undebatable that Pilinszky’s greatness as a poet is most resplendent in poems inspired by his experiences in the Germany of 1944-45. A poet who had almost exclusively ruminated over his own moral problems… became a poet who speaks to everyone—a witness and bard of perhaps the greatest scandal of the century, the inhumanity of Hitler’s dictatorship and of the bloody collapse of the Third Reich. His visionary poems, pervaded by a profound Christian compassion, like 'Harbach 1944' or 'A French Prisoner', to mention only two of the poems translated by us now into English, will definitely prove enduring. This Pilinszky speaks not only to Hungarians. Our Cambridge audience was moved by the poems of a Hungarian poet; I even read some of them in the poet’s mother tongue.”
“Wilmer’s ambitious versions achieve an abrupt starkness, signalling Pilinszky’s naked vulnerability, the existentialist horror of livIng through war. Formally there is an immediacy, a daring bleakness…Wilmer and Gomori have conveyed Pilinszky as a poet who inhabits suffering deftly, a suffering that cannot be contained even within formal and highly wrought structures but it is accentuated by them.”
Saradha Soobrayen, Modern Poetry in Translation 2012
I can no longer bear to be alone.
“Clive Wilmer and George Gömöri’s translations of János Pilinszky’s Passio: Fourteen Poems, is another collection that is heavily influenced by the European war experience. János Pilinszky (1921-1981) is part of that generation of Paul Celan, Zbigniew Herbert, and Yves Bonnefoy who experienced both The Second World War and The Holocaust. He is a Hungarian poet and translator who was conscripted into the Hungarian army and spent the last part of the war in Southern Germany. Most of these poems are from his second book Harmadnapon (On theThird Day) (1959) which contains his war poetry, the poems for which he is most renowned. Clive Wilmer’s introductory comments on Pilinszky are insightful:
…of someone for who the mere possibility of suffering is intolerable,
whose nerves are on the surface of the skin. There is something naked
and innocent in the language, as if he could not forget his surprise at
the horrors of existence. The vulnerability… and enduring shock of a
remembered historical moment chime with the sense of ‘given-ness’ in
Existentialist thought – as if the poet had been dropped into the world
and was startled by what he found there.
Wilmer goes on to note that his work is reminiscent of Giacommeti and Beckett, but that his key influences are the work of Simone Weil, Dostoevesky and Van Gogh. He also tracks Pilinszky’s translation history. Here he notes that his and Gömöri’s translations are a corrective to the early high profile translations by Ted Hughes and János Csokits which, though worthy translations, he feels downplay the religious tone in some of the lines.
These war poems reflect both the memories and isolation that the writer has been unable to rid himself of since the war. He describes how he has been permanently changed in the opening poem ‘On a Forbidden Star. Note the unobtrusive rhyming of the translation and the beautiful clarity of the plain diction:
…look on me as the dead
look on the night, seeing it as their own,your shoulder there to aid my weaker one.
I can no longer bear to be alone.
I never wanted to be born. It was nothingness
Who bore and suckled me; with her I started.
So love me darkly. Love me cruelly. Love me
like the one left behind by the departed.’ (‘On a Forbidden Star’)
From here we have poem after poem to describe vivid, horrific memories. For example, there is the immediacy in the concrete detail in ‘Harbach 1944’ where he describes soldiers harnessed to a cart still sharp in his memory – as he tells us, ‘I keep on seeing them’:
They bear the road, the horizon,
the beet fields shivering,
but only feel the burdening land,
the weight of everything.
Silence accepts their frames. Each fate
is dipped in height, as if
straining for the scent of troughs
in the sky far off.
And like a cattle-yard prepared
for the herded beasts outside –
its gates flung open violently –
death, for them, gapes wide.
The poem interweaves the awful physical war setting with more absolute suggestions of the after-life that is to be the inevitable fate of the soldiers. This merging can be seen particularly in the powerful comparison of the cosmos with a cattle-yard for herding beasts. He continues in the next poem with an unbearable memory of a starving French prisoner again still clear as yesterday: ‘Now he, who would have been contented once / with any kind of food, demands my heart.’(‘The French Prisoner’) Combined with the intensity of such images there is also subtlety, taking the poems beyond mere description along with a number of poems rich in religious imagery. Take this description of the collapse of an inmate of the woman’s concentration camp at Ravensbrück north of Berlin – note how he lifts the power of the last two lines of the first verse, suggesting both physical and mental size:
Fearful to be a self alone:
the pores are visible, and everything around so huge
and everything so small.
And that was it. As for the rest –
for the rest, without a sound,
simply forgetting to cry out,
the body hit the ground.
There is so much thought in these lines. There is the absolute nature of finally giving up in ‘And that was it’ and the total sense of disinterest in life in that ‘forgetting to cry out’. Pilinszky is clearly aware of how depth of meaning is most effectively conveyed in the simplest of words.
This is a very small collection, perhaps a little pricey given it only has fourteen poems. This said, each poem is beautifully crafted in these polished translations which do good service to Pilinszky’s harrowing poems.” - Belinda Cooke
HUNGARIANS CONSIDER János Pilinszky to be one of their best living poets. Sándor Weöres, a towering poet, and nobody’s lipserver, calls him ‘our greatest’.
Pilinszky’s special quality is not easy to define. He recognizably belongs to that generation of East European poets which includes Herbert, Holub and Popa, but his differences draw any discussion of him into quite another context. Hungarians tend to set him a little outside their ordinary writers, and his poetry a little outside ordinary poetry. The reason for this is something essential to Pilinszky’s character. Critical judgement cannot rest in the aesthetic excellence of his work: it inevitably ends up arguing the ethical-religious position of Pilinszky himself, not at all a simple one in modern Hungary or anywhere else, but one which his poems and other writings and his life define with such poignancy and authority that it confronts the critic with a problem — a private, existential challenge. His ‘greatness’, then, unlike Weöres’, is not a greatness of imaginative and linguistic abundance. It has more to do with some form of spiritual distinction. The weight and unusual temper of his imagination and language derive from this.
The bulk of his work is quite slight. His forms are traditional — varying only between tightness and looseness. The quality of his actual style is notable: it is simple, unambiguous, direct, but Hungarians agree that it is a marvel of luminosity, unerring balance, sinuous music and intensity — a metal resembling nothing else. Through translation we can only try to imagine that (though working as closely with the originals as I have worked, one soon picks up a very distinct idea of it). But even a rough translation cannot completely blanket Pilinszky’s unique vision of final things, or the urgency and depth and complexity of his poetic temperament.
He was born in Budapest, in 1921. Certain known factors, which have had a vital influence on the mature form of his work, are worth mentioning. Perhaps one of the most decisive has been what might seem the most trivial. His syntax, for all its classical finish, is quite idiosyncratic. This can be felt clearly in a word-for-word crib — though it is less easy to translate further. Something elliptical in the connections, freakishly home-made, abrupt. It would not be going too far to say there is a primitive element in the way it grasps its subject. Yet this peculiarity is deeply part of its most sophisticated effects, and its truth. His own words give the best idea of it:
Should someone ask, what after all is my poetic language, in truth I should have to answer: it is some sort of lack of language, a sort of linguistic poverty. I have learned our mother-tongue from my mother’s elder sister, who met with an accident, was ill, and got barely beyond the stage of childlike stammering. This is not much. No doubt the world has added this and that, completely at random, accidentally, from very different workshops. This I received. And because the nice thing about our mother-tongue is exactly this fact, that we receive it, we do not want to add anything to it. We would feel it detrimental to do so. It would be as if we tried to improve our origin. But in art even such a poor language — and I must say this with the pride of the poor — can be redeemed. In art the deaf can hear, the blind can see, the cripple can walk, each deficiency may become a creative force of high quality. (1)This ‘mother-tongue’ and especially his attitude towards it, as he describes it here, is a revealing clue to Pilinszky’s whole poetic character.
Another pervading factor, which almost every word he writes forces us to take into account, has been his Catholic upbringing and education. His continuing allegiance to certain aspects of Catholicism is evident in small things — his publishing many of his poems in Catholic journals, his joining the staff of the Catholic weekly Új Ember in 1957. The poems demonstrate, however, that his inner relationship to Catholicism is neither simple nor happy. He has been called a Christian poet, even a Catholic poet, and the increasing density of Catholic terminology and imagery in his work provides argument for this. But he rejects those labels absolutely. There is no doubt that he is above all a religious poet. A rather dreadful sun of religious awareness, a midnight sun, hangs over all his responses. But his loyalty to a different order of revelation — which at first seems a directly opposite and contradictory order — comes first.
In 1944 he was called up for Military Service — just in time to be scooped up by the retreating German Army. His last year of the war was spent moving from prison camp to prison camp in Austria and Germany.
Whatever he met in those camps evidently opened the seventh seal for Pilinszky. It was a revelation of the new man: humanity stripped of everything but the biological persistence of cells. After this experience there emerges, at the heart of his poems, a strange creature, ‘a gasping, limbless trunk’, savaged by primal hungers, among the odds and ends of a destroyed culture, waiting to be shot, or beaten to death, or just thrown on a refuse heap — or simply waiting in empty eternity. The shock of this initiation seems to have objectified and confirmed something he had known from childhood: the world of the camps became the world of his deepest, most private, poetic knowledge.
His first collection of poems appeared in 1946. It was a literary event in Hungary. He became leader, with Ágnes Nemes Nagy, of a new school of poets, and co-edited their magazine. Silence soon descended, however, and ten years had to pass before his poems began to emerge again. His second book containing eighteen poems reprinted from his first, and thirty-four new poems came out in 1959. It was acclaimed, at once, as the major achievement of a major writer.
Those comparatively few poems have gradually established his international reputation. It was recognized, from the start, that he spoke from the disaster-centre of the modern world. What was also clear, though, was that his words escaped, only with great effort, from an intensifying, fixed core of silence. That bleak, lonely condemned one, at the heart of his poems, spoke less and less.
The next thirteen years added only sixteen new poems. Then in 1971 and 1974 two new collections, projecting a new line of development from what had seemed impossible to alter, contained ninety-seven fresh pieces. Yet these pieces, if anything, only deepened the fixity and silence. All are short, fragmentary, and some hardly more than a sentence or couplet. The first of these collections was titled Splinters — splinters, that is, from the cross. The title of the second can be translated Denouement. The change, however, was there. The mood and imagery of his earlier work survived through an inner transformation which seemed uncompleted until, in 1975, he published Space and Relationship, a collection of poems interspersed with photographs of the sculptures of Erzsabet Schaár. The urgency and immediacy of his work, in this latest book, suggests a whole new phase in his writing. The possibilities of development suddenly seem wide open, and we can be sure that with a poet who has hung on to such a course with such tenacity, they will not be neglected.
‘I would like to write’, Pilinszky has said, ‘as if I had remained silent.’ He is not alone among modern poets, particularly those of his generation and experience, in his obsession with personal silence. As it is used by those Indian saints who refuse to speak at all until the ultimate truth speaks through them, or as Socrates used it before his judges, or as Christ used it before his accusers, silence can be a resonant form of speech. Pilinszky, who is rarely ironic and never messianic, makes us aware of another silence.
It is impossible not to feel that the spirit of his poetry aspires to the most naked and helpless of all confrontations: a Christ-like posture of crucifixion. His silence is the silence of that moment on the cross, after the cry.
In all that he writes, we hear a question: what speech is adequate for this moment, when the iron nails remain fixed in the wounds, with an eternal iron fixity, and neither hands nor feet can move?
The silence of artistic integrity ‘after Auschwitz’ is a real thing. The mass of the human evidence of the camps, and of similar situations since, has screwed up the price of ‘truth’ and ‘reality’ and ‘understanding’ beyond what common words seem able to pay. The European poets who have been formed by this circumstance are well known. They have only continued to write, when at all, with a seasoned despair, a minimal, much-examined hope, a special irony. But because he is as he is, above all a passionately religious being, Pilinszky has shifted the problem into other dimensions — which are more traditional but also, perhaps, broader and older, more intimately relevant, more piercing.
This is not to suggest that his poetry is in its inmost spirit necessarily Christian. The poems are nothing if not part of an appeal to God, but it is a God who seems not to exist, Or who exists, if at all, only as he exists for the stones. Not Godlessness, but the imminence of a God altogether different from what dogmatic Christianity has ever imagined. A God of absences and negative attributes, quite comfortless. A God in whose creation the camps and modern physics are equally at home. But this God has the one almightiness that matters: he is the Truth.
We come to this Truth only on the simplest terms: through what has been suffered, what is being suffered, and the objects that participate in the suffering. The mysterious thing is that in Pilinszky the naked, helpless quality of this truth is fused with the utmost spiritual intensity. The desolation of his vision is equalled by its radiance. The revelation of this particularly bleak God is the flashpoint in all his poems.
In each poem, we find the same diamond centre: the post-apocalyptic silence, where the nail remains in the hand, and the wound cannot speak. The rich scope of Pilinszky’s religious feeling seems concentrated in that. That is his fixity. The only possible directions of movement are away from the nailed wound, or out of the flesh, both of which he reflects. Death has staked its claim in Pilinszky’s universe, and there is nothing life can do about it. Yet out of this one moment, from which theology retreats in confusion this hole of silence, which Christianity has managed to cover only with a loud chord of faith, Pilinszky makes his statement.
In the final biological humiliation and solitude, the poems say, nothing at all can help. Yet we hear so many precious things clamouring in that helplessness. The most harrowing voice of all is sexual love. Almost as frightening is the voice which gropes for just somebody — anybody, in the radiant emptiness. In Pilinszky’s love poems ‘he’ is separated from ‘her’ as the flesh is separated from meaning and hope, and as the spirit is separated from any form of consolation. Yet his horror at the physicality and wretchedness of the trap is without any taint of disgust.
And how is it, we might well ask, that this vision of what is, after all, a universe of death, an immovable, unalterable horror, where trembling creatures still go uselessly through their motions, how is it that it issues in poems so beautiful and satisfying? How do his few poor objects, his gigantic empty vistas, come to be so unforgettably alive and lit? The convict’s scraped skull, the chickens in their wooden cages, the disaster-blanched wall, which recur like features of a prison yard — all have an eerie, glowing depth of perspective, like objects in an early religious painting.
Though the Christian culture has been stripped off so brutally, and the true condition of the animal exposed in its ugliness, and words have lost their meaning — yet out of that rise the poems, whose words are manifestly crammed with meaning. Something has been said which belies neither the reality nor the silence. More than that, the reality has been redeemed. The very symbols of the horror are the very things he has redeemed.
They are not redeemed in any religious sense. They are redeemed, precariously, in some all-too-human sense, somewhere in the pulsing mammalian nervous-system, by a feat of humane consecration: a provisional, last-ditch ‘miracle’ which we recognize, here, as poetic.
By this route, Pilinszky’s poetry proves itself to be almost a religious activity. Once we have said that, though, we realize it is also a by-product. The chief task is something else, an attitude, and more than that a sustained commitment to certain loyalties, which involve Pilinszky’s whole life at every moment. And it is true, his personality and his life are as exemplary, for Hungarians, as his poems: they are a single fabric. This insistence of Pilinszky’s on paying for his words with his whole way of life, has confirmed the authority of his poems. And this is how they come to be an existential challenge to all who are deeply drawn into them.
It is characteristic that his affinities are not with other poets, but with such figures as Van Gogh, certain of Dostoevsky’s characters, and, above all, perhaps with Simone Weil (2). These extreme individuals, the nature of their inner struggles, the temperament verging on the saintly or the suicidal, zigzag like naked lightning through the magnetic atmosphere of Pilinszky’s writings. They personify his most vital element, the electrified steely strength under his passivity and gentleness.
If the right hand of his poetic power is his hard grasp of a revealed truth of our final condition, then his left hand, so much more human and hurt, is his mystically intense feeling for the pathos of the sensual world. ‘Mystical’ is an unsatisfactory word, but one feels the nearness of something like ecstasy, a fever of negated love, a vast inner exposure. The intensity is not forceful or strenuous, in any way. It is rather a stillness of affliction, a passivity of transfiguration. At this point, when all the powers of the soul are focused on what is final, and cannot be altered, even though it is horrible, the anguish is indistinguishable from joy. The moment closest to extinction turns out to be the creative moment. Final reality, a source of extraordinary energy, has been located and embraced. It is like an eclipse of the sun: each image of living death, in all its solid, earthern confinement, has a halo of solar flames.
So we feel, finally, no revulsion. The result is not comforting. But it is healing. Ghastliness and bliss are strangely married. The imagery of the central mysteries of Catholicism and the imagery of the camps have become strangely interdependent. - Ted Hughes
The French Prisoner
If only I could forget that Frenchman.
I saw him, just before dawn, creeping past our quarters
into the dense growth of the back garden
so that he almost merged into the ground.
As I watched he looked back, he peered all round—
At last he had found a safe hideout.
Now his plunder can be all his!
He'll go no further, whatever happens.
Already he is eating, biting into the turnip
which he must have smuggled out under his rags.
He was gulping raw cattle-turnip!
Yet he had hardly swallowed one mouthful
before it flooded back up.
Then the sweet pulp in his mouth mingled
with delight and disgust the same
as the unhappy and happy come together
in their bodies' voracious ecstasy.
Only to forget that body, those quaking shoulder blades,
the hands shrunk to bone,
the bare palm that crammed at his mouth,
and clung there
so that it ate, too.
And the same, desperate and enraged
of the organs embittered against each other
forced to tear from each other
their last bonds of kinship.
The way his clumsy feet had been left out
of the gibbering bestial joy and splayed there,
crushed beneath the rapture and torture of his body.
And his glance—if only I could forget that!
Though he was choking, he kept on
forcing more down his gullet—no matter what—
only to eat—anything—this—that—even himself!
Why go on? Guards came for him.
He had escaped from the nearby prison camp.
And just as I did then, in that garden,
I am strolling here, among garden shadows, at home.
I look into my notes and quote:
'If only I could forget that Frenchman...'
And from my ears, my eyes, my mouth
the scalding memory shouts at me:
'I am hungry!' And suddenly I feel
the eternal hunger
which that poor creature has long ago forgotten
and which no earthly nourishment can lessen.
He lives on me. And more and more hungrily!
And I am less and less sufficient for him.
And now he, who would have eaten anything,
is clamoring for my heart.
Translated from the Hungarian by Ted Hughes
On a Forbidden Star
I was born on a forbidden star. From there
driven ashore, I trudge along the sand.
The surf of celestial nothingness takes me up,
and plays with me, then casts me on the land.
Why I repent I do not even know.
It is a puzzle buzzing in my ear.
If any of you should find me on this beach,
this sunken beach, don’t run away, stay here.
And don’t be scared. Don’t run away. Just try
to mitigate the suffering in my life.
Shut your eyes and press me to yourself.
Press me boldly, as you would a knife.
Be reckless too: look on me as the dead
look on the night, seeing it as their own,
your shoulder there to aid my weaker one.
I can no longer bear to be alone.
I never wanted to be born. It was nothingness
Who bore and suckled me; with her I started.
So love me darkly. Love me cruelly. Love me
like the one left behind by the departed.
On the Wall of a KZ Lager
Where you’ve fallen, you will stay.
In the whole universe this one
and only place is the sole place
which you have made your very own.
The country runs away from you.
House, mill, poplar – every thing
is struggling with you here, as if
in nothingness mutating.
But now it’s you who won’t give up.
Did we fleece you? You’ve grown rich.
Did we blind you? You watch us still.
You bear witness without speech.
I don’t know much about the future, but
I can picture the Last Judgement.
That day, that hour
will be the exaltation of our nakedness.
No one will look for another in the multitude.
The Cross, as if but a splinter,
will be taken back into the Father,
and the angels, creatures of heaven,
will lay open the world’s last page.
And then we’ll say: I love you. We’ll say:
.I love you very much. And in the sudden pushing and shoving
our cries will free the waters once again,
before we sit down at the table.
English version by Clive Wilmer and George Gömöri
János Pilinszky, The Desert of Love: Selected Poems, Trans. by János Csokits, Anvil Press, 1989.
János Pilinszky (1921-1981) was a unique and compelling voice among the generation of European poets whose work bore first-hand witness to the horrors of war. The distinction of his poetry, as Ted Hughes argues, is both spiritual and artistic: `the desolation of [his] vision is equalled by its radiance'. The depth and power of Pilinszky's poetry are forcefully recreated in these memorable versions by János Csokits and Ted Hughes.
`The Desert of Love' is a revised edition of their earlier selection of his magnetic, intense and haunting poems. The added memoir by Pilinszky's close friend and associate Ágnes Nemes Nagy gives a major living Hungarian poet's view of his achievement.
János Pilinszky, Conversations with Sheryl Sutton: The Novel of a Dialogue. Trans. by Peter Jay and Eva Major, Sheep Meadow Press, 1992.
In 1973 Hungarian poet Janos Pilinszky was in Paris. He went to Robert Wilson's production of Deafman Glance. In a cafe he met a black artist from Wilson's company, Sheryl Sutton. They met again, once for several hours' conversation. He described this radiant book as the novel of a dialogue: the framework, details and some of the stories told are fictional, but the essentials are true. Sheryl is his muse as he meditates on the place of imagination in his harsh world (a Roman Catholic under communism). But, the Preface says, 'the book is also, most obviously and profoundly, a love-story', enigmatic, intense, going to the heart of Pilinszky's vision, expressing a 'faith in human life which triumphs over all the horrors'
It is fortunate for readers that this novel, a conversation between a poet and an actress, is just over 100 pages long because repeated readings are necessary to understand it. In traditional fashion, the reader tries to connect chapters into a coherent whole--sometimes unsuccessfully. Some sections are individual essays about art and reality, or about the role of dialog and silence on the stage, or about how art, reality, dialog, and silence relate, especially in Robert Wilson's play, Deafman Glance. Other sections contain ordinary descriptions of everyday activities, although under the surface the hapless reader suspects heavy symbolism that surely connects to other parts of the text, but how and in what ways? And then there is mention of love, Auschwitz, Simone Weil, and Durrenmatt. A curious book, very fascinating and challenging, that is seemingly within our grasp; but the more we deconstruct it, the more insecure we may feel. Suitable for academic and large public libraries. - Olivia Opello
Reviewers, Lord love us, may mismatch our socks and dent our fenders like everyone else, but about books we're supposed to be authorities. You, the readers, want to know two things: What is "Conversations With Sheryl Sutton" about? And is it any good? It's my job to answer those questions and, if possible, give you something extra besides.
Nothing looks worse in a review than a simple confession of ignorance. Yet the truth is: I have only a vague idea of what this experimental novel is about. And it may be good, but how good only a reader a lot more erudite than I (and, let's face it, than most of you too) would be qualified to say.
I could finesse this, of course. Reviewers have ways of disguising their intellectual inadequacy. I could talk about the author, Hungarian poet Janos Pilinszky (1921-81). I could dwell on the social and historical background: He was in prison camps during World War II; later, under Hungary's Communist regime, which banned his poetry for 10 years, he eked out a living as a columnist for Catholic publications. I could talk about the theater: Much of "Conversations" is a treatise on what we now call performance art.
Anything but the book itself.
The neatest trick--in fact, the one I'll use here--is to talk about the book after all, but only about those parts of it I can understand. The idea is that its readership, at best, will be small and select.
Pilinszky's true audience will be smart enough to find it even without the aid of my crude finger-pointing; the rest of you won't be able to call my bluff.
To begin, then: Paris, 1973. A man and a woman.
The man, Pilinszky, is in his 50s and ailing (although the bout of pneumonia he suffers in the novel may be just "a wry acknowledgment of his hypochondria," co-translator Peter Jay says). The woman, Sheryl Sutton, is another real person, an American actress, then 23, appearing in the Robert Wilson play "Deafman Glance," a work that highly impressed Pilinszky.
In life, Pilinszky and Sutton met briefly at a cafe and later talked for several hours. In the novel, they have a number of long, deeply philosophical conversations. Their relationship, although platonic, is intense. Sutton nurses Pilinszky back to health, sometimes sleeping on the floor beside his sickbed. She reads his works, acts out dramatic scenarios that they make up and cooks him his favorite potato goulash.
Do we expect a contrast between the world-weary European and the raw, primitive Yank? Whatever the real Sheryl Sutton may be like, Pilinszky's Sutton is fully his equal in intellect and sophistication.
Their dialogue, set down unadorned as in a play, is so elliptical and poetic that Jay admits: "There are a few passages so baffling that nobody we have turned to has been able to shed light on them."
Pilinszky himself puts it best: This so-called novel is "the only book of essays I am capable of writing."
The subject of those essays--of the conversations--is what possibilities are left for art after the horrors of the 20th Century. The aim, Pilinszky says, is to become a "citizen of the universe," not merely of the world.
"Masterpieces are beyond boredom, not before it," he says. "What now disturbs me in modern literature is that it doesn't dare run the risk of boredom," as Tolstoy's novels and Bach's music did. Sutton finds in Wilson's play and in performance art a path around the conventions of realistic theater to a direct confrontation with reality, the silence and wholeness of Greek tragedy and religious ritual.
This is, finally, a book of wonders. It's a wonder that the chance meeting between Pilinszky and Sutton gave rise to such a singular work. That Jay and Eva Major spent years translating it. That Sheep Meadow-Carcanet published it, with what must have been little hope of commercial gain. In short, that "Conversations," quirky and brave, exists at all--waiting for the right readers to come along. And reviewers be damned. - MICHAEL HARRIS