Yesterday we took a tram to the south of the city to the IXth District. It’s the most run-down area we’ve visited and a shock after the picturesque tram-ride along the Danube. It was a blazing hot day and we were glad to find the museum after only ten minutes walking. The opening hours are long and articles I read about visitors in the days before it was refurbished and made more interactive and informative told me that it was well attended. Yet the door was locked and there seemed to be no way in. I looked up the telephone number and the curator, while assuring me that she understood even though she couldn’t speak much English, clearly didn’t get that we were on the pavement outside. I tried explaining using words of Hungarian from the notice-board outside (which was in English and Hungarian) and she so wanted to help, but we weren’t making progress until I realised that one of the other notices, written only in Hungarian, must contain the intercom code. I rang that and she politely asked if I could hold the phone while she answered the intercom. It was a huge relief to both of us when she understood it was me on both lines and we were let in.
We weren’t charged the entrance fee and had the museum to ourselves for nearly two hours. Before 2015 the museum was basic, with a few pictures and artefacts in the two rooms that had once been the apartment where Attila József was born into an impoverished family. Having been able to sometimes live from his writing during his lifetime and achieving some important critical acclaim, József went on to be recognised as a major voice of the twentieth century after his death and not only did academics and fans visit the museum in the early twenty-first century, but people also regularly left wreaths of flowers at its door to commemorate this extraordinary man who took his own life at the age of 32.
In 2015 there was a significant investment in the museum and the photos and artefacts were matched with audio guides – the one in English was extensive and superbly done – a mixture of biography (told first person) and poetry with details I hadn’t previously found in any of the English language accounts I’d researched. There are first edition copies of his collections, the pencil he wrote with, notebooks, letters, a copy of his birth certificate and an extraordinary interactive digital screen shaped like the base of a felled tree, marked with tree-style life rings, each one with points that could be touched to flash up life events on the screen. One screen also made a ring of women’s pictures – the important women in József’s largely unrequited and always difficult love life.
The curator was endlessly helpful and clearly delighted to have visitors. All this investment and care and no-one there. It made us think seriously about how poetry can so easily become distanced from people’s lives, even poetry that is integrally linked with lives of struggle.
Today I’ve used the notes from the visit to rework one of the early chapters – an excerpt from which is given below. Attila could fall in love in minutes and does so with my character, Selene, who never appears in the histories or photographs as she is not from the same time as Attila, and perhaps is imagining her relationship with him during the trauma of her imprisonment after the 1956 Uprising. Or perhaps not? Either way, she fits the pattern …
Catherine sets out with a map marked with sites. She will start at the little apartment on Gát útca 3, where József was born. She heads towards the river to the tram stop near the parliament buildings, diverts to say good morning to József’s statue, solid and sad. She notices how she is constantly comparing this unfamiliar, melancholy city to Paris, but there too poets have ended their own lives. Margit has told her it’s too far to walk to Gát útca, more than an hour across the city, and too cold to walk so far in November. Even for the short walk to the tram Margit has told her to make sure she has layers of clothing beneath her wool coat. She has put her cashmere jumper over a vest and long-sleeved shirt, but pulls open the coat as she walks. The air has no bite and there is only a gentle breeze. Despite the clouds, it feels almost spring-like. The yellow tram takes her along the riverfront, past the beautiful Erzsébet Bridge and later under the Szabadság bridge, traffic rumbling overhead, the Corvinus University on her left before the cityscape changes to riverside warehouses. It’s a ten minute walk from the stop on Haller utca to Gát útca in District IX, where József was born. With each turn the next street is more dowdy and tired. Lenhossek utca is strewn with litter, the windows of apartments covered in chipboard beneath broken glass , the facades of buildings crumbling. She feels uneasy and conspicuous, wonders how run-down it must have been when József was born here, in poverty, in 1905. She turns left onto Gát útca and the location is signalled by a wall plaque beside which are bunches of flowers and wreaths, as though someone had recently died here. The inscription proclaims, in socialist-realist style, that József was the ‘great poet of the Hungarian proletariat’. Catherine smiles, thinking of József expelled from the Communist Party for his liberal views, but he was certainly from an impoverished home. She rings the intercom next to the green door.
Ah, Catherine? the curator asks. I am with you.
Márta Tákacs appears moments later and Catherine holds out her hand to shake. They walk through a small courtyard and into the ground floor two-roomed apartment, Marta tall and elegant, her fair hair held behind a blue band that matches her eyes.
People come from everywhere, Márta says as they enter.
The walls are covered in black and white photographs. Catherine notes the picture of József’s father in military uniform that she has a copy of and one of his mother that she has not seen previously. Borbála is young and pretty, with soft features. Another image shows a house further along the street where the family lived when József was a toddler – It says: Papa disappeared from this flat, Márta says, translating legend.
By the door a map shows another nineteen apartments that the family lived in after Attila ran back to his mother from the foster family at Öcsöd, who set him to work as a five-year-old swineherd.
They were constantly thrown out for not being able to pay the rent, Márta tells her. Attila was lucky that later his brother-in-law paid for his education so he didn’t have to go on sell newspapers for a living. In his childhood, he’d already known work – collecting coal, selling paper whirligigs that he made from scraps to better-off children. In the war he’d queue all night to buy food for the family, only to find that the cooking lard had run out and there was nothing to be had by eight in the morning. He was only fourteen when his mother died and Makai sent him to the Makó boarding school. They tried to send him to a seminary too, but he left after a week, telling them he was Orthodox, not Catholic. He got good grades at school, but he was already suffering with depression and tried to kill himself when he was only sixteen. I will leave you to look, she says finally, but I’m in the next room if you have questions.
There are copies of József’s poetry collections on a small table, beginning with Szépség koldusa, Beauty’s Beggar, written when he was seventeen. Catherine lingers over each picture, each book, but feels no sense of Attila in the rooms.
After a while Márta reappears with a set of pictures. These were his women, she says. This one was the daughter of the director of his boarding school – Márta Gebe. He was very young, but she inspired several poems. Then Maria Esprit, this time his landlord’s daughter. And this one is most interesting.
The black and white picture is of a beautiful girl, aquiline features, large eyes, her close-cut bobbed hair under a fashionable cap.
Luca Wallennsz was the daughter of Gitta Genes, a very fine artist and ceramicist. There are beautiful works in the National Gallery. Her husband wrote novels and poetry. Very refined Jewish family. They gave salons and many famous names were there, but Gitta met Attila first in the park. He sat next to her on a bench and declared his love five minutes later. He was only nineteen and she was a mature woman, beautiful, but thirty-six. They became close – not what we would call an affair, but a relationship still. He wrote poems for her, of course, like ‘It was summertime’ and then her daughter, Luca, became interested in the salons and Attila fell in love once more. He wrote her many excellent poems, mostly in ’28. Very beautiful – ‘I bless you with sadness and happiness’ is best known of them, set to music often.
He fell in love often, Catherine notes.
Indeed. And he loved Gitta and Luca at the same time too.
Ah, Catherine says, thinking of Attila loving Flóra and Selene simultaneously.
You will know this one, of course.
Catherine holds the picture of Márta Vágó. Yes. The first serious love of his life, perhaps.
Márta nods. They wrote every day when she first went to London, but the distance was too much to sustain. I think that’s what her parents hoped for. They were wealthy intelligentsia, he was the son of a soap factory worker and a peasant, after all. Márta pauses. And this one –
She hands Catherine an image of Judit Szánto.
I always think the most sad, Márta finishes. She lived with him six years, tried to make a place of security for him. He was very broken after the relationship with Márta Vágó ended. But he said it was ‘not love, but an alliance’. Particularly harsh from a man who loved easily. He wrote one poem, ‘Judit’ and a few scraps that never became poems, that was all. While he was with Judit he met Edit.
Márta hands her the photograph of Edit Gyömrői. She was his doctor and he became … she searches for the word … fixated on her so that another doctor, Robert Bak, had to take over.
And then one day he saw this girl, Márta Márton –
Catherine studies the beautiful young face.
He didn’t know her. He saw her and decided he was in love. He wrote the poem ‘Ode’ for her, an exquisite love poem, and when Judit realised that she was not the muse of this poem, she tried to kill herself. They’d already tried to part earlier, but broke apart after this.
And finally –
The last picture is of Flóra Kozmutza. No picture of Selene, Catherine thinks.
They met at Anna Daniels apartment in February ’37 and were engaged by April, but it was never to be of course.
Catherine nods. Thank you. They’re all so beautiful.
Yes, lovely and sad, Márta adds.