Saying Au Revoir to Attila József

attila.jpeg

picture by Adam Craig

Part 3 on Writing a novel trilogy

While writing and researching in Budapest last year, we ate a couple of times at a local restaurant that takes enormous pride in its food and service (Kispiac) and went there for our last evening meal before leaving Budapest.

The owner asked us about our time in Budapest and whether we’d like to return. Before we left, he came out with a bottle of Hungarian sparkling tokaji as a going away gift. Whilst Hungarians are rarely effusive, we found them helpful and generous — I can’t imagine that kind of gesture from a London restaurant after a couple of visits.

Budapest is an extraordinary place — there’s a quiet kindness in so many people — unshowy, but vital. There’s also deep melancholy — a history replete with suffering and ongoing political corruption and extremism.

picture by Adam Craig

It’s a place where beautiful Art Nouveau buildings are sometimes fading and uncared for. There are architectural gems are so in need of restoration that chunks of masonry fall into the street (we saw two passers-by almost felled by falling stone). And yet there’s also pride in good service and good food, in art and architecture, in being humane.

When I arrived, one of the themes in my novel was the debate over whether Attila József committed suicide or died in a tragic accident. The preponderance of opinion has always been that his death was by suicide, but I wanted to leave the question open, to stay with the ambiguity.

A conversation with László Kúnos of Corvina Press convinced me otherwise. Sad as it is to believe that this exceptional man chose to kill himself, the more I read the poetry and biographies, the more I realised that there is an internal logic to the life and death.

This is a scene when I’ve explored this in the novel:

She walks back slowly. She will go to the place where he wrote when editing the magazine, Beautiful Word, another day, but the statue on the Danube near the Parliament building is only a short detour on the route to her apartment.

József sits, coat thrown down beside him, hat in his hand, watching the river, the epitome of contemplation and lament. He looks as though he’d spent the day walking across this city searching for something, Catherine thinks. The lines from ‘By the Danube’ are in a facsimile of József’s handwriting: Mintha szivembôl folyt volna tova Zavaros, bölcs és nagy volt a Duna — As if it flowed straight from my heart / Troubled, wise and great was the Danube.

How was it that Székely translated those lines? Catherine asks the statue.

As if my own heart had opened its gate:

The Danube was turbulent, wise and great.

She thinks of the conversation with Margit and András, how a thing mutates between languages, but even in one language how every action, every nuance is open to interpretation.

Catherine sits on the bottom step beneath Attila, looking towards the Danube with him. When she begins to feel stiff and colder she walks towards the figure, touches his hand.

There is such melancholy here, she tells him. Suicide seems to be everywhere, your language is unlike any neighbouring country’s, your borders have changed, to say there has been one too many invasion is an understatement and even your national anthem talks of pity and sorrow. So much sadness and I have endless questions for you that you can’t answer. Did you kill yourself? I’m minded to agree with Margit and András that you did. Why didn’t you take another route? And the strangest question of all — Did you know a woman called Selene Solweig Virág?

I hope you will read on over on Medium. Thank you!

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