Tag Archives: Attila József

From literary to historical to …

This is the End of the Story is, amongst other things, a literary novel for Teesside. Cassie and Miriam are immersed in the politics, weather, music and mores of the 70s; the culture and geography of 1970s industrialised Teesside, but they are also Quixotic – Cassie playing Sancho to Miriam; a ‘Quixote’ who pursues truth and justice even when the fight cannot be won, and who insists on the power of perception, imagination and dreams.

There are other literary and artistic influences in this first novel in the trilogy – from Dostoevsky to Madame Bovary; from Elisabeth Bourton de Trevino’s Casilda of the Rising Moon to the Canadian folk music of Gordon Lightfoot. The literary novel is a melting pot of ingredients, and so too is the historical novel, which A Remedy for All Things is, at least in part.

The last month of Attila József’s life is well documented and the ‘forradolam’, the ‘boiling over of the masses’ in the twelve days of uprising in 1956 has inspired many books, both fiction and non-fiction.

So once again there has been lots of research, this time involving not only delving into Cervantes, E.M. Forster and poets like Endre Ady as well as Attila József himself, but also into articles, interviews and works of non-fiction, from Thomas Kabdebo’s Attila József, Can you take on this awesome life? to Victor Sebestyen’s Twelve Days, Revolution 1956. All of the reading has been essential, but unlike 1970s Teesside, Budapest, in any era, was completely outside of my frame of reference.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERATravelling there made a real difference, thanks to a generous grant from ACE, but even that would have been less effective without some key conversations with people who are part of the place. Conversations at the Hungarian House of Photography, and at the Attila József Museum were crucial. Similarly, meeting Lászlo Kunos, Director of Corvina Press, not only gave me a much more nuanced perspective on life in both 1950s and 1990s Budapest (something I wouldn’t have picked up from books or even from visiting merely as a tourist) but also helped me make key decisions about how my character, Catherine, thinks about Attila József’s final days and state of mind. And meeting the novelist and poet, Gábor Schein, again enriched my perspective on this remarkable city, which has been through so much, and yet is a relatively young city, with Pest in particular becoming populace only at the end of the nineteenth century.

There is an element of writing that is essentially solitary, especially working though draft after draft of a novel or sifting through other novels, essay, interviews, non-fiction works and newspaper reports to find exactly the right details. But there is another element that demands not only activity, but immersion. A Remedy for All Things is part literary novel, part historical novel, but above all it is a novel of characters – of people and of a city that lives and breathes and to write it has demanded that I share a tiny bit of that breath.

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Saying Goodbye to Attila József

We’ve eaten 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. Just before we left, he came out with a bottle of Hungarian sparkling tokaji as a going away gift. Whilst Hungarians are reserved, we’ve also 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 here – a history replete with suffering and ongoing political corruption and extremism. It’s a place where beautiful Art Nouveau buildings are sometimes fading and uncared for, where architectural gems are so in need of restoration that chunks of masonry fall into the street (we’ve seen two passers-by nearly felled by stone falling from peeling facades in just a few weeks). And yet there’s also pride in good service and good food, in art and architecture, in just being humane.

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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 initially wanted to leave the question open, to stay with the ambiguity. A conversation with László Kúnos of Corvina Press convinced me otherwise and, sad as it is to finally believe that this exceptional man chose to kill himself, the more I read the poetry and biographies and think about this extraordinary poet, the more I realise 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 DunaAs 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?

After our final dinner at Kispiac, we walked to the Danube, sat by Attila’s statue and read some of his poetry, including ’By the Danube’. I very much hope it’s au revoir, and not goodbye, but until next time in Budapest …

By the Danube

1.

As I sat on the bottom step of the wharf,
A melon-rind flowed by with the current;
Wrapped in my fate I hardly heard the chatter
Of the surface, while the deep was silent.
As if my own heart had opened its gate:
The Danube was turbulent, wise and great.

Like a man’s muscles when hard at his toil,
Hammering, digging, leaning on the spade,
So bulged and relaxed and contracted again
Each single movement, each and every wave.
It rocked me like my mother for a time
And washed and washed the city’s filth and grime.

And the rain began to fall but then it stopped
Just as if it couldn’t have mattered less,
And like one watching the long rain from a cave,
I gazed away into the nothingness.
Like grey, endless rain from the skies overcast,
So fell drably all that was bright: the past.

But the Danube flowed on. And the sprightly waves
In playful gaiety laughed at me again,
Like a child on his prolific mother’s knee,
While other thoughts were racing through her brain.
They trembled in Time’s flow and in its wake,
Like in a graveyard tottering tomb-stones shake.
2.

I am he who for a hundred thousand year
Has gazed on what he now sees the first time.
One brief moment and, fulfilled, all time appears
In a hundred thousand forbears’ eyes and mine.

I see what they could not for their daily toil,
Killing, kissing as duty dictated,
And they, who have descended into matter,
See what I do not, if truth be stated.

We know of each other like sorrow and joy,
Theirs is the present and mine is the past;
We write a poem, they’re holding my pencil
And I feel them and recall them at last.
3.

My mother was Cumanian, my father
Half-Szekler, half-Rumanian or whole.
From my mother’s lips sweet was every morsel,
And from my father’s lips the truth was gold.
When I stir, they are embracing each other;
It makes me sad. This is mortality.
This, too, I am made of. And I hear their words:
“Just wait till we are gone…” they speak to me.

So their words speak to me for now they am I,
Despite my weaknesses this makes me strong.
For I am more than most, back to the first cell
To every ancestor I still belong.
I am the Forbear who split and multiplied,
Shaped my father and mother into whole,
My father and mother then in turn divide
And so I have become one single soul.

I am the world, all that is past exists:
Men are fighting men with renewed anguish.
Dead conquerors ride to victory with me
And I feel the torment of the vanquished.
Árpád and Zalán, Werböczi and Dózsa,
Turks, and Tartars, Slovaks, Rumanians
Fill my heart which owes this past a calm future
As our great debt, today’s Hungarians.

I want to work. For it is battle enough
Having a past such as this to confess.
In the Danube’s waves past, present and future
Are all-embracing in a soft caress.
The great battle which our ancestors once fought
Resolves into peace through the memories,
And to settle at last our communal affairs
Remains our task and none too small it is.

Translated by John Székely

 

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The Objects that Speak of Us

Researching A Remedy for All Things in Budapest, I’ve been aware of how vital artefacts can be in communicating something about a person. The thought struck me sharply on a walk along the Danube, confronted by a simple and heart-breaking installation along the bank — pairs of shoes in memory of the Jewish citizens who were herded to the river in 1944 and 1945, made to take off their shoes by members of the fascist Arrow Cross party, and shot; their bodies washed away by the river while the shoes remained, empty.

Another author, Nigel Hutchinson, who is an artist as well as poet, remarked that shoes are particularly affecting because of the way a foot shapes a shoe to itself, so that each one bear the unique imprint of the wearer. This is certainly the case and other artefacts can also speak volumes as I noticed when I visited the Attila József Museum. Not only were examples of his hand-writing on display, but other personal objects, like the retractable pencil that he wrote with; a facsimile of a rocking horse that was his only toy as a young child and which he gave to his mother for firewood when they had none; and a small change purse.

The purse has gone into a scene when Attila first meets Selene:

No, don’t think that, she reassures. I can’t explain how I’m here, but I am real. I was about to make dinner for my mother. I sat down for a moment and thought I was getting a migraine, but then I heard a train and … I heard a train last time too.

You are still feeling sick?

No, the pain didn’t come. I get this phantosmia — of oranges usually — then lights and darkness over half my vision, but both times I’ve met you … the symptoms have started, but no headache — I hear a train and … here I am.

Phantosmia, Attila repeats, as though savouring the word. You are hungry? There’s a taverna on Szoladi útca with good food. I might even have a few worthless pengő with me.

Selene smiles, reaches into a pocket for her small purse. If we eat it will have to be you who pays, she says, holding out coins — forints and fillérs. My currency that will be meaningless in 1937.

He pulls a well-fingered, small, square change purse from his pocket. It’s stiff brown leather creaks a little as he eases the flap from underneath the cross-strap and peers inside. He nods and smiles. So, I will buy you dinner.

But you … I don’t think you can afford …

A special occasion, he insists.

He holds an arm and she links it as though they are old friends.

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And other objects have assumed even greater importance in communicating themes or threads through the novel. Catherine wears a small necklace that first appeared in This is the End of the Story when she is searching for traces of the 11th century Casilda and dreams that her friend Miriam is with her:

When I step out of the shower, the flow of blood has ceased.

Here, Miriam says, enfolding me in a white towel. And this, she adds. She holds out a white knitted shawl that I’ve never seen, but know from the pages of Casilda of the Rising Moon, pulls it around me. It’s a cold night, she says, get under the blankets. I’ll make you some mint tea.

I slide between white cotton sheets, drowse.

When I wake, the sky is dark, sharp stars dazzle through open shutters. On the bedside table of dark wood and mother of pearl, a silk cord of palest blue, strung with a tiny hamsa: the hand of Miriam in damascene black, silver, gold. Beside it a turquoise glass of mint tea has cooled.

The hamsa becomes not only Catherine’s link back to Miriam and to a time of a more visionary sense of the world, but also a link to Selene, who, imprisoned at the end of the 1950s, seems to be in possession of the same talisman, carefully hidden.

I never saw the enchantment, only story and facts aligned. Miriam was my Ben Haddaj. I was Casilda. I was not Cassie (Catherine Anne McManus) from the Lawn’s Estate. Miriam was so certain that in this lifetime Ben Haddaj would save me and that we would be together forever. And I clung to her until an incident so small, so brutal, sent my world spinning apart. And then I rationalised it all away. … I survived Liam and the first miscarriage, convinced myself that life was beginning to make sense. And it was, even through the shock of Miriam’s death, even through the strange experiences in Toledo — the sense of Casilda with me at the tiny mosque, the inexplicable certainty of Miriam comforting me after the sudden flow of blood, the mint tea that I found, cooling by my bedside when I woke, and the hamsa that I wear always, that Selene carries always, that I remember seeing Judith wearing the last time I saw her …

I have lived without the facts and the story conforming to one another for years. I have learnt the art of ambiguity, but the intrusion of this other reality, this fragmented sense of identity and perception is straining my ability to function,

Objects anchor us. Objects can signal how people identify themselves and how they want to be perceived by others. Objects become the repositories of memories, reminders of events. There’s an antique pen in the current novel, which Catherine gives to Simon after a visit to the artists’ colony at Szentendre, and which will re-appear in the third book in the trilogy, For Hope is Always Born. It’s personal, says something about the user, adds texture and depth to the narrative, shows the reader some vital detail without bluntly telling her what to think or see …

There’s a sketchbook that Catherine is given in Paris that once belonged to Selene’s father and which becomes not only a symbol of a life that Selene has lost, but also a possible motif for the future:

My father worked for Sándor and Marie Virág. Marie was Parisian, they both knew art and had met at school. Sándor had a particularly good eye. He could draw too — a very good sense of line, but he was a gregarious man, they were good with people, good at finding homes for art works and good at spotting whose work would sell. They lived above the shop here with their daughter. All was going well, but then …

The Nazis?

It was before they arrived, before their foul ‘Ordances’, but by the late Thirties even so-called liberals were denouncing Jews, blaming them for luring us into a war with Germany that was nothing to do with ‘real’ French people. The rhetoric was more and more violent. Sándor decided they should leave. He could see what was coming. My father, Charles, wanted to buy the gallery, but he didn’t have the savings. They hoped to return and they liked him, wanted to make him a partner. So my father paid what he could, nothing like the worth of the gallery, but they drew up their own agreement — when they came back he would use the profits from the intervening time to make it a full partnership.

But they never returned.

My father tried to find them, but in Hungary …

Jews were forced to move into ghettos, it would have been hard.

Yes, and then Communism — but it’s preyed on him all these years.

He’s still alive?

Yes, eighty-eight and in failing health, but his mind is sharp.

I can’t imagine they’d think anything other than what good hands they left the gallery in.

The granddaughter — Miriam you said? — if she could write to my father, even visit. I know he’d want to compensate her, there is still a clause in his will…

She’s another missing person at the moment, my friends are trying to locate her, but if we find her …

Thank you. Marcel hesitates, lifts the package from the tray. If you find her, could you give her this or pass it on to relatives?

Catherine unfolds the carefully layered brown paper around a sketchbook, dark brown card covers, a taped binding in burgundy. Inside, thick sketch paper, each page a study of a person —

They are all of Marie or his daughter, Marcel offers. He leans over, stares at the open page. You look like you could be the Selene as an adult, he says. You are also related?

Catherine shivers. No, she says quietly, just … a coincidence, I suppose. They’re beautiful, very delicate.

Yes — so few lines, so much expression. You will take the book for Miriam?

Well, I —

For my father to know they are on their way to Sándor’s family — even if you don’t find her for some time — it would give him great peace.

Catherine nods. Thank you.

And there’s a book that Catherine is shown by Szuzsanna Makai, Attila József’s niece, on which the plot might turn, but you’ll have to wait for the book to be published to learn more about that object…

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At the Attila József Museum

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe 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.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

 

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A Budapest Anatomy of Melancholy

Close up of Attila Jozsef's statue

Attila Jozsef statue, Budapest

After a launch in Paris and train rides across Europe, with a stop in Munich before finally arriving at Budapest’s Keleti station, we are settling into Budapest. It is unlike anywhere we’ve ever visited – not only is the Hungarian language seemingly impenetrable, even to someone with a smattering of Latin and French and German, but the sense of place is distinctly different. In the centre of a huge capital city cars give way to pedestrians routinely and stop to let people cross and people are polite and helpful – ‘you’re welcome’ seems to be the phrase of choice in every café or shop – yet there are not many smiles to be seen.

The current politics in Hungary are not encouraging. One post I read by a Hungarian/Norwegian blogger, talked about leaving the country due to the level of crony capitalism, nepotism, poor working conditions with longer hours than other European countries and degradation of infrastructure.

Life under Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party is replete with extreme right-wing thinking, whilst the major opposition party, Jobbik, is even more worrying and makes no secret of its views on ‘ethnic purity’. In such an environment, Budapest is gaining a reputation as a haven for disgruntled nationalists from across the West, not something that is easy to substantiate either way with rival blogs claiming wildly differing ‘facts’, but even assuming that most ex-pats are liberal or apolitical, it seems likely that a minority strand are attracted to an increasingly right wing rhetoric. I hope I wouldn’t be smiling if this were happening before my eyes back in the UK, but the current political scene isn’t the only factor in this atmosphere of melancholy; it’s something that is clearly not a new phenomenon in Budapest — as is discussed in the fascinating article (‘Happy with Tears’) by Nicky Loomis on the Los Angeles Review of Books’ site, reviewing László Földényi’s Melancholy.

While Földényi’s book addresses wider philosophical questions of melancholy, Loomis, from a Hungarian family, is particularly interested in this as a cultural and national trait. Her mother tells her that it’s due to the country being landlocked and occupied one too many times. She wonders:

“Can pain be passed down … The more I heard while living there, the more I began to project — e.g., the pain in a woman’s eyes on a train was because of some horror she witnessed during her lifetime. This is a very powerful and dangerous road to go down as a writer, but it is unavoidable as you begin to research a place and write about it, to start to connect the dots in the landscape you are moving through. Let me not grow too fond of other people’s pain, I kept reminding myself.

Yet that pain, that melancholy, kept presenting itself during my time there.”

She cites the extraordinary isolation of the Hungarian language, unlike any neighbouring language, so that Hungarian literature has been slow to be translated and recognised; the bleakness of the landscape, especially in the interminable winters (captured both in the writing László Krasznahorkai and films of Béla Tarr) and points out that Hungary has its own ‘suicide song’ (‘Gloomy Sunday’, covered by Billie Holiday) and that even the national anthem sings about sorrow and pity. She quotes Judith Sollosy of Corvina Press cautioning that melancholy has sometimes been anything from a stereotype to a fad, but also noting that Hungary has had suffered constant defeats and is left celebrating its losses.

Within hours of arriving here, the ‘melancholy’ was noticeable and prompted me to search out other views on it, as well as to do more research into current affairs here. The characters in my book know plenty about sorrow, pity and suffering. One is based on the historical character and exceptional poet, Attila József, who either died in a tragic accident or of suicide (the balance seems to favour the latter) in his early thirties in 1937. Whatever the truth of his death under a rail carriage, he certainly struggled with severe mental health issues, spending several periods in institutions and also struggled with the politics of his day and unhappy personal relationships. Another character, Selene, is a young woman in 1959 whose Jewish family have previously fled from Paris ahead of the Nazis (where her French mother met her Hungarian father) only to lose the father to the brutal Munkaszolgálat, a forced labour conscription that particularly targeted Jews and intellectuals thought to be too untrustworthy and unnationalistic to be soldiers in the alliance with Nazi Germany. Selene is briefly involved in the 1956 uprising and is arrested, detained (for a long time without trial) and held indefinitely, not knowing whether she will survive or ever see her young daughter again. And the third is a writer, Catherine – the protagonist of my recent novel, This is the End of the Story – trying to make sense of these two lives, but struggling with a series of personal tragedies, losses and increasing doubt.

Upper floors of a decaying building

One of central Budapest’s many crumbling buildings

As I slowly get acquainted with a city full of beauty, but also teeming with ambivalence, poverty, once grand buildings crumbling alongside others that are shiny and renovated, I’m happy to be in this place that has known so many tears and continues to do so. There is authenticity here and a huge amount to learn, and although I will only skim the surface in the few weeks I have here, it’s a privilege (thanks to Arts Council England) to be able to research the novel in the place it’s set and to soak up something of what shapes particular people in particular cultures, moments of history and landscapes.

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