Fables of home

George Szirtes

1

I was at a poetry festival recently as part of a panel discussing the relationship between poetry and song. Traditional song, I argued, lay at the heart of community, encapsulating its history and its longings, its triumphs, disasters and habits of mind. How could I help but be moved by song? At the same time, I added, it disturbed me in the way it both enfolded and excluded, in the simplified stories it told and the self-flattering emotions it engendered. This was, I admitted, as much a reflection on community as on song. ‘Community?’ the poet beside me shrugged and raised a quizzical eyebrow. ‘What else is there?’ he asked.

That’s an awful question for a poet to answer. This essay is an attempt to explore it from the perspective of a Hungarian-born poet brought up mostly in England, one who, furthermore, was born into an atheistic family in which, he believed, the father was Jewish and the mother Lutheran by birth. After she died he discovered that she too was born Jewish. He, in the meantime, had undergone full-immersion baptism at the age of twenty. The story for him has moved on a little since, but that’s another story. He, meaning I, is aware that these sound like a series of melodramatic twists from a soap opera, and would be glad to be rid of them, but for the fact that, to some extent, they are a condition of his life. Furthermore, he believes that there are many scattered people in analogous circumstances. He, meaning I, would therefore like to begin in Budapest, in personal prehistory.

John Lukacs, in his book about the Budapest of 1900, depicts the city as a romantic whirlwind of cafés, intrigues, adulterous assignations, vast commercial enterprise and immense personal energy. He also shows it to be deeply, if inadvertently, internationalist. A high proportion of the leading writers, critics, artists, scientists, engineers, lawyers, doctors and financiers were Jewish, and the Jewish population was essentially an immigrant population, but one that – in Budapest at least – had thrown itself into the project of being Hungarian. Jews Hungaricized their names, relaxed their religious practices and were often more overtly patriotic than the Hungarians themselves. They took on the country’s literature, manners and customs, and embraced its causes, in what now seems like a fit of enthusiasm that succeeded in blanking out – for the time being at any rate – areas that were about to become problematic: the issues of blood, land, status, property and, ultimately, loyalty.

No social group is homogeneous, of course, and that same cosmopolitan yet Hungaricized population harboured revolutionaries, subversives and idealists of various hues. It made little difference. The multiple faces of assumed nationality were to overlap and become a blurred single mask for those who watched the immigrants’ progress with various degrees of resentment. The identities of those who watched and resented were themselves complex. Their history had been the familiar shifting pattern of foreign occupation and intermarriage, but their status was underwritten by property and by land; by economic dependence, custom, nostalgia and antithesis. The honest, stable rus was pitted against a dubious, manipulative urbs. There was a clear and widening cultural split between the sleepy poor life of the country estates and the internationalist dynamic of the modernist city. Budapest, in other words, looked westward while the rest of the country, by contrast, became more aware of its Asiatic origins. This division bore fruit in the arts: in painting, poetry, fiction and music.

The First World War destroyed that version of Hungary. By the treaties of Versailles and Trianon, the country lost two thirds of its territory to other nationalities resident in the regions involved, nationalities Hungary had treated without any great respect. This two thirds included large areas where Hungarians were in a majority. It meant that one third of Hungarians suddenly had to get used to living abroad in hostile, often resentful countries. A landlocked country is always likely to find its borders shifting, but this was a savage and traumatic cut. The trauma is still there and strongly felt. Defeat in the war was followed by collapse: a socialist administration was followed by a Bolshevik one, neither of which lasted more than a few months. Admiral Horthy, admiral of the no-longer-relevant Hungarian navy, rode in to Budapest on a white horse to establish a right-wing authoritarian regime.

It was a regime with enormous nostalgia for the ceremonial side of rural life. The Bolshevik revolution that had preceded it, as it well knew, had been led mostly by intellectual urban Jews. The process of idealizing country life did not extend to improving the sorry condition of the peasants, who were often living in extreme poverty. The fancy-dress costumes and fairy-tale ceremonies of the nationalist regime referred to a vestigially feudal Hungary, to a supposed common interest between peasantry and gentry that would be pitched against the grubby hooked-nosed shopkeepers and urban intellectuals gathered in dubious cafés.

A new wave of rural writing appears in the thirties, a mixture of biography, fiction and sociological study, often conducted by educated writers of rural origin, such as the poet Gyula Illyés. The cultural divisions of the late nineteenth century constantly sharpen and blur and sharpen again in the twentieth. Urbanists and ruralists work side by side for a while, then, under the pressures of fascism, move apart. The most influential literary magazine of the inter-war years was called Nyugat, meaning West. Illyés himself published there. The name pointed to Dante, Goethe, Shakespeare and Baudelaire, but also to Freud and to Marx. It also said something about European integration at the level of the imagination, an issue that is still in the forefront of our minds.

Following the Second World War and the occupation by Soviet troops, with the imposition of a Moscow-based regime that followed, writers were expected to line up strictly behind the new ideology. Socialist realism was the line, and socialist realism had to be aware of its responsibilities. Its precise application led to interestingly iconographical and possibly proto-deconstructionist debates of Byzantine complexity. Which way is Comrade Lenin facing in the painting and what is the role of the shadow by his feet? What is the significance of the cut of that peasant’s moustache? A number of the finest writers were imprisoned or prevented from publishing, and the most promising of the new magazines, New Moon, was banned and its editors and contributors charged with bourgeois individualism.

In 1953 Stalin died and early in 1956 Nikita Khrushchev made a speech to a closed session of the Party Congress denouncing him. News of this speech travelled by various means. I have a strong personal memory of the local Party cell visiting our flat in Budapest to announce the end of the Stalin cult. My mother – who had been excluded from the Party on account of her middle-class Transylvanian background, to say nothing of her inability to obey any Party diktat that conflicted with her conscience – held me up to the photograph of Stalin on our wall and told me to ignore these men and to continue to admire the genial-looking man in the picture.

The denunciation led directly to the revolution. The students of 1956 gathered by the statue of Petöfi, born Petrovics – the great youthful revolutionary and, above all, nationalist poet began life with a foreign name – and marched along the main road to the river. By the time they reached the statue of the Hungarian patriot General Bem – who was Polish – on the other side, the protest march had turned into revolution. After its defeat the authorities were very careful about Petöfi’s statue. He remained a symbol of precisely what he said he wanted to represent: Hungarianness on the one hand and internationalist liberty on the other.

As late as 1988, a very good friend of mine, a woman I loved and admired, wanted to lay a few small flowers at Petöfi’s statue on the anniversary of the 1848 revolution, but was brusquely turned away by the police. Others who tried to do the same were beaten up or given a night in prison. The following year, the year when I spent eight months in Hungary and watched everything change, there was another demonstration which sparked the new, quieter revolution. I was on that march myself, which started precisely where the earlier revolution started: by the statue of Petöfi. There I joined the mixed band of liberals, nationalists, environmentalists, urbanists and populists who set off to repeat the march of 1956. Once the march took place the regime was effectively doomed.

2


In his Autobiography the Scottish poet Edwin Muir makes a distinction between the story and the fable of his own life: the story, he says, is what he tells us, the fable is the sense he makes of it, its archaic echo with myth. There are a number of theoretical positions that hint at the same dual experience of narrative. The Russian Formalists’ notion of sjuzet (the naked story in simple chronological order) and fabula (our telling of that story in the order our narrative sense demands) is an example. I am not going to make heavy weather of this beyond noting that all such binary systems are essentially conventions that are supposed to help us make sense of experience. I find they help me here.

Seamus Heaney, in one of his early poems, talked about ‘the music of what happens’. For my purposes I want to think of Muir’s original idea of the story as what more or less happens, and the fable as its music. I want to set the chaotic world of one damn thing after another against its shaping, editing and telling, which is our attempt to discover meaning in it. The fable is what fabulists, storytellers and poets are concerned with. Their job is to convince us and carry us away with them so we feel we’re flying with a purpose towards our one true place. Conviction isn’t necessarily truth, nor is there a simple distinction between truth and lies in literature.

Instinctively, though, I resist the notion of poets as warty boys and liars. I am, of course, like all poets, fascinated and seduced by the music of what happens, but I want to retain the freedom to distrust the music a little.

Under every simple poem or story, to follow Muir, is a deeper myth of identity and history. I am therefore aware that when I offer elements of my personal journeys I am, for all my attempts at confining myself to story, bound to enter the realm of fable. The very term ‘journey’ tells you as much.

My own provenance is a confused one. My father’s grandparents came out of Moravia and Bohemia, and my mother’s family came from Transylvania. Moravia, or Slovakia, was once part of Hungary, and the capital of Slovakia, Bratislava, was once Pozsony, the capital of Hungary. Belgrade was once a major Hungarian city. My mother’s name on her mother’s side was Kardos, which is Hungarian enough, but on her father’s side she was a Nussbacher, which suggests either that that side of her family came from German-Saxon stock, or that they adopted a German-Saxon identity, as some Jews did, for the purpose of assimilation (the German-Saxon community formed a significant if small part of the population of Romania). The city where my mother was born has been known by various names: as Kolozsvár in Hungarian, as Clausenburg in German and as Cluj in Romanian, a name that was dolled up by Ceaucescu to Cluj-Napoca in reference to the ancient Roman colony there: the name asserted the claim of Romanians to be descended from the Romans. Their ancient adversaries the Hungarians, meanwhile, tended to suggest that the name Romania was derived from the term Romanies, meaning Gypsies, and that the Romance language they spoke was a ragged remnant of that spoken by their Roman masters.

Transylvania contained some of the oldest Hungarian settlements, but at the time my mother was born it had become part of Romania as a result of the post-First World War settlement. For a few brief years of the Second World War it reverted to Hungary, and that was when my mother, at the age of sixteen, fired by a youthful enthusiasm to become a photographer, travelled to Budapest to apprentice herself to a splendid documentary photographer called Károly Escher. By the time she returned home from Ravensbruck, the concentration camp where she endured three months, Transylvania had been re-awarded to Romania and all her family, every one of them, was dead.

My father’s family was of that group of liberal Jews who saw themselves as Hungarian. They were a mixture of working-class and lower-middle-class people. My father’s father worked on the shop-floor of a shoe factory and was, it seems, a melancholy character who wrote plays that were never performed. He died before I was born. My father, who was a clever boy, was leaving school just as the first anti-Jewish laws were enacted. He couldn’t go on to higher education, so he found office work. Another wave of legislation drove him out of the office and into a plumber’s workshop, until he was called up into the army. As a Jew, he was not permitted to wear insignia or carry arms, so at first he was set to dig ditches, then later sent to do forced labour in a series of camps in the Ukraine. Only three people, my father and two companions, survived his last labour camp, and they did so by escaping on the route march to an extermination camp.

Returning after the war, my parents, like most Jews, were radicalized. They were essentially atheistic, potentially revolutionary, certainly left-wing. The surviving members of my father’s branch of the family, whose name was Schwartz, immediately Hungaricized their names. My father became Szirtes, a name taken from a popular cinema actor; his cousin became Fekete, meaning ‘black’ as in Schwartz; and another cousin became Ráday for no better reason than that was the name of the street they lived in. My father returned to the plumber and my mother joined an evening newspaper as a photographer. She was supposed to be too frail to consider childbearing, but she bore two children all the same. Her view on their upbringing was quite clear: she was to defend them from the horrors she and her family had gone through. For that reason she chose to cut herself off from her Jewish past. Throughout her life she maintained the fiction that she came from a Lutheran background. Neither my brother nor I was circumcised. We received nothing of Jewish social culture, except the temperamental sort they unwittingly passed on to us.

My father in the meantime was being rapidly promoted through the ranks of the now ruling Communist Party, and before too long he became a department leader in the ministry of building and works.

This was the position when we left the country, illegally, on foot, on the night of my eighth birthday, 29 November 1956, and walked into Austria. The reason we left was not clear to me then. A lot of people left because the revolution, a brave and honourable affair for most if not every part, had been defeated. They fled from that form of communism. My parents, though, were fleeing from fascism. My mother in particular – and there were others like her – was afraid that fascist forces were still alive and stirring in Hungary. The prisons had been opened and it was only eleven years since the war had ended. It was also well known that all four leaders of the previous repressive Stalinist government had been Jewish, though not one of them bore a Jewish name. This was grist to the anti-Semitic mill. There was a small anti-Semitic element in the streets during the uprising, though it had not infiltrated the revolutionary government. The revolution was suppressed on 4 November and so were the few overt fascists who had taken part in it. We left over three weeks later. What she had heard of the streets had frightened my mother. I think she feared too much, but then she knew far more clearly than I did, or do, what there was to fear.

We travelled to England, meaning to go on to Australia. Being thwarted in that desire, we were taken first to the seaside, and then in March moved to London, where my parents found jobs and my brother and I grew up. As my father was the only one with any command of English it was necessary to go on a domestic crash course, so we spoke only English at home.

We were very warmly and efficiently received in England, we moved around London as circumstances and money allowed, and by the time my brother and I went on to higher education – art college in my case, music academy in my brother’s – we were living in a lower-middle-class suburb of London, close to Wembley Stadium. My mother, though, had been through terrible problems with her heart. She had several unsuccessful operations and her spirits, which were often fiery, would increasingly be very low. She made a number of attempts on her own life, and one day, after I had graduated and married, she succeeded in killing herself. She was fifty-one.

It was not that we were specifically isolated as a family, nor that there was no support, for there was, but the combination of pain, fear and, in the end, I believe, a cultural vacancy, told on her. But this marks the end of her conscious journey and of my parents’ journey as a couple and as a family. For me it is semi-conscious only. I am not in control of any part of it.


3


The first of the two personal journeys I shall describe here was my return to Hungary, as a visitor and occasional part-time resident, starting in the mid-1980s. This journey was driven by curiosity about my mother’s past. It began nine years after her death, by which time I had written three well-received books of poetry in English; I felt ever more intensely that I needed her past to help me advance into the nature of things as I instinctively felt them to be.

I travelled to Hungary on an Arts Council prize in 1984. Even before then I had begun to read Hungarian history and Hungarian literature in English translation – I had not used the Hungarian language for twenty-eight years and it was very rusty – and after my mother died, I spent years talking to my father on tape, about his life, and about hers, of which I knew little as she was not in the habit of speaking about it.

Returning was a marvellous and disorienting experience. It was strange to hear Hungarian spoken everywhere but, more than anything, it was place and space that hit me. Our early life imprints a kind of map on our reflexes. The shape and sound of things was deeply moving – I often wept – and if I think of the notion of home, I think of this love of landmarks – streets, courtyards, stairways, in my case – their spatial punctuation and their sensual coding. The first place is the most real place, which does not mean it has to be a good place: it is simply a place that equips you with notions of reality.

I was fortunate with my meetings in Hungary. The literary people I found myself among were curious and enthusiastic. They hadn’t expected to find an English poet who happened to be Hungarian. Very soon they were introducing me to the literary structures and ambitions of the place.

Since the Second World War the party-state had run everything. All publishing was in its hands, although by the mid-eighties it operated partly through the relatively benign patronage of the ministry of culture (but the patronage could be withdrawn), and partly through the hidden iron hand of censorship (you could, if it came to it, be arrested). Editorial offices were in effect political offices, but, by this time, only lightly-lightly. Certain subjects were not to be mentioned – the Russian military presence, the revolution of 1956, homelessness, unemployment, the terrible tensions with Romania and other border states about the Hungarian ethnic minorities – but it was perfectly possible to write brilliant books without those points of reference, and people did write brilliant books. On the other hand they learned to censor themselves and were well rewarded for it by the usual system of honours and sinecures. Beyond all this both the state and individual writers were deeply concerned that Hungarian authors should be read in other languages. For the writers, to be read elsewhere, in the West chiefly, was to get out, gain independence and authority, and possibly to have a foreign bank account. They would also be escaping a double prison: ‘the velvet prison’, as the sociologist Miklos Haraszti called it, of a compromised state, and the narrow cell of a wonderfully supple but minor language that nobody read. The state encouraged the foreign translation of its leading authors because this reflected well on its own health, much as the prowess of footballers or athletes did. The anthologies produced had to encourage this endeavour without seeming too jingoistic or pushy. Under the façade, neither author nor state had any faith left in the system. The shrug of opposition united almost everyone. This odd complicity could work to the advantage of writing. If nothing else, it heated the language and spiced it with complex irony.

After 1989 this all changed rapidly. By this time I was visiting Hungary every year, sometimes for months; in 1989, by coincidence, I spent almost the entire year there. The year was marked by great demonstrations and meetings. I went along to these, as a captivated observer rather than a full participant, but when someone offered me a red-white-green rosette I took it and wore it with pride. In revolutionary moments such gestures are great uniters of people and serve as sources of a heady comradeliness. I have only to remember how the first few days of the 1956 revolution involved no looting and how people could leave money in boxes on the street for the wounded or sick to use. On 15 March 1989, on the anniversary of the 1848 revolution, a huge crowd of us, about 200,000, swept down the main street following precisely the route of the 1956 demonstration, starting from the statue of Petöfi, born Petrovics. There were tears and laughter. Mass happiness is unforgettable.

But I could not continue the entire length of the march. As we moved on I felt ever more keenly that I had no real right to be in the crowd: their fate, whatever it was to be, would not be mine. Even close Hungarian friends, friends who had been anxious about what might happen, not just on the march but long after it, had, in that atmosphere, let me know that I was not part of the endeavour, that I was not in a position to understand the issues. And they were right: how could I understand as they did, they who lived there? But how I wished the crowd well, these people who had not been their own masters for more then thirty-odd years in the last five hundred.

I continued to return to Hungary. In October 1995 I arrived with a BBC producer to make a radio programme about the commemorations of the 1956 revolution. It was a Sunday and we were advised by a Hungarian journalist to go straight down to the remnants of an evening rally organized by a right-wing party, MIÉP (the Party of Hungarian Health and Justice), which was led by an ex-dissident, fiercely nationalist, writer of comic short stories. The huge square before parliament contained only straggly groups by the time we arrived, one of skinheads, the other of middle-aged respectable-looking people. My producer took out his microphone and we were immediately besieged by the respectable ones. We barely escaped the scene without a thorough beating.

The next day we attended the memorial service at the grave of Imre Nagy, the martyred prime minister of 1956. As we were returning from the cemetery we passed a procession of blackshirts on the ring-road. They bore a placard that showed a villain with a hooked nose. There were about eighty of them, with a retinue of a hundred or so. The producer and I parted, then met later for another political rally organized by a more respectable right-wing party around the statue of Jozsef Bem, the Polish general. The main figure here was the leader of the minority Smallholders’ Party, Jozsef Torgyán. But first we had other speakers, some moving traditional music about the tragedies of the defeated revolution of 1848, and an actor reciting the best-known poem of the first great patriotic poet of the romantic period, Mihály Vörösmarty. The poem is called ‘Szózat’, meaning call, or appeal. This is how it begins in an old translation by Watson Kirconnell:

Oh, Magyar, keep immovably
Your native country’s trust,
For it has borne you, and at death
Will consecrate your dust! …



Alas, how pale that sounds. The Hungarian, as below, should be imagined snarling, choking, pensive, mournful and furious by turns.

Hazádnak rendületlenül
Légy híve, ó magyar;
Bölcsöd az s majdan sírod is,
Mely ápol s eltakar …



It made a ferocious music. Someone then made a long speech in the course of which he listed the members of the then current government (and I should add that though nominally socialist, and led by major figures from the pre-1989 regime, I would have placed the government slightly to the right of Tony Blair). At one point, a man in a pastoral Hungarian costume called out at one of the names: ‘Ez nem egy magyar ember’ – ‘That man is not Hungarian’; the cry was then picked up by others for more of the names. There were several of them, it seemed. Of course the people mentioned were Hungarians, but they were not to be regarded as such (because they were Jewish, or because their parents had been communists, who knows why?). Under the circumstances it was clear that I was not a Hungarian of any description. And almost at that precise moment the blackshirts, continuing their circuit of the city, were popping up on the nearest ring-road, just to my right.

I do not want to suggest that the ‘nation’ had reverted to fascism; I do not believe that for a moment. But the rhetoric of nationhood – the essentially xenophobic music of what was happening, the reliance on the fable of ourselves – seemed perfectly at home here. The song and the community were fully employed in the business of enfolding and excluding, so much so that the greatest degree of enfolding seemed instinctively to entail the greatest degree of excluding. Community? What else is there? Outer darkness.


4


The journey to Hungary was on the back of my mother. Everything I wrote involved her in some way, as a ghost, as a figure to consult, confront and address. My second journey, or its fable, is the journey to England, which began forty-five years ago and continues to this day. This journey, symmetrically enough, is on the back of my father, who, twenty-five years after the death of my mother, is still alive and living in London.

We arrived, precisely to the week, at the breaking point of modern British history: the Suez crisis. I have said we were received with kindness; we were also received with diffidence. Diffidence then was a blessing to my parents. After fifteen years of having to declare an identity, to be made to inform on other people and to be constantly asked questions about themselves, it was a relief to be able to settle in, to disappear. No one enquired about our religion. We carried no ID or party card. We were odd, but interesting, and my parents were nicely enlivening for those who liked being enlivened. I went through school, and my journey continued through the language, which was and remains an immense enigma and delight. England was a rich, safe haven, walled in by a sublime sea and, out beyond the sea, by other large bits of reassuring pink on the map. I met with little vaingloriousness on this account as I moved my way through the intricate levels of the working and lower-middle classes. There was a mildness and irony about the climate after Suez and we were, or had become, British citizens. Of course we would never be English, because that term was to do with nation, with blood and land, but Britishness, the baggy Britishness of which Tom Paulin has been so contemptuous, could include us.

About a year ago the Jewish English humourist Howard Jacobson wrote about his sense of nationality in The Independent. I quote him:

It is often argued that English culture is the rich thing it is because of the contributions made by those from outside, from elsewhere, from the margins. I agree with this, as how could I not, but you cannot have a margin unless you have a page. Nor can you contribute to a void.

The Polish-born novelist Joseph Conrad chose to write in English (though his second language was, in fact, French) and thereby put something not English forever into English culture. But it was an idea of Englishness, even an idealisation of Englishness, a devotion to what he understood to be its moral and psychological complexion, no less than its linguistic resources, that induced him to write in English in the first place.

I recognize this feeling, though I cannot be quite in Jacobson’s place. It is sometimes painful to be ‘en Angleterre, mais pas anglais’. Sometimes, however, I feel as free as a bird. Sometimes I think I am a herald of the world to come, and that we are beginning to see the end of national states, watching instead waves of people and fragmentary cultures swirling around in an economically determined amplitude that stretches over specific areas of the earth. Being without a home does not have to mean being without history or without human passions. I am all too full of both, I fear.

I have been recounting a little group of stories, no more than anecdotes perhaps. I have tried to tell them, not slant, as Emily Dickinson advises poets to do, but as straight as I can. But some of these stories I have told before, and I am aware, every time I tell them, every time I get the shape of them just a little better, that they are becoming my personal fable, or the fable of the Jews, or the fable of the Uprooted, of the British Immigrant. And I fear that, at the point they do so, some important truth will have leaked away. Something will have been lost to pure music. My feelings will have become more absolute in the process, and though absoluteness means perfection, it is the perfection of the full myth, the closed system, that I most fear. I want to believe in a poetry that is not pure music, or pure anything, but includes those things that horrify and move me by their strange, unclassifiable intransigence.

Having lived in England for so long, it is another true place to me, the place of a second birth, full of voices, shapes and places that move me. Like Hungary, like my mother and father, indeed like any experience, it is a complex and broken thing I want to mend, a journey I want to make in ways I believe in – between story and fable, touching and feeling both in my hands.

The chief obsession of any artist is to make something lasting in which they recognize the world in its full nature. Many years ago I was reading at Winchester for students, invited by the Anglo-Welsh poet Jeremy Hooker. We were looking at one of the windows in the cathedral, which had been smashed and reassembled, with some white panes fitted where they could not locate the original shards. I could see that this patchwork thing was not quite what people want a window to be, but I found it moving precisely because it had been broken. Because those brightly coloured and fragmented figures with their archetypal narratives seemed ever more part of the world. I see them everywhere now, and detect them even under masks of family, nation, race and tribe. I suspect these figures are where many of us are, what we face when we look at our reflections in the mirror in the morning. All those dreams and anxieties left crumpled in the sheets, between the covers.

My dreams are most disturbed when they concern the death of someone I love. There is a terrible tightness in my chest and I usually wake and can’t go to sleep again for a few hours. The tightness in my chest is real. We do die, sometimes together, sometimes in great numbers. Below us the nation of the dead lives in our imagination by rules we cannot guess. Some, like Hamlet’s father, call out for revenge. History, in one guise, is Hamlet’s father: and immediately one thinks of Polonius, Ophelia, Laertes, Gertrude, Claudius and of course the prince himself, all dead by the end. And, lest we should forget, Tom Stoppard reminds us that those bit players, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, are dead too. Eight for one. That’s a lot of dead bodies, not all of them murderers themselves. Even Claudius, you think, must have had something going for him. Gertrude certainly thought so; after all she was a queen when Hamlet senior was alive and she was still a queen when he was dead. And I wonder whether things between her and Hamlet’s father were quite as rosy as Hamlet imagines.

Read more in The Dublin Review issue No. 5 Winter 2001–2