Foreign laughter

George Szirtes

George Szirtes

My first commissions to translate novels came from Hungary, and it was my task to interest some British or American publisher. So it was with Gyula Krúdy’s book of Sindbad stories, about which I had heard much, but which I had never read. I started straight into the translation and it seemed to work well: there was a lovely sense of freshness and discovery in the process, and in being a first-time reader in two languages simultaneously. So when, about ten years ago, Quartet asked me to undertake the translation of László Krasznahorkai’s Az ellenállás melankóliája (‘The Melancholy of Resistance’), I did not read it through first: I merely glanced at it. My internal translation engine, I thought, seemed to work best through a kind of visual scratch-and-sniff method. What I saw, when I looked at the Krasznahorkai novel, was daunting. There were no paragraphs: the text was a dark lava-flow of type. The sentences were very long, the first occupying half a page, the others often longer, rarely shorter. The first took a while to solve. This is how the published version of my translation begins:

Since the passenger train connecting the icebound estates of the southern lowlands, which extend from the banks of the Tisza almost as far as the foot of the Carpathians, had, despite the garbled explanations of a haplessly stumbling guard and the promises of the stationmaster rushing nervously on and off the platform, failed to arrive (‘Well, squire, it seems to have disappeared into thin air again …’ the guard shrugged pulling a sour face), the only two serviceable old wooden-seated coaches maintained for just such an ‘emergency’ were coupled to an obsolete and unreliable 424, used only as a last resort, and put to work, albeit a good hour and a half late according to a timetable to which they were not bound and which was only an approximation anyway, so that the locals who were waiting in vain for the eastbound service and had accepted its delay with what appeared to be a combination of indifference and helpless resignation, might eventually arrive at their destination some fifty kilometres further along the branch line.

First I had to work out the structure of the sentence, seeking out the main verb, feeling the sentence grow like some strange plant that seemed to be putting out several branches in various directions all at once, the sense constantly and wilfully qualifying itself to build its picture of chaos, a chaos that would prove to be the keynote of the book. What seemed obvious was that the working through of that chaos would involve some dark irony whose precise degree of darkness was not yet established.

How seriously dark was the dark? I knew that a number of Hungarian readers regarded Krasznahorkai’s work as unremittingly bleak and depressing. László Krasznahorkai (born 1954) came to prominence with a novel called Sátántango (‘Satan Tango’), which remains untranslated into English though it received high praise in Germany. He was and remains the constant collaborator of the film-maker Béla Tarr, who turned Sátántango into a seven-and-a-half-hour film. Krasznahorkai and Tarr were darkness visible. But there seemed to me to be a kind of comedy at play in Krasznahorkai that was missing in Tarr, whose visual compulsiveness produced its own poetry. It was there in Krasznahorkai’s stationmaster rushing nervously on and off the platform and in the guard’s shrugging remark that the train had disappeared into thin air again. However dreadful the prospect of waiting at this platform, however dispiriting the notion of a meaningless timetable, however cataclysmic the potential breakdown of order, the rushing and the shrug were still oddly amusing. The word ‘haplessly’ offered itself as a possible reading, and the single word ‘squire’ nudged its way into the text, opening up a slightly edgewise and always ambiguously comic universe.

These were not merely lexicographical options but a way of reading or perceiving the rest of the book, which went on to develop its visionary fascination with notions of order pitted against apocalyptic chaos. The entire action of The Melancholy of Resistance takes place in a backward town in eastern Hungary. The central characters – an apparently simple newspaper delivery boy called Valuska and a retired musicologist called György Eszter – are both obsessed with implicit order, the former with the movement of the planets, the latter with the notion of natural tuning. To Mrs Eszter, the fearsome estranged wife of the musicologist, the idea of order is less natural: she advocates a semi-fascist social orderliness. Into town rolls an enormous truck bearing the corpse of the biggest whale in the world. With it arrive a sinister crowd who are waiting for a word from the tiny bird-like lord of misrule travelling with the whale to bring violence and anarchy to the town. The book moves towards an orgy of destruction, the dangerous crowd rolling through the streets much as the prose rolls down the page.

Pace was everything in the book. The pace was inevitable, the vision tragic–comic, but the comedy changed in the course of its passage through English. It was as if English did not tolerate such monumental slow-paced Hungarian bleaknesses without a certain irony, an irony that was implicit in the Hungarian text but grew a little in translation. The very notion of order was different. In Hungary there is a national fear of disorder, a fear the book shared while distancing itself from the Prussian and semi-fascist responses to it. Notions of order and its opposite are clearly conditioned by historical experience, and the weight of that experience varies across societies and nations. The two central characters seek some sort of higher order that is so far out of reach that the very attempt seems grotesque and absurd.

The grotesque and the absurd tend to mean something slightly different in English, and so they did in the book. There is a marvellous scene where Valuska is in a pub at closing time persuading the drunken customers to act out a full eclipse of the sun. Tarr’s film version of the book, The Werckmeister Harmonies, employs only part of the story and begins with this scene, concentrating on the desolate symbolism of the spinning and lurching figures; the text moves more slowly and deliberately, leaving space for comedy.

Some of them, those stuck in the corner nearest the fireplace, or under the coat rack, or laid out across the bar, were suddenly smitten with the desire for a sleep so deep that not even a volley of cannon would have woken them, nor could he [Valuska] look for comprehension among those who, having lost the thread of conversation about the monster due to arrive on the morrow, remained standing but glassy-eyed, though, doubtless, having regard to the miserable innkeeper staring pointedly at his watch, both the horizontal and vertical among them would have agreed upon a common course of action, even if only one of their company, a purple-faced baker’s apprentice, was capable of giving it form by means of a sharp nod of the head. Naturally Valuska construed the onset of silence as an undoubted sign of the attention about to be concentrated on him, and, with the help of the house-painter (a fellow covered from head to foot in lime) who had invited his intervention in the first place, employed what remained of his sense of direction to clear a space in the middle of the smoky bar: they pushed back the two chest-high drink stands that were anyhow in the way, and when the forceful if vain entreaties of his erstwhile assistant (‘G’won, squeeze up to th’ wall a bit, willya!’) met the unsteady resistance of those clinging vaguely to their glasses and showing a few faint signs of life, they were constrained to employ the same methods on them so that after the minor kerfuffle caused by all that shuffling and involuntary backward stepping, a space did in fact open, and Valuska, hungry by now for the limelight, stepped into it, and picked for his immediate audience those standing closest to him, who happened to be a lanky driver with a pronounced squint, and a great lump of a warehouseman, referred to for now simply as ‘Sergei’.

The miracle of the book seemed to lie as much in the self-deflating grandiosity of those long periods as in the obsessive comprehensiveness of its vision. Human beings, it tells us, are hapless in the face of stars and railway timetables, comically inept when confronted with the forces of decomposition and ruin. Their suffering is terrible, unremitting yet absurd. It is as if Pa Ubu had entered Kafka’s Castle. It is Joyce with the lights off, Flann O’Brien locked into a cellar. It may be difficult to decide at what point the alarm turns to tears of laughter or grief, but then that is the point.

The book rolled slowly over and through me for four years – two and a half years longer than it ought to have been. They were four years of frustration, exhaustion and cursing. I cursed the endless sentences, the lack of landmarks that paragraphs might have offered, the wilful manner and cosmic ambition, as it sometimes seemed to me, of the author. At times the book struck me as a particularly terrifying example of the kind of elephantiasis that afflicts Hungarian fiction. The smaller the country, I thought to myself, the greater the ambition. Sheer verbiage is offered as compensation for the lack of language territory. Hungary was a small country locked into its isolated language: its authors’ prolific energy and ironic earnestness battered down the doors to the outside world.

The Melancholy of Resistance was published by Quartet at the beginning of 1999. Asked by Quartet to suggest someone who might provide a suitable endorsement of the book, I gave the name of W.G. Sebald then forgot to mention it to the man himself, so when he rang up one day to announce he had received the typescript I was full of apologies. He was not at all put out: he thought it was a marvellous book and was pleased to provide a few sentences. From Quartet in the UK it passed to New Directions in the USA. New Directions showed the translation to Susan Sontag, who had herself been among the first to write at length in praise of Sebald. She too was more than prepared to provide enthusiastic copy for the book jacket. The novel was little reviewed in England (that is to say it was reviewed briefly but with intense pleasure), but because of the imprimatura of Sontag and Sebald the critical response in America was considerably more powerful. The worst that reviewers could find to say about Melancholy was that marvellous as the book was it took a little determination to discover that fact. Personally I was enormously relieved to be rid of it, but I found it grew in my head as time went by. It lost its association with headaches, exhaustion and fury, and while I needed considerable persuasion to set out on a second book by Krasznahorkai I was certain that the pain would be worth it.

It was after I had begun that second book, War and War, that Knopf approached me to translate Sándor Márai’s novel about Casanova, Vendégjáték Bolzanóban, literally, ‘Guest Performance in Bolzano’. Márai was, by then, far better known than Krasznahorkai, almost entirely on the basis of the worldwide success of his novel A gyertyák csonkig égnek, literally ‘The Candles burn down to stumps’, but published in English as Embers. Márai was born in 1900 and had been a leading writer in Hungary between the wars, a virtuoso among virtuosos, but had gone into exile in 1948 when the communists took over and his books disappeared off the lists of Hungarian publishers. He was persona non grata, a self-confessed bourgeois poet, playwright and novelist, not of the political Right but not sufficiently of the Left for the new Soviet regime to allow him to continue. He departed, taking with him his magnificent diaries, and never returned to Hungary, dying by suicide in San Diego in 1989, the very year of the communist collapse. His beloved wife was dead, their adopted son was dead – everyone around him had died, and he lived in obscurity. Could he have a waited a year or so he would have seen the tide turn hugely in his favour. He became an icon in his homeland, a touchstone, a banner, though it is not always clear who should be waving that banner or what it might stand for.

Márai never wrote in English – Hungarian was his loved instrument. His tragic, exemplary story is twisted at the core by exile. The discovery and publication of Embers is part of that twisted story. This, briefly, is how it is said to have gone. Roberto Calasso, the writer, publisher and translator, was browsing through a French publisher’s backlist when he found an obscure book by an obscure Hungarian writer, took away a copy, read it, loved it, and decided it was a forgotten masterpiece. He called a meeting of other major world publishers so that he could sing its virtues, and published it himself in Italian, with enormous success. Other languages followed. The English text, published by Knopf in 2001, was elegantly rendered by Carol Brown Janeway, who is the head of Knopf and a distinguished translator from the German. Janeway read no Hungarian and, as a publisher, trusted none of the available translators. That was what she said in public at any rate; some suspected she was none too sure of who they were. Possibly there was no time to find one: the iron needed striking while it was hot. In any case, Janeway translated Embers from the German version, referring to the French edition for support. There were fierce letters to the New York Times and rumbles of protests in correspondence, but by then the book was a triumph in English. Tragic and exemplary, Márai’s Hungarian remained in the shadows. The luminous triumph was the translation of a translation. The faithfulness of the English version continues to be debated, but the name of Sándor Márai, however mispronounced (it should be Máh-ra-ï, not M’ráy), was pronounced frequently and with great respect.

Janeway came to me via Barbara Epler of New Directions, who had, I think, been praising my translation of Krasznahorkai to her. In any case I had a message to meet her at Claridges in London on 10 January 2003. The night before, I gave a reading near Liverpool. The reading was fine if a little desolate, but nowhere near as desolate as the boarding house the organizers had found for me. Everything was broken: there was flex hanging off the walls, the door could not be locked the handle having been smashed, there was no hot water, the toilet bowl leaked, there was a plastic incontinence sheet on the bed and a group of skinheads were partying down the hall. I slept very little, couldn’t shower or shave, and arrived at Claridges the next day dirty, with rings under my eyes. Janeway was crisp, tidy and businesslike. She quizzed me on Márai and other Hungarian novelists, checked me out, then asked if I could undertake the next Márai novel – Vendégjáték Bolzanóban – as quickly as possible. Having started a second Krasznahorkai for New Directions, I could see no alternative to translating two novels at once. I had no idea then that I would also be ushered into editing a 400-page anthology of Hungarian writing the next year for a year-long festival of Hungarian culture in Britain; eighteen months of productive madness was about to begin. I left Claridges bedraggled, with a sympathetic smile from the doorman. It had been a strange, exhausted, hallucinatory experience made all the stranger by the fact that Janeway’s glasses were distinctly askew during the entire course of our meeting.

The success of Embers still puzzles me: the degree of its success, that is. Márai was declared a rediscovered master of world literature on a par with … well, anyone you care think of. It couldn’t all be put down to marketing, nostalgia and romance, though these played their part. But nostalgia for what? The Harry Potter books are set in a very old-fashioned boarding school equipped with powerful and fearsome masters, servants, grounds, prefects and school sports. Embers, written in 1944, is set in the long-dead ashes of the Austro-Hungarian empire: aristocrats, hunting lodges, cadet schools, wet nurses, concepts of honour. Few readers of either book would have known the world to which they were subscribing in their imaginations, nor would they have wanted it back. They wouldn’t vote for it. The nostalgia, I imagined, was less to do with location than with pace, reassurance and stable values, any stable values at all. There was, I felt, a touch of Ruritania and Anthony Hope about Embers. But that couldn’t be all.

Nor is it. Embers is a fascinating mixture of luxuriant writing, razor-sharp psychological perception, theatrical tricks and one vast dramatic twist. Underlying the mechanics of plot and prose there is an intense, unremitting curiosity about the way the conditions of life play themselves out in action and imagination. In the book it is about 1940. A long-retired army officer is waiting for his old friend to reappear after decades of absence. The officer’s childhood wet-nurse is still with him; otherwise he is alone. The wife whom he had loved is dead. He tells the nurse, now the maidservant, that he has many vital questions to ask the returning friend, but when the friend appears it is the officer himself who does all the talking. That is the twist. The major theme is the honour code: the conflict between friendship and desire. Most of the book could be a stage play (and has been a stage play in France and Germany, shortly to be so in England too, adapted by Christopher Hampton), with some flashbacks and one vivid piece of action set years earlier in the nearby forest.

The key to the book is not so much the plot, the theatrical tricks, the characters or the location: it is the way in which luxuriant writing is put at the service of a fiercely enquiring philosophical mind that peels away layer after layer of human consciousness until, however perfectly uniformed the body, the soul is revealed to be naked and lost in forests of its own.

The key to Embers is also the key to Vendégjáték Bolzanóban, published in 2004 in Britain as Conversations in Bolzano, and in the USA as Casanova in Bolzano. It is the story of an episode in the life of Casanova following his escape from the Leads prison in Venice. Casanova arrives in Bolzano accompanied by Balbi, a defrocked friar, and hangs about in a hotel doing this or that until the arrival of the Duke of Parma, who has married Francesca, the only woman Casanova has ever really been in love with, and for whose hand he fought a losing duel with the much older Duke. It is only once the Duke appears, well over halfway through the book, that the story leaps into action, and eventually a confrontation with Francesca takes place. Maybe because I am a poet rather than a novelist, the book held me throughout, much in the manner of an ancient mariner, through sheer eye and voice. As with Embers the mechanics and occasional melodramatics of the plot are mostly a magnificent excuse for the exercise of Márai’s desperate curiosity. The book is an enquiry conducted chiefly through monologues.

At first I thought of these monologues as the equivalent of the musical cadenza, but a speaker at a Márai conference put it better: he referred to them as arias. A cadenza is a kind of decorative excess in which the souls of the instrument and instrumentalist are driven through a gap in the music. To compare them to cadenzas would suggest that Márai’s monologues, however rich and dense, were interruptions to the fabric of the narrative. That is not the case. Márai’s monologues are structural: in fact they are the structure. In aria the very spirit of the character becomes a central element in the architecture of the work. In Márai’s novel it does not matter very much whether the monologue-aria is spoken by the character or the narrator, for the essence of the work is the single project of enquiry. It is Márai we hear all the way through: that luxuriant, ironic and yearning prose is his way of framing the question the book is there to answer. In Embers the question is primarily about an ethos of friendship and loyalty under the stress of desire. In Bolzano it is about spirit and gender: what, asks the book, is physical and psychological desire, and what has that desire to do with love and sacrifa shortice?

The first and most vital task of the translator of Márai is to take stock of whatever flourishes (cadenzas within arias?) are lodged in the text and to find a natural place for them. These flourishes might include stock characters: there is a Jewish moneylender and a gay barber in Bolzano, not to mention a range of landlords and Shakespearian mechanicals – the sidekick corrupt priest, market women, traders, policemen, a queue of lovesick gullible types – who give the book a flavour of operetta. Translating those operetta characters, the moneylender and the barber, is a tricky and delicate task. One step too far and they become hostile parodies; one step too short and they become timid wastes of space.

The barber is ‘a pretty, rosy-cheeked, blond, blue-eyed boy’ who speaks in ‘a singing slightly effeminate voice, lisping slightly’. Mensch, the moneylender, is pure stage Jew:

A short, scrawny creature, he was sitting in a dressing-gown at a long narrow table, the fingernails of his delicate, yellow hands grown sharp and curling, so that he appeared to grasp things the way a bird of prey seizes its quarry, his lank grey locks hanging over his brow, and his small, bright, intelligent eyes, eyes that glowed from beneath deep wrinkled lids, staring with burning curiosity at the stranger. He greeted Giacomo in his dirty kaftan, lisping and bowing stiffly without rising from his chair, mixing French, Italian and German words in his speech but mumbling all the while, as if not quite taking him seriously but thinking of something else, not really listening to his guest. ‘Ah!’ he said, once the visitor had given his name, and raised his eyebrows until they met the dirty locks above them. He blinked rapidly, like a monkey hunting for fleas. ‘Have these old ears heard correctly? Is an invalid to trust these poor ears of his?’ He spoke of himself in the third person, with a kind of tender intimacy, as if he were his own nephew. ‘Mensch is a very old man,’ he lisped ingratiatingly. ‘No one visits him nowadays, old and poor as he is,’ he mumbled. ‘But here is a stranger come to call,’ he concluded and fell silent.


It might seem unlikely that the author could transcend these apparently lazy stereotypes, but Shakespeare does, and so does Márai. Out of second-hand frills and period lace comes a furious masked discourse in which Casanova’s one true female love, dressed as a man for the masked ball, pays a visit to the great seducer, who is dressed as a woman for the same occasion. The longest and most intense of the arias belongs to Francesca, who first proffers then discards layer after layer of the courtesies of female love to leave a mass of fierce and brutal energy, at which point the theatrical costume she is wearing makes a spectacular and complex counterpoint to the visionary content of her speech. This aria has been prepared for by some equally powerful short ones, particularly that of her aged but still dangerous husband the Duke of Parma. It is in these passages that Márai may be seen as occupying the same literary culture as Krasznahorkai: paragraphs disappear, sentences stretch and there is only the semi-comic darkness where the ignorant armies of human logic and human passion clash by night.

An excerpt from the Duke of Parma’s monologue might help suggest this. The old man has arrived at Casanova’s room and produces a secret letter from his young wife to Casanova that he has intercepted. He has already threatened to kill Casanova if he ever encountered him again as a rival. The letter, written by the barely literate young woman, consists of only four words, which he proceeds to analyse with a dangerously ironic close reading.

‘This, then, is the letter,’ he declared with a peculiar satisfaction, dropping the parchment together with his spectacles into his lap and leaning back in the chair. ‘What do you think of the style? I am absolutely bowled over by it. Whatever Francesca does is done perfectly: that’s how she is, she can do no other. I am bowled over by the letter, and I hope it has had an equally powerful impact on you, that it has shaken you to the core and made its mark on your soul and character the way all true literature marks a complete human being. After years of reading it is only now, this afternoon, when I first read Francesca’s letter, that I truly realized the absolute power of words. Like emperors, popes and everyone else, I discovered in them a power sharper and more ruthless than swords or spears. And now, more than anything I want your opinion, a writer’s opinion, of the style, of the expressive talent of this beginner. I should tell you that I felt the same on a second reading – and now, having glanced over Francesca’s letter for a third time, my opinion has not changed at all. The style is perfect! Please excuse my shortcomings as a critic, do not dismiss the enthusiasm of a mere family member from your lofty professional height – but I know you will admit that this is not the work of a dilettante. There are four words and one initial only, but consider the conditions that forced these four words onto paper, consider that their author, even a year ago, had no acquaintance with the written word: turn the order of the words over in your mind, see how each follows the other, like links in a chain hammered out on a blacksmith’s anvil. Talent must be self-generating. Francesca has not read the works of either Dante or Virgil, she has no concept of subject or predicate, and yet, all by herself, without even thinking about it, she has discovered the essentials of a correct, graceful style. Surely it is impossible to express oneself more concisely, more precisely, than this letter. Shall we analyse it? ‘I must see you’. In the first place I admire the concentrated power of the utterance. This line, which might be carved in stone, contains no superfluous element. Note the prominence of the verb …

… and so on for three remorseless pages, expending an apparently ridiculous amount of energy on each of the four words. This furious, precise, but pointless exegesis is produced by excess: excess of love, jealousy and fear of death. The Duke’s remorselessness is what Casanova is up against. It is such remorselessness – a remorselessness beyond genre or polite literary convention – that makes Márai such an unlikely great writer for a contemporary audience that draws fewer distinctions between fiction and enquiry than did the readership of Márai’s own time and culture. It has grown up with Georges Perec, W.G. Sebald, Javier Marias and Peter Ackroyd. The conventions Márai works with are subjected to far greater strain than they are intended for. They are constantly bursting out of their confines in their urgency to understand and transcend conventions of love, desire and possession. The beloved Francesca’s monologue at the end could be read in the light of Bataille or Foucault, as the language of desire, abnegation and control.

The translator enters the book like a member of the chorus. He joins his voice to one of the available melody lines and does what is necessary to amplify the music of the mind that moves through the language or score before him. Just how ironic is the Duke of Parma? How serious? How accurate? How perceptive? How dangerous? And if he is all these things to various degrees, how do these degrees and proportions play themselves out in English? Where are the echoes? There is no difficulty in finding echoes for the gay barber or the Jewish moneylender. These are tunes everyone knows by heart. A Jonathan Miller production of Rigoletto had the Duke singing the famous air ‘La donna è mobile’, by dropping a coin into a jukebox. A cheap sentiment to a cheap tune, said the production. The production subsumed and ironized the cheapness. Miller had bigger fish to fry.

And so does Márai. As with Krasznahorkai the devil is in the detail, but the detail is part of a project. The Duke of Parma is a little like the Grand Inquisitor in Dostoevsky, a little like Iago in Shakespeare, but mostly he is a voice in Márai’s head. When Francesca enters she is even greater than the Duke. After she finishes her monologue the reader feels there can be little left to say on the subject of passion. Her voice, like the Duke’s, arises out of Márai’s desire to know and understand. That desire employs luxuriant prose but it understands the effect of such prose and knows how deep it cuts. A book that appears to be fribbling and grandstanding by turns explodes at the end. The jukebox blows up. Casanova, who is himself something of a jukebox, but is also portrayed as a force of nature, is doomed to carry the tunes of that jukebox through the rest of his life.

There is in Hungarian writing, whether poetry or prose, a precarious balance between weight and lightness, between despair and laughter. It is compressed and landlocked, occasionally a touch provincial in imagination, booby-trapped with anxieties and melancholy. It is forever pressing against the limits set on it by circumstances. That is why its laughter always seems a little edgy and nervous. Ears trained exclusively on the twentieth-century English novel may occasionally find it hard to place this laughter and this music, but it is available in English too, though the translator has to stretch a little, taking a step forward in one place, a step back in another. The translator has to adapt the text because language is not to be bullied into submission. The translator has to be a little sly, a little brazen and a little rakish, all the while observing the customs of the place. Both Krasznahorkai and Márai expand the horizons of English-language writing: they are semi-familiar strangers who know their manners but are visibly straining at the leashes. It is the translator’s job to see that they pass through border controls, take their places in the street and become part of the landscape.

Read more in The Dublin Review issue No. 20 Autumn 2005