Thursday, 28 August 2008

Hot and cool in Szígliget

A night here at Szígliget. Not at the ruined castle of course, but where the link points to. The place is an old Esterházy villa that acts as a writers' retreat. This week it is the association of young writers, the Attila József Circle (József Attila Kör, or JAK for short) that takes occupancy. It's like a conference but with visiting writers, readings and concerts. I was invited to do an interview, in Hungarian, with the poet Mónika Mesterházi. Talking a long time in Hungarian is always a slightly daunting process. The themes were to be my own work as a poet and as a translator, and the situation of Hungarian literature in translation generally. There is a two-hour window for this so it is extra daunting.

Yes, but it was all right. I don't say it was the most mind-blowing set of answers I have ever given, or the most elegantly phrased, but it is a sort of consolation that I could do it at all. Pulling faces helps - like Scolari at his conferences, but for much, much longer, with somewhat more abstruse subject matter. That is a lot of faces to pull. The young, as ever, are never impressed by anything but at least they don't turn up their eyes as if to say, Who is this old fart? They are cool, but not irredeemably cool. Well, let them be cool as long as they can, the rest of the time it's work and luck. Not to forget world-shattering genius.

Or, as a proper Hungarian writer Lajos Parti Nagy, whose interview came half an hour after mine, showed, you can attain cool by a kind of Hemingwayesque world-weariness. As a matter of fact I thought he was damn good at it. His interviewer was a young critic. Young critics are required to be cool. They take PhDs in it, and this one was post-doctoral.

The critic threw postmodernism at the writer. Are you, or have you ever been, a postmodernist? Clearly it would be a good thing if he were. LPN's answer was a sigh - Yes, you could read my work that way, and maybe it is and maybe it isn't, but isn't it the case that all the word postmodernism means now is that something is supposed to be good. What is the opposite of postmodernism? Something that is not good.

I thought that was a decent answer, and he went on giving decent answers, avoiding anything potentially incriminating. He was funny too. I wasn't. Just you try being funny in a foreign language while actually meaning to be so. Not easy. I don't do funny in Hungarian. Vaguely droll is the best I can do. But it may be just politely mystifying.

It was hot. Blazingly, wearyingly hot. Lake Balaton was 2km down the road. A number went for a midnight swim. Not your correspondent. Way not cool enough. At 5am in the morning the church bells rang insistently for early mass. The trains both ways were forty minutes late. I take back what I said about dazzling infrastructure.

Back in Budapest now. Last night here - heading home in the morning. The vultures of work and obligation are gathering over Norfolk.

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