Tuesday, 20 May 2014

From Budapest 1: Beauty and an accident

I am not getting an internet connection on my own laptop so am using a dear friend's. That is partly the cause of this late post, and partly that we have spent the last couple of days showing around our friends from England who are staying nearby (they are currently at the Gellért Baths swimming and getting a heavy duty massage). So now we are at our friends, and I have an hour or two. I have however a pocket notebook and have been writing in it, both a poem and these notes as below.

I always forget how beautiful Budapest is. It is so particularly in Pest and in almost any direction, down any street, its beauty sometimes quiet, at other times riotous with detail. The buildings are the product of a bourgeois but humane carnival of the spirit, the whole flowering in a few decades between, say, 1860 and 1920. It is precisely the kind of architeture a modernist - like Pevsner for instance - would hate, all plain structure covered up by a dazzling superstructure. Peel away the stucco, the embarrassment of columns, pediments, friezes, garlands, statuary, and all that indescribably various set of rhetorical gestures and you get what a Marxist would regard as the true state of afairs: wealthy landlords letting their architects imitate any style providing it produces an unspecified nostalgia for anything in the past., then letting the grand apartments and the poky attic flats to anyone who could afford them then raking in the money. It is a blowsy Central European form of Victorianism without the protestant sense of righteousness.

And yet, now, at this distance, after all that has happened here, it is indubitably, indisputably beautiful. It holds together: it has survived, its variety offers a certain unity of high spirits, and - after all - it turns out kinder and more generous, more tragic perhaps than a pure rationalist would ever have anticipated. It is the provinces awakening to discover they possessed an urban imagination. Each tenement block articulates some form of fully-clothed aesthetic, an idea not only embodied or equalled but actually trumped, as if to declare: We have mastered this language and improved upon it!


I write this in the morning soon after waking. The light slices the room into bright diagonals. There are deep shafts of sun constituting a geometric assault, and yet, on other walls, as if by accident, there are delicate smears of light that open like petals.

Being here I feel a certain jealousy of my lost past, of the self that might have emerged in these circumstances, in this architecture, with this sense of movement that remains in motion even when the streets look empty. The movement is in the eye and mind: a wind standing still. I feel I am physically part of it.

But then I think again. The city looks well, never better, maybe too well., its old wounds wiped and dressed, its fierce history re-clad and smoothed out. It is hard to know what to trust. Is that face there wrestling with its resenments? Is that old woman there resigned or inwardly raging? A lot can change very quickly here. Is the country beginning to lose its civilised habits? Is it losing its patience? Is it clinging to its history of understandable but corrosive, sometimes devastating insecurities? I see what has happened to its clothes but what is happening in its heart? Who is tapping into the misery trapped in its walls? What is creeping through its foundations?

On the way home earlier our bus passed an accident. A little girl, some ten years old, was lying quite still in a quiet side road, bleeding from her head, her eyes wide open. A woman was getting out of a car. The bus passed. I thought she was dead. It turns out she was not. She had simply broken her shoulder.

It would have been terrible to live with the memory of a dead young girl. You see all the people passing in another street, ignorant of what has happened, and other young girls and boys, and imagine the girl's mother somewhere, about to be informed. The girl had run across a red light. It is a deep relief that she is all right.

Tomorrow my talk at the academy. It is all written.


Frank Prescott said...

Hi George! It's a surprise to find you are in Budapest - you picked the right week to come, not last week when it was miserable. I think your description of the city gets to heart of things; on the surface it looks wonderful, but there are definitely dangerous undercurrents at work here, and I worry what could happen in the not too distant future if the whole society gets swept up by those currents.
Are you talking at the Academy of Sciences tomorrow or somewhere else. i'd like to come and listen to you if it's possible. (I'm Frank from ELTE, by the way.)

Bénédicte said...

Yes, details on the talk please! The MTA website is pretty much mute on the subject as far as I can see.

George S said...

The talk is today at 4pm in MTA, by the Lánchid. You would both be very welcome.