Sunday, 18 May 2014

To Budapest / Boston recalled

The Raphael Room at the Gardner

Early this afternoon we are flying to Hungary for some days. I always look forward to seeing dear friends and to the city itself whose architecture and history are part of my own architecture and history, even in separation.

The specific reason for going this time is to give an inaugural talk to the Szécheny Academy of Letters and Arts (SZIMA) about which I have written before and who have done me the enormous honour of electing me as an overseas member. My task is to talk for about 40-50 minutes. I have written the text of the talk and will deliver it in English if only because when I talk about literary things I trust my English far more than I do my Hungarian. With a bit of luck someone might translate it into Hungarian. It is about my personal experience of poetry, Hungary and - chiefly - translation. It isn't an academic lecture but something more informal than that.

I will write a daily blog from Hungary while we are there.

As to Boston I look back to the visit with great fondness. It was essentially a day and a half, half of that in an off-the-clock condition, fully alert yet drifting as though it were all a waking dream. The United States seems a single entity in terms of foreign policy and general face to the world, but we know it to be an amalgam of wildly different provinces of temper, inclination, manners, habits and so forth. It seems a miracle that all this should be tied together in one over-riding identity. Maybe it's all an illusion, a kind of conjurer's trick, a table apparently floating in the air but held up by invisible wires, the whole thing a waking dream combined with Joyce's nightmare of history from which Stephen Dedalus at least is trying to awake. But isn't all history like that? Yours, mine and the rest?

Boston seemed to me to be at the most civilisé end of the identity spectrum. There is of course Cambridge and Harvard to take into account as well as the other universities of Boston. There is the sheer weight of literary tradition. Massachusetts is officialy a Commonwealth and Boston one of the oldest cities in the USA, founded by Puritans in 1630. It was the centre of gravity of the Anerican Revolution and, later, of the abolitionists. Then there were the Boston Brahmins, the upper class literati of the mid- to late-19th century: the Emersons, the Wendell Holmes lot, the Eliots, the Lodges, the Lowells, the Melvilles, John Singer Sargent et al. A very superior set - and that's just a skim.

Maybe all this rubs off or simply spreads like butter. The sunlit streets had a buttered look. You could practically eat them and, in my half-dream state, I felt I was almost eating them, slipping them into me like a light breakfast. Walking to the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum on Sunday morning, flitting in and out of the increasingly intense sun, skirting the park with its Muddy River, Back Bay Fens, and Emerald Necklace, down the Fenway and past the Museum of Fine Arts was more dreamstate consumption. I had to give the MFA a miss as there wasn't time, but the Gardner is worth a day in itself.

It was originally a huge private house and the Gardners were, of course, one of the Boston Brahmins, heavy with wealth and accumulated culture. Years ago I decided that the greatest need in our Country was Art… We were a very young country and had very few opportunities of seeing beautiful things, works of art… So, I determined to make it my life's work if I could, said Isabella in 1917 having gone about her business of turning the house into a museum. I bet it was fun collecting those Fra Angelicos, Bellinis, Botticellis, never mindthe Degas, Dürer, Giotto, Holbein, Van Dyck, Rembrandt, Piero della Francesca and others too many to mention. I can't help sounding a tiny bit waspish about the munificence of plutocrats but this really is lovely. Indeed the Gardner alone justifies my use of the French civilisé. Like the Frick in New York it still feels like a house where treasures just happen to be on display rather than a gallery. The architecture is not overwhelming, the pace is right and there isn't the implied pressure to cruise by everything out of a sense of obligation. It is all Browning's My Last Duchess without the Duke. For me it was a close call between the Piero and the Rembrandt self-portrait, but between bouts of looking I could go down to the open library where it's possible to sit and browse books.

Then I drift back to the Eliot Hotel and sit in the lobby charging my phone before calling the taxi to the airport. Here beginneth some twelve hours of homeward travel. Shame to leave the butter on the sidewalks and elevations. Shame to dip into a literary schedule then pop out, but that's just the way things are.

And now Budapest. The sunlight is here in Wymondham too but it's not quite as buttery. I can't make up my mind whether it has a pastoral or tabloid look. It's somewhere between Samuel Palmer and Phew What a Scorcher. But cooler, the leaves flittery with light.

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