Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Budapest 6: Thinking back: moments of brightness / darknesses, anxieties

Budapest, The Hungarian Academy building by the Danube

We leave the flat for the airport in a couple of hours time so this is the last opportunity for a few extra personal thoughts from Budapest itself.

The Academy
Just a sentence or two on this. It still doesn't seem quite real. Sometimes I feel I am walking about in two parallel lives: the life that is writing this, that goes to the shops and talks to people, the man I see in the mirror; the other life is that of a man whose name I recognise as my own but whose person seems to be located in a figure more respected than I consider myself to be. I am enormously grateful and flattered by the kindnesses done to him and am constantly worried that he is a dream that may vanish into thin air or fade with the light. That means I like having him around and that he gives me the sort of confidence the first figure never has. That means I am vain. That means I remember the big hall, the surprisingly large audience and the reactions to my speech, and the fact that, behind all this, there were people who nominated and supported me. Beyond that, that this marvellous, now embattled institution in this, my first country - an institution I instinctively support - has some space in it for me.

The Monastery
There have been times in my life when I have almost wanted to be a monk, maybe only for the unworthy reason of getting away from the material world in order to concentrate on the spirit or mind or heart or whatever you call it, and to keep things simple. Being in a monastery such as Pannonhalma, tht is such a mixture of plainness and opulence, of inwardness yet of beyond-self works, awoke all those early feelings. The service especially took me back to my religious phase in my twenties, when I was attracted by the plainest of plain services, of crosses drawn in biro on the wall, of a non-cerebral sense of togetherness and dedication, the time spent in non-conformist churches, of full-immersion baptism, of the sense of sacredness in small things - all associated with a romantic love for Clarissa, though I would never have used the term romantic love then: it was all just love, non-cerebrally generalised. My poems then included erotic elements as though they too were natural in the state of sacredness. This will seem odd in view of my as-yet unconfirmed Jewish background, but in those two or three years I would not have wanted to, nor did in fact, see any distinction. It was at that time I fell in love with the writing of William Blake and yet remained in love with the revolutionary and brilliantly profane poems of Arthur Rimbaud. This is what love is like, I thought: it is everything, indiscrimate, a kind of upwelling that steadies itself while remaining off-balance.

That couldn't last. That was not the way the world actually behaved. I drifted from it, as did Clarissa, and it seems a very long way away, like the memory of a honeymoon of which one remembers only moments but the sense of which has a reality of its own. But that's the way it was, I say to myself, and feel that it really was.

So the monastery. This time round the religious experience was loaded with far more intellection. Every feeling was a thought that I looked to articulate to myself. That is the way it has to be since that is what I am, or so it turns out. And there is a genuine beauty in the sense of living on the edge of the absurd, the ascetic, the beautiful, the prayerful, even of the grotesque, yet with a consciousness of the existential choice to submerge oneself in these things or to reject them. It is a choice that may be made at any time. The great hill hovers there like a tangible mirage. The Gregorian Mass may be a set of absurd mostly bearded men in a hierarchical yet humble male world or a decision to discipline that very sense of absurdity into a formalised awareness of the sacredness of everything, including absurdity. The music is beautiful, the church is beautiful, the history is extraordinary as witnessed in codex and breviary and bible, and it is all exactly as I expected before I came, if only because one can imagine this from evidences of reading, and yet it is actually there, being believed in, in whatever manner believing happens.

As you read this you will no doubt see how far the visit drove me into myself, and I too see it; it is just that I am pretty sure that the this interiority is not the same as subjectivity but something quite the converse. But I cannot name that converse. I look at the fields beneath the monastery and see the chimney of the camp where Radnóti slaved before he was marched away to be shot, and that world seems as much part of the interiority as the mass, in which we did not take part but simply observed.

Hungary itself
I did not mention the lovely and long evening we spent at the flat of a younger poet friend together with other poets of his generation. We intended to stay for an hour or so but stayed five, talking. And of course the talk kept straying back to the condition of the country which they all feel intensely because it impinges directly on them. They are very talented people: I have translated work by them and they have translated work by me. I understand something of their ways of feeling and they must surely understand something of mine. We sipped wine and nibbled salty little cakes as the dark drew on. Rain fell then stopped falling.

Yesterday we met with two others, one an old friend from the 1980s when she was in radio, the other a much younger woman who is an art historian. I have told her story briefly on facebook as The Art Historian's Tale but will reproduce it here once I am home.

Everyone we know here speaks of the same feeling of creeping darkness and powerlessness, the sense of drifting back in time towards some historical iceberg. I have heard not one redeeming word from anyone. Maybe it's just the people we know, but they are the people we love and trust. It has been our most oppressive experience of the country, worse than the eighties because then there was a suspicion that it was going to end, that we were living at the end of something. Now there is just this backwards drag into apprehension.

The faces in the street have hardened. One man - so a friend recounts - declares that Hungarians should be ready to die to defend themselves from Europe. Posters declare Europe - respect Hungary! In the meantime the country is approaching a condition of one-party dictatorship. The government's favourite trope is that western (ie dreadfully liberal and tolerant) Europe has a narrative that wishes to humiliate and destroy Hungary and regards it as (I quote George Schöpflin, Hungarian Euro MP) 'a hairy ape'. Nothing could be further from the truth. Hungary had for decades been regarded as the clever country, the sophisticated country where people entered revolving doors behind you yet emerged in front of you.

The truth is that the narrative works the other way. The Hungarian right spread the lie that Europe and Europeans are the poor Hungarian nation's enemy so that they, and the whole country, might cosy up to the kind of 'strong-man' dictatorship they themselves aspire to impose. Hungary get big funds from Europe but insist that Europe takes more from Hungary. Hungarians (conceptualised as essentially das volk) adopt all the gadgets and gewgaws of consumer society but are encouraged to claim that they stand for something nobler, more patriotic than that.

Budapest is a beautiful city and the country looks wonderful in sunshine but the dominant feeling of this visit is of a darkness I won't forget. Clarissa woke from a dream that our friends were in danger. In the dream following we were being attacked by dogs rather like humans. The two dreams were related. They are only dreams, the unconscious inventing metaphors for its anxieities, but the anxieties are real enough.

Monday, 26 May 2014

Budapest 5: Not Budapest but the monastery

How to describe the contrast betwen Budapest and the Benedictine monastery at Pannonhalma? The difference could hardly be greater. We were invited there by a fairly recent friend who is not only an excellent poet but happens to be a Benedictine monk. Generously he invited us not just for the day but for an overnight stay. We took the fast Munich train to Győr where he and a fellow monk collected us in a car.

I must add a small note of appreciation for Hungarian transport here. Being EU citizens over the age of sixty-five we travel free almost everywhere and, in the case of the fast train - much more comfortable than any in the UK - we just pay for the speed and the reserved seats. The journey to Győr speeds by in about an hour and quarter.

Friend V greets us on the platform and introduces to fellow monk F who does the driving. It takes less than half an hour. The word Pannonhalma means Mount of Hungary (Pannonia being the Roman name for the country). It is more a prominet hill than a mountain but it is in the middle of flat country so it stands high above its surroundings. The Benedictines originated in Montecassiono about 1500 years ago and were given a royal charter in Pannonhalma in the 11th century. That stated that the Beneditines were not answerable to other local orders or to the archbishop but directly to Rome, so Pannonhalma keeps a certain distance between itself and the rest of the Catholic church in Hungary which tends to support the government. It is in effect an ancient independent order.

I don't want to reproduce the guide book so will give only some personal impressions. Set on top of the hill the community comprises many buildings from the 13C to today. There is a school but also extensive grounds where they cultivate chiefly herbs and a great variety of exquisite wines. There are gardens and sports pitches. The places is dense with silence. Our room was large, simple but far from austere. Swallows nested in the eaves and swooped in and out of the courtyard and above the the whole monastery. At night the frogs croak in loud chorus along the road.

When we eat lunch we eat in a special guest room set for the three of us. V's role is to organise cultural events and there is an annual festival where international contemporary composers are paired with a classical composer climaxing in concerts. But there are also plays, exhibitions, commissioned installations, films and dances. All of this is secular in nature and people come a long way to attend.

V shows us round. We do a tour of the monastery stopping to examine various buildings and looking out over the surrounding landscape. He points to a single tall factory chimney. That was Radnóti's last place of work in forced labour he says. The prisoners were starved and enfeebled and many, like Radnóti were shot on a long march along the way.

We visit the extraordinary wine cellars where there just happens to be a wine-tasting in progress. The wine is produced gravitationally over three or four floors, the vats gleaming, ultra-modern, more like dreams of laboratories than traditional wine cellars. The result is a range of exquisite wines that are exported all over thw world and are probably the finest white wines in the country. We taste some six and seven then sit down (maybe we have to sit down) and talk. Then we attend the evenig service in the very plain church, the entire service sung.

Next day we visit the archive and are shown ancient manuscripts dating back to the 12th and 13th centuries, complete with the royal seal. Most wonderful is a tiny 15th century fully illuminated breviary. It is given to us to hold and leaf through. It is so beautiful I am on the edge of tears. The library holds some three hundred codexes bound into eighty volumes.

After the archive we went to the Gregorian mass then went for a steep walk down to the lavender fields, returning through a copse, followed by lunch in another private dining room, then were taken back to the station by V driven by F.

I am not reflecting on all this here but will do so separately in another post later. My thoughts during the mass dwelt on the following issues: the contrast between the human figure Christ and the vast edifice of church and ritual, on the psychological or personal context of ritual and religion generally, on the existentialist aspects of such uncertainty and faith, on the eschataoligal sense of mortality that draws humanity to consider its own ephemerality and on the balance between meaning of any kind and absurdity.

Chiefly I reflect now on the sheer beauty, silence, and evident liberality of the institution, on the balance between fine wine and plain monastic rule (on the ora et labore of the Benedctine creed) and on the kindness, spirit and intellect of our friend who is recognised by many, especially among the young, as one of the best of contemporary poets. He has been a monk here for thirty-four years, after compulsory army service. He is completing a PhD on religious kitsch.

Meanwhile back in the city the conversations go on. I will write one more post about them as soon as I can.

Budapest 4: cellar / university / monastery

The days have rushed by without a chance to sit down and write so I am catching up.

The day after the inaugural speech I had been asked for an interview on podcast for a small station with very limited audience, but I had been in touch with the man who asked me and we shared some views on Hungary.  So Clarissa and I went along to the do the recording in one of the poorer parts of the city and were shown into a cellar by our host who was soon joined by his colleague from the Central European University.The conversation, for a series titled Perspectives on Hungary, lasted about an hour and a half. Poetry was no part of it: translation was discussed but the talk ran chiefly on history, politics and social circumstances. There was much to say and we got on without repetition. Half way through a poor unemployed man in his fifties or so popped in to ask whether this was the soup kitchen. It was, but not today, said our host. Outside, the hard worn faces, the crippled, the coping, the neglected and the frustrated among whom the seeds of resentment are first sown to be brought to flower by the dissatisfied lower middle classes. I mentioned the numbers of limbless in the city on Twitter and was told that Hungary's record of amputations is twice that of western Europe and is the result of untreated diabetes. I'll link to the podcast once I have a link. I am always curious whether I have said anything stupid or regrettable but I don't think so on this occasion. We will see.

From the cellar to the university to meet an old friend, a prominent poet and literary scholar, who is teaching there. He took us to his office. See anything missing? he asked. There was no computer. There is in fact just one computer between some sixteen staff and one photocopier for the faculty. The government has cut university support by a third. And this university is the finest and most prestigious in the country and internationally. Students have to buy more books. Meanwhile, in order to save more money, the university introduced compulsory early retirement for senior staff. Support for the far right Jobbik is particularly strong among the student-age group and is so among the university's students, that is if they are interested in politics at all. The students union is run by Jobbik and has been for some years. Our friend loves teaching and divulges all this in small snippets with a rueful smile. It is not a litany of complaint or frustration bursting its banks. It is just the way things are.

We have one more meeting in a nearby cafe with a younger poet with whom I exchange books, then we go out for a meal. Our English guests have spent the day visiting Esztergom. Disappointed by behaviour in the cathedral they find the town poor and are surprised, or so we discover the next day when we sit down for a goodbye lunch with them at a nearby street corner restaurant. I will be fascinated to hear their impressions once they have had some time back. There is so much beauty in the city that rises above the noise of political developments.

After lunch we go back to their flat where they pack and wait for the shuttle bus to take them to the airport. We return to our dear hosts for a brief while before setting off to visit M, the man I consider my father-in-Hungary, who is now in his eighties and with many physical problems. He was a very important magazine editor and has become a marvellous writer in his late life. From a part-aristocratic background, he is one of the most civilised people I have ever known and is chiefly responsible for commissioning many of my poetry translations. His first greeting is: I didn't think you'd come back to this benighted country. He is more than furious with the way things have gone and are going. Like all our friends he fears the rise of a new fascism - not in the easy terms of some western student revolutionary but from the point of view of someone who actually knows what fascism was and is. An hour or so with him is enough as he tires. I love this man and will be devastated when he finally goes.

The next day we travel to the Benedictine Monastery at Pannonhalma but I will give that a separate post.

Thursday, 22 May 2014

From Budapest 3: Inaugural

I put on my suit - a lightweight dark suit that Clarissa says is green and I say is blue. We can't even agree on grey-blue and she insists on green. We may both be right according to our individual optics, of course, but some sort of objectivity is required in such situations so I gracefully retreat.

We leave the flat with Gabi, walk down the steep steps by the Budapest Hotel, that big, round, probably sixties affair., cross the busy road by the lights - people still tend to go by the lights rather than by the actual traffic - hop onto a tram to what is now Széll Kálmán tér (tér mean square) but which was known through almost all the previous years we have visited as Moszkva, or Mosow, tér. The name has reverted to the period before communism. Street names in Budapest have a habit of changing regime by regime. I can't help thinking of it as Moszkva still.

From there we duck down the old 1970s Metro station, travel under the Danube on the tube amd get off by parliament to catch the 2 tram, for another two stops. The whole journey from door to door of the academy with a walk and two changes of transport is under 25 minutes. We wander in and I look for the organiser, C, going up the lift and down the stairs (it is only the first floor after all), without finding him. We are expecting our English friends so decide to wait by the front gate.

Slowly one or two people appear, old friends and acquaintances from the early days. A lovely exchange student from my time at the art school (she is now an Egyptologist). I have looked inside the hall where I am to speak and it is rather big, with room for a couple of hundred perhaps. Thank heaven it looks as though there might be at least a dozen present, I think. It would have been a little depressing to talk to just five or six. But I am expecting only a few:  it's a hot day, after all,and I am going to speak in English, and I really haven't told everyone because I have a certain dread of pushiness, which is in fact stupid under the circumstances, but I can be very stupid that way, because I never once think that so and so might be upset that I didn't tell them or invite them, but will grumble, what's that big-head up to now? I suspect this is over-anglicisation. I did once begin to describe the protocol of receiving a medal here in parliament but had only finished one brief sentence before I realised I was boring the pants of my English colleagues.

But more frriends arrive, some elderly, some moving with difficulty, and once it's time to start the hall looks reasonably full. Gy makes introductory remarks then I step to the lectern and talk for some forty minutes as arranged with help from A, the poet who translated my poem English Words, the only poem I read. Mostly the talk is about poetry, language and, above all, translation. I feel relaxed. I haven't been nervous about talking to audiences for many years now. What can happen? I reason with myself. If I make a mistake I'll laugh it off. If I am making the wrong kind of speech, well, it's written and I believed in it, so what's done is done. As it happens I think it goes well, the applause seems warm and Gy makes a final summing up and presents me with the certificate. It is truly an extraordinary honour. The academy has, I think, a fixed number of members including from all the arts. I am now one of them. Wow! I think. What does this mean? And Bálaint, another ex-Norwich exchange student comes up. He has two children now with a third on the way. He is translating English fiction.

The speech is over. We drink bubbly in one of the offices. My dear Egyptologist has brought some strawberries. One of our company, a very senior academic and critic, drops his strawberry into the champagne. I do it too, soon a number of us are doing it. I joke with the others. Then we leave, part and six of us head over to the Petőfi literary museum where they have a restaurant in the yard. A pianist is murdering standards inside, but as the meal goes on I grow fonder of his heavy phrasing. Then home.

The text of the speech will be available in Hungarian translation, and I will put it up here in parts. It might find a home in some UK journal..

Delighted to meet another two Twitter acquaintances at the event, Piko Borsó and Nora, the art historian.

Now to head off to an interview.

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

From Budapest 2: Dinner, beggars, inaugural

Weather continues hot, creeping up a degree each day. It is about 28C now in the early afternoon. Last night we went for dinner at the widow of an old poet friend who died in 2002. There is a commemorative plaque on the building now celebrating him . The building is the large Buda tenement block where I first visited him in 1985 when he was at a very early stage of the Parkinson's Disease that was to kill him in the end. I edited and translated half his book in English, The Blood of the Walsungs. His name was Ottó Orbán. Ottó was magnificent, a war orphan, an early follower of Beat poetry (he translated Ginsberg - but also Chaucer) then a virtuoso formalist. His Hungarian variation on Poe's The Raven is dazzling, inventive, personal, streetwise. It would have been his birthday yesterday. Both his daughters were there, one an academic the other a dramaturg. The flat hadn't changed at all. We sat down to a meal of layered potatoes which is probably what we ate the last time we were there.  The seven of us talked now in English, now in Hungarian, of the theatre, of politics, of film, of mutual friends and acquaintances. Then home in the taxi.

The beggars of Budapest look particularly afflicted. There are quite a few with limbs missing, sitting in busy places, hoping for a few coins, but generally quiet and patient, half invisible. Some clearly have drink problems. A couple near the Nagycsarnok, the great 19thC covered market (Eiffel's design I think - he also designed the Western Rail Terminal) had red faces and puffy eyes, but the limbs were indubitably missing, and what else can these poor people do but buy a few cheap drinks and eat where possible? Just this morning, as we were walking to meet our friends in this quiet corner of Buda, a young woman, quite well dressed, approached us and asked for money. She said she hadn't seen her children in ages and needed to get to where they were, but I suspect she was addicted to one or other thing. She was thin, her eyes not quite focused. We give when we can.

Down by the metro station the poor, either Roma or up from villages, are looking to sell whatever they have: cornflowers, walking sticks, outsize knickers, drink - and needlework. One older toothless woman was looking to sell our friend a tablecloth. It was too small  for the friend who wanted a bigger one. Buy this one, said the old woman to me (friend has no Hungarian) and I'll reduce the price of the big one for you on Friday. The cops confiscated the three big ones I brought this morning (the vendors are all illegal). She quickly cut her price by half and made the sale. She might or might not be back on Friday.

There are lives between cracks, in shady corners. They rush towards you and quickly retreat when the law appears. This is true in every big city but it's part of the fabric here: the unofficial life runs parallel to the official. Things work at a kind of dual level. A locked cabinet does not lock, suddenly the electricity is cut off for a few hours, the toilets in the sparkling airport might not be all you anticipate. Again, it is like everywhere only more so.

In just over an hour's time I will set off to the MTA, the Hungarian Academy, where I am to make an inaugural speech. It's all written in English but I will preface it in Hungarian. No special dressing up apparently. No suits or ties required. The talk, then a little champagne and maye, privately, a meal. I was going to ad lib the Hungarian but in the end I wrote it down in my notebook. I have no idea of the protocol - I suspect there is very little - but the list of academicians is dazzling in every field of the arts. It seems like false modesty but I do really often wonder what I am doing in such places. I never even went to university. When I was in my teens we made a family visit to Oxford. I looked at the colleges and felt they were quite another world, something out of reach, fantastical, impossibly glamorous, the realm of wealth and genius.

I have read at quite a few of those by now. Our daughter went to one of the colleges - the most beautiful of them -and the people no longer daunt or frighten me. But still it feels strange, like a fancy dress ball. About time I dressed then.

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.

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.

Saturday, 17 May 2014

Boston and events at the Goethe Institut

You know what LK looks like. This is Semezdin Mehmedinovic.  Fine poet. Fine face.

The driver didn't know exactly where the Goethe Institut was but we found it down another dignified looking street and were ushered in and down the corridor to a room with drinks and sandwiches in time for a 1pm start, or pretty near. You know what to do. You put down your coat if you have one and your bag if you have one, pick up a glass of wine, manipulate a sandwich towards your mouth preferably near a table and you talk. People are still arriving. This link takes you to the programme.

You will see it started with LK and I reading and talking with the critic, James Wood, then went on to a staged reading from the play Brandung/Abyss followed by a conversation between the playwright Maria Milisavljevic and Israeli stage director Guy Ben-Aharon. That was followed by readings and conversations between Bosnian poet Semezdin Meymedinovic and his translator, poet Ammiel Alcalay, chaired by Ainsley Morse and so on down the list as you can see from the link. Each time there was a brief break for more water or wine, and some nibbles (some delicious). It was a full day. There was a lovely reading by translator Stacey Knecht of Hrabal's Harlequins Millions, and some readings from English versions of Ivan Blatny by the translator Veronika Tuckerova. To end it all there was a slightly curious performance of Baroque music.

What is all this like?

The event with LK, James Wood and myself was straightforward - I read about 25 minutes worth of poems about Central Europe, language, and translation and talked about them, ending with The Death of the Translator. LK read two essays, in my translation I think but both done a while ago. Then we talked with James (very charming) about poetry, apocalypse and translation, not necessarily in that order, and in the meanwhile lovely Barbara Epler of New Directions, whose train from NY had been delayed by fire on the line, appeared and joined the audience. We managed to talk a little, then she went off with LK and Dorka and I stayed through the rest of the programme, particularly enjoying the Mehmedinovic poems and the Hrabal, occasionally working hard to survive the lack of sleep. The conversations were thrown open to the audience each time, and at one point I got involved because I was intrigued by a question - that is in the second session with Semezdin and Ammiel. When I am intrigued I start talking, chiefly flying ideas or asking more questions. It is probably this that gets me invited to conferences generally. 'He's got something to say,' they think, so they make me say it. I can't remember now what the question was. It was a question. Sometimes that's enough.

Then we all went off in taxis into the rain to have a vast tapas meal under awnings in a nearby street. We sprawled literature and translation. We ate books and magazines. There were some fourteen of us passing dishes round, trying to talk to each other. Then back to the hotel in more taxis.

This is not so much a reflection as a report. Dull stuff really. LK, Dorka and I managed to get some good private conversation in the odd moment. I do believe LK is being turned into a god, especially in France. He takes it well on the whole. A good part of my life has been serving him with translations but he is rather remarkable, decent and essentially, sane.

Boston is a literary city all right though. There is no mistaking that.

Two delights en passant. One of the first people I met in the Goethe corridor was a Twitter friend who goes by the name of Isseki Nicho, though her real name is Heather. She was lovely. The there was Carl, also of Twitter acquaintance. Both had come a little way, partly at least to meet me, which is very flattering in a schoolboy sort of way. It cheered me up. I thanked them then and would love to thank them again.

I will do some reflecting in the next post.

Friday, 16 May 2014

Boston and mortality 1

Straight down the centre of Commonwealth Avenue

I loved Boston. It felt comfortable, European, a touch French in architecture. The city had a relaxed civic grace. Granted I might have been in one of the richer areas but there were still the two beggars, no three, along Newbury Street and each of them was receiving something from someone as I approached them. The first sat by a tree while three young girls spilled from a bar. One immediately dropped some coins into his cup and they started a conversation. A young to middle aged sporty couple were walking down towards the next beggar. They stopped and gave something too. I gave something to the third so it must have been a good day down Newbury Street with its shops, cafes, galleries and dives. You don't get art galleries in poor streets. This was civic and pretty.

It was Saturday morning. I had arrived late on Friday - late by European time that is, meaning about 1am, though it was only 8pm or so in Boston. I explored the suite of rooms, arranged my things, made myself a herbal tea and tried to sleep but it wasn't easy. I was too tired so it took maybe an hour. It's the usual long-distance disorientation.

The next morning I had solo breakfast of poached eggs. The time was still not quite right, but I resolved to go for at least a good half hour walk. I am now obliged to do this daily since it was discovered, just the day before my departure after the return of a blood test, that I now have type 2 diabetes with rather high blood sugar. Everything else was OK. The nurse had reeled off the right sort of diet I should be following though I was already on most of it, adding the idea of a daily half hour brisk walk. It is true that I had been breathless at the beginning of any morning walk down to the local station for well over a year, but the pain generally wore off.  Still, something was not right. It was my mother with her heart trouble who used to gasp so dreadfully later in her relatively short life (she died at fifty-one) and I had often thought of her.

It was the same down Newbury Street, a little gasping at first then settling into a decent pace. The temperature was mild, just warming and growing more humid, heading towards the expected downpour later in the afternoon. Newbury Street eventually reaches the public garden with its lake, swan-boats (with the bonus of an actual swan) and memorial statues, including the 9/11 memorial. Nearby struts Washington on a pacing horse and the periphery of the park is sprinkled with more statues to people like Charles Sumner, Tadeusz Kosciuszko, Thomas Cass, Wendell Phillips and others. People jog, push prams, amble, stare at the lake, snap photographs and take advantage of the early sun.

The Eliot Hotel is situated in Commonwealth Avenue, a long central drive with a broad central green reservation full of more statues - the civic theme continuing. It runs parallel to Newbury and I walked back that way, trees in blossom, the houses bigger than down Newbury, slightly more baroque, more a matter of statements about taste and wealth, though they are mostly apartments now and the whole street is lined with trees in full blossom, pink and white.

I suppose I feel a little more mortal having been diagnosed with something positively dangerous if I don't deal with it but I have always felt mortal so it is not a shock, just a minor change of degree. This personal sense of mortality has, I suspect, been the best thing about life as long as I remember, it involves a kind of careless delight in the spectacle of something I know, and always have known, to be brittle and finite. We walk on and breathe the dead. They did the same, as will our children and their children. It lends the experience of merely being alive an excitement, almost - ironically - an out-of-the-body pleasure.

So the body goes up and down the street walking (relatively) briskly for some forty minutes. Then it goes back, lies down, reads and waits to meet Elizabeth, the organiser, in the lobby, and when I meet her, there are others too going to to the Goethe Institut for the day's events. And there is László K and Dorka, and soon enough we squeeze into taxis and get down to business.

Thursday, 8 May 2014

To Boston, USA:
despairs about translation

Tomorrow the long journey to Boston MA. From here to Cambridge to Kings Cross, to Paddington, to Heathrow 5, then seven hours on the plane, arriving at 6:50 local time. It's a lunchtime event on Saturday, with László Krasznahorkai, James Wood and I doing some reading then talking. For once I am not appearing entirely as LK's translator but as myself, to some extent at any rate, which is one of the reasons I agreed to go.

LK's other translator Ottilie Mulzet has just won the same prize as I did last year, with the same author, the Best Translated Book Award, so he is well provided for. I don't think it has happened before that the same author has won it two years running with two different translators. It shows the remarkable - and fully deserved - rise in his reputation. His first books in English were praised by Sontag and Sebald and indeed in reviews generally, but the reviews were small then. Now they are long and rhapsodic.

It's a strange feeling being part of this. I have never really thought of myself as a translator, not quite. I was a writer who did some translation, a little like Tim Parks perhaps, or Jamie McKendrick, or maybe Michael Hofmann. But then Tim gave it up, and Michael was, so it seems at least, overtaken by it, and while Jamie persists and I have so far persisted I still feel it is my left hand translating and my right hand doing the writing. I am after all right handed. It's what feels natural.

And besides I have never felt that I was so overwhelmingly good at it. Not as good as the work could possibly be. I could make some texts sing, others remained oddly inert. I got some things wrong, never the important things, but this or that minor detail, which remains annoying to this day.In any case I seem to have translated at least thirteen works of fiction, a few volumes of individual Hungarian poets, and edited and contributed to a number of anthologies. I have thought about translation, and even written about it. I think I understand it as a psychological process, and maybe now and then had the odd original sounding thought about it. At best, the singing was worth it.

But translation isn't my métier. It is something I have done. All the fiction except one book was commissioned. I just had to say yes and I am better at saying yes than saying no. There have been some tight scrapes on deadlines because I had been prevailed on to translate two books more or less concurrently.

Now here am I at sixty-five thinking about my future. I am committed to one more book of prose to translate, maybe one other. But this creative form of ventriloquism, this being another voice, is a weight on the spirit.

Maybe it is a poet's vanity, a form of egotism. I don't desire to be someone else's instrument. Not for much longer. I am the only instrument I really have and I want to see what it can do. I want to devote myself to it. If it fails, if it is a weaker instrument than I still hope it might be, it is nonetheless mine. It's fully my responsibility. It's not nothing.

So I shall read a few poems in Boston, mostly about Europe and language, and some about translation too, about its enigmas and its stiltstalking servility. No stilts though. Stand on your own feet.

I will, I was glad to discover, stay at The Eliot Hotel. It will mean that weary nod to Rochefoucauld. But let Aunt Harriet fetch her own Boston Evening Transcript.

Monday, 5 May 2014


It is Sunday evening. The sky is the colour of a bottle of ink once the ink level has sunk. It is one of my favourite colours. The yard is also blue, stony and dark.

Days are fragmentary, filled with intense patches of activity then a kind of silence or waiting. It may be that retirement is only just breaking in on me.

Today we went to visit our elderly neighbour in her care home, which is a fine eighteenth century mansion, much restored, double-glazed, properly equipped and somewhat institutionalised with some tasteful if bland touches in terms of bric-a-brac. It has well-tended grounds sweeping away to a distant fence, with trees, shrubs and a fountain. It would be pleasant to walk there if anyone had the energy to walk. The whole place is one of those more expensive affairs that drains the savings but the staff are nice, and everything is clean and safe. A middle-aged woman was playing guitar and singing 'As Time Goes By' in the main sitting room as we entered. Her voice was amplified though I doubt it needed amplification and it more or less held the tune. Some of the residents were asleep despite the music, one of them tightly covering her ears. They have quite a lot of entertainment here. On one of our earlier visits it was a young man who produced a series of live animals, including a snake and a large spider.

It was about three o'clock. Our neighbour, E, too was in the room, eyes closed, possibly asleep, still as a dry leaf. We gently touched her hand and she woke without a start and registered who we were. She rose with a little help and using her stick walked with us to the quiet empty room that serves as the TV lounge in the evening, not that she ever goes there.

E has been an independent woman for decades. She had been married once, though that was a long time ago, and had two children both roughly our age, a daughter married and living in Australia, and a son married and living in Canada. The daughter and her husband are currently here and regularly visiting her.

But E's independence has taken a particularly solitary form. She had owned a craft shop and was a talented visual artist. Her drawings - those we have seen - are skilful, fast and precise. She gardened, she made things with her hands, she read widely and intelligently. Her house lies behind ours, off the road, behind a large gateway. The meadow next to the abbey is directly behind her. Other neighbours are invisible from her garden. From the seclusion of the house (the converted shambles for the old butcher's shop that is our house) you'd think she was a recluse, but she was and remains shrewd and it was she who would give us the gossip of the town.

She is admirable and remains so. On entering the care home she decided the game was up and set her face against everything she used to enjoy. No more reading, for example. No radio. No TV.  As little talking as possible. Minimal food. There is no point in it, as she hinted today. It wouldn't be for anything. Her memory is going but she carried on a perfectly good conversation with us today, her mind suddenly agile, albeit in patches. Her will is very strong and directed to her end. I sleep but don't dream, she says.  She doesn't want to be where she is but her physical and mental condition would make it impossible for her to be by herself at home, unless she had a live-in carer, which she doesn't want.

What she wants is nothing at all. She is perfectly rational and calm about this. There is a genuine nobility in it: the rejection is one of principle. The reasons are her own and have been for a very long time.