Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Exile village, except...

Thinking of John Réty and why we never met it becomes clearer. I did not come from an intellectual family. Our family bookshelves held a few reference books and some thrillers, perhaps a few classics - most of them in Hungarian - but it didn't amount to anything like a library. Certainly there was music - we were members of a record club that sent classical LPs but I don't remember any of us listening to them. Beethoven, Tchaikovsky and Brahms were deities to whom homage was paid but they generally kept out of our business. They were, of course, intensely the business of my younger brother, who was training to be a solo violinist. That was music as cry. I would accompany him, rather lamely, on the piano while he soared into intimations of the proper art he was, in fact, to pursue. Neither of my parents played a musical instrument. Neither read much. My mother had been a photographer and was a fine craftsman in photo-oils but I don't remember any art books at home either. The more I think about our home life the less I seem to know.

We knew few artists, except the bohemian puppeteer, Panto, and his wife, the kindly Violet. And there was Leo the painter, with his beautiful wife whose name I now can't remember, but who made me shiver when she offered to dance with me one Christmas. These bohemian-types were my mother's loves, but I never got the idea she wanted me to be any kind of bohemian.

Panto and Violet were English, Leo and his gorgeous wife were Hungarian, though Leo's family had been exiles in Chile. None of this constituted a community.

In any case I did not speak Hungarian with anyone. But an intellectual emigré community did exist, based around BBC World Service, universities, and certain social and discussion groups in which my parents had no part and of whose existence I was totally ignorant. Hungary only became a real place to me after my second book of poems, November and May (1982), when it seemed necessary and I set to serious reading about it. But by that time some of the leading emigré figures had died or were shortly to die.

Maybe for that reason I never felt part of the emigré group. I got to know some of them individually but never met them as a community. And even then I felt like a latecomer to a party whose hosts might regard me as an uninvited guest. Not that they did so regard me, but there was, on my part, something like shyness and even reluctance to be drawn into affairs of which I knew far less than they did. I wrote in English, they wrote in Hungarian. Their manners were more Hungarian than mine. I was far more anglicized. I had, after all, grown up here. I was not an exotic, as they were, at least I did not regard myself as an exotic.

John Réty will have known the community, but he seems to have led a full life outside it too, living on his wits and charm. Unlike most of them, he wasn't a 1956 refugee.

My parents' circle of friends were chiefly Hungarian, and towards the end of my father's life, almost exclusively Hungarian. It is extraordinary now to think of his in political life in Hungary. Maybe that was why he wanted no more to do with it once here.

Odd scraps of memory. Even now I don't feel entirely at ease in the bosom of Hungary and things Hungarian. I have given over twenty-five years of my life to translating from the language, which is, after all, the essence of the people but, as I have often thought, my place is on a train of transit, not quite stateless, more British if anything. Sometimes it feels like a train stalled at a Hungarian station. I stand up, walk around and look out of the window. But the tracks lead back here.


PC Lane Anon said...

"The more I think about our home life the less I seem to know." Aye, that.

(There was one full bookshelf in our house, orange penguins mostly,but in my decade and a half of growing up, they were never added to and never moved unless I touched them. Part of that English thing, maybe, in which reading is good for the young and to be encouraged in children, but you don't trust adults who read).

George S said...

I think we had an orange penguin and a couple of green ones, possibly Erle Stanley Garner. And there was a copy of Alfie. Was Leon Uris, 'Exodus' there? I suspect it was. The Hungarian selection was more classical, novels rather than poetry, but nothing 'modern'. There was a volume of Petöfi, cheap brown softback - I have the Hungarian books now on my own shelves. There were Hungarian magazines and annuals containing puzzles.

Frankly, I don't know what my parents did. I saw them watch television, never to excess, but the rest of the time it was as I remember in 'English Words' "private lives that grew more private still".

Odd to think that their lives, so full of death and disaster and, at times, heroism, should have been distilled to this thin residual culture.

But then, that might be what emigration can do. Cut off from the main root, you live on shallow roots.