Monday, 25 July 2016

Excerpt from REWIND

It was in 1983, after three books of poetry, that I first felt the desire to visit Budapest.  For the one and only time in my life I applied for a grant, got it, and started reading. I read throughout our holiday in Scotland that summer, not books in Hungarian since my own grasp on the language had loosened year by year until it seemed I had lost all contact with it, but about Hungary in English. I read histories and whatever literature in translation I could find. I had understood that I could not make further progress in writing unless I returned. Budapest was my subsoil. I had grown out of it. 

But this was also an attempt to return to her, to Magda, my mother, who surely must have left some part of her being there. I needed to write the city and I needed to write her. Perhaps writing the one would be writing the other. 

For three weeks I wandered around as in a hallucination, meeting parts of myself in buildings and streets that presented an alternative reality. Everything was familiar: nothing was specific. The buildings were still scarred by war and revolution, the courtyards were still open. One could wander into tenement after tenement and sense the distinction between the private life of flats and corridors and the roar and cries of the street. One could unpeel the city like an overripe fruit. 

Three longer poems resulted from this visit which in effect changed my life.

The first was about the courtyards themselves, the interior spaces of both physical and mental worlds. It was about their history. 
So much stucco had fallen outside and in the stairwells, so many statues were broken on the facade. So much had happened here. So much anxiety, fighting, death and survival. I wanted to register the texture of walls, the light on the third, fourth and fifth floors, the sound of steps along the inner corridors, the radios, the clanking of saucepans.  

One of Magda’s old friends, the plumber’s wife, now widowed, had lost her sight and had to creep along the fourth floor corridor holding on to the rails. She would drop us the key to the lift by feeding it down a long piece of string that was just long enough for us to fit the key in the lock. Her aged brother lived with her. Their flat displayed a few small porcelain figures from before the war: coy shepherdesses, bold twisting nudes. The bathroom and kitchen were rudimentary. She asked us to bring instant coffee from England. This was their world and had been hers too.

The second was entirely about her as a photographer. I watched her touching her skin, checking the camera in its case, preparing to go out, and catching a last glimpse at herself in the mirror before making her way out into the snow. I sat behind her ghost on the tram and trailed her down the street. My ghost addressed and interrogated her ghost. ‘Where are you going? To work? I’m watching you. / You cannot get away.” I got her to pose for me:

Co-operate with me and turn your head,
Smile vacantly as if you were not dead
But walked through parallel worlds. Now look at me
As though you really meant it. I think we could be
Good for each other. Hold it right there. Freeze.

I was David Hemmings in Blowup, bestriding her, turning her own camera on her. I accused her of lying by employing hand-colouring. I watched her work at it. I lost track of who was subject, who object.

I go on taking pictures all the same.
I shoot whole rolls of film as they shoot me.
We go on clicking at the world we see
Disintegrating at our fingers’ ends.

It was like being shot.

In the third I transferred her to England, not to where she lived but where we did. I imagined the floor of the local church opening up like black ice to reveal the dead swimming in vast shoals beneath. I recalled those who had been shot into the icy Danube in the last months of the war, the statues of whose shoes are now lining the Pest bank, among whom there was one girl, shot and disfigured, yet surviving the water and making the other shore, a girl who actually existed and about whom I had read before leaving for Hungary. She too was one of the shoal beneath the church. But what language did they speak down there where whole families were interred, some in childhood, some in great age? How did they communicate?

Metro, and her removal from the city came later, with more apocalyptic images, of a whole underground city, of passengers waiting on platforms, with individual flames above their heads.

One of my most abiding fantasies was conceived at this time but not written down for another five years. In it she returns from work and begins to climb the stairs in one of those scarred tenement buildings that is home to her. The front of the building is decorated with plaster statues, caryatids, allegorical representations and so forth, mostly blown away, missing heads and limbs. She stops at the door of the flat, takes her key out and lets herself  in. She puts down her bag and takes off her coat but instead of sitting down in a chair carries on walking through the wall until she emerges as one of the plaster statues. At that moment I realise all the statues were tenants once, that Budapest is absolutely crammed with statues that were once people, people who had simply walked through the walls and become stylised allegorical figures, that this was their fate, hers, and mine too come to that.

There is an Ancient Greek figure called a psychopomp, a kind of spirit or angel or other being whose task is to conduct the living into - and, with luck, through - the land of the dead. Charon and Hermes are such figures and Virgil performs that function for Dante. These creatures can take various forms; deer, dogs, horses, crows, sparrows, owls. They provide safe passage. By 1986 Magda had become my psychopomp to Budapest. She would provide safe passage. She had to. After all she was my mother.

Metaphors and metaphysics. Like each great city in its own way, Budapest is a metaphysical smell. You smell its being as soon as you enter it. It’s not like Vienna or Prague or Paris, let alone London. It’s not just the buildings, but the scuttle and hurry of it, the noise it makes, the wild gestures combined with the ‘fuck-you, what do I know’ shrugs. There are the bitter jokes, the hunched shoulders, the impatient glances of intelligent eyes, the learned and cultivated charm, the peculiar squalor of its poverty and the vulgar display of its wealth.  For Magda, as she was then, it is 1940. In Budapest there is no war, not yet, but a coldness that has been creeping through the city for twenty years has now reached the critical point. There is ice in the heart and scorn in the eyes. 


Martin said...

George, your words have lit the way through a world unknown to me. Lovely writing.

Gwil W said...

Hello George, welcome back to Blogland.

Natalie d'Arbeloff said...

Wonderful. Emotion coaxed into a form in which it can freely flow but with a direction, a current, like a river. And oh, I've seen this, not in Budapest (I've never been, alas) but in many other settings: "the impatient glances of intelligent eyes".