Friday, January 30, 2015

We Are Off!

Hapsburg Gates at Buda Castle
Statue of Prince Eugene de Savoy who liberated Hungary from the Ottomans in 1697

Tomorrow we fly to Budapest.

Bags packed, weighed, re-packed, re-weighed.  Check.

Reading material chosen and assembled.  Check.

Electronic devices and all their plugs and cables sorted and packed. Check.

House-sitter ready; tax extension signed; 3 month supply of meds acquired; hair cut; opera tickets bought; I could go on.  Check

Next time I blog I should be jet-lagged but happy.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Dezso Kosztolanyi

Subotica, Serbia.  2014

How often does one discover a completely unknown (to one) literary genius?

In preparation for three months in Budapest, I have started reading (translated) novels by Hungarians and (English language) novels set in Hungary.  During my foray into Central European fiction, I discovered Deszo Kosztolanyi--a modernist genius.

Kosztolanyi (1885-1936) was born Szabadka in the Austria-Hungarian Empire (now Subotica, Serbia), where he lived as a child.   He moved to Budapest in 1903 and in 1906 became a journalist and poet.  In the 1920s, he began to write novels and short stories.  He was a prolific translator and first president of the Hungarian PEN Club.  I have read three of his translated novels--Anna Edes, Skylark, and Kornel Esti.  Each is, in its own way, remarkable.  Anna Edes is an extremely quiet book that offers a shattering portrait detailing the devastating consequences of class consciousness in inter-war Hungary.  Skylark is a lyrically tragic portrayal of wasted lives; it is also the most accessible of Kosztolanyi's novels (that I have read) and is the one I would suggest readers begin with.  But it is the last, Kornel Esti, that was for me the most thrilling--providing a new angle to modernism.

Kornel Esti is a very strange novel.  It reads as a kind of James Joyce meets Sigmund Freud meets Robert Musil meets Franz Kafka meets Groucho Marx.  But despite these modernist flavors, it is utterly unique.  Kornel Esti begins thus: "I had passed the midpoint of my life, when one windy day in spring, I remembered Kornel Esti."  The unnamed narrator of the first sentence and Esti were born on the same day and at the same minute, and had been inseparable until the age of thirty.  As a child Esti admonishes the narrator to set fires to curtains or to not wash his hands.  Later in adolescence, Esti pushes the narrator into all sorts of "bad habits": dirty words, dirty books, dirty deeds.  People begin sending the narrator letters asking for repayment of debts or admonishing him for improper behavior.  The narrator says he paid:  "Paid a lot.  Not only money, I paid with my reputation too." If the narrator is the proper Budapest writer, Esti is his other or his id: the dreams, impulse, and desire that the narrator had to split from in order to become a Hungarian, liberal, bourgeois adult.  But without Esti, the narrator becomes "empty and bored."  "Help me," he cries to Esti.  "Otherwise, I'll die."

The narrator thus proposes to Esti a Faustian bargain:  that they will write together. "Make me whole again. . . What can a poet achieve without anyone?  What can anyone achieve without a poet?  Let us be joint authors."  What follows is not a coherent life story.  Rather the novels offers "what you would expect from a poet: fragments." These fragments differ in their style and construction: some are quasi-realistic stories; others are filled with the fantastic and with Swiftian irony; still others resemble Beckett's existentialist dramas.  

Reading Kornel Esti was like being reawakened to the thrills of modernism: the radical style and structure of the text, the fantastic analysis of the unconscious.  But it was also something completely new, because it takes place within a set of cultural assumptions that are not only European but also distinctly Hungarian.  I wish I could read it in its own language.

Until I started reading for my trip to Budapest, I had never heard of Dezso Kosztolanyi (or so many other great Hungarian novelists).  That was a loss.  Because two years ago I had visted the town Kosztalanzi was born in and where he set Skylark.  I had gone there to look at the Komor and Jakab synagogue and all the other wonderful buildings in Szabadka/Subotica.  But had I known, I would have seen that city so differently.  I would have seen the streets and the buildings Kosztolanyi inhabited and that he transformed in his work.  

Monday, January 26, 2015

What Does Research Look Like When You Are Retired?

Dome of Szeged Syngogue.  Lipot Baumhorn architect.

When I tell people I am going to Budapest for three months, some of them look a little puzzled.  I think that is partly because Hungary (especially in the winter) is not the kind of obvious place to do a big retirement trip in the way France, Italy or the UK might be.  But I hope if you follow along with me on this blog, you will get a sense of why Tony and I love it so much.

When I say three months in Budapest, I often get a follow up question: "are you going there for research?"  Well, this is actually a complicated question that is difficult to answer.  No, I am not going there to do research of the sort I did when I was a working academic.  But yes, along with indulging in a whole range of other pleasures, I am going there to follow a research-like trail. If you have been reading my blog, you will know I am fascinated with Hungarian Secessionist architecture.  This fascination is grounded in aesthetic pleasure, but it is not just that.  I want to know about these buildings: their history, context and meaning.  I am hindered in my quest by my inability to understand the Hungarian language (and at this point in my life have to accept that this will always be the case). But I have done as much as I can: reading research written in English on Cental European architecture, hunting around the internet, asking friends who are knowledgable.

The main form of my research, though is looking carefully at buildings, taking pictures, and sorting pictures.  I have taken--literally--thousands of pictures. And in the act of looking, recording, sorting, I have built my understanding of how these buildings "work" inductively, following what perhaps might be called a kind of naive grounded theory.

I have been engaged in research and scholarship all of my adult life.  And that work has always been geared towards some kind peer-reviewed, academic publication.  What does research look like or even mean if it does not result in some kind of product?  And does that product have to be peer- reviewed for me to invest in it?  Would it be satisfying enough to put my (mostly picture) research on the web and hope that interested people will find it? Or do I have to find some kind of "publishing" outlet?

These questions may seem esoteric or even silly to some people.  But they are questions I have been pondering a good deal. Many people, I know, are continuing the research they did before retirement.  At the moment, this doesn't appeal to me.  So is there another kind of research I can engage in, and what would it look like?

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Oh, and We Went to Paris! (But It's Really All About the Food)

Last year, just about this time, we went to Paris for the Writing Research Across Borders Conference.  I was going to talk about all the cool things we did, but really it was mainly about the food.

Vanilla Souffle with Caramel at Le Violin D'Ingres, Christian Constant's Michelin star restaurant in the 7th. 
I have dreamt about this dessert since the first time I had it.  Happily, I am still in love.

So many choices

Candy as art.

Gateaux.  How to choose?

Macarons.  Need I say more?

Pain au chocolate, the perfect breakfast

Like so many dishes

Monday, January 19, 2015

Banca de Scont Timisoara 4

Tony and I lived in Timisoara, Romania for five months in 2009, while Tony had a Fulbright at The University of the West.  But I had been to Timisoara earlier.  During my first Fulbright in Sibiu, Romania in 2001, I had gone to the Timisoara BAS Conference. I didn't remember too much about Timisoara from that visit (and it was before I had a digital camera so I didn't have so many pictures).  But one building had stayed in my mind:  the Banca de Scont.

This is a building you have to look at slowly and carefully to see its beauties.  (And which you have to try to un-see what has been added on, especially the jarring business names on the lowest floor.)

Here are some of its beauties.

Its color is a warm, almost adobe, brown

Its ornamentation is turquoise

It has beautiful details like these gutter decorations

And the light fixtures

Tiles adorn the roof

Arranged at various points are small turquoise and white knots, which are modeled from Szekler embroidery

And the front facade is crowned by this beautiful tile piece

I fell in love with this building, and I spent much of my first extended Timisoara stay trying to understand its mysterious appeal.  I learned that 

  • The Banca de Scont was built by Marcell Komor (1868-1944) and Dezso Jakab (1864-1932), two Budapest architects who had earlier worked with Odon Lechner.  I tried to find out more about them on-line, but there was not a lot of infomation.  I did learn that  Komor died in the Holocust.  Eventually I was able to learn more about their lives and their work.
  • I also found out that they had designed other important buildings in Romania, including the Palace of Culture in Targu Mures and the Black Eagle in Oradea.  (Much more on that to come in later blog posts :)  Later I learned about their work in Subotica, Serbia (yes another blog post come on that!) And they have buildings in Budapest and Bratislava.
  • I eventually found out that Banca de Scont meant Discount Bank (and felt really stupid not to have realized that earlier.)
  • I discovered the meaning of some of the ornamentation.  The embroidery knots, for example, suggest a kind of authentic, almost ethnographic, Hungarian identity.  And the hive means it's a bank.  (Also more on that to come.)

I have subsequently gone on a quest to see as many of Komor and Jakab's buildings as I can.  For some reason, I feel an almost visceral connection to them.  I think part of my fascination with them are the historical ironies that surround their lives.  Many of their buildings celebrate Hungarian values and ethnicity; the Palace of Culture in Targu Mures is a particularly strong example. Yet Komor was murdered because he was Jewish, and thus not Hungarian enough.  But part of their appeal is the strength of their voice.  Unlike some Secessionist architecture that seems rather generic, Komor and Jakab's buildings look like they created them.  Their architecture is lyrical and colorful and generous in its spirit.  It is Timisoara that kindled my interest in Hungarian Secessionist architecture in general, and it is Komor and Jakab that helped me see some of that architecture as the work of real genius.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Varieties of Lake Life

There are numerous ways to relax and enjoy Lake Medora


One of these is Cindy's drink and one is mine.

Hiking with friends

Doug and Susan

Mags and Ken

Bobby and Marilyn

Playing with dogs

Sparky and Lucy watching their version of "TV"

Sparky probably just having eaten a Beggin Bit

Marilyn and her sweet Pegeen

And their owners
Marilyn and Tony

Entertaining friends who row over to see us
Cindy, Dickie and the dogs on Cleopatra's Barge

Snacks on the deck

Susan showing good form

Ralph Lauren getting ready to kayak


The little speck is me, on my way back from swimming across the lake


Mags and Ken

Playing games

Jay and Susan playing Scrabble

Playing Golf
Bobby getting ready to practice swing

And Tony swinging through

My primary retirement plan.

Or just admiring your Minnetonkas

They're mine!

Friday, January 16, 2015

White Nights

Looking back over Lake Lights, I remembered that we were in St Petersburg, Russia in 2011 for White Nights, the longest days of the year around the Summer Solstice, when the sun shines through the whole night.

This is our first night in St. Petersburg, about 10:00 pm, when we walked over to see the Neva for the first time.

A few nights later, we were in the St Petersburg Symphony Hall.  Here we are at intermission, around 9:30 pm (just having heard an amazing Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto 3), with the sunlight streaming through the windows.

And then walking back to the hotel (in sunglasses) sometime between 11:00 pm and midnight.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

The Constructing Eye Timisoara 3

I noticed this rather nondescript building in  in one of my earliest walks in Timisoara, It looks pretty wrecked, but as I looked more carefully, I began to see what was there and what was missing.

This ornamentation of this building is symmetrical.  There are two decorated facades with a raised roof on each side of the building's entrance.  On the left hand facade, there is a face in the center.

Above the face are the organic shapes of trees.

On the right facade, the face is missing.

In viewing many of the relatively unrepaired buildings in Timisoara, I realized that I would have to use traces that remain to reconstruct imaginatively what once might have been there

Here is another seemingly nondescript building I tried to figure out.

While it is beyond sad that so many of these magnificent buildings have been left to crumble, it is nevertheless a kind of visual treasure.  The eye does not simply receive the building's aesthetic; it also constructs it. And in this construction, one sees in a different way.