Tuesday, August 7, 2018

The Search for a Hungarian National Style.

[NOTE:  Life up here has been extremely uneventful.  It is certainly pleasant, but not much of note has happened.  We are still waiting for the floors, which means we are still kind of camping out, and still not ready for company.  With (luck) things will improve this week, when the new doors will be installed.  IF that happens, the new floor will be installed next week  And the week after that we will have company.  Having just nothing else to blog about, I am putting in what I've been  working on in my architecture book.  This is part of the chapter on Odon Lechner.  For those who are interested in these kinds of thing,  I hope you enjoy it.  For those who aren't, stay tuned for house updates in future posts.]

{Straight from the book:] Before examining Lechner’s mature work in detail, it is important to understand what constituted a “national style” for Hungarians at the turn of the century, and what was at stake—ideologically as well as architecturally—in its creation.  I use the word “creation” (rather than, for example, “discovery”) because, as I will argue throughout this and later chapters, such a style was not simply a given.   Rather, it was produced by Lechner and other architects in terms of what they understood—for them in their day—to be both “Hungarian” and “National.” In other words, this understanding was based on the cultural and historical commitments Lechner and his contemporaries shared about what was “essentially” Hungarian (even though no such Hungarian essence existed—neither historically nor geographically).   This was (and in some ways remains) a particularly pressing, if complex, issue for Hungary because of its multi-ethnic and, at times, multi-lingual nature.   

My argument about the constructed nature of national identity is drawn on cultural theorists such as Benedict Anderson and Eric Hobshawn.  These theorists stress that national identity is not simply shared geographical space of a particular nation state (such as Hungary), but also a shared sense of identity as members of that state.  Often this shared identity is thought to be manifest in a historical tradition which connects current inhabitants of a nation state to to some more essential “past,” a connection often located in the concept of the “folk.” Or as Heather McMahan argues, “a national consciousness or a national identity is supposed to reflect the essence of the people of the nation. Often this translates into the symbols of the nation, which are thought to encompass the meaning of the folk. But since structures and insignia are rarely designed by popular consensus, architects and intellectuals have more of a primary role in forging the symbols of a national identity, especially through architecture. Certain structures have been consciously designed with a symbolic nationalist rhetoric in order to spread or re-emphasize a nationalist ideology to the masses that comprise the nation.”

The search for a national identity, especially as it could be made visible in architecture, was not unique to Hungary.  After the failed revolution of 1848-1849, many nascent nations—such as Poland, the Czeck lands, as well as Hungary--found themselves struggling to maintain (or create) a national identity through material culture, such as architecture.  Nor was Lechner the first Hungarian architect to face this challenge.  As I have described in Chapter I, there was a quest for a national style as early as the 1860s with Frigyes Feszl’s Vigado with its oriental allusions and use of folk motif, and in the “national polemic” surrounding the proposals for the Hungarian Academy of Sciences and later the Hungarian Parliament.  However it is with Lechner that we see the first sustained and successful attempt to shape what would eventually come to accepted as a national Hungarian style.  And in constructing this “Hungarian” style, Lechner removed himself from the more international Historicist and Art Nouveau traditions and, like his Austrian contemporaries, “seceded”:  hence the term Hungarian National Secession.

The search for a Hungarian national identity was generally manifested in the concerted attempts to preserve the Hungarian language, to understand  Hungarian history, particularly its ancient and more recent origins as a cohesive nation; and to recognize and preserve Hungary’s historical cultural artifacts.  Part of this work was done by Jozsef Huszka (1854-1931), an art teacher and researcher of Hungarian folk art, particularly that of the Transylvanian region.  Huszka argued that to understand Hungarian folk culture one had recognize that its roots lay in its Persian pre-history--beyond Arabic-Persian to the Sassanian culture (CE 224-651) of Turan (an ancient Iranian name for the lands in Central Asia located north of what is now Iran and inhabited by nomadic tribes). Thus Huszka saw Turanian (or pan-Persian) roots in many Hungarian ornaments.  Placing the origin of Hungary in ancient Turan also fit with the narrative of the ancient Turanian Magyars who settled in the Carpathian Basin and with the mythical status of Arpad, leader of the seven tribes that constitute the origin of modern Hungary.  Huzska further argued that cultural traces of  Hungary’s origin narrative could be seen most clearly in Transylvania, the area most isolated from modernity.  He thus advocated ethnographic investiation as the basis of a Hungarian national style.  To that end, Huzska collected thousands of examples Hungarian folk, which he published in several books, e.g.,

  Jozsef Huszka.  From Magyar diszito styl.  Budapest, 1885.    

Interest in the “orient” was not confined to Hungary at the turn-of-century, and the “oriental” was also a constituent of Art Nouveau.  Indeed, the “orient” or the “east” is a cultural category constructed, as Edward Said has argued, by those to whom it is the “other,” i.e., by those in the “west.”  Nevertheless, Huszka’s—and  others’—narrative of Hungary’s eastern origins was an important step in establishing an empirical claim that allusions to the “east” (or what was understood as eastern”) were not simply fanciful but instead had historical validity.  This narrative fit with the general sense Hungarians had that they were not Germans or Slavs (even though many people who called themselves Hungarians did have German or Slavic roots).  

What was important in Huszka’s argument was not the particulars of Turanian culture, but the anchoring of Hungarian identity in Asia (rather than the Habsburg Empire).  Lechner used this idea of Hungary’s eastern origins, particularly in his Museum of Applied Arts which made reference to “oriental” culture more generally including that of India.  (In this he was also influenced by what he had seen in his visits to England, particularly in English recreations of what was understood  to be the architecture of England’s Indian colonies.)  While the Turanian theory was eventually debunked (although according to Michał Kowalczyk, it continues to have ideological power in contemporary right wing Hungarian ideology “that displays anti-Western attitudes. . .  [and] is critical of the international policy of the European Union and the United States,” 50), its imaginative power was preserved in much of the architecture one still encounters in Hungary.   

Perhaps even more important than his propagation of the Turan theory, was the way Huszka drew attention to folk art, particularly textiles:  “Clothing became both the legacy and  the source of Hungarian national identity as well  as a basis  for a new form of [architectural] language while the main themes of Hungarian folk art—abstracted arts, flowers, and birds—became central to the iconography of the Humgarian national styles” (Alofsom 130).   One piece of clothing, in particular, was important, the szur, a woolen cloak worn by herdsmen from the Hungarian plain.

  Szur (1840-1870).  Metropolitan Museum of Art.  New York.  In public domain.   

The szur offered Lechner not just a collection of embroidery but also, and more importantly, a “general morphology of surface treatments. . . consist[ing] of a trim for defining edges, a filled pattern along the trim, a void area of neutral background, and islands  of patterns within the void, providing visual balance (Alofsin, 130).  This morphology was to appear in Lechner’s buildings throughout his career:  the defined edge, the patterned trim, and the islands of patterns in the void.  These patterns of ornament were often inspired by folk art, including stylized flowers, hearts, birds, and knots, particulary present in Transylvanian embroidery. 

                              Pillowslip (early 19th century).  Museum of Ethnography, Budapest. 

My argument about Lechner’s search for an Hungarian national style is, thus, not based on the historical veracity of its underlying theoretical arguments (or speculations) but rather on the imaginative use he made of the ideas 1) that Hungary did have a national identity, 2) that such national identity had historical continuity, and 3) that it could be revealed in architecture.  Using these ideas, Lechner made something that was not internationally Historicist or emotively Art Nouveau.  Rather, he made something new and powerful—architectural innovations that spoke to what he conceived as the future for architecture in Hungary.

Writing in 1906 in the journal Muveszet (Art), Lechner laid out his manifeso “In the Cause of Architecture,” for the Hungarian national style he was to build: “There has been no Hungarian language of [architectural] form, but there will be.”   

Jozsef Sisa translates, describes and summarises the article as follows.  “Lechner’s]  main thesis was, quite logically, the creation of an independent Hungarian – effectively original – method of architecture. Lechner was still struggling against historicism. “Only the armchair scholars and armchair artists of the eighteenth, and even more so the nineteenth century, began to work with ‘styles’, that is to say, with what was not their own, and not of their time […].”  The major nations can, on this basis, create something of their own that is typical of them, but “we search these times in vain for Hungarian Gothic, Hungarian Renaissance and Hungarian Baroque.”  We have to reach for another source in order to create something original. This is the “Hungarian folk style”, “popular planar ornamentation”, where the Hungarian national style has been “touchingly preserved”. “We have to set rules, and immerse ourselves in its unique spirit, so that one day, as men of culture, we may include the spirit of these forms into today’s greatest, most advanced and even monumental architectural tasks.”  The Finns managed such a feat – avers Lechner – and the entire world acknowledges them. Further opportunities lie in the latest materials and techniques. “Yet if ever, then now the time is ripe for us to make serious efforts to search for the Hungarian language of form: the dizzying rate and amazing achievements of technological development, and the advancement of cement and iron constructions to the fore have naturally caused a commotion in architecture. The possibilities afforded by new structures lead to new forms, so we have the opportunity, in this new evolution, to put our national identity to the service of creating a new language of form […].”  Lechner’s most original idea is the linguistic approach to architecture, in reference to the earlier modernisation and fight for acceptance of the once oppressed Hungarian language. He links this to the issue of Hungary’s minorities, who, even if they fail to learn the Hungarian language, may be won over with the help of the Hungarian architectural idiom. He also expounds that, since “the art of architecture has always been the mother and originator of all the arts,”then the fine arts may only be Hungarianised and modernised through architecture (Lechner, 30). 

Lechner puts these ideas into practice, in monumental ways, in his next three buildings: The Museum of Applied Arts, the Royal Geological Institute, and the Post Office Savings Bank.  All are public buildings, and each speaks to an important aspect of Hungary national identity: the folk art that underlies it, the very ground on which it sits,, and the the civic structures that support it   Together these buildings constitute the most original and influential components of Lechner’s mature style, the heritage with which he endowed the Hungarian nation.


Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Around the Middle of Summer

Not a whole lot of events to report or interesting topics to explore.  But it is summer up here in the Keweenaw, and that itself is good news.  Here are some  glimpses  of  Lake Life.  

First swim--tentative then committed.

The enduring view.

Still no floors, but supportive friends.

Thirtieth Wedding Anniversary at the Harbor Haus.

And today, the Copper Harbor Fourth of July Parade, starring the Copper Harbor Uke Group.

Hopes for the rest of the summer:  DOORS AND  A FLOOR.  Continued nice weather.  (It's in the 80s here and people  say they are hot; they clearly don't understand what real heat is!)


Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Narrative Ramblings—Philip Roth, Lisa Halliday, and the Invention of Identity

Philip Roth was, I believe, the greatest living American writer of my lifetime. (“Was” because he is no longer living, but I do not believe anyone will take his place in the years I have left to read.). For me, Roth was great because of the corpus of his career—his sustained exploration of American identities and the myriad ways in which he reinvented himself as a writer—as well as extraordinary power of particular books. (In a career that long and varied some are naturally better than others—though all are good.) I read all his books, from Goodbye Columbus to Nemesis, as they came out.  By 1985, Roth had published 10 books, most notably the infamous (and hilarious) Portnoy’s Complaint and a trilogy of books narrated by the character Nathan Zuckerman, who bore certain resemblances to Roth himself. In 1986, The Counterlife appeared--also narrated by Nathan Zuckerman but categorically different from anything had Roth had published before.

The early novels appeared in many ways to be autobiographical. A good number were set in New Jersey, where Roth and his brother grew up, and revolved around a lower middle-class Jewish family with two sons. However, Roth--in many ways and on many occasions--denied that they were autobiographical. Based surely on his life experiences, they were nevertheless novels. His characters, that is, were his creations--not records of real people. Nevertheless, the notion of autobiography vs fiction is complicated in many of Roth's novels because the analogues seem so obvious.  Roth tackled this question in The Counterlife, first published in 1986. In this novel, Roth makes a huge turn: it is the beginning of a set of novels that self-consciously play with questions of identity and fiction, self and narrative.

The Counterlife is primarily about three characters: Nathan Zuckerman, his brother Henry, and his lover/wife Maria. In various parts of the novel, the characters re-enact parts of the plot, with each re-telling leading to a different set of circumstances and a different story. For example, in the beginning of the novel, Nathan tells the story of his brother Henry who had a heart condition. The medicine he was prescribed left him impotent, and because he was engaged in a passionate affair, he decided on risky surgery that, though potentially dangerous, might cure the condition and let him abandon the medicine. The surgery, however, is not a success, and Henry dies. In the next section of the novel, Henry has survived the surgery but has abandoned his family to emigrate to Israel. The story eventually shifts to Nathan who is in love with a woman, Maria, who lives in an apartment above his own apartment.  Now it is Nathan who has the heart condition and is rendered impotent. The novel continues to fluctuate the strands of the plot, placing these three characters in multiple relations to themselves and to one another.

This kind of post-modern meta-fictional stuff is more familiar to us now than it was 30 years ago, and it may be difficult for a new reader to understand just how groundbreaking this novel was (and is). But the power of The Counterlife lies not in its postmodern play, but in the way the meta-fictional structure of the narrative(s) become the ground on which Roth can animate his understanding of the complex relations among experience, identity, the self, narrative and fiction.

At the end of The Counterlife, Maria decides to "leave the book": "No, I won't do it. I will not be locked into your head in this way. I will not participate in this primitive drama, not even for the sake of your fiction." Nathan replies that "All I can tell you with certainty is that I, for one, have no self, and that I am unwilling or unable to perpetuate upon myself the joke of a self. .. . . What I have instead is a variety of impersonations that I can do, and not only of myself--a troupe of players that I have internalized, a permanent company of actors that I can call upon when a self is required, an ever-evolving stock of pieces and parts that form my repertoire. . . . I am a theater and not more than a theater."

If the above paragraph strikes you as needlessly abstract and tiresomely postmodern, I want to emphasize that the passages I have quoted come at the end of a novel in which these ideas have been instantiated in ways that both dizzying and dazzling. The emotional subtleties and ambiguities, the tragic and comic dimensions of life--these the substance of the book. Roth was, within the next several years, to write a trilogy of books narrated by Nathan Zuckerman in which they (meaning both Roth and Zuckerman) put narrative truth to these notions. These three books, American Pastoral, I Married a Communist, and The Human Stain, are all complex attempts by Roth, through Zuckerman, to imagine himself into a completely different person. They are self-consciously narrative recreations of the "biography" of someone completely different from the narrator Zuckerman, and his creator Roth. You do not need to have read The Counterlife to understand these books or to appreciate their achievement. But in The Counterlife, you can see how Roth made the remarkable turn that opened up the major middle part of his career.

I decided to re-read The Counterlife after Roth's death, and in the middle of my reading I found a lengthy (and glowing) NYRB review of a new novel, Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday, a book that has an avowed connection to Philip Roth. It is also a book about the attempt to imagine yourself into someone else's life.

Published this year, Asymmetry is the break-out bestselling first novel  by Lisa Halliday.  One, but definitely not the main, reason for its acclaim is that it alludes to an acknowledged relationship between Halliday and Roth, which occurred about 20 years ago when she was an assistant editor and he was a world famous novelist.  (Halliday and Roth remained friends in the subsequent 20 years.)   Asymmetry is divided into three sections.  The first section, set about the time of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, is the (surprisingly charming) story of a young woman named Alice who is an assistant editor and who has a relationship with a world famous novelist named Ezra Blazer.  The second section, set around 2008,  is the first-person account of a young American-Iraqi man named Amar Ala Jafari  who spends about eight hours being  interrogated in immigration security at Heathrow between flights from Los Angeles to Istanbul then Iraq.  The third section, a kind of coda, is the transcript of a radio show (called Dessert Island Discs) popular on BBC4 in the UK recorded in 2011 in which Blazer is interviewed.  

Roth acknowledged to the publisher of Asymmetry that Blazer is a version of him and further acknowledged that for the most part Halliday "got him right."  Halliday makes the parallels between Blazer and Roth so obvious, partly she says, to put the whole "anxiety of influence" thing right up front.  How could she be a writer, Alice asks herself: "hadn't he already said everything she wanted to say?"  But also the avowed connections between Blazer and Roth (similar families, yearly Nobel disappointment) point to just the  kind of ambiguous relations between life and art that were the substance of The Counterlife and that continued to be Roth's concern.  Alice wonders what kind of writer she can be:  "For her part, Alice was starting to consider really rather seriously whether a former choir girl from Massachusetts might be capable of conjuring the consciousness of be a Muslim man."  The answer appears to be yes, because that is what we get in the second section.

This section, written as first-person account, takes us into the mind of the young Ala Amar Jafari who is being interrogated at Heathrow.  Jafari has both American and Iraqui citizenship.  (He was born over US airspace when his parents immigrated to the U.S.)  Stopped in passport control in London, Jafari must prove his identity--and thus prove that he will not be a danger to the UK during the 36 hours he hoped to spend  with an old friend, before boarding his next flight.  The section is interspersed with tedious interview and Jafari's memories of his life up to this point, particularly the complexities of tangled loyalties to Iraqi and American heritages.

In the last section, Blazer is interviewed for a radio show which asks guests to select which CDs they would take to a desert island.  In the process of the interview, Blazer sheds some, perhaps ambiguous, light on the relation between the first two parts of the novel. Speaking of the current (i.e., up to 2011)  political madness, Blazer muses about the responsibility of the novelist during moments of political "madness:"  "And we wonder: How did this happen? What was I doing when this was in the works?  Anyway, what good will it do, the willful and belated broadening of my imagination?  A young friend of mine has written a rather surprising little novel  about this, in its way  About the extent to which we're able to penetrate the looking glass and imagine a life, indeed a consciousness, that goes some way to reduce the blind spots in our own.  It's a novel that on the surface would seem to have nothing to do its author, but in fact is a kind of veiled portrait of someone determined to transcend her presence, her privilege, her naiveté." (That the "young friend's" name  is Alice is not fortuitous.)

Earlier, reading a draft of Ezra's work in progress, Alice  had asked "Who's speaking? Who's telling the story?"  Blazer answers, "What do you mean, the narrator's telling the story.  Finish it first, then we can talk about point of view."  But Alice's question is crucial, because  whoever "tells the story" is an important part of who makes the story.  And in this book, the question of the narrator (and his oft-but-not-always companion, the author) is crucial.  Particularly in Asymmetry--as it was in The Counterlife.

Narratologically speaking, this book is a labyrinth.  The first section is a third-person  narrator but focalized through Alice (that is from Alice's perspective).  The second section is first-person narrator, as is the third.  As Blazer reveals, Alice is the purported (or implied) author of the first two sections, but not the third.  But the first person Blazer in the third section is similar but not identical to the third-person Blazer in the first section (different family details).  Halliday is the implied (and flesh and blood) author of the book Asymmetry (including all  three sections) but she is not the narrator. Whew!  More  postmodern play or a complex rendering of the complicated relation between fiction and art? And behind that, an even more important question: to  what extent can a writer penetrate the looking glass and imagine a life, indeed, a consciousness, that goes some ways to reduce the blind spots in her own?

In his American trilogy, Roth attempted to do this three times.  In the last, The Human Stain, for example, he imagines  an academic (a classics professor) who is Black, but passes as a Jew because he wants to "be his own man" and not be defined by his ethnicity. In Asymmetry, Halliday imagines  a Muslim man.  None of this is autobiography; rather it comes (in some inexplicable ways) out of the experiences and imagination of the author.  In the first section of Asymmetry Alice finds a note Blazer wrote quoting Stephen Crane:  "an artist is nothing but a powerful  memory that can move itself at will  through certain experiences sideways."  The same passage reappears in the second section when Jafari is thinking of his brother.  The asymmetrical relations in Halliday's book are myriad: gender, geography, age, ethnicity and on and on.  Also asymmetrical is the dialectical flux between real-life and fiction, experience and imagination.  


Saturday, June 16, 2018

Yes 70 is a Number, But It's not Just Any Old Number

Yesterday was my birthday
I hung one more year on the line.

Why are those Big 0 birthdays so hard--turning 30, 40, 50 (ah they seem so easy now), 60, and even 70?

I didn't think it would be that hard to actually turn 70.  After all, I had been practicing it for months.  I thought of myself (and sometimes even represented myself) as 70 for several months before it became real.  Nonetheless, it was in many ways a tough realization.  I actually am 70 years old.

For a start, being seventy, I feel I can hardly still claim to be" middle-aged."  But I don't have a good substitute.  I am not going to refer to myself as "old,"or "elderly" or even (that jaunty term), a "senior."

Also, being 70 is a milestone.  I know it's an artificial milestone; on June 15, 2018 I was only one day older than I was on June 14, 2018, when I was still in my "sixties."  I have read Stephen Jay Gould on the arbitariness of dates and calendars.  (He was writing about Y2K and millenial thinking).  Closer to narratolgical home, I believe Frank Kermode when he says that the clock I hear as "tick, tock," is really just going "tick," "tick," "tick," etc.  (Until. of course  the battery wears out.)  So it is more than "just a number" (as one of my doctors tries to assure me).  

There is really nothing to say about turning 70 except that it happened.  And I won't have to worry about that particular angst again (until and if I turn 80).  

So I had the best day I could.  Luckily (in so many ways) I had Tony.

Oh,and though my birthday occured on a wet and chilly day, I did go in swimming  the day before.  First time this summer, and it was cold, but I did it!


Sunday, June 3, 2018

Michigan: Where the Air is Pure, The Trees are the Right Height, and the Floors are Buckled

Just about two weeks ago, about one week before we were set to leave for the lake, the nice man who opens our cottage for us each spring called Tony to tell him "it was the damndest thing."  All our hardwood floor boards had buckled.  Some---like above--were "tented,"  other were "only cupped."  But the whole floor was ruined.

This was not something we had expected.

And no one is quite sure why, as there is no sign of water damage:  the crawl space is dried, the boards are not stained and what we can see under the boards seems dry.

Here is our surprise:

Since then, someone has come in and loosened and removed some boards so we can walk without having to climb over the floor.  We have also become quite knowledgeable about flooring---especially in small homes that are left unheated in very cold climates.  Like ours.

I would feel somewhat better about this if we could identify the source of the problem.  But hey, that's the breaks I guess. 

In the meantime, we are going to install something called "luxury vinyl planks" that look (sort of) like wood.  Cheaper, water resistant, comes with a  warranty etc.  But it has really re-shaped our summer.  (Not just an unexpected expense but also not really feeling settled in.)  We are about to sign a contract and are hoping July we will be back to some version of normal.  (Just not with our beautiful maple floor). 

So I will put this one down to the vagaries of owning a summer  property for  anyone who might be contemplating a northern lakeside cottage!

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Philip Roth (1933-2018)

Philip Roth died today.  It is incredibly sad to think  I will never read another of his books.  Philip Roth was the novelist of my lifetime.  I read everything he wrote, as it came out--from Goodbye Columbus to Nemesis.  I was glad to have read then all, but of course I had favorites:  Portnoy's Complaint, The Ghost Writer, The  Counterlife, Deception, Operation  Shylock, American Pastoral, The Human Stain, The Dying Animal, The Plot Against America--acually I loved each of  his books in a different way.

Philip Roth wrote books that were based in  his  life, but they were not autobiographies.  This is something I think  a lot of his readers misssed.  He was able to create characters and inhabit them.  The most beautiful example of this is the trilogy, American Pastoral, I Married a Ghost, and The Human Stain.  In each one he imagined himself into a completely different American identity: three ways of being an American in the twentieth century.

One of Roth's late novels borrows Yeats's phrase the "dying animal."  Like Yeats, Roth continued to both write and grow as a writer throughout his life.  There is early Roth, middle Roth, and late Roth (as is true for Yeats--or even Shakespeare).  They are connected but different, and  it was exciting to follow him as he found new ways to make a novel. 

Roth was, to my mind, the greatest living  American writer.  I don't know who I will take his place.


Sunday, May 20, 2018

Not Much Happening Here

May is a "between" month.  The beginning is Louisville  and the end is the Lake.   

I feel kind of in limbo, and am hoping that the lake will fix it.  Most of my Louisville friends are elsewhere.  Graduation is over and my last doctoral student was beautifully hooded.  Medical six-monthly appointments are almost done.  Waiting for spring.  ETC.

I have finally gotten back to work on  my book.  The picture above is the little nook I set up in the kitchen because my hamstring is still keeping me from sitting for long periods.  I have finally (FINALLY) almost finished the chapter on Art Nouveau.  I'm not really happy with it because it feels more like a "list" of various architects and their work,   than a coherent discussion.  But I decided to plow through and  get it done, so I can put it away and move forward.  The next chapter should be much easier to write.  It's the pivotal chapter on Odon Lechner, who is the reason I got interested in all this in the first place. 

But a week today we leave for Lake Medora, and time becomes organized in much more meaningful ways.  The ice is off the lake and the trees are starting  to get green.  Another spring to look  forward to. 

Monday, April 23, 2018

Did Magda Szabo Visit Katalin Street? A Fortepan Essay

Vizivarosi Budapest, 1953/  Photo Credit:  Fortepan:Poto:Nagy Gyula.  

Fortepan is an online archive of Hungarian pictures taken by amateurs in the twentieth century.  All phographs are licensed by a Creative Commons CC-BY-SA-3.0 License.  The archive houses an extraordinary collection of pictures of ordinary life in Hungary and is searchable in many ways.  The picture above, for example, taken from Pest, is of Vizivaros (Water Town), which is the area below the Castle on the Danube in Buda.  It is also the general area in which Katalin Street is located.

Occasionally Fortepan publishes a photo-essay on a particular topic.  Last year, they published a beautiful piece on Magda Szabo entitled Járt-e Szabó Magda a Katalin utcában?  (Roughly, "Did Magda Szabo Go to Katalin Street?)  The piece was edited by Kiss Eszter and Barakony Szabolcs (Images) and was based on research by Buda Atilla

I put the page through Google Translate.  Google Translate is a wonderful tool, especially for people who  don't read Hungarian.  But of course, it has limitations.  I tried  to smooth out some of the places where it garbled, mainly by putting various words and combinations of words through Gooogle Translate again to get a different  context.  What follows is my loose translation, using  Google.  Sometimes, the meaning was clear.  Sometimes it could be relatively easily recovered.  And sometimes, I had to give up and cut.  My thanks to  the authors of this beautiful photo-essay.  My apologies for any mistakes my clumsy mechanics made.  And of course, all errors and typos are my own.

Note:  the passage from Katalin Street quoted at the end comes from the Len Rix translation.

Did Magda Szabo Visit Katalin Street?

One hundred years ago, on October 5, 1917, Magda Szabó was born [in Debrecan Hungary]. In the Fortepan archive we looked for pictures of the life of the author and the characters she created.  We have paired personal recollections, leaflets and novels with real and fictive sites. We looked at what the city was like when Magda Szabó was a child; how Budapest recovered from the blood and ruins [of World War II}; where she found a home, work and love; and how Budapest appeared in her writings. Some pictures were easy to identify, despite the changes in the name of the writer: others evoke the mood of the times.  Twelve images in the footsteps of reality and the creation of the writer.  


Magda Szabó first visited Budapest  in 1933 [with fellow students from Debrecan].  "When I left the train with the girls, I thought I was choking. I was overwhelmed by the traffic” she later said.  “I really discovered the city as a college student. . . .  I was traveling with a map, a guidebook, as if I were abroad. . . .  I went down the Flórián square under the rocks to see the Roman bath. I went through the museums. I searched for golden oaks on Margit Island and I sat down to write poems. [...] I once brought flowers to Petőfi Sándor street, put them under the memorial plaque and ran away. . . .   The poet Kosztolányi was  dying. . .I sat in the unfamiliar city in the garden of an unknown hospital on a bench, trying to make up my mind to go inside. . . .   I wanted to be there near the poet, at least once.”

Fotó: Fortepan / FORTEPAN

Szabo’s arrival in Budapest re-appears in many of her works.  In the book Katalin Street, the six-year-old Henriette Held moves with her parents to the never-before-seen capital, and the bridges and the unknown noises cause her anxiety, just as they did for Szabo.  The novel’s description of Katalin Street recalls the area around Vízivárosi [the area in Buda below the Castle walls]—Fo utca, Corvin and Szena ter, although it adds fictional details to the original. There was a church on the street, a sculpture in front of it, an old Turkish hollow near it, and . . .  the river flowed behind the bank of the Danube. The facade of the rusty, quaint houses looked out into the street, and the gardens full of flowers and wildlife faced in the direction of the Castle. Here lived side by side the Helds, the Elekes and the Biro family.


Magda Szabó moved from Debrecen to Budapest in the spring of 1945 after the Second World War, that "she might be really a writer now." "For us. . .  liberation was the most wonderful experience. I once wrote that the sun never burned like then, and the blue color was never so blue in the sky and the river never ran so fast. It was indescribable. . . .  In my bag were bread and bacon, poems and faded plays. . .. .  They disappeared at the railway station.’’  ‘Young Lady Cromwell’  [Puritan Debrecan was known as Protestant Rome] lived in my personality—strict, humorless (because she could not forget her dead) and was determined to do so.”  

(Fotó: Fortepan / FORTEPAN)

The new life began on the ruins, and it was an exciting and strange time for Katalin Csandy, the protagonist of Danaida. The school girl’s memories of the countryside collide with the post-war reality around the Nyugati [Western] Railway Station while she looks for a new home in Podmaniczky Street. "Katalin did not know Budapest well enough. . .  and although she did not have to leave the station, she was still frightened. The little she saw of the ill-lit city did not resemble the place she remembered: her school had once brought up students fot an excursion, and they all had fallen silent at the lights when they came to the student hostel.  Her abandoned birthplace was more solid and it was clear in post-War Pest that the damage done at home could not be compared with what Pest had suffered. In the middle of the street next to the railway station a kilometer long, multi-meter high pile of debris had been dumped, with a red train on its side, in which the ruin and scraps were frozen in the evening [...] This image remained in the post-siege of Budapest forever: people standing on top of a pile, with heavy radiation over them, and scraping debris around the clock in a crude little red-and-white fitting day and night. "


Hold utca 16 was Magda Szabo's first home in Budapest where she lived with two girls in a co-lease. She enjoyed the freedom. "No one here told  me when I could use the  bathroom, and I could buy books from my own job." But for a long time the city remained alien to her: "I lived in a barren, unheated apartment, I was in a ruinous building, the world was unknown and brittle. [...] But, of course, youth always triumphs on the ruins, spiritually, and in deed."   She lived here until 1948 and then moved to the flat of the elegant, educated and one-time womanizer Tibor Szobotka. Magda Szabó was not too communicative.  "It was so secret that my co-owner and partner,Gizike, did not know, until the driver arrived . . . and said  'Miss Szabo is asking for two suitcases and saying that she probably will not sleep at home because she married this morning.' Eyewitnesses said the response was enormous. [...] Do not say that I do not have the feeling that my privacy is really privacy."

Fotó: Fortepan / Budapest Főváros Levéltára. Levéltári jelzet: HU_BFL_XV_19_c_11 / FORTEPAN

An espresso café near Hold utca was Szabó and Szobotka's favorite venue, "big fish were painted on its walls, in a sea-green with green lighting; we named the place the Fish." The café was later a wedding hall and the square was called Ságvári Chapel (today the square of the Vértanúk). Although the Protestant Cromwell girl from Debrecan felt she was on dangerous ground, she was always there at the appointed time. She was scared and angry, as the room of the "the blond, blue-eyed, young Basti type”  was full of lovers and he forgot his writing.  He had asked for her hand saying "Do not be afraid. . . .  You do not tolerate a rival, no memory, no shadow, no dream, no reparation instead of losing anyone, or continuing. You're a pretty demanding girl, but you get it. You are neither reparation nor continuation, you are life.” 


The mysterious wedding took  place on On June 5, 1948.  Magda Szabó's witness was László Bóka, Szobotká's Devecseri Gábor. Gizike knew nothing, but Ágnes received a detailed account. The day started as usual  "I came into the office at eight, I went home at eleven o'clock, I came back and worked at twelve. Then the Boss came out and told us to go to the Yugoslavian reception. My colleagues did not even look at me.  The dress was special:  Agnes, it was wonderful !!!!  Dark blue balloon cloth, white hat, skirt almost to the ankle, full-bodied, curly, huge white blouse, red nylon bag, red sandals, high red antelope gloves. "


The couple lived for 12 years in  Szobotka's apartment—a difficult time.  It was only because of accuracy and a system that Szobotka’s lovers avoided each other in the   stairwell of the flat in the square of Veszprém. After the request, only Magda was left. "That's when we lunch at Gundel that day," she said, "not to deny it now. The women have disappeared, the past has come to an end, everything that has ever been, vanished, destroyed, I am the only one.  But then I will be hurting us both, every minute.  I listened and listened, to   myself (my genes), the Puritan Szobotka, the wail of my own, and I was tempted to lie in a bed where half Budapest was a guest, but I knew this sentence was a test now: now it measures me to blame my own law for the sake of our love and now we measure how much I like it. 'Pay the check,' I said. - Let's go home.' At Attila utca, where we lived later for twelve years, I went to the bathroom to undress. I found a blue robe, his belt, I pulled it up, and the whirlwind that caught him did not look like any of the memories of my life. Perhaps I felt something like that when I was born out of my mother's body when I started to live."


After receiving the Baumgarten Prize, which was revoked a few hours later, and after being kicking out of the ministry in 1950 and the district school in Szinyei Merse Street, Szabo faced the problems of the Rakosi era.  Daily, she taught the children of Jews who  had been deported or relocated.  Home visits became social work. Sometimes she did not find anybody except the housekeeper at home and told her that "the little boy who had woken up at night  had slipped down the staircase calling, Aunt Magdi, tell Aunt Magdi.’ Or in another house, a child said 'you can’t let her in, because she still has a client, they have not done yet.'". 


Kerulet [city sectiton] VI. after Kerulet VIII, the new school, and the neighborhood proved to be a great thing. "My youth novels, as I have been teaching for a long time at the Horváth Mihály Square, and I have been walking around the square for so many years and in almost every house, almost always quoting the eighth district [but] without any stories related to my pupils themselves.”  She taught at school in 1956 and thereafter. "Our school was close to the Kilian barracks, many of our children lived in the area, the school was getting mined, our students died, and the disadvantaged parents just left home," she said later in an nterview. After  the appearance of [her first novel] Fresco in 1958, the air cooled at the school and colleagues were afraid they would be written about. The children did not welcome Aunt Magda's writerly ambitions. "When  Fresco appeared, I was known as a Teacher Szobotka in the School, but the parents soon realized  who I was and sent me copies of Fresco to sign.  I did not really want this book for eleven-twelve-year-old girls, so everytime I gave back a signed book, I added ‘kids, do not read it.’  I had a pupil, a good, smart little boy, Erika Bazsó, who was blood-red, dancing around in anger, and crying, 'Is not  aunt Magda ashamed of writing a book that her own class can not read?'  I was the head of the classrom, I laughed at myself, there was some justice in what the kid said.  Of course, this is not the only reason I started work elsewhere.  It was also because of Móra Kiadó and Éva Janikovszky who wanted me to write about what I see in my civil work.”


  At the corner of Tavasmezo and Koszoru, there is an overturn in the Danaida novel, though Magda Szabó changed the streets of the area in the novel.  The already mentioned Katalin Csándy moves from Podmaniczy Street to Józsefváros. "She always liked Mak Street [...]. In this part [of the city] it was still clear that the capital was formed by the mingling of separate small spaces [and] that this district was a miniature country town sometime and then part of a giant body. She liked the old mill in Mák Street, which had recently made into baths, but she felt as if ghosts had rented the machines and were still grinding every night, as in a fairy-tale.  She also like Kozorut Kozt, where Gypsies lived.  At the corner of Pest Street and Kozorut, there was a figure of Christ, which in 1953, no one had reguilded or repainted:  he was the same as himself, but still was honored by a few flowers or candles, sometimes with a single little wreath. Here, the sweeper was worked in vain, it was always drenched, noise, bustle, and even smokers in the garden in summer, forgotten old plots with lots of flowers; he took the fresh bunches of flowers to sell to at the trolley stop of the great street in the formerly independent city."


Although Magda Szabó "has learned to live in a world capital," she has remained a country girl, a fan of the Hajdúság, Csongrád and Békés regions. She was always relieved to go to the countryside: Pest lacked the Debrecen dust under her teeth, the whirling whirlwind around the Great Church. When they left Tibor’s apartment, they chose one on Júlia Street because it reminded them of Debrecen—especially the statue of Csokonai.  Szabo said that when she had to describe the skies in her books, she imagined the heaven above the small streets of Hódmezővásárhely, or what she had seen from their home in Füvészkert street in Debrecen. At the same time, her youth novels, such as Danaida are said to be located in [Budapest] Józsefváros--the Horváth Mihály Square area. And how important was that after all?  Szabo wrote in Katalin Street, that time “so firmly rounded off and parceled up in youth” becomes “ripped apart” by “advancing age. . . . For the inhabitants of Katlin Street, “Time had shrunk to specific moments, important events to single episodes, familiar places to the mere backdrop of individual scenes, so that, in the end, they understood that of everything that had made up their lives thus far only one or two places, and a handful of moments, really mattered,  Everything else was just so much wadding around their fragile existences, wood shavings stuffed into a  trunk to protect the contents on the long  journey to come."