Forgotten Modernist Masterpiece

Paul Griffiths on Szentkuthy’s PRAE, Tim Wilkinson’s “colossally laudable” translation, & so much more, in the TLS (Sept. 25, 2015)

“What if we found that something had long been missing from the great canon of modernist ancestors? What if, besides Proust and Musil and Joyce and Kafka, there were some other writer who had reconsidered what prose could be about — reconsidered how prose could be about anything at all? What if this other writer’s work were so dense as to be almost totally impenetrable, which is why it had been overlooked so long, but we were now coming to realize that the impenetrability‚ — being in the presence, as a reader, of a vast rockface with almost no footing — was entirely the point? What if, in other words, Miklos Szentkuthy?”

Republished in The Wall St. Journal

Forgotten Modernist Masterpiece

Review: Szentkuthy

“With [Towards the One & Only Metaphor], the second of Szentkuthy’s works made available in English by Contra Mundum Press, after Marginalia on Casanova, the author begins to take on more of a shape. Towards the One and Only Metaphor (1935) pre-dates the Marginalia — itself only the first volume in the larger-scale project of the St. Orpheus Breviary — and in his Introduction Rainer J. Hanshe notes it is, in part: “a response to criticisms directed against Prae,” Szentkuthy’s first novel — a volume not yet available to English-speaking readers (though it is expected soon); the bigger picture will require more patience, but like the Marginalia this volume stands strongly on its own, too.

. . .

Impressively, Tim Wilkinson’s translation manages to retain and convey much of the sense of language(-play) here — with English-in-the-original words and phrases printed in a different font, helpful in a text that effortlessly traverses languages.

. . .

While there’s very much a sense of this being one building-block of a larger œuvre — far too much of which remains, as yet, inaccessible to English-reading audiences — Towards the One and Only Metaphor is nevertheless a rewarding text on its own, a fascinating and diverse personal catalogue from the pen of an exceptionally cultured writer (which manifests itself both in his style, and in the substance of his writing).”

Michael A. Orthofer, Complete Review (29 August 2014). Read the entire review here.

For another essay on TooM, see “To Humanize & Dehumanize: Imitation, True Contrasts, and the Faustian Pact,” Hungarian Literature Online (December 16, 2013)

Review: Szentkuthy

To Humanize and Dehumanize

Imitation, True Contrasts, and the Faustian Pact: On Szentkuthy’s Towards the One & Only Metaphor

 

When Miklós Szentkuthy published Prae in 1934 at the sprightly age of 26, the novel was deemed to be the work of a monster.(1) To defend against this charge, and being perceived as a “book-bug homunculus”(2) who lived on science, philosophy, and mathematics alone, Szentkuthy wrote, or culled and transformed from his diary, material that would make up his second book, Az egyetlen metafora felé (Towards the One & Only Metaphor), to reveal, or confess, that he did in fact bleed, that he was not made strictly of pure pulp, or formulae, abstractions, and equations, that he was just as teeming with erotic longings as a satyr in a circle of maenads. Despite his efforts, some critics, such as Gábor Halász, saw in Towards the One & Only Metaphor only a chaos of orality devoid of any organizing principle. To him, Metaphor was nothing but pure excitability, tension, flair, nerve, intellectual paroxysm; not a unified work, only the precursor to a work; all that “is left is this prae,” Halász concluded his review, pointing back, acidly, to Szentkuthy’s audacious first novel, and then remarking, dismissively, that Szentkuthy had still not learned how to write but was simply casting “raw material” at his readers.(3) What then has compelled Éditions José Corti, my own press, and perhaps soon, Aylak Adam, who will be introducing Szentkuthy into Turkish, to each publish translations of Towards the One & Only Metaphor?(4) Is there validity in Halász’s charge? Or is there an organizing principle to Szentkuthy’s text? How are we to read his fragmentary work, which many seem to find baffling, if not even unbearable? What does the title tell us of Szentkuthy’s method, or the character of the book, and what to him is metaphor? What keys are offered in the book to elucidate those things? Does he achieve his goal of humanizing himself, as he claims he sought to do, or does he remain a monster and book-bug homunculus?

 

Read the rest of the essay on Hungarian Literature Online (December 16, 2013)

 

 

 

To Humanize and Dehumanize

Genuinely Different

“I’ve turned this book over in my head many times and I’m mostly still at a loss. I haven’t read a book so unlike anything else in some time. Hungarian author Miklós Szentkuthy (1908-1988) wrote the ten volumes of St. Orpheus Breviary over a forty year period from the 1930s to the 1970s, and Marginalia on Casanova is the first, published in 1939 but written some years before that.

The series, or at least this first volume, is a tour through the European past, a tour through Szentkuthy’s labyrinthine library, twisting through the stranger paths of civilized minds to counter the dominant stories we learn as we’re growing up. Szentkuthy’s choice of Casanova (1725-1798) of all people as his intellectual centerpiece for the first volume is perfectly representative. Casanova’s love life doesn’t interest him per se. There is very little of the gossip or scandal of Casanova in here. He is much more attuned to Casanova’s sensibility, his emotional responses, and his ethics (such as they are). That he compares Casanova to Pope Benedict XIV should give some idea of what he’s after.

Szentkuthy also compares Casanova to Proust: both spent their last years reflecting ambivalently on the social high life in which they had previously been engaged. But for Szentkuthy, Casanova is the more interesting figure because he conducted his life with far less remove than Proust, with less concerted intellectual analysis.”

Read the whole review here: David Auerbach, Waggish (May 29, 2013)

Genuinely Different

The Only True Luxury

David Van Dusen reviews Marginalia on Casanova:

“Szentkuthy’s “commentary” is possibly better classified as a novel; he himself considered it the first volume of Szentkuthy’s recherché, pan-European opus, the 10-volume Szent Orpheus breviáriuma (St. Orpheus Breviary). Marginalia on Casanova is a dazzling English rendering by Tim Wilkinson, of Szentkuthy’s 1939 book, and also Szentkuthy’s English debut. (The other volumes of the Breviary — with titles like Black Renaissance,Europa Minor and In the Footsteps of Eurydice — will, I hope, be forthcoming from Contra Mundum Press soon.)

Miklós Szentkuthy — born Miklós Pfisterer, in 1908 — introduced himself to Budapest’s literary circles in 1934 with a self-published novel, Prae, and he remained a provocative figure until his death in 1988. Szentkuthy is still referred to as the “sacred monster” of Hungarian letters, and the expression is apt. His huge output — foremost, the “Romanesque cathedral” that is the Breviary — is at once speculative and manneristic, hyper-erotic and hyper-religious, bleary eyed and clear-sighted.

Szentkuthy’s ambition was medieval: to produce a catalogus rerum, “an index of all entities.” His method is “Hellenistic-rococo”: he writes spirited variations on the letter of the canon. His syntax and affect are irreverently modernist, yet there is nothing programmatic about his avant-gardism, and what he wrote of Casanova holds true of him as well: “the muck of literary programme is not allowed to dirty his white cuffs.” In the Marginalia, “metaphysical facts,” “factual truths,” and deliriums are calculated to transect “with the epic grace of an apoplectic fit.” It is not accidental, then, that he was thrilled by the expression of the15th-century polymath, Nicolas of Cusa — echoed by Romantics like Novalis and Coleridge — that the essence of all things is a coincidentia oppositorum: a “coincidence of opposites.” Szentkuthy is, himself, such a coincidence.”

To read the entire review: Los Angeles Review of Books (May 2, 2013)

The Only True Luxury

Entering the World Stage: Szentkuthy’s Ars Poetica

“As a text that defies classification into any particular genre, Towards the One and Only Metaphor is perhaps most accurately thought of as literature — in Blanchot’s expansive sense of the term, literature is that which ‘ruins’ distinctions and limits in its creation of a unique and amorphous hybrid beyond the distinctions of a particular genre. Originally published in 1935 and republished in 1985, Towards the One and Only Metaphor is, as Dezső Baróti elucidated, comprised of “unconventional journal-like passages expanded into short essays, plans for novels, poetic meditations that have the effect of free verse, and paradoxical aphorisms,” all of which reveal a moral philosophy, a politics, an erotics. “Its predominant motifs (insofar as one can succinctly describe it in a few words) are most especially nature, love, eroticism, sex. All that, however, is constantly painted over by the vibration of the unconcealed presence of a writer constantly in search of himself, and rife with beguiling, stimulating, and ever-renewed surprises.” In this sense, it is an essayistic and confessional work à la Montaigne, or like the ruminative waste books of Lichtenberg, or Joubert’s keen-eyed observations. Yet, if as fragmentary as those texts, Towards the One and Only Metaphor is at the same time ordered, like a group of disparate stars that, when viewed from afar, reveal or can be perceived to form a constellation — they are sculpted by a geometry of thought, for, as András Keszthelyi observed, the text is essentially something of a manifesto, “an explicit formulation of the author’s intentions, his scale of values, or, if you wish: his ars poetica.”

For the full essay: Asymptote (April 2013).

And for an excerpt from: Towards the One and Only Metaphor.

Entering the World Stage: Szentkuthy’s Ars Poetica

Masks Behind Masks

András Nagy’s portrait of Szentkuthy in The Berlin Review of Books:

“The mask in general is an important part of the identity of the personality; paradoxically it may be even a synonym for it as the use of the borrowed “face” tells more of the person applying it than the features he is born with. The experience with identities was regularly developed into novels applying different protagonists, characters, and roles, yet Szentkuthy had to realize in the years to come that daily life must also be lived in different masks. A mask was needed to hide those features of his very self that were rejected by the more and more intolerant authorities that directly and indirectly attempted and partly infiltrated his life and even his works. However, with Szentkuthy’s intellect and unlimited free spirit, the attempts to control him regularly failed as he was happily using different incognitos and roles, while keeping deeply hidden what was behind the masks. These secrets were carefully registered and kept in a “giant-diary” as he liked to call it, hundreds of thousands of pages of the most authentic chronicle from his early age until almost to his death. It included significant entries for each day, obviously touching upon the most personal and the most abstract issues, being both extremely vulgar and extremely subtle, as well as ideas and recollections of people and events he came across, likely matching the same high artistic level and aesthetic quality as the rest of his work. Even if it will not be revealed still for many years to come, it is an important part, if not the most important one of the author’s oeuvre. Szentkuthy suggested in an interview that his whole oeuvre could be defined, described, and interpreted as a “giant-diary”, modeled on the textual corpus of Saint-Simon and of Montaigne. Stories, novels, studies, essays, etc. may turn out to have a wholly different meaning once read in the  larger context. It is easy to imagine then that once the diaries will be opened – this will occur for the first time in 2013 – readers will have to reinterpret all of Szentkuthy’s writings in a radically new way. Surprises, and even revelations, of literary history are to be expected in the years to come.”

For the full essay: go here.

Masks Behind Masks