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

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