Miklos Szentkuthy



(an excerpt)
Ulva and a young fellow together in the wood (as Leatrice’s solitude changed into Veronica’s story, Veronica’s solitude necessarily changed into Ulva’s story, and so on ad inf.). Rain

Late one afternoon Ulva went for a walk with her friend among the hills of the district. When they set off the world was already lilac: the rocks encompassed the horizon’s clumsily cut edges (the pages of books freshly cut with a thumb rather than a knife look like that) like a giant violet, one of whose petals is grey, like a shadow ironed out of dust, the other dark and sweet like the velvet tongue of the snake in the Garden of Eden. The sky was light like a sitting-room lamp, its light moving not a millimeter ahead of its color; a couple of minutes earlier the fluffy peaks of the hills and the unfastened edge of the clouds mingled in a shared celestial compote, but now sky and hill suddenly separated, the clouds vanished, a big gap arose between hill and firmament, the hills moved closer and the sky drew back as if the cup of a foreign world were yawning with an invisible interior and a crater only inferred behind the dolomite chain.

In the last act of a play from the Elizabethan era nothing else happens than that the characters in the piece watch the puppets in a booth playing the story they themselves have lived through in the previous four acts: in fact, their life in the previous acts had itself been a stylized puppet life, at the end of which the puppets watch a puppet play about themselves or a recurrent puppet play.* Those hills mystified as violets, that yellow sky pursing its mute light lips, giving light and yet lusterless, the turf’s damp patches and the solitary pine trees suddenly separated from their shadows (in the manner of infants who are no longer sucking) related to the previous minutes in their new minutes like the last act of that Elizabethan-era play to the preceding acts: the solution consisted of performing the insolubility in the form of a puppet play; nature solved its thousand-prickled optical misgivings by repeating the same misgivings in a rigid marionette-style.

The flat blueness of the distant sea and its still saving daylight surface lay deep under sea level: that was its Neptunian coquetry to place its white-grey back under its own level. The evening was already hanging like viscous ash among the black pine needles; in the middle of the sea the daylight still shivered like a lonely fountain or a swimsuited woman in a January frost.

When in a revolution everything is taken away from everyone in order to scatter as an idealistic present to a non-existent other humanity, those who had a very great deal of belongings would still be left with a couple of lace-trimmed shirts or an unharmed wig: the sea aroused the impression of such an infinitely wealthy magnate to whom, at the time of the lyrical terror of nightfall, there had remained from Phaëthon’s ancien régime a white pearl, light-blue gloves, and a glossy-leaved candleholder. But this small geyser of sun in the middle of the blue victoria regia became ever tighter. On dry land the epic conflict between daylight and night could not be seen, all the more so on the sea, in the way that at the time of a revolution such brutal contrasts do not rage in the circle of the bourgeois element as in the hacked-up and diabolically frou-froued gardens of the country houses of the aristocracy.

The middle of the sea was white; each wave, each spray, was precisely visible like a prima donna’s face illuminated by a special spotlight; whereas on the lilac horizon, gigantic brown and yellow crests dangled, they barely had any color, let alone shape; on dry land objects promptly absorb the darkness like parched ground does rain watered onto it, and that is how it yields the budding dreams of the night — while at sea the darkness lies like an unworked raw material and cannot find even its color in its shapeless solitude.

The Moon could already be seen on high; not at the top of the sky or even on one side, nor in the posturing monstrances of mountain saddles, but ‘somewhere’: after all, evening bestows on these uncertain identifications of place their own true meaning (i.e., their original uncertainty), because by day one has not the vaguest idea about how, in what a mythical manner, the position of a place can be indefinable. The Moon’s small silver fingernail clipping did not relate to anything: sky, pine trees, sea, hills, all left its poised and aimless omniscience intact of dimensions. It was not a center around which the Ophelia-chaplet of hills could have floated in the sky’s lethal water; it was not a glittering and asymmetric beauty spot on a tricked-out portrait of Thanatos that the sky was displaying; it was no runaway treasure which, in consequence of Ulva’s clumsiness, had flown to the divine ceiling from the blind Pandora’s box of pinewoods — it was none of that, and yet, or for that reason, it was the most essential, most transformed character of the landscape, love and the evanescent womb of time.

When Ulva and the boy had already walked a good way alongside each other, dark clouds began to gather around them: truly around them and not in the sky. The sky remained steadily clear, transparent and mute like the dead face of Greek women in the travelogues of topographers of the history of ideas — the clouds were floating a good deal lower than the sky, almost among the pine trees, just like horizontal layers of fog. The sea all at once grew red and the Moon began to fly straight above them like a vertical arrow. When their clothes got damp they realized that it was not the Moon that had suddenly broken into a run on high, but downward falling parallel lines of rain were hurtling into the deep. What rainfall could this be, coming not from the sky but from an area just about the middle of the pine trees? There was not a whisper of wind; the light did not become a shade stingier (a needle thin Moon-sliver); the surface of the sea, on which one and the same surf works, stood so rigidly on one spot like the names and dates on horizontal gravestones; the paralyzed branches, the modest eyelashes of the leaves, and the green needles, the pebbles, sand, and the eyes of daisies held open and not startled, even under water — all indicated that the merriest, cleanest evening of the world is fragrant in the armpit of the golden age of the sea and hills: on the other hand, the swishing water burnt their skin like alum, and their clothes were drenched like the knot of hair of a Nereid.

They scarcely saw each other, but distant things sparkled in untouched purity: the creases of the mountains, the evenly distributed sky as good as an unleashed modesty-lamp, many hundreds of houses of a distant small town looking like sparrow droppings, and the scattered flowers of far valleys looking even cleaner than before the rain. For whom is that rain meant? For them? Not for the trees: after all, they stand untouched in the grey cascade like a church staircase under the swaying flags of a procession; likewise not for Moon, sea, meadows, and enchanting Basedow-frogs* since they do not even bother themselves with it, like those girls who jabbed themselves in the belly with a contraceptive injection of mystic perfection à la Cleopatra Prophylacta* and now with unmanageable irresponsibility offer their body as a screen before the racing stream of every type of love.

In the boy’s hands all that could be felt of the woman’s body was the thinness of her waist, and even that not as an accurate datum of shape, but the knowledge that if he pushed her hips inwards they could still always be pushed more and more inwards so that her sole anatomical treasure was more just the marvelous possibility of a movement. Now the landscape was his, or rather all landscapes were: because a true landscape is always the sum of all landscapes, and its beauty starts when the sea’s floodtide starts to inundate the shore of Bohemia*, when the War of the Roses, the red Sun, and the white Moon are together in the sky, when time goes forwards and backwards in a floating and crisscrossing tour-retour, like a chain railway above the hillside; when it is both day and night concurrently. What one’s eyes see is never a ‘real’ landscape: in a landscape stars and daylight illuminate simultaneously, in ‘real’ nature a thick but light snow trembles on every petal in a pale rose-colored forest of azaleas, the red stems of poppy reeds branch forth from the green of lakes — not in order to build up a pattern of the tale (the scholastic impossibilities of a work) with technical irrationality, but in order to explore, elicit, and divulge the essential components of nature.

When the boy had stood among the water combs of the rain and the water had woven new and dense cross fibers into the monochrome fabric of his body on its hissing loom, he had felt that he was in possession of all nature: the blinding bands of water scattered his brain, but out of that muddy, miry derangement, the lines and forms of a new certainty were born in front of him: a bad checkerboard of day and night, muteness and glass-walled deafness, narrowing hips and eyeless seaface, on which five black cubes ended up beside each other, then two white ones, without any regularity; they showed him new figures, legible and comprehensible figures, such as a ‘good’ chessboard had never shown him.

He had never adored Ulva as he did now when he could feel only the quietly whistling ice of Oberon faucets adhering to his head like a mock peruke of caterpillars and glass-hooks (he had not brought a hat with him), and the woman was just a leaf lashed this way and that, a single leaf on an invisible branch, just the reverse side of which occasionally gave some light in the racing mirror of vertical rain. That was the finest-looking Sposalizio*: the water did not strike the crumbling body of the woman’s dubious Ararat but screwed like a bedraggled braid into the bed sheet of grasses, the birdcage of hills, the strange straitjackets of moonrise and sunset, from which he was not able to reach out for the girl.

They ran home like mad in the restricted rain, which left the countryside in peace (if one can call turning into ‘all landscapes’ peace) and only lashed them together and apart: sometimes they raced across small clearings where there were not even trees to protect them and tiny bushes withdrew like hunchbacked rabbits under the shower of grey fog; here all the air was grey from the mute sketch insanity of water, which did not get caught in the reproachful flauto traversos* of trees — the water struck so profusely on the grass, twisted, eroded, and steam-iodized into a point of the meadow as if it were a horizontal press and not a vertical legion of needles; crystalline water grasshoppers, which chomp the oasis into debris.

*Taken to be a reference to “Bartholomew Fair”, a comedy in five acts by Ben Jonson (the subject of Szentkuthy’s doctoral thesis in 1931), though that was first staged only in 1614 (i.e., was not strictly Elizabethan) albeit by an actor troupe known as Lady Elizabeth’s Men.
*Graves’ disease (or Basedow-Graves disease) usually causes enlargement of the thyroid gland but can also make the eyes bulge (exophthalmos) and affect other organs.
*In one of the oldest recorded uses of a contraceptive diaphragm (cap), Cleopatra is supposed to have used half a lemon. Casanova was also said to have made similar use of a lemon, though Szentkuthy makes no reference to this in his “Marginalia on Casanova”.
*Act 3, Scene III of William Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale” is set in Bohemia in “a desert country near the sea.”
*Sposalizio (‘marriage’ in Italian) comes from the name Lo Sposalizio (‘The Marriage of the Virgin’) given to a painting by Raphael (now housed at the Pinacoteca di Brera, the main public gallery for paintings in Milan, Italy).
*Either a simple flute or a 4-foot or 8-foot organ stop that sounds like a flute.

embracing and rain

All of a sudden they found themselves on a steep, slippery, and muddy path: the wind was blowing in their eyes so that they caught the rain not in the form of crowded parallel hydrogen arrows but in scattered great gouts of water, which dashed themselves apart on the sponges of their faces. In the valley a tranquil clarity and hotel precision reigned. Beside them a swollen spring scattered foam above its own head as if it were washing its foamy hair with shampoo twenty times over; there was not a thimbleful of water in its channel, it had all transformed into froth, a blue mush, an intermittent-pleureuse, leaving the channel dry, and therefore the channel was protected against the rain by those soda water air balloons.

They did not know whether they had landed in the middle of infinite silence or a pocket of noise: the big acid paddles of the spring grinding itself conjured snow-white brightness in the fog-colored rain — their bodies being pimpled from the downpour, they sensed that they were in the very middle of the spring and saw the distant pines on the peeks of invisible hills through those pearls of water as being similar to roller bearings. The finest moments of love are the very first, when one sees a woman for the first time, speaks to her for the first time, and it is precisely at such a time that the woman can be least persuaded to go on a very long walk, or to participate in very long embraces; when the finest form of longing resides in one, the girls will not abandon even their most insignificant program for him (since “I hardly know him”), not even those they had only agreed to themselves, such as to carry on reading a book in the afternoon, or to finish a piece of needlework.

Fresh desires seldom gain satisfaction, so that Ulva’s new friend was boundlessly happy since his helpless limbs were twisted here and there by the continually shifting wind and helter-skelter rain: sometimes big chunks of rain fell on his chest as if water were pouring out of a pitcher in such a way as if a hard glass punch that had retained the exact form of the jug were falling out of it all at once; at other times his ears filled up with tiny crumbs of a watch-glass which the wind blew into them like a sprinkler; his own words and movements would have been unable to express the thousand-sidedness of desire, and now on his behalf the entire world was pouring the varying forms of desire onto the girl’s body, besmirched into a fish. An embrace seeks to be, at one and the same time, a shove and a sucking up, a dressmaker’s prosaic measuring up of the body and a gesture of declaiming for its own sake, pampering and childish dissection: the result of all that is usually great clumsiness, a sleepy, blurred movement from which he was now absolved by the rain, in the cross-phrases of which mighty celestial movements expressed every shade with clear objections.

An embrace is always impossible, because it seeks to simultaneously accomplish two gestures which are mutually exclusive: one is preparing the girl’s exact mummy case, the other is a demented flinging-around of one’s own body; the first feels a need to evenly cover the girl’s shoulders and waist like the ritual black moss of Byzantium — the second wishes to tear one’s own body into a thousand pieces with the profligate rapture of joy. As one’s arms run around the girl’s waist like crooked, decayed Iron Age scissors in the display cases of museums, one’s legs and back wish to scatter in the world, to dance at one and the same time in a thousand widely separated places. That was not impossible in the rain: one moment the body was clinging together like a snowball in preparation, clutched between the cupped palms of the hands — the next it was exploding like the lines of hanging green ducks in game dealer’s shops that looters pillage around in streets forking out of the northern, southern, and eastern outskirts.

further rain

The path along which they were walking all at once narrowed a lot and diverged from the spring’s holy English horns of Siena. They arrived among profuse bushes where they could not see each other. The foliage overhead was so thick as not to allow access to the heavenly vichy water, not even filtered, so that instead of an even downpour, quite dry areas alternated with thick columns of water: water would accumulate in the massive cups of the spring offered by the foliage and then suddenly spill out as from a perforated rain pipe. Two chaos accompaniments could be heard and distinctly distinguished from afar: the Stuart-ruffed bear dance of the spring and the rain’s pizzicato on the unrosined strings of the branches. Through the rain’s spilling there in only isolated patches toward its tyrannical christening of the bushes, he felt that they had got into a deeper stratum of nature in which the laws of the upper strata were gradually ceasing and leading them over into God’s secret domain of decency.

The boy sensed that transition for the first time when he learned in school that musical natural signs, mentioned in the chapters of scripture textbooks which discuss miracles, are put in front of the snub-nosed green of the leaves, that alongside planar triangles there were also spherical triangles; indeed, not only did these exist but one could also count with them, although he imagined with his child’s head that space was outside numbers, especially the sphere; spherical triangles seemed to him to be some sort of optical illusion, a sliding game, a tendentious toppling of geometry, and he was greatly astounded that there, too, there were rules.

Leaves, branches, bushes, the last percentages of the sky, which still showed through the armor gauze of the leaves like blood through an over-thick dressing — all seemed there in the depths, where even the longest strands of rain scarcely reached the crowns of their heads, as if they were clinging to the gradually arching surface of an invisible sphere; giddiness and sphere are closely connected, which is fairly odd, because giddiness is the pathological label of uncertainty, whereas the sphere is a proud blazon of divine self-centeredness and perfect definitiveness. The spherical triangle, however, did not signify termination, only a more refined law, and thus the forest under rain, with its boughs of black shrapnel, its lonely water annunciations, and its sweaty smell of warm dung likewise (alongside the breath of dizziness, close to fainting) hinted at a new certainty; the certainty of the sweetest embrace, the most loving love.

It started to grow very dark, and the sudden quiet, the sewer-tunnel, and tunnel-like muteness, made any talk between the boy and girl impossible. That is when it entered the boy’s mind to escape from the girl: he didn’t mind if the girl was lost, got pneumonia, or fell into a trench like a fish that had jumped out of water and plopped into a bird trap on the shore — none of that bothered him, because he was much more in love with this azalea-ciliate nude which groped between the soaking-wet gunpowder of branches and flowers, by now not the slightest bit afraid of spring’s glossy, beetle-inhabited-pistols, the six-shooter blunderbuss of gian, or the bullets of the trees of heaven (O, nomen numen!)*: that entire precious arsenal is soaked, and there is no way of knowing when it will be possible to shoot with it again. The boy knew for certain that the rain’s thousand-tasseled holy water had affianced him forever to the girl; indeed, not just betrothed but molded into one: the water kneaded the girl’s body so much into himself, into his own body, that he no longer had any need of her, he just wanted to dance alone as Venus’s insane hermit in the damp cellars of the forest.

Therefore, the boy suddenly began running lest the girl be able to find him: in his hands there was still a memory of embracing, just like the charming rough sketch of a corset, a brown cardboard pattern, may remain in a corset-maker’s hands, but that did not signify much (the boy had once sat at a table in a hotel vestibule making some notes about the schedule: the girl had been standing by his seat, she too was leaning over the table, then the boy had hugged her waist to him with his left hand as if an embrace were a girth for women), because the forest endowed his love with boundless freedom: there was neither spatial nor temporal obstacle, there were no tedious tennis matches at which the word ‘ready!’ had the effect on him of the bloodthirsty death-argot of an amazon; there were no diaries in her purse from which it would transpire that the girl had already weeks before promised to pay a visit to a woman friend today, when the desire inside one was spilling out like a cyclamen as it reached its peak — there was none of that, because the water so mixed his body up with the forest that he did not need to aim himself at the girl’s body with the trembling hands and cross-eyed look of desire on account of which one is already eliminated at the semifinal stage.

After prolonged running he reached a clearing: he was confronted with an alien world. The sea, the hills, the slope running under him which unwound from his spine of love in the way the thread is drawn in a moment from thick spools in spinning mills by another racing wheel (of course, the slimmed-down spools prepare bodies of optical blots for themselves from the humming tempo of the spinning in the same way as the vibrating cords of twine train their whole amplitude into optical muscles), and so he suddenly drew his rain-self into a single long thread from the hilltop clearing to the sea coast five kilometers away; the cindery fibrils of the sky looked as if they were the remnants of some Artemis Usitatissima*; a quiet mountain brook which, despite falling downwards on an almost vertical wall, was nevertheless as silent and waveless as those broad silk ribbons on which a bell hangs beside the sacristy door to summon people to mass.

The boy had never as yet kissed Ulva, and now, in the repainted green smoke of water and leaves, he felt that he was swimming in the big vats or in the parrot-walled crematorium of kisses: in his hands he did not feel a tiring and painful desire (something similar to muscle strain) after embracing, because the mildewed rain that fell into his arms like a curtain torn to shreds cured him like an erotic cold compress; the air in its entirety turned into a gigantic body, with the uncertainty, brute force, and dancing mournfulness typical of such a thing. Those who have once been drenched together are affianced forever: how ridiculous those banquets with electric candles where, between two waiters, someone with a push cart carrying a starter course utters the customary inanities about ‘the young couple,’ so the young fellow thought to himself.

Previously he had sensed love; now he saw it. In the air a couple of black birds were clearing off as if they were rusty washbasins being tossed out of the attic. Everything was his, everywhere and at all times, unlike the girl’s girl figure, which was so rarely completely his, existing eternally in every nook of space and time. Because such concepts as ‘eternally’ and ‘everywhere’ can never be eliminated from love: every love is bad, because it has its interruptions; if a boy and a girl are together twenty-three hours each day, then they might as well never be together because the one missing hour exasperates the other twenty-three and multiplies all their pleasures into pain.

*‘To name is to know.’
*‘Most Customary Artemis.’

This excerpt has been published by permission of Contra Mundum Press. Miklós Szentkuthy, ‘Prae’ (New York: Contra Mundum Press, 2014).
MIKLÓS SZENTKUTHY (1908–1988) was one of the most daring and innovative Hungarian writers of the 20th century. He wrote over 50 books, including novels, essays, short stories, memoire-interviews, translations and a voluminous diary of nearly 200,000 pages. As the author of Prae, Narcissus’ Mirror, and the epic ten-volume St. Orpheus Breviary (a grandiose cycle of historical novels aimed at depicting the totality of 2,000 years of European culture, which draws on the tradition of great encyclopaedic narratives such as Balzac’s The Human Comedy and Zola’s Rougon-Macquart cycle) as well as Faces & Masks, a series of biographical novelistic ‘fantasias’ on figures such as Goethe, Dürer, Mozart and others, Szentkuthy is recognized as one of the most significant if not astonishingly prolific and diverse Hungarian writers of the 20th century. He also translated Ulysses, Gulliver’s Travels, and Oliver Twist as well as Poe, Twain, Milton and Sir Thomas Browne into Hungarian, revealing equal breadth in his translations.

Volume One of Prae is forthcoming from Contra Mundum Press in December 2014


About the Translator:

TIM WILKINSON was born in Wales in 1947 and schooled in Sheffield, England. He first began translating while living and working in Hungary from 1970–73 and has translated a number of substantial works on Hungarian history and culture, including Éva Balázs, Hungary and the Habsburgs 1765–1800, Domokos Kosáry, Hungary and International Politics in 1848–1849 (2003), and Infima Aetas Pannonica: Studies in Late Medieval Hungarian History, eds Péter E. Kovács & Kornél Szovák. In the literary field he has translated works by Imre Kertész, György Spiró, and Miklós Mészöly as well as many other contemporary Hungarian prose writers. For Contra Mundum Press, he has translated Miklós Szentkuthy’s Marginalia on Casanova, Towards the One & Only Metaphor, and Prae. The US edition of Wilkinson’s tr. of Fatelessness was awarded the PEN American Center’s PEN/Book-of-the-Month Club 2005 Translation Prize.

Read more work by Miklós Szentkuthy:

Prose in Asymptote
Review of Prae in Hungarian Literature Online
Essay on the author in Asymptote
Miklós Szentkuthy page at Contra Mundum Press website