I just keep on repeating his name, I call out to him, I call him on the phone, as if he would answer. I have no words. The demons of death had been hovering around Szilárd for a long time. I was afraid of them at times—he certainly was not. He lived with them, but he did not feed them.
We were both young when we came to know each other: this meeting became at once a deep friendship, which knew no ruptures until now. At that time, he was writing Long Day Away* in iambic metre. “Just let its night draw close, draw closer now / its twilight close, all, its greyness all / may all of its pain now end.” This is how this poem—harrowing, endlessly surging—begins. For Szilárd, the beginning was itself a prayer recited for the possibility of beginning anew. “And now the body forgets everything And / this body will forget that it must fear / that it must fear the scents of other bodies / And that it will forget all that is pain / the skin, the flesh, the bones, all that / And the limbs / And of memory no trace shall remain, only to find / anew blood and flesh, the mouldering corpulent flesh.” The capital letters are misplaced in these lines, the periods are missing, as if in that place where the prayer would have been uttered, a sentence, destroying and churning up everything, had been sounded in advance. When he wrote this, he still did not know the full circumstances of what had happened to his father’s family: he spoke of this matter for the first time in an interview in 2004. But none of this has to do with Jewishness, at least not in the sense in which we usually speak of these things, but rather as Marina Tsvetayeva writes somewhere: “All poets are Jewish.”
That sentence, which was somehow uttered even before the hand began to write, was the sentence of the Holocaust. For Szilárd, the Holocaust was not a historical event, but an exemplary occurrence that had begun long, long ago, in the reality of the Passion, and had become, since that time, the very model of what we are forever doing to each other here. The word “here” designates something general—the human world, and something very concrete—Hungary, where he could not bear to live any longer, not even just for one more day.
The kind of knowledge that Szilárd had was dark and bereft of illusions: his most fundamental experience was that the matters of life are forever coming apart:
Everything was getting ever worse Everything getting
ever worse Everything than it was before
suddenly Everything worse than Everything
everything just worse, suddenly just Everything
worse, maybe, I don’t know, maybe
everything that there was Everything came apart
Everything apart, that maybe was till then
bad, maybe Everything always is bad
Everything, that was Everything now at once just went
…he wrote, or perhaps was compelled to write, with those convulsive repetitions. And yet Szilárd did not write his poems, his essays, his prose, with this dark vision. He always left a tiny gate open for grace. This gate led to the borders of the Jewish and Christian worlds of belief, and in his every work, he stepped through this gate again and again. He did so in Funereal Splendour, which he wrote in memory of his mother after the profound trauma of her death. On Christmas Eve in 2000, the last Christmas of a woeful century, a few young men from the same village broke into his parents’ house: they murdered his sleeping mother with several axe-blows, and left his father in a state close to death. And yet Szilárd placed this allegory of redemption right at the beginning of Funereal Splendour:
As that Pelican yonder
on the Rosemary branch alights,
on the Rosemary’s bower
gazes at the Sun descending,
eventide and days’ ending
light upon the Dead One falling
through the closed shutters’ fissures,
a shaft of light his face traverses,
Resurrection his desire…
When did he begin to sense that this gate had closed? At the time of the publication of the first edition of Funereal Splendour, writing about my novel Lazarus, he cited this parable of love reaching beyond death from the evangelical texts—that to him, the re-writing of it in my novel conveyed the tragedy of the 20th century: the death of love. I recall how stunned I felt by the clarity of his statement. I knew he was right. I believe that the door of the gate began to shift then: it was beginning to close. And then he sent me the manuscript of The Dispossessed, because he was unsure about it, and the chillingly dispassionate narration betrayed that something was drawing to an end. Szilárd had come to the end of a path. When we met, his smile often recalled something which I had not seen for a long time, but more and more emails went unanswered, meetings were cancelled. By then we were both living in Vienna, or at least we were trying to live there. And in the meantime Szilárd was beset by the kind of awareness that here in Hungary reaches those who proceed through life implacably without exemption, only late or never. Instead, more and more, he just wanted to disappear: this awareness, these feelings of shame continued to grow. He could, he said, no longer withstand what surrounds all of us in Hungary today, yet neither did he have within him the energy required to build a new life for himself alongside his family in Vienna.
We were friends for twenty-two years; exactly one half of my life. But time has not passed. It has not moved at all: it stopped, just as it stands motionless now in the fractures of “is” and “nothing,” where every punctuation mark vanishes and writing itself become inarticulate, reaching the outer limits of intelligibility, where after the vacuum and the fractures, in the name of G-d uttered in secret, perhaps something else opens up, something other than the ultimate meaning of the sentence:
If there are tears
it is the day of atonement it is afternoon there is memory
its afternoon its evening and the next day
always there its evening every evening morning
the next days and the yesterdays and nothing
there is nothingness there is silence the passing
there is passing and every day has its passing
there is adonai there is one there is passing in its all
there is silence there is nothing and all is away
In a copy of the second edition of Funereal Splendour, Szilárd wrote in pencil, in place of a dedication: “One day I will write a proper dedication to you, Gábor, with my best pen—sz.” That dedication will remain written in pencil now. But Szilárd wrote everything he needed to write with his best pen filled with black ink. Farewell, my friend may God be with you. And may He be here with us!
Translated by Ottilie Mulzet
Read the Szilárd Borbely poems (tr. Ottilie Mulzet) that we published in our Jul 2013 issue here.
* Long Day Away (Hosszú nap el, 1993) was one of Szilárd Borbély’s earliest publications in verse and won him instant acclaim, particularly from such renowned authors as Péter Nádas. It should be noted that the expression “hosszú nap” (literally “long day”) also refers to Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement in the Jewish calendar. At the same time, “el” is at once a Hungarian verbal prefix (“off, away”) and one of the Hebrew words for God.
Gábor Schein (Budapest, 1969-) is one of the most significant poets to emerge in the post-1989 generation. In addition to being a highly respected literary historian and dramatist, he is significant as an unflinching explorer of the Jewish presence in post-Holocaust Hungary, particularly in his novel Lazarus (2006). In Autobiographies of an Angel (Egy angyal önéletrajzai, 2009, in preparation by Ottilie Mulzet), he explores the themes of Jewishness through riveting personal and alternating narratives of Hungarian history (see this excerpt here). An excerpt from his latest short story collection, To Kill the Ones We Love, in Adam J. Levy’s translation, can be read here. Gábor Schein’s poetry stands somewhere between the space and the living and the dead, eternally wandering in the interstices of the shadows they have left behind.
Ottilie Mulzet translates from Hungarian and Mongolian. Excerpts from Borbély’s poetry have appeared in The American Reader and Poetry Magazine; a section of Borbély’s last published volume, The Dispossessed–already widely acknowledged as one of the most seminal works of Hungarian literature of the early millennium–has appeared in The White Review. Other translations include Lazarus by Gábor Schein (Triton, 2010). Translations from the work of László Krasznahorkai include AnimalInside (Sylph Editions and New Directions, 2010), Seiobo There Below (New Directions, 2013), and Destruction and Sorrow Beneath the Heavens (forthcoming, Seagull Books). She is also working on an anthology of Mongolian folk-tales and completing a dissertation on the linguistic analysis of Mongolian riddles and proverbs.