The Summer 2011 issue is, to my mind anyway, Asymptote’s first great issue—not least because of the sheer embarrassment of riches showcased therein. (To this day, I still regret not being able to find a spot in our list of featured names on the cover for: Adonis, Péter Esterházy, Brother Anthony of Taizé, Sagawa Chika, Hai-Dang Phan, Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook, Azra Raza & Sara Suleri Goodyear, Jonas Hassen Khemiri, and, last but certainly not least, Tomaž Šalamun, who enclosed English translations of his poetry in a letter sent to my Singaporean address. A savvier editor would probably have chosen to promote local opposition politician and household name Chen Show Mao; indeed, after he shared it on his Facebook page, my exclusive interview with Chen drew thousands of hits from Singaporean readers, causing an unprecedented spike in traffic.) No, it was our first great issue because despite the adverse conditions under which it was produced—a key editor dropped out, taking Asymptote funds along with him; our guest artist resigned three weeks before the issue launch—we still delivered on time, working into the wee hours of the morning. On a lighter note: Sven Birkerts, whose essay on Roberto Bolaño I solicited, once handed me a crisp five-dollar bill after betting in class that no one would be able to identify an unattributed passage from Knut Hamsun’s Hunger. Who says you can’t make money from world literature? Here to introduce this issue (and the Hungarian Fiction Feature that I edited in honor of my Hungarian friend Nora, whose wedding I couldn’t attend because of the journal) is Diána Vonnák, editor-at-large for Hungary since October 2017.
I started writing about Hungarian literature in translation in 2012, right after I moved away from Budapest. In a way, this was a coping mechanism, a strategy to handle the sudden absence of both shared references and the immediacy of lived language. It was a half-serious attempt to not only recreate the context I had been immersed in back home but also weave it into the much larger and more diverse literary world I encountered in a UK university full of students from overseas.
These new encounters fascinated me, and I found myself immersed in world literature more than ever before. But I realized that if I wanted to write about it, I needed to explore Hungarian literature in English translation and the platforms where it could be found. This journey soon led me to what was then a rather young journal: Asymptote. In 2013, I stumbled upon the journal’s third issue, from July 2011, and was astonished to find the special feature on Hungarian fiction. Yet as I read through the rest of the issue I was mesmerised by the many hidden links between the other pieces, particularly the subtle hints to Odysseus and his many literary heirs as well as modernism in its divergent traditions. If there had been a Greek god overseeing the birth of this issue, it would have certainly been Hermes.
The Hungarian feature offers an impressive array of past and present voices. It starts with a short story by Dezső Kosztolányi, a modernist poet and prose writer of the interwar period who was one of the key figures of the legendary literary journal Nyugat. In the short story that appeared in Asymptote, Kornél Esti—Kosztolányi’s famous flaneur-trickster alter ego—recalls a moment of happiness by juxtaposing static images of idyll with sensory details: “What I am trying to say is that happiness is like this and nothing else. Always it blossoms in the shadow of extraordinary suffering, and it is just as extraordinary as suffering that’s suddenly over. But it doesn’t last long, because we grow used to it. It is a passage, an interlude. Perhaps it is no more than suffering’s absence.” So rounded they nearly burst, these ephemeral yet eternally present moments exclude time.
Esti is also a favourite character of many Hungarian contemporaries, most notably the late Péter Esterházy. This heir of Austro-Hungarian barons was one of the most celebrated authors of the so-called postmodernist prose turn of the 1980s, and he wrote a tongue-in-cheek novel, Esti, that evokes Kosztolányi’s short stories. Yet Esterházy’s Esti is not only the flaneur of the 1920s, but also a literary wanderer for whom reality and the words depicting it are pretty much the same. His Esti moves effortlessly in a universe of signs and references, a semiotic heaven of sorts. The first pages of the novel—excerpted here—start with these lines: “His collar turned up, a young man was walking down a dark street.’ That’s me, between quotation marks. I am my own travelogue, my romantic travelogue (in which I even reveal how many times the hero died in his dreams). I remain a fragment. A festoon. Nobody writes what he is, but what he’d like to be. Still, it would be nice, living a while longer.” Esti looks at himself as an instance of plots: he writes his own story, and sorting out the many potential narratives becomes an activity that overshadows living itself.
Like the relentlessly intertextual Esterházy, Asymptote issues offer much serendipity and often puzzling amounts of connections, and the Summer 2011 one is no exception. George Gömöri’s poem “Summer Evening at Sirmione” starts with Cavafy’s famous line: “If you set out on your way to Ithaca, you should always choose the longest way”. The moment Gömöri captures eerily echoes Kornél Esti’s moment of happiness that leaves no room for the present or the future:
The air was lukewarm
and I closed my eyes, counting the splashes
of small waves against the long shore. Sweet music
drifted our way from the restaurant
— I did not think about Ithaca, held as I was
in the moment, in the arms of summer.
By way of Ithaca, Gömöri leads to Cavafy himself. One of the most fascinating Greek poets I know, Cavafy’s meandering, cosmopolitan life took him to Turkey, England, and France, across Greek diasporas. But he is most of all a poet of Alexandria, making Ithaca the perfect motif for this figure who defies roots and yet yearns for a home. In “Returning Home from Greece,” a poem featured in this issue, he offers a deeply satirical contemplation on identity and Greekness.
So it’s high time we admitted the truth:
we’re Greeks, too—what else are we?—
however with affections and emotions out of Asia,
however with affections and emotions
occasionally striking the Greeks of Greece as strange.
Kosztolányi’s Esti, Esterházy’s reincarnation of him, and Cavafy’s Greek narrator all exhibit a light, airy approach to language and the world. But this serenity also hides a darkness in its depths and harbors doubts that only satire can articulate. No wonder then, that Gömöri’s (Cavafy-referencing) happiness resembles Esti’s happiness, for they stem from similar odysseys. And to round out this reflection with a motive inseparable from journeys, let me finish with these moving lines from modernist Japanese poet Sagawa Chika:
Music marks the bright hour.
I try to protest, raising my voice –
The waves come erase it from behind.
Diána Vonnák is Asymptote’s Editor-at-Large for Hungary.
According to Sven Birkerts, “Asymptote is trained to a new perimeter—excitingly so. There is the feeling that its editors are listening, not just for a new sound—though it feels very new—but for the full sound, taking in parts of the tonal spectrum that have been ignored for too long.” Bet on Asymptote today by becoming a masthead member or a sustaining member.