Lake Huron

Gábor Németh

Photograph by Sherman Ong

(easy does it)

Big white snowflakes are falling. / To stretch out on the bed, not light the lamp, watch the snowfall through the window. Big flakes of fluffy down. Granny Holle's pillows. It is warm here indoors. There is happiness here indoors. In the friendly, warm room. Stretching out together with another body, but one as if it were mine. It is snowing, which for me is always outside time, how many billions of us are eternally watching the same snowfall, one might wonder < yes indeedy! >, if there were any thoughts in the meantime. There are none, one can thank Heaven. / Then of course one has to get up, dress and go out onto the street. As it thawed < the snow >  it instantly froze, a razor-thin film on the road, perilous, it's almost impossible to stop on it. I spray de-icer on the windscreen from a grubby drum, wait a little then start scraping. It doesn't budge much. On top of that there's some foam bubbling up, it didn't do that last year, a thick, creamy foam, mucks up the whole windscreen. Within a minute my hand becomes numb with cold, almost painful, a single minute enough to do that. The someone else who is me passes out a pair of gloves through the window. That is a bit better. Only the skin at the wrists is freezing. Only now feels the icy wind. There are twenty-five thousand indigents living in Budapest. < 1992 > An unexpected, attention-seeking twist. / Not in the best of taste. The indigents are not in the best of taste either. Twenty-five thousand stinking and ugly, awkward people. In a certain circle of intellectuals ten years younger than me they refer to them as homeless. That's not in the best of taste either. / Destitute. Lacking the means of subsistence. / For some reason, I get up and look in the Pallas Encyclopaedia. The eighteen ninety-four edition. There is no such specific headword for destitute. Between destiny and destroyer are forty-nine lines. "Indigents, hostels for. In the larger towns and densely populated industrial estates many members of the lower classes do not possess permanent accommodation. The majority of these indigents spend the entire day earning a sustenance, therefore in reality they merely need to arrange accommodation for the night. These night hostels are either organised by private entrepreneurs or are established as institutions with charitable and local government funding. In both instances there is a need to provide premises in which persons who are strangers to one another spend their nights together in sleep. Under private entrepreneurship, these hostels and doss houses usually degenerate into dens of filth, privation and depravity. Public health and police measures have significantly improved the situation in recent times, yet genuine necessity will perpetuate them until they are rendered superfluous by certain other humane measures on the part of the authorities or society. Communal hostels in which those seeking accommodation are under public health and police supervision have proved highly effective in this sphere. Two systems have become widespread in setting these up: the barrack system and the family system. Those of former type are more common and are laid out by separating men and women in large dormitories, with separate beds but with all still sleeping in the same room; naturally, this means they must all retire to bed at the same time and equally get up at the same time. In hostels organised on the family system, members of indigent families applying for admission are not separated from one another but are accommodated in appropriate smaller rooms. In hostels of both types considerable care is devoted to the cleanliness and health of the boarders; thus, for instance, most hostels are equipped with bathhouses, and in some places bathing is compulsory, those suffering from infectious diseases are not allowed admission, etc. In many places those seeking shelter receive a warm meal at night, whilst elsewhere the hostel is also involved in work placement. The issue of hostels for indigents is very closely bound up with solving the issue of charity and poor-relief. In the Hungarian capital, a hostel run by the authorities on Rottenbiller Road is organised according to the barrack system." / Nowadays a sound is missing. Not just one sound: sounds are missing. As if you were tapping on icicles. / Mother told a story of how when she got back from work one day, she found me in the kitchen. I would have been three years old < a regular little Mozart! > , and I had set out bottled fruit-jars and tumblers of various sizes on the flagstone floor. There was a wooden spoon in my hand, and more or less water in the glass vessels; I must have seen a picture in some book or other. As I tapped < the glasses >, various sounds resonated. / Circus act. / It was from there that the sound was familiar. / I was walking along Ferenc Deák Road towards the Inner City. The sound came across from the Helikon bookshop, some bittersweet tune, operetta maybe, and yet somehow unsentimental, or not unsentimental so much as ironic, as if someone were merely jesting. / A man was seated on the ground in front of the bookshop. An old fellow, I might also have said, but a person whose dwindling powers leave dignity and self-irony as a defence against ridicule is what I call a man. A white-haired, very emaciated man, as I recall, bespectacled. National Health Service specs, the ones with a thick, black frame. There were quite a lot of people standing in a circle, listening to his music-making. And looking at the curious < "The natives were strolling on the shore in their distinctive garb." > instrument. A glass dulcimer. The wooden casing looked as if it could have been retrieved from the belly of a whale, battered surfaces, a weathered, gentle brown, or a picture frame from which the canvas has ripped out two hundred years ago. The strips of glass were attached to the case, four or five rows of shards, irregularly shaped, big and small, thick and thin, and even of various colours, from pale bottle-green through a watery white to honey-yellow; in making it he had manifestly not been guided by extraneous motives, the glass shards had been broken off, selected and assembled for perfection of pitch. In his hands were two wooden beaters, wrapped in rags. And he must have also chosen his tunes just as impartially as he had the glass strips, he played everything, from Mozart to dance-hall hits, with a meticulous feel for rhythm, lightly and yet vigorously, and on his face there was a kind of permanent, barely perceptible smile. The gratuities were piling up in a tin can perhaps, but he didn't pay much attention to them. As I watched, what went through my mind was that this is a man who likes performing. < Bravo! > I came across him increasingly often, at street corners and in pedestrian subways, I was getting ready to accost him one day; perhaps he would be willing to talk to me. I didn't know what we would talk about. I never did get round to accosting him. / He vanished suddenly, this was perhaps already some three < 9 > years ago now. / I never tossed him any money. / Not on principle, as I toss or don't toss money to others, it almost seems it's the rhythm of my walking pace that dictates it, now yes, now no. / Somehow it couldn't be for him. Somehow I couldn't. / It would be nice to know what became of him. / Whatever covers him, Heaven or E< e >arth is easy for him.

(a strange sense of relief)

I can't find the letter of invitation anywhere, all I remember is that the topic is there is trouble. Or is there trouble. Or is it trouble. In the envelope are sentences that it seems I may have said sometime. Faculty poetry, foundation prose. Or whatever. / Recently < 1994? > I read another letter which started Dear Gábor. Well I never, you might say. And you would not be right, because the letter was not meant for me, it wasn't addressed to me but to Gábor Gulyás, the editor of Határ. László Krasznahorkai wrote it. That apart, it was meant for me, of course, very much so./ What Krasznahorkai writes is that he is not-writing./ Not-writing, which doesn't exist in correct Hungarian any more than it does in 'correct' English, because writing is discredited, hollowed out, whatever he opens he sees from the first sentence how profoundly uninteresting, and therefore superfluous, it along with the rest is. / He does not write, does not answer, because to respond to the sort of literary invitation by letter that he had received is tantamount to an acceptance of the rules of the game, that is to say, with joining in. With joining in this oojah, which irritates him beyond belief. / So much that he's already written two books about how much. / These books, of course, are parts of literature, made up of the worryingly accurate, punctilious or whatever sentences and the letter itself. In which he writes why he is not writing the letter that he is writing. / So get the < discreet > out of here, a chap might say, if he dared. / He dares, begging your pardon, Laci, if only for its own sake and precisely for the sake of literature, the chap who is me. For the sake of the effect. I imagine a long, semi-dark room, gilding and glass chandelier like on a St. Valentine's day of old in Szeged; I imagine how there, in that candy-box room, you will all crack up laughing on this sentence. This is how I envisage it in the snowfall, in Budapest, ten days beforehand, as it approaches Sunday noon. / My family is away at Balatonlelle, I am sitting here on my own, I stayed in Pest for a perfectly insignificant general meeting of the Writers' Association. Let bear features totter on his chain, someone might say, and I tottered too, like a dog that's whelped nine pups. I leave the beardog in, because at the Vigadó yesterday István Lakatos said that "the Budaörs store base dangles like the sword of Damocles above the head of the book foundation." I hope you are also guffawing now. If so, then that proves the written word has meaning nonetheless. / Krasznahorkai is hoping for redemption from literature. / Not that the written word should have meaning nonetheless. / He seeks the maximum. / It seems the damned whore that gave what's between her legs, for better bits and bobs, in the past nowadays has grown disgusted, she's not going to have all sorts of roughnecks trample all over her, let them head for the hills. / Don't gawk, take a walk! / She doesn't give. Did she ever give, really? One who is redeemed has some sort of light streaming out of him, doesn't he? He throws light onto life, his own and that of others. So why is it dark since then, whenever? Always. / Maybe the trouble is that there was a time we believed we were redeemed. That it can do this. Is able to do it. Isn't able, wasn't able and won't be able. A salutary path to complete hopelessness which is identical with clear-sightedness. And that too is only a woman — Clarrie. Clarrie Voyance. In other words, only there to be flirted with. / A cock-teaser at dance school. You can escort her home, she'll do anything but not that. Gives the bloody runaround. You get to thinking you have to marry her and that's life sorted. Mother, spouse, lover, it just makes your head swim. / Like little Moritz imagines it to be. / You're standing before the church, it's ten forty-two, rather ticklish, everyone looking at your mug. Bridegroom without bride, what can I say. / Krasznahorkai thinks Clarrie has come - that she hasn't run off with the snake-charmer. / He writes that he is walking along the street towards the library, and so materializes the prospective first acceptable - that is to say, acceptable first - sentence, faces are coming the other way, and then he "on account of something" always sees something. And what he sees "he reports about the world which has remained from that, which contains nothing other than the naked truth meted out to us with god and gods, metaphysics and transcendence, which will no longer put up with the excitement of heart-warming opaque unknowns, any more than the once sweet but by now intolerably fraudulent fireworks of the daydreaming imagination, because the few glances from policemen, pariahs, taxi drivers along the critical section leading to the library informs about all that, about that whose total victory he will soon be jubilantly celebrating since its constructor, enlightened man, has understood, genuinely triumphed, and his victory signifies that there is but one single world, the one that lasts invariably from Monday to Sunday, the one in which life extends from irrational birth to irrational death; that all there is above us is that sky which, with its stars, is no longer up there, and the only hunger within us is that of the stomach, a hunger for the naked earth and immortality." / So much for the quotation, and though the text continues thus and in like manner to a perfect completion, I'm not going to quote it here. From page 26 to 31 of Volume 4, number 4 of Határ. / Just one question has preoccupied me ever since < now! now! > Why did Krasznahorkai respond at all if he really thinks what he thinks? That's not true, because I have one other question. / What does he do when he is not writing? / I have a hunger within me which is that of the stomach, therefore I am going to make myself a lunch. / Bruschetta. / Take a loaf of bread, but not any kind, a good toasting bread, toast it and in the meantime dice a tomato into small cubes, then with the second one catch on that you shouldn't be cutting it that way, first into segments then crosswise, but turning it over, so it displays its shiny, taut back, and then dicing. Once the bread is toasted, place it on a wood platter, rub in some garlic, sprinkle the tomato cubes on it, a few drops of lemon juice, peasant that I am: jiffy, then salt, ground pepper, oregano, dried, though that's twaddle because it really ought to be fresh basil, but then that's nowhere to be had in this country, and sprinkle the lot with olive oil, extra vergine. A dash of red wine on top, of course the nitwit didn't buy a dry one but a Villányi Oporto, bottled by József Róth, though he's presumably not the football star who once played for PMSC, sad to say. A demisec is no good for this, but that can't be helped. On the third slice it dawns on me that in the fridge there's some garlic preserved in Tolcsvai Furmint, with a touch of hot paprika in the juice too, so it is picante as a cultivated Italian would say, it would be better to slice that gossamer-thin onto the bread and sprinkle the remnant, fairly fresh garlic, chopped up fine, on top. / By the way, in writing wood platter I first wrote would platter. Inauthentic being, Heidegger would say, and Krasznahorkai would nod to that. / That reminds me that there was a time when I would go to the library in Parliament, which I proudly tell everyone nowadays was the cradle of the new Hungarian democracy during the Seventies, fascinating: who would have thought so at the time, end of unopened parenthesis, well anyway it was there that I came to grasp that alienation, the turning into an outsider or stranger, is not just a matter of a person becoming oblivious in inauthentic being, but can also come from becoming poxily oblivious in authentic being as well, why doesn't Heidegger write about that Internal estrangement? / The bruschetta is a metaphor, plainly enough. It really is fucking cold, the situation is hopeless, yet so far no Biblical serpent has come along to chew us off at the neck. So then? Shall we have fun? Shall I make some money? Five thousand and travel expenses? Or what's up? Design instead of Dasein? < To his considerable pain, this designdasein also occurred later to András Beck (Rather sneaky so, don't you think?) > In my opinion we should expect nothing from anybody in the name of anything. Even within a life, play around with split straws or jump into Etna, let everyone do what they may wish. He is going to regret it whatever happens. / Me < me!, Me! ME! >, my particular reason for writing is that I feel good doing it. Or I feel good being sick. Or I would like to be successful. Or I want some money, a lot, and right away if possible, in D-marks. Or that the clouds scud better in the sky. Or just because. Or I have no idea. / There are words — our words. With them we start this and that. Frightfully boring, everything really has already been written, its top and tail, one smoothly, one bellowed. One could end there. / But sometimes there remains in a book an incomprehensible golden fault, a tear, if you get up very close, as if you were looking. / Fairly sometimes and fairly as if. / I searched the bookshelf for an hour and a half for an example but did not find one. I dare not even write down all the writers in whose works I didn't. / When his house in Buda burned down, Sándor Márai, clambering on the charred rubble, made his way up to his virtual study to see if anything had remained undamaged. There had. One book. Just one out of goodness knows how many thousands. ON THE CARE OF A MIDDLE-CLASS DOG. That tickled him hugely. I felt a strange sense of relief, he writes, or something like that.

translated from the Hungarian by Tim Wilkinson