Part 3 on Writing a novel trilogy
While writing and researching in Budapest last year, we ate a couple of times at a local restaurant that takes enormous pride in its food and service (Kispiac) and went there for our last evening meal before leaving Budapest.
The owner asked us about our time in Budapest and whether we’d like to return. Before we left, he came out with a bottle of Hungarian sparkling tokaji as a going away gift. Whilst Hungarians are rarely effusive, we found them helpful and generous — I can’t imagine that kind of gesture from a London restaurant after a couple of visits.
Budapest is an extraordinary place — there’s a quiet kindness in so many people — unshowy, but vital. There’s also deep melancholy — a history replete with suffering and ongoing political corruption and extremism.
It’s a place where beautiful Art Nouveau buildings are sometimes fading and uncared for. There are architectural gems are so in need of restoration that chunks of masonry fall into the street (we saw two passers-by almost felled by falling stone). And yet there’s also pride in good service and good food, in art and architecture, in being humane.
When I arrived, one of the themes in my novel was the debate over whether Attila József committed suicide or died in a tragic accident. The preponderance of opinion has always been that his death was by suicide, but I wanted to leave the question open, to stay with the ambiguity.
A conversation with László Kúnos of Corvina Press convinced me otherwise. Sad as it is to believe that this exceptional man chose to kill himself, the more I read the poetry and biographies, the more I realised that there is an internal logic to the life and death.
This is a scene when I’ve explored this in the novel:
She walks back slowly. She will go to the place where he wrote when editing the magazine, Beautiful Word, another day, but the statue on the Danube near the Parliament building is only a short detour on the route to her apartment.
József sits, coat thrown down beside him, hat in his hand, watching the river, the epitome of contemplation and lament. He looks as though he’d spent the day walking across this city searching for something, Catherine thinks. The lines from ‘By the Danube’ are in a facsimile of József’s handwriting: Mintha szivembôl folyt volna tova Zavaros, bölcs és nagy volt a Duna — As if it flowed straight from my heart / Troubled, wise and great was the Danube.
How was it that Székely translated those lines? Catherine asks the statue.
As if my own heart had opened its gate:
The Danube was turbulent, wise and great.
She thinks of the conversation with Margit and András, how a thing mutates between languages, but even in one language how every action, every nuance is open to interpretation.
Catherine sits on the bottom step beneath Attila, looking towards the Danube with him. When she begins to feel stiff and colder she walks towards the figure, touches his hand.
There is such melancholy here, she tells him. Suicide seems to be everywhere, your language is unlike any neighbouring country’s, your borders have changed, to say there has been one too many invasion is an understatement and even your national anthem talks of pity and sorrow. So much sadness and I have endless questions for you that you can’t answer. Did you kill yourself? I’m minded to agree with Margit and András that you did. Why didn’t you take another route? And the strangest question of all — Did you know a woman called Selene Solweig Virág?
At the Attila József Museum, I was further convinced that the poet took his own life. We took a tram to the south of the city to the IXth District. It was the most run-down area we visited and a shock after the picturesque tram-ride along the Danube. It was a blazing hot day and we were glad to find that museum after only ten minutes walking.
When we found the museum there seemed to be no way in, but after a rather halting phone call a curator let us in. We weren’t charged the entrance fee and had the museum to ourselves for two hours. The curator was helpful and delighted to have visitors. All this investment and care and no-one there.
The place was beautifully presented, tiny yet brimming with photos, artefacts and interactive displays. There are first edition copies of his collections, the pencil he wrote with, notebooks, letters and a copy of his birth certificate.
Attila could fall in love in minutes and does so with my character, Selene, who never appears in the histories or photographs as she is not from the same time as Attila. She may be imagining her relationship with him during the trauma of her imprisonment after the 1956 Uprising. Or perhaps not? Either way, she fits the pattern of József’s often unrequited and always difficult love life.
Ah, Catherine? the curator asks. I am with you.
Márta Tákacs appears moments later and Catherine holds out her hand to shake. They walk through a small courtyard and into the ground floor two-roomed apartment, Marta tall and elegant, her fair hair held behind a blue band that matches her eyes.
People come from everywhere, Márta says as they enter.
The walls are covered in black and white photographs. Catherine notes the picture of József’s father in military uniform that she has a copy of and one of his mother that she has not seen previously. Borbála is young and pretty, with soft features. Another image shows a house further along the street where the family lived when József was a toddler — It says: Papa disappeared from this flat, Márta says, translating legend.
By the door a map shows another nineteen apartments that the family lived in after Attila ran back to his mother from the foster family at Öcsöd, who set him to work as a five-year-old swineherd.
They were constantly thrown out for not being able to pay the rent, Márta tells her. Attila was lucky that later his brother-in-law paid for his education so he didn’t have to go on sell newspapers for a living. In his childhood, he’d already known work — collecting coal, selling paper whirligigs that he made from scraps to better-off children. In the war he’d queue all night to buy food for the family, only to find that the cooking lard had run out and there was nothing to be had by eight in the morning. He was only fourteen when his mother died and Makai sent him to the Makó boarding school. They tried to send him to a seminary too, but he left after a week, telling them he was Orthodox, not Catholic. He got good grades at school, but he was already suffering with depression and tried to kill himself when he was only sixteen. I will leave you to look, she says finally, but I’m in the next room if you have questions.
There are copies of József’s poetry collections on a small table, beginning with Szépség koldusa, Beauty’s Beggar, written when he was seventeen. Catherine lingers over each picture, each book, but feels no sense of Attila in the rooms.
After a while Márta reappears with a set of pictures. These were his women, she says. This one was the daughter of the director of his boarding school — Márta Gebe. He was very young, but she inspired several poems. Then Maria Esprit, this time his landlord’s daughter. And this one is most interesting.
The black and white picture is of a beautiful girl, aquiline features, large eyes, her close-cut bobbed hair under a fashionable cap.
Luca Wallennsz was the daughter of Gitta Genes, a very fine artist and ceramicist. There are beautiful works in the National Gallery. Her husband wrote novels and poetry. Very refined Jewish family. They gave salons and many famous names were there, but Gitta met Attila first in the park. He sat next to her on a bench and declared his love five minutes later. He was only nineteen and she was a mature woman, beautiful, but thirty-six. They became close — not what we would call an affair, but a relationship still. He wrote poems for her, of course, like ‘It was summertime’ and then her daughter, Luca, became interested in the salons and Attila fell in love once more. He wrote her many excellent poems, mostly in ’28. Very beautiful — ‘I bless you with sadness and happiness’ is best known of them, set to music often.
He fell in love often, Catherine notes.
Indeed. And he loved Gitta and Luca at the same time too.
Ah, Catherine says, thinking of Attila loving Flóra and Selene simultaneously.
You will know this one, of course.
Catherine holds the picture of Márta Vágó. Yes. The first serious love of his life, perhaps.
Márta nods. They wrote every day when she first went to London, but the distance was too much to sustain. I think that’s what her parents hoped for. They were wealthy intelligentsia, he was the son of a soap factory worker and a peasant, after all. Márta pauses. And this one –
She hands Catherine an image of Judit Szánto.
I always think the most sad, Márta finishes. She lived with him six years, tried to make a place of security for him. He was very broken after the relationship with Márta Vágó ended. But he said it was ‘not love, but an alliance’. Particularly harsh from a man who loved easily. He wrote one poem, ‘Judit’ and a few scraps that never became poems, that was all. While he was with Judit he met Edit.
Márta hands her the photograph of Edit Gyömrői. She was his doctor and he became … she searches for the word … fixated on her so that another doctor, Robert Bak, had to take over.
And then one day he saw this girl, Márta Márton –
Catherine studies the beautiful young face.
He didn’t know her. He saw her and decided he was in love. He wrote the poem ‘Ode’ for her, an exquisite love poem, and when Judit realised that she was not the muse of this poem, she tried to kill herself. They’d already tried to part earlier, but broke apart after this.
An finally –
The last picture is of Flóra Kozmutza. No picture of Selene, Catherine thinks.
They met at Anna Daniels apartment in February ’37 and were engaged by April, but it was never to be of course.
Catherine nods. Thank you. They’re all so beautiful.
Yes, lovely but sad, Márta adds.
After our final dinner at Kispiac, we walked to the Danube, sat by Attila’s statue and read some of his poetry, including ’By the Danube’.
I very much hoped it would be ‘au revoir’, and not goodbye. And I’m now looking forward to launching the novel in Budapest in November, at the wonderful Massolit bookshop and cafe.
By the Danube.
As I sat on the bottom step of the wharf,
A melon-rind flowed by with the current;
Wrapped in my fate I hardly heard the chatter
Of the surface, while the deep was silent.
As if my own heart had opened its gate:
The Danube was turbulent, wise and great. …
Translated by John Székely
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