“beyond three wild frontiers”

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Letter to My Wife
Miklós Radnóti
Down in the deep, dumb worlds are waiting, silent;
I shout; the silence in my ears is strident,
but no one can reply to it from far
Serbia, fallen into a swoon of war,
and you are far. My dream, your voice, entwine,
by day I find it in my heart again;
knowing this I keep still while, standing proudly,
rustling, cool to the touch, many great ferns surround me.

When may I see you? I hardly know any longer,
you, who were solid, were weighty as the psalter,
beautiful as a shadow and beautiful as light,
to whom I would find my way, whether deafmute or blind;
now hiding in the landscape, from within,
on my eyes, you flash–the mind projects its film.
You were reality, returned to dream
and, fallen back into the well of my teen years,

jealously question you: whether you love me,
whether, on my youth’s summit, you will yet be
my wife–I am now hoping once again,
and, back on life’s alert road, where I have fallen,
I know you are all this. My wife, my friend and peer–
only, far! Beyond three wild frontiers.
It is turning fall. Will fall forget me here?
The memory of our kisses is all the clearer;

I believed in miracles, forgot their days;
above me I see a bomber squadron cruise.
I was just admiring, up there, your eyes’ blue sheen,
when it clouded over, and up in that machine
the bombs were aching to dive. Despite them, I am alive,
a prisoner; and all that I had hoped for, I have
sized up, in breadth. I will find my way to you;
for you I have walked the spirit’s full length as it grew,

and highways of the land. If need be, I will render
myself, a conjurer, past cardinal embers,
amid nose-diving flames, but I will come back,
if I must be, I shall be as resilient as the bark
on trees. I am soothed by the peace of savage men
in constant danger: worth the whole wild regimen
of arms and power; and, as from a cooling wave of the sea,
sobriety’s 2×2 comes raining down on me.

Original

Levél a hitveshez (Hungarian)
A mélyben néma, hallgató világok,
üvölt a csönd fülemben s felkiáltok,
de nem felelhet senki rá a távol,
a háborúba ájult Szerbiából
s te messze vagy. Hangod befonja álmom,
s szivemben nappal ujra megtalálom,
hát hallgatok, míg zsong körém felállván
sok hűvös érintésü büszke páfrány.

Mikor láthatlak ujra, nem tudom már,
ki biztos voltál, súlyos, mint a zsoltár,
s szép mint a fény és oly szép mint az árnyék,
s kihez vakon, némán is eltalálnék,
most bujdokolsz a tájban és szememre
belülről lebbensz, így vetít az elme;
valóság voltál, álom lettél ujra,
kamaszkorom kútjába visszahullva

féltékenyen vallatlak, hogy szeretsz-e?
s hogy ifjuságom csúcsán, majdan, egyszer,
a hitvesem leszel, – remélem ujra
s az éber lét útjára visszahullva
tudom, hogy az vagy. Hitvesem s barátom, –
csak messze vagy! Túl három vad határon.
S már őszül is. Az ősz is ittfelejt még?
A csókjainkról élesebb az emlék;

csodákban hittem s napjuk elfeledtem,
bombázórajok húznak el felettem;
szemed kékjét csodáltam épp az égen,
de elborult s a bombák fönt a gépben
zuhanni vágytak. Ellenükre élek, –
s fogoly vagyok. Mindent, amit remélek
fölmértem s mégis eltalálok hozzád;
megjártam érted én a lélek hosszát,

s országok útjait; bíbor parázson,
ha kell, zuhanó lángok közt varázslom
majd át magam, de mégis visszatérek;
ha kell, szívós leszek, mint fán a kéreg,
s a folytonos veszélyben, bajban élő
vad férfiak fegyvert s hatalmat érő
nyugalma nyugtat s mint egy hűvös hullám:
a 2 x 2 józansága hull rám.

Non-English on English-language TV: No subtitles

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I wrote a bit earlier about the increase in number of subtitled TV shows. Not foreign TV on predominantly English-language screens but the jump in number of shows featuring a mix of languages. Knowing that many Americans don’t have the patience and tolerance for languages or subtitles, this has been an interesting development. It has always existed in shows to some degree but its centrality to certain shows, such as The Americans, has made the concept more prominent.

I thought back, as the latest season of Louie premiered this week, to last season’s arc in which Louie has a brief affair with a Hungarian woman who speaks no English. I wrote about it at the time, and about how no subtitles accompany her speech. I assume this was an intentional device, inviting the viewer to share in Louie’s feelings of being charmed by and having real feelings for someone he cannot understand (as well as the frustration of not being able to understand or communicate complex feelings).

As much as I thought about compiling a list of shows in which more than one language (and subtitling) is used regularly, I also thought about the number of shows that have used the intentional lack of understanding brought about by another language’s use as a device. Any thoughts?

summer reading

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I have definitely fallen off the daily blogging wagon. I guess it’s hard when there are so many other things going on.

This week I have been given two books – summer reading time.

The first: Michael Booth’s The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia. It looks fantastic and hilarious as well as informative.

Next Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch.

Looking forward to both – it has been far, far too long since I read something for the sheer enjoyment of reading. (Hungarian language textbooks aside.)

Beszél magyarul?

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An interesting overlap between the latest season of the TV show Louie and my work trip to Budapest has been this Hungarian connection. Louie begins to date a Hungarian woman this season. They can’t communicate – she speaks no English. She speaks quite a lot of Hungarian during the show. No subtitles. We are not meant to understand – and probably to assume and “grope” as much as Louie has to. I, of course, don’t speak Hungarian. Just before departing for Budapest, though, I started paging through my old Hungarian textbooks, and read an article on a website that tried to position Hungarian as “a language as easy as any other”. I learned a few fundamentals that actually were never explained well in textbooks – including a piece of information that helped in trying to figure out which bottles of water were carbonated and which were not (later I discovered that the color on the bottle could just as well have decoded that little mystery – but hey, I worked with what I knew!). In one of the latest episodes of Louie when the Hungarian woman started chatting with a Hungarian-speaking waiter, I was happy to understand a few words (basic!) – but the whole feeling produced by Louie’s relationship with this woman he could not understand (and who could not understand him) was certainly a hallmark of the Louie “sitcom” style. It’s not a sitcom, it’s not a comedy show. It lacks linear storytelling, goes in sometimes strange, unusual and even sometimes boring directions – but the fact that it dares to do so is what makes it unique. There has been a good deal of everything from discomfort to controversy generated by the show this season (e.g. attempted rape, “This would be rape if you weren’t so stupid.”) and some meandering – but it’s Louie. It’s what I’ve come to expect, even if in expectation, I can’t predict anything. On a side note, Charles Grodin showing up as a doctor in Louie’s building has been highly enjoyable. “Enjoy the heartbreak while you can, for god’s sake! Pick up the dog poop, would you please?* Lucky son of a bitch, I haven’t had my heart broken since Marilyn walked out on me when I was 35 years old. What I would give to have that feeling again. You know I’m not really sure what your name is. But you may be the single most boring person I have ever met. No offense.” My final thought after returning from Budapest (apart from having noticed a plethora of coffeehouses – a dream for a coffee lover like me) was its continued clinging to a complete lack of service-mindedness, reminiscent of Communist-era eastern Europe. It may have improved slightly since I last visited Budapest in 1999, and it might not even be an eastern bloc thing so much as part of the mentality of the Hungarians (since people working in the services now would not have been that exposed to and trained in “customer service” of the past). Everywhere I went – and everywhere many of my colleagues went – we’d ask for something very normal (e.g. exchanging money at a money-exchange desk or asking a normal question in a store), and the employee(s) would give a short, uninformative answer and stare/glare at me (or whomever) as though I had just asked the dumbest question in the history of questions. How could I have been so stupid? In one coffee place, there was a sign by the cash register in English, which read: “We only accept euros” (and then something about the denominations of euros accepted). I found this misleading – it should probably have been clearer that they accept euros in addition to their own currency (the forint), so I asked about it (dummy!), and the barista looked at me like I had just dumped a bag of dog shit on the floor and just repeated the amount I owed her (in forints). (Incidentally my favorite coffee place – maybe due to its convenience in the place I stayed in the city during non-work-conference days – is Coffee Cat. Not the place that had the misleading “only euros” sign!) Sigh. The fun of traveling to different places.

everything's gone kuka - budapest

*everything’s gone kuka – budapest – another coincidence

Cold Peace: Off to Budapest

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Heading off to Budapest for work.

I can only think of two things about Budapest now – my last trip there as long ago as 1999, wandering around and random old people asking me questions, which I naturally could not answer – nem beszélek magyarul. I don’t know Hungarian – clearly. Who does, other than Hungarians or people crazy enough to take on the daunting, crazy task of trying to learn this near-impossible language? I had a weird hankering to learn the language in my university years, but it was not offered anywhere near where I lived – it’s not one of those languages that everyone wants to learn, right?

Secondly, I think of Hungarian music and poetry. Of music, I think back to letters and tapes (yes, old cassette tapes!) exchanged with my former penfriend in Budapest, Szilvia. I fell in love with the music (Muzsikás and Marta Sebestyén). It put me into my own sort of world, wandering through Seattle and its suburbs listening to something that was so inaccessible and unknown to most of the people around me. I do distinctly recall, though, when I went to the cinema to see The English Patient, and from its very opening moments, the gorgeous song (Muzsikás’s rendering) “Szerelem, szerelem” played – I knew from the first moment I would love the film. Bias.

And poetry… I wish I could read it in the original, but as written above, only Hungarians and lunatics (not that they are comparable!) can deal with Hungarian.

After All – Anna Hajnal
After all, what have I become?
The island Iceland in a blind fog.
Gliding in the far north.
I swim in mushy ice-water.
An ice-barrier surrounds me,
To protect me?
Protect, from what?
What boils in me darkly,
bubbling, swirling upward,
melting my thick cover:
the firmament may blanche
while being sliced upward to its lap
by a foaming, vapor-tressed head
ragingly crying: the geyser.

Life Sentence – János Pilinszky
The bed shared.
The pillow not.

Cold Peace – György Petri
In the absence of peace, your plain man’s mind might think:
there will be war. There being no war,
your learnèd mind would believe:
this is now peace. But it is and will be neither.

On Hope – Sándor Petőfi
Man, what is hope? …a horrifying whore
Who doles to everyone the same embrace.
You waste on her your most precious possession:
Your youth, and then she leaves without a trace!

Logbook of a Lost Caravan – Gyula Illyés
Only the compass, keeping hope alive,
Stuttered on, uttering its paralyzed
Directions; with something somewhere beyond
To which to respond.

And for another long day
We struggled ahead through desert sand.

Then to the edge of stone cliffs
Covered with hieroglyphs.

Line after line, incoherent, they read –
Wrinkles on some mad forehead.

An ancient age
Struggled there in desperate tones –

With nothing more to say –
And only the wind moans.

Sand in our eyes. Between sweating fingers, and
Ground between teeth, sand.

We slaughtered the camel who knew the way…
Had our last meal today.

The Shapelessness – Ágnes Nemes Nagy
The shapelessness, the endlessness.
I almost fall before I cut away
My statement from the timelessness.
With sand I wall a bucketful of sea
Against a waste of nothingness.
Perpetual indifference should be
Intolerable to consciousness.

Agonia Christiania – János Pilinszky
The daybreak is still far away
With its rivers and blowing winds…
And I put on my shirt and suit
Buttoning up my death within.

The Dark Fates – Dezső Kosztolányi
The fatal sisters – death and cards and woman-
Stand sadly on life’s torturous road.
Inscrutable veiled destiny, what secret,
Meant for me, do your robes unfold?

Be you a witch, a fairy – never mind –
You’ll be my lover for a hundred nights.
I’ll find you in my Friday of misfortune,
To lay my worried forehead on your knee,

And pray to you for help, in exultation,
Pray for the word, the meaning, for the key.
My life is slow: enhance it, multiply it
With burning fevers, hotter still than hot!

So secret is this treasure-box – unlock it,
Make it let fall the hard, unyielding local!
Allow fast spinning then to every spindle,
Show, brilliantly transfigured, to my mind

Life – from the cradle to the coffin dwindle,
And, touching fate with fairy – gentle fingers,
Allow the thread of my slow life unwind.

Glassworks – Margit Mikes
The temperature is zero below
On the kitchen window the snow
Sticks in flower patterns;
Memory and fantasy together bring
The illusion of a white spring.
As I search for some matches,
A water glass shatters in the cold.
My breath catches.
What a painful shriek, a piercing sound:
A dangerous transformation of matter.
As I turn around
It clatters to the ground
And a cylinder of ice rolls out.
Before it was clear water, refreshing potion,
Now, in this temperature
It has become a miniature
Frozen ocean.

You transparent, dead glass
Our fate is the same.
Indifference engulfs us.
The tears that gushed
One my face freeze;
The pain numbs,
In the frozen vice of apathy
My heart is crushed.

The Rest is Grace – János Pilinszky
Fear and dreams
Were my father and mother –
The corridor was
My unfolding landscape.

This is how I lived. How will I die?
What will my destruction be like?

The earth betrays me. She hugs me close.
The rest is grace.

Paramour

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“Your need a paramour/someone to pluck your eyebrows for…”
-Cinerama,  “Heels”

Years ago (my god, how many of my stories start that way?) my ex-boyfriend (a French guy) was reading a book – I don’t remember what the book title was nor what it was about but suspect it had something to do with language misunderstandings/misheard words and expressions. He came to me with the following quote, “Meanwhile, Richard Parker Bowles, brother of Camilla’s ex-husband, Andrew, said that from the beginning Camilla approved of Charles marrying Diana while she remained his power mower. (Richmond, VA Times-Dispatch, Jan. 1995)” and could not understand what “power mower” was meant to be. It was “paramour”. I still laugh about this sometimes.

I need a power mower!

Would perhaps the understanding of this word have been different depending on the accent of the speaker? I have said it before and will keep saying it – I could listen to a nice Scottish accent every day and love every second of it. Different accents, voices, languages have the power to do something to us, affecting us on a chemical, physiological level, it seems. I suppose this explains why I want to tell people to shut up so often. Haha. Sometimes it is definitely just the sound. I don’t understand more than five words of Hungarian, but I could listen to and not understand any of it and still want to listen to it all day. I love the rhythm and sound of the unfamiliar words strung together melodiously. (It is not always the case that the language we do not understand is heartwarming. The same aforementioned French guy had no love for the incomprehensible Scottish accents we encountered on holiday in Scotland. I had to act as interpreter although he would politely stand there nodding in a reassuring way as B&B hosts told us stories as we got settled in. Only later did he tell me he had feigned understanding and needed translation (truer to say that he demanded, “What in the hell was she talking about?”).