Tuesday, January 17, 2006

The despair of Attila Jozsef

The Hungarian poet Attila Jozsef (1905-1937) lived a short, sharp, incandescent life, wracked by poverty, loneliness, suffering and uncertainty, which he somehow managed to channel into verse of great beauty and poignancy. Born into a poor family and left in the care of foster-parents for some years before being restored to the care of his mother, who served in different households as a domestic help, Jozsef (like the young Charles Dickens, who when very young did a spell in a boot-blacking factory to bail out his debtstruck family) was forced to work from a very early age. In an autobiographical essay written in 1937, the year in which he took his own life by throwing himself under a freight train, Jozsef recounts all the things that he did to survive from day to day:

War broke out when I was nine and our lot became progressively worse. I did my share of queuing. There were occasions when I joined a queue at the foodstore at nine o'clock in the evening and just when my turn was coming at half past eight the next morning they announced that all the cooking fat had gone. I helped my mother as best I could. I sold fresh water in the Világ Cinema, I stole firewood and coal from the Ferencváros goods station so that we should have something to burn. I made coloured paper windmills and sold them to children who were better off, I carried baskets and parcels in the Market Hall, and so on.
Joszef's experiences prepared the ground for his verse. Few poets have written about poverty - its gnawing uncertainty, lack of hope, pathetic abjectness, raw despair - so powerfully. Here are the first three stanzas of his poem "What Will Become Of Him" in a translation by Zsuzsanna Ozsváth and Frederick Turner:

What Will Become of Him...

What will become of him, whoever
has got no handle to his hoe,
upon whose whiskers crumbs don't quiver,
who dawdles, gloomy, thrawn, and slow;
who would from half a furlong's hoeing
keep one potato out of three,
whose hair falls out in patches, growing
bald unnoticed - who'd care to see?

What will become of him, whoever
has but five acres under crops,
whose draggled hen clucks at the stover,
whose thoughts nest in a mudhole's slops;
when no yoke clinks, no oxen bellow;
when mother serves the family soup
and steam from a liquid weak and yellow
drifts from the bottom of the scoop?

What will become of him, whoever
must live alone and work alone;
whose stew has neither salt nor savour,
the grocer gives no tick nor loan;
who has one broken chair for kindling,
cat sitting on the cracked stove's shelf;
who sets his keychain swinging, jingling,
who stares, stares; lies down by himself?
"Whose stew has neither salt nor savour,/the grocer gives no tick nor loan;" - those lines would make any other poet burn with envy. And even if we do not immediately get the meanings of words like 'thrawn', 'draggled' or 'stover', we are captivated merely by the sound of Jozsef's verbal music. (This alerts us to the truth of a remark made by TS Eliot on the poetry of Dante, often thought to be difficult and abstruse, "It is not necessary to understand the meaning first to enjoy the poetry…our enjoyment of the poetry makes us want to understand the meaning.”)

Jozsef wrote a great deal about a world such as this - hungry people appear often in his poems, including on several occasions the poet himself. Other poems are about his mother, now dead and gone to her grave ("Why did you bend your back over the washing?/That now in a box you should straighten it?"), and about what it means to be a poet, one of which pictures life as a glass of beer ("I quaff great draughts of reality,/neat world with foaming sky on top.") But Jozsef was also capable of writing in other keys. Here is his late poem "Lullaby", with its soft, murmuring sounds and its childlike acts of imagination, in a translation by Vernon Watkins:


The sky is letting its blue eyes close;
The house its many eyes closes, too.
The quilted meadow lies in a doze:
Go to sleep softly, little one, do.

The wasp and beetle are both asleep;
Their heads are down on their feet, and through
Darkness, a drone in the dark they keep:
Go to sleep softly, little one, do.

The tram has fallen asleep as well,
And while its rattling slumbers, too.
It tings in its sleep a little bell:
Go to sleep softly, little one, do.

The coat is sleeping across the chair,
The tear is sleeping where it's worn through;
No more to-day will it stretch the tear:
Go to sleep softly, little one, do.

The ball and whistle are both at rest.
So is the wood where the picnic grew.
Even your sweets by sleep are possessed:
Go to sleep softly, little one, do.

All will be yours in the crystal ball;
You'll be a giant, it will come true;
But just let your little eyelids fall:
Go to sleep softly, little one, do.

A fireman, soldier, herder of sheep,
You'll be all three, and each will be you.
See, your mother is falling asleep:
Go to sleep softly, little one, do.
Some more translations of Jozsef's poems by Ozsváth and Turner, from their collection The Iron-Blue Vault, can be found here. And an archive of 20 translations of Joszef by different hands is here, along with the essay by Jozsef from which I quoted earlier. An excellent essay on Jozsef by the Hungarian émigré writer George Szirtes, winding through his work but also dwelling upon the nature of translation itself, can be found here.

And while we're on Hungarian literature, let me also try to interest you in the work of the novelist Sandor Marai, whose two novels available in English translation, Embers and Casanova in Bolzano, are among the best novels I've ever read. Embers was published in India by Penguin, and is quite easily available. I've written an essay on Marai's work here.

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