Thursday, May 26, 2011

On Edna O'Brien's Saints and Sinners

This essay appeared last weekend in The National.

 “Is there a place for me in some part of your life?” a married man asks a woman in “Manhattan Medley”, one of the stories in the Irish writer Edna O’Brien’s new book Saints and Sinners. By asking for a place not in someone’s life, but in a part of her life, the man suggests that he wants to approach something slowly, less dramatically than affairs usually are. By speaking of a sliver and not of the whole, he perhaps indicates too that, realistically, all that he can offer is a part of his own life, and the woman understands as much. 

“We did not have a garden, we had ploughed fields and meadows,” says a girl about her family in another story, “My Two Mothers.” “Somehow I thought that a garden would be a prelude to happiness.” Although she longs for the pleasures of a garden to call her own, the girl still seems to divine that her childish desires can be but a threshold to some ideal state, not happiness but a prelude to it. These are people who seem preternaturally aware, even when in the grip of heightened feeling, of how obdurate life is, of how something may be changed or attained only by small steps, not grand sallies. Even the children are, by observing the world of adults, already adults, and the stories they narrate in O’Brien’s work are adult stories.

Saints and Sinners is the late work of a writer – late in terms of O’Brien’s own age, a vivid eighty, but not in terms of any diminution of her sensibility – to whom we owe some of the most beautiful, limpid, and resonant English prose of the twentieth century, especially that of the great The Country Girls trilogy and the stories later collected in A Fanatic Heart. Across these stories can be found all of O’Brien’s signature characters and narratorial emphases. There are the questing, emotionally dissatisfied female protagonists of small Irish towns and villages, longing for escape from boredom or stiflement; the women who think about their love affairs and the girls who watch the love affairs or marriages of their mothers. There are, too, the hardened men who want to escape from feeling or have succeeded in deadening it through drink or desolation. 

There is the landscape of fields, mountains and marshes, described in language that brings out all their strangeness (from “Inner Cowboy”: “The bogs were more peaceful, stretching to the horizon, brown and black, with cushions of moss and spagunam and the cut turf in little stooks, igloos, with the wind whistling to them, drying them out.”) And there is the society both roused and distorted by what O’Brien has elsewhere called “the hounding nature of Irish Catholicism” (“I was full of fears, thought everything was a sin,” remembers the old man Rafferty about his youth in the book’s opening story “Shovel Kings”. “If the Holy Communion touched my teeth I thought that was a mortal sin.”)

There is O’Brien’s very precise attention to the colours and textures and emotional valency of objects, as when we are shown, in “Old Wounds”, a woman turned out of her house by her son, who wanders down the road “carrying her few belongings and her one heirloom, a brass lamp with a china shade, woebegone, like a woman in a ballad.” And there is the affection for, even adoration of, people who dream and at the same time attend conscientiously to life’s duties and try to do little things well, such as the mother who, despite being poor, applies icing on a Christmas cake with “the rapture of an artist”. 

All these things are presented through a style that knows how to be ornate without being mannered and how to be plain without being poor. O’Brien achieves an effect of naturalness through a palette of options as simple as the omission of a comma where one is expected, and as complex as a clause in a sentence that seems unrelated to anything before it, as if seeking to surprise the very sentence of which it is a part.

Consider, for instance, Miss Gilhooley, the protagonist of the story “Send My Roots Rain”, which borrows its burnished title from a poem by Gerald Manley Hopkins that Miss Gilhooley loves. Miss Gilhooley finds herself abruptly abandoned by a man with whom she has had a passionate affair, but remains possessed by him. Maddened by her pent-up yearning, she goes to see a psychic to see if there is a future for them. Encouragingly, the psychic foresees them “setting up a house together....She drew a picture of their future life together, one or the other, whoever got back first of an evening, kneeling to light a fire and praying that the chimney would not smoke, though at first it would, but in time that would clear, once the flue had its generous lining of soot.”

Though at first it would, but in time that would clear ­– the psychic seems to take her story much further out than she needs to, into a level of detail that should interest nobody, not even Miss Gilhooley. But it is only by her doing so that her story becomes real to Miss Gilhooley even as, on another plane, we comprehend how the writer’s narrative ingenuity has made the story real to us. The psychic’s crafty story also illuminates the craft of story. Miss Gilhooley is gulled by the psychic, but so are we, who are nowhere as susceptible.

In O’Brien’s stories men and women are always blazingly, defiantly, men and women before they are human beings. These are stories that everywhere ask us to think about what it is that constitutes their difference, a difference which undergirds both their mutual attraction and their ultimate incompatibility. Men and women feel differently, think differently, want differently, as a consequence of their biological and emotional differences, and this fact is not something to be evaded or simplified, but rather to be both experienced and rued. This sentiment may be accused of being essentialism, but in O’Brien’s stories it has always seemed, from the situations laid out before us, more like realism. 

“Never give all the heart outright – who said that?” asks Mildred, the rambling, slightly disordered narrator of the marvellous story “Madame Cassandra”. “I have read that men have cycles just like us women...we have cycles because of the presence of the uterus – hence we are subject from time to time to hysteria – whereas men’s cycles do not answer to the womb or the moon but to their own dastardly whims...they simply go on and off the creatures they call women.” 

The story is about Mildred’s visit all the way from a village up to Dublin to meet Madame Cassandra, some kind of psychic or healer, about an affair her husband is having. Madame Cassandra, however, refuses to see Mildred, but even in inaction she precipitates the story’s denouement. On the train back from Dublin Mildred runs, of all people, into her own husband, and finds that he “looked at me almost with wonder, as if he was seeing me in some way altered, his wife of twenty-two years leading a secret life, having a day up in Dublin, a rendezvous perhaps.” Mildred knows now, as they return home, that there is “a little agitation at the core of both our hearts”, and it does not matter if her husband’s rendezvous is real and her own is fiction, as long as her knowledge of the whole exceeds his. This is just one of many unusual closes and catharses in the work of this sensuous, rueful and sublime writer.

And some links: a long interview with O'Brien from 1984 in The Paris Review is here, and a recent one, "Edna O'Brien at 80" is here.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

What Novels Tell Us About Life (And About Themselves)

I write to you from a slightly tilted position on the sloping streets, under the low-hanging clouds, and above the twitters of the early-rising birds of Thimphu, where I'm going to give a lecture tomorrow afternoon at the Mountain Echoes Literary Festival called "What Novels Tell Us About Life (And About Themselves)".

Among the writers I'll be discussing are greats such as Willa Cather, Irene Nemirovsky, Ashvaghosha, and Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay, high-grade novelists from our own time like Orhan Pamuk and David Mitchell, and some of my own contemporaries in Indian literature whose work I admire, such as Manu Joseph and Jahnavi Barua.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

On Arvind Krishna Mehrotra's Songs of Kabir

Over the last month I've been reading Songs of Kabir, a new translation of some of Kabir's poems by the Indian poet Arvind Krishna Mehrotra. My review of the book appeared in the Wall Street Journal this weekend, but instead of merely posting it here, I thought I'd use this space to put up, and think about the work being done inside, a couple of poems from the book.

If this new volume supplies pleasures very different from the translations of Kabir's verse produced in the last decade by Vinay Dharwadker, Linda Hess and Shukdev Singh, and John Stratton Hawley and Mark Juergensmeyer, it is because Mehrotra approaches Kabir not exclusively in the spirit of fidelity to a particular text and context. He comes to Kabir more in the performative tradition, "as an anonymous medieval singer would approach a pada," but equally, as a modern poet would approach an ancient one. Here is one his versions that, since Kabir's poems are without titles, we might refer to by its first line:
"The Night Has Passed"
The night has passed
The day will too;
A heron nests
Where the black bee hummed.
Like a young bride thinking
Will he? Won't he?
The soul trembles with fear.

This raw clay pitcher
From which water leaks
And color runs
Is good for nothing
Once the swan has flown.

My time goes in shooing crows
The arms ache from it
And the palms burn.
That's the end of the story,
Kabir says.
The poem is a forest of powerful symbols dramatising man's fear of death: the heron stands for old age and the crow for imminent death; the black bee for youth; and the swan for the human soul, which is also pictured as a young bride. "The power of the poem," notes Dharwadker, who translates the same poem in his book Kabir: The Weaver's Songs (2003),"lies in its lyricism, its brevity and suggestiveness, and its enigmatc style as well as message." Here is Dharwadker's rendition of the same text:

The night's gone:
   don't let the day go by, too
The bumblebees have left:
   the cranes have arrived, alighted.

The soul, a young girl,
   trembles, thinking:
I don't know
   what my husband's going to do.

Water won't keep
   in a jar of unbaked clay.
The swan has flown away:
   the body wilts.

Kabir says:
   My arms ache
from scaring off the crows.
   This tale has reached its end.
This is good too, and indeed I prefer the slow descent of Dharwadker's mournful close to Mehrotra's somewhat anti-climactic "Kabir says".

But I think Mehrotra achieves a moment of spectacular success with his rendition of the opening lines as "A heron nests/ Where the black bee hummed", which compresses these contrasting states into the smallest possible space to emphasise the extent of the reversal. It also places the present and more immediate state before the past one (unlike Dharwadker, who may be following Kabir more closely line for line), and uses one present-tense verb and one past-tense one (against two past-tense verbs in Dharwadker). Even the choice of verbs is acute, playing off the moderation of "nests" against the vigour and energy of "hummed".

This is not all. Even the use of "a" for the heron and "the" for the black bee oozes meaning, suggesting the native confidence and long reign of youth, a phase of life that sees its power as something enduring, imperishable, and therefore as the black bee, before it is superseded by the frailty of old age, whose disillusionment is figured as a heron. Mehrotra's version, much more than Dharwadker's, raises the ghost of Shakespeare's great sonnet about old age "That Time Of Year You Mayst In Me Behold", in which the body is pictured not as a clay pot but as an autumn tree:
That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin'd choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.

Notice that Dharwadker gives us four four-line stanzas while Mehrotra breaks up the same lines into section of seven, five, and five; indeed, Mehrotra's versions are frequently more jagged and his lines more free-form than more traditional renderings of Kabir's padas, which in the originals almost always have even-numbered lines. Again, Mehrotra writes as someone who hears Kabir echoing off both the eastern and the western poetic tradition, and has no qualms about prefacing his versions with epigraphs from poems by poets as diverse as Bhartrhari, Devara Dasimayya, Horace, Marcus Aurelius, Ezra Pound, Tom Paulin and the blues singer Lead Belly. Some readers will resist this, but I think it is by the power of lines such as "A heron nests/Where the black bee hummed" that Mehrotra earns the liberty to give us a Kabir that sounds like a New York rapper:
To tonsured monks and dreadlocked Rastas
To idol worshippers and idol smashers,
To fasting Jains and feasting Shaivites,
To Vedic pundits and Faber poets,
The weaver Kabir sends one message:
The noose of death hangs over all.
Only Rama's name can save you.
Say it NOW.
In the yoking of these dreadlocked Rastas and Faber poets to a fifteenth-century Banaras we hear the voice of someone seeking, as Mehrotra says, to produce "both a work of translation based on the best available critical editions and...a further elaboration of the Kabir corpus, taking its place alongside those that have already been in existence for hundreds of years." I'd say Dharwadker's remains the classic text to go to for a first reading of Kabir, but here in Mehrotra is a twenty-first century Kabir with whom you are sometimes likely to quarrel, but which encounter you are unlikely to easily forget. These are translations that repeatedly make us feel that, to borrow a phrase from the classicist DS Carne-Ross on a book of modern translations of the Roman poet Horace, we have been given "a poem for a poem".

If you can't easily find Songs of Kabir in Indian bookstores, as is likely, you can easily buy it on the excellent  online bookeller here.  Another poem from Mehrotra's book, "Except That It Robs You Of Who You Are", is here. A good interview with Mehrotra in Tehelka about these translations is here ("There Is A Problem With Our English").

Should you want to hear a Kabir in two media rather than one, the book to buy is Linda Hess's recent volume of translations Singing Emptiness, which comes with a CD of Kabir's songs performed by Kumar Gandharva, two of which you can hear here: "Sunta Hai Guru Gyani" and "Ud Jayega". Gandharva's stirring renditions of Kabir can also be heard on the soundtrack of Rajula Shah's marvellous documentary about the presence of Kabir in India today Word Within The Word, a clip from which is here.

And last, since we're unlikely to return in the near future to the subject of herons in classical Indian poetry, here is the Sangam poet Orampokiyar's marvellous "The Herons Have Come".

Saturday, May 07, 2011

On Not Coming Down From Trinity

Trinity College, Cambridge is, along with Hindu College, Delhi, one of two places where I learnt how to read and to write. A slightly different version of this short essay about my time at Trinity (2000-2003) appears in the new issue of the College's quarterly journal The Fountain, named after the college's most distinctive scene, the fountain in the middle of Great Court.

I came up to Trinity College in 2000, a raw, nervous, wide-eyed undergraduate in a foreign land for the first time in his life. I remember the beautiful reds and pinks of autumn leaves and their rustle underfoot, the crooked look of cobbled streets, waking on Sundays to the sound of church bells in Market Square, the perpetual misty patter of rain and talk of weather, my first long coat, the comprehension of new shades of meaning to the words "cheers", "massive" and "wicked" – and the pleasure of using my first-ever debit card and buying my first-ever frozen pizza.

At Trinity I was immediately set to read three Shakespeare plays a week under the eye of the formidable Shakespeare scholar Anne Barton – the intellectual equivalent of a student cricketer having to show off his cover drives to Sachin Tendulkar. My literary-critical progress was sluggish. The swiftest I moved that Michaelmas term was to chase down one of Dr Barton’s famous cats (each one named after a Shakespearean actor from the sixteenth century) when I carelessly left her door open. Whenever I enter New Court I still have to beat back my panic at the thought of a precious cat on the loose.

My second year at Trinity was the best year of my student life. My rooms overlooked the pond in sylvan Burrell's Field; not bells now but ducks sounded the start of day. I felt not only more confidence in my ability to read texts, but also a growing sense of a future working life and, more than that, of a vocation.

My rooms, beautiful in themselves with their light wood, high windows, and lovely views, also housed a serendipitous collection of fine books, most of them bought for a pound from the three-storeyed bookshop on Silver Street Galloway & Porter. Many of these books were beautiful editions of literature in translation published by the now defunct Harvill Press (amalgamated now into Harvill Secker), which offered me a parallel education to the more classically English one I was getting inside classrooms. This, I think, made me more agile when after three years I returned home to begin work in another kind of English literature: Indian literature in English. On a visit to Cambridge last August, I headed towards G & P and was dismayed to see that this pillar of my education had shut down.

From K3 Burrell's Field, the University Library was just two minutes away, and I could have any book I wanted in half an hour—an ease of access to intellectual riches I greatly miss today. The circle of lectures, supervisions, friendships, and connections deepened my comprehension of Things That Must Be Understood, and set up a life of dialogue that I continue today in essays and reviews, as well as in my own books.

That year I also bought, with savings from my scholarship, a second-hand IBM laptop, a hardy little machine which allowed me the luxury of typing out my essays in my own room (previously I had used the computer room) and the thrill of reading the world’s literary journals online. This machine held up for seven years, till 2008; all the early drafts of my novel Arzee the Dwarf were composed on it.

It was by reading, while drinking the strong coppery tea you could make if you used Sainsbury's Kenya teabags, and sometimes stopping mid-sentence to answer a pebble thrown against a window by a friend, the literary pages of journals like The New RepublicThe New Criterion, The Atlantic Monthly and The Partisan Review on my Thinkpad during these years that I taught myself how to write passable literary criticism. My time at Trinity was also the year I began my adventures in book-reviewing—a necessary part of any writer's trade if he is to live by words alone. Today the pleasure of fat packages of books arriving by post always stirs memories of books lying in my college pigeonhole.

At Trinity I also began, after a hiatus of several years, to play cricket seriously for both college and a local club. I still feel a twitch whenever May comes around and the memories return: green grass, blue skies, seasoned wood, red leather, cricket whites, and tuna and cheddar cheese sandwiches at tea. The captaincy of the Trinity Third chess team (which mainly involved custodianship of five chess sets and five clocks) led to several pitched battles in the university leagues from which our band of five emerged with distinction—except for one disastrous encounter with the ruthless mathmos and natscis of Trinity Seconds.

All this seems far away now, but it was at Trinity, and Cambridge, that I first glimpsed the possibilities of a life in which literature could always be the most important thing and not just a phase, and the means to this end. I came away with the confidence to work independently, and the realization that my degree, taken on one knee before Dr.Amartya Sen in Senate House, was not so much the culmination of student life as the training to be a student all of one's life. In Arzee the Dwarf Arzee, full of good feelings on a big day in his life, jumps over a wheelbarrow lying on the street, and "almost does not come down". My three years at Trinity were, similarly, a big leap for me, one from which I hope I will never come down.

Sunday, May 01, 2011

On Sandor Marai's Portraits Of A Marriage

“It was not my muscles she was weighing up, but my soul,” decides Peter, one of the characters in Sandor Marai’s novel Portraits of a Marriage, as he proposes marriage to his maid Judit while she stokes the fireplace, then tries to interpret the long silence that is her response – an inflammatory silence, more provoking than speech, that causes him, for the first time in his life, to lose all control of himself.

“The soul”: novelists might be divided into two camps based on what they think of this word, whether their narrators or their characters use it with irony or in faith. The camp of Marai – if we wanted to cite one contemporary adherent it might be Orhan Pamuk – believes passionately in this word as the human root and mysterious quiddity that adult conversation, and therefore novelistic narration, must never shirk from. In the work of most novelists, a thought such as Peter’s would actually seem like an instance of the writer laughing at the character, through a violent, almost bathetic juxtaposition of the corporeal with the ineffable. But here we know that it is not just the character taking himself seriously, but also the writer. 

Portraits of a Marriage, translated the Hungarian poet and critic George Szirtes, is the fifth novel, after Embers, Casanova in Bolzano, The Rebels, and Esther’s Inheritance, by Marai to appear posthumously in English in the last decade. Reading a few pages of any of these shows that they are the books of a writer who was an adept of a great variety of situations and structures in politics, society, culture and, finally, “human relationships” (another favourite phrase in Marai). Marai was born in 1900, in the twilight of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, saw out two world wars in Hungary, then fled to Italy after persecution at home by the Communists in the nineteen-forties. From his books we can see why he was resented, because characters in his novels are repeatedly sceptical of the prospect of human beings making themselves new through revolutionary principles, or of violent justice ever becoming the promised peaceful justice. Marai might be considered a kind of conservative.

Marai finally ended up in America, where personal and artistic freedom seemed to him to have reached the other extreme, ending up in a mass of trivialities the very obverse of the moral seriousness attached to the word “art” in hierarchical or totalitarian regimes. (This difference, seen from the American side, is what so attracts Philip Roth to his lesser-known contemporaries in East Europe in his book of interviews Shop Talk). 

But perhaps Marai would have been disappointed anywhere, because even when set against novelists more or less of his time and from his own part of the world who shared something of his spirit – Kafka, Musil, Hermann Broch, Joseph Roth, Witold Gombrowicz – he seems unusually serious, rigorous, fervent, forever linking particulars to universals and realities to ideals. The signal quality of Marai’s work is that it is not just the writer or the narrator who is invested in formulating a theory of human nature from the particulars of the story being told. The characters are equally committed to such a project: each one of these eloquent people is a psychologist, a poet, a prophet, and a philosopher, and knows it. 

People in Marai are passionate generalisers, distillers of experience, forever funneling the “I” of their stories into the “we” of what they are convinced are inexorable human laws. They are never happier than when they are have opened out their sails in a long monologue (against these effusions, Marai’s actual dialogue always seems clipped and sparse). In a fine comic moment in Portraits of a Marriage, Judit, who has been telling her lover her life story over the course of a whole night discovers, at dawn, that he has fallen asleep. The reason why this seems a particularly good, sly joke is that the reader is certainly wide awake at the end of this novelistic night.

Marai’s novels have no need of continuous incidents, because a single dramatic event – a quarrel between two old friends in Embers, a betrayal by a lover in Esther’s Inheritance – is enough to keep his protagonists preoccupied for years, decades, the whole of their lives. The same event is seen first from the point of view of the actor and the acted upon, the betrayer and the betrayed, the man and the woman (male and female nature are always very distinct things in Marai), each time memorably cast into a new mould that brings to bear upon the incident all the important facts and themes of the speaker’s life. Marai’s protagonists are, through marriage or adultery or rivalry, thrown into bruising dyads or triads, and then return to solitude to process their experience. Some of literature’s greatest romantics are to be found in Marai, and their romantic character, it seems fair to warn the reader, is contagious.

Portraits of a Marriage, one of the most original pieces of novelistic architecture in Marai, is actually a portrait of the discontents of two marriages: those of Peter, the scion of a business family, first to the middle-class woman Ilonka and later to the servant Judit. Each of the three reflects on what happened between them, producing, it seems at times, a combined portrait not of three but of nine people. The urgency with which they speak, their love of “tiny but vital details”, and their “passion for truth”  (in Embers there is a fine line about the quest for "that other truth that lies buried beneath the roles, the costumes, the scenarios of life”) becomes, in its own way, a kind of narrative energy. Only the most confident of novelists could trust in his work in this way. Here is Peter speaking of Judit, sex, union, nature, childhood, all in the same reverie:
Jungle and half-light, strange cries in the distance – you can't tell whether it is a man screaming by a well, his throat ripped open by some predator, or nature itself screaming, nature, which is human, animal, inhuman at once – bed entails all that. This woman knew all that was there to be known. She had the secret knowledge: she knew the body. She knew self-control and the loss of self-control. Love for her was not a series of occasional meetings but a constant return to a familiar childhood base: a blend of homecoming and festival; the dark-brown light over a field at dusk, the taste of certain familiar foods, the excitement and anticipation, an under it all, the confidence that once evening came, there would be nothing to fear in the flight of the bat, just the road home at dusk. She was like a child tired of playing, making her way home because the light in the window was calling her to a hot dinner and a clean bed. That was love as far as Judit was concerned.
Under it all, the confidence that once evening came, there would be nothing to fear in the flight of the bat, just the road home at dusk – what strange and compelling words these are even for the strange and compelling paragraph in which they are embedded.

Here, as elsewhere, Marai delights in stacking the odds against his characters, throwing them into a spot from which it will take them all night to extricate themselves. Why does Judit, when she knows that she has Peter completely under her spell, suddenly disappear without a trace for two years, forsaking all that she could win from him? Why does she then return, and take it? Why does Peter suddenly play a trick at dinnertime one day on Ilonka with a friend, pretending that it is his pal who is Ilonka’s husband and not him? Why is Ilonka suddenly filled with profound respect for Judit on discovering her crime, admiring how “she wanted it all, life entire, destiny with all its dangers”? 

Marai’s characters often respond to situations in the most irrational, the most surprising fashion, and then pop up afterwards to justify their behaviour in an enormously persuasive way. They are dangerous and seductive in the way the novel was once believed by moralists to be dangerous and seductive, having the mysterious power to convince or corrupt. Page after page goes by, filled out by the writer with streaks of exquisite perception ("Being human beings is not a responsibility we can avoid, but we can, and do, tell an awful lot of lies in trying to fulfill it") and lines of throwaway brilliance (“He could listen the way others shout”; “The only people capable of being at peace are people who live in the moment”; “Six is the best age for dogs and for wine”) and majestic paradoxes . These are speakers who gather the reader up in the nets of their worldview so powerfully that one believes, with them, that this is the way life really is – until they are contradicted by those of whom they speak and from whom they seem to have learnt what they know.

Of a writer whom she meets on travels, Judit observes that he seemed motivated almost wholly by lust – but not ordinary sexual lust. Rather (the italics are mine) “it was the world that brought on his lust, the fabric of it; word and flesh, voices and stones, everything that exists [that] is tangible and, at the same time, impossible to grasp in its meaning and essence.” This seems an accurate self-portrait of Marai himself, a writer just as capable of devoting a long passage to the importance of pimiento-filled olives as the notion of joy to the meaning of culture. Portraits of a Marriage confirms Sandor Marai’s retrospective status as one of the twentieth century’s greatest novelists, and alongside Irene Nemirovsky, Roberto Bolano, and Alaa Al Aswany one of the finest writers to appear in English translation in the last decade.

And some links: Marai's flight from Hungary in the nineteen-forties is compellingly described by Zoltan Andras Ban, at the enormously useful website of the journal Hungarian Literature Online,  in "The Freedom of Silence" ("Márai had been the most successful writer of the previous period, making plenty of money, treated as a star and leading a perfectly furbished and flawlessly functioning bourgeois lifestyle. By 1945 nothing was left of this. Gone, too, was the illusion which many of the ‘bourgeois writers’ had clung to that, tolerated by the communist regime, they might be able to salvage certain vestiges of a bygone value system at least for a period of time.") Szirtes writes about some of his experiences in translating Marai here ("Márai is easy to translate. What I mean to say is that he gives himself to you and invites you to enjoy the clear rhetorical circling of his prose as he uncovers layer after layer of motivation. He is all burning curiosity tempered by patience") and here, explaining his belief that the last section of Portraits, a marvellous coda delivered by a Hungarian immigrant now settled in America, needed to be translated "not into British but American English" so as to deliver the sense of a change of register. And here is an essay by Szirtes: "Formal Wear: Notes on Rhyme, Meter, Stanza and Pattern." 
A shorter version of this essay appeared recently in The National.