“I am not a poet,” Márai insisted. That would seem to settle it, but it has to be remembered that Márai had exceptionally high standards and he was playing with prosody at a time of exceptional fecundity in Hungarian poetry. He was the contemporary of Attila József (considered by some as the greatest of all Hungarian poets), Mihály Babits, Dezső Kosztolányi, Sándor Weöres, Miklós Radnóti, János Pilinszky, poets who are the match of any of the better-known names of the last century such as Auden, Eliot, Celan, Pound, Larkin.
Márai modestly owned up to having composed some respectable “verse”, and despite being primarily a prose writer, he did come up with two of the most popular Hungarian poems, “Funeral Oration” and “Angel from Heaven”. So: not a poet, but a writer of poetry. “Funeral Oration” is a hit with both the public and the professors of literature, while “Angel from Heaven” is one of the most recited poems about the crushed 1956 revolution, and very untypical of his oeuvre in its sentimentality (more emotional than most of his work, more emotional than much of his writing about the Second World War, but perhaps because he wasn’t there in Budapest in 1956 to witness the carnage).
Born in 1900 in the Austro-Hungarian town of Kassa (which was to change its name and nationality a few times in the coming decades), Márai committed suicide in San Diego at the age of 88. He rode the 20th century in a way few managed. His first story was published when he was 15, and while still a teenager he experienced world war, epidemic, a revolution and exile. He was in Paris when it was the most exciting city to live in, and in Berlin when it was the place to avoid. He weathered the Second World War in Budapest, and when the Communists came to full power in 1948 he chose exile, including a stint in the most powerful city in the world, New York.
For me Márai is the great Hungarian writer of prose, and I consider even that untranslatable, so I’m glad I didn’t have to attempt this job. Márai’s relations with his fellow Hungarians were often thorny (it’s hard to be an outstanding writer without upsetting people and their pet complacencies), but his love for the Hungarian language never wavered, and he could have had a much easier, more remunerative life if he had switched to German, a language in which he was fluent, also as a writer.
In addition to the difficulties of language, there is the question of experience. Márai doubted whether anyone who had not been through the ordeal of the Budapest siege in 1944, on which he reflects in Book of Verses — when the Russians and Germans fought over the capital — could understand what it was like (35,000 civilians died). In the poetry, as in his prose, Márai ruminates on the fate of the Hungarians. The interwar period was a time of chest-thumping, heavily brocaded jingoism, but Márai’s judgment is always severe, mordant. He chided his fellow citizens for not resisting the Nazis more forcefully, then deplored those Jews who worked as thugs for the Communists.
“Funeral Oration” is considered Márai’s poetic masterpiece. The earliest literary text in Hungarian, from the 12th century, is a brief funeral oration. The first line is “With your very eyes, my brethren, you see what we are” and Márai’s appropriation is an attempt to reap Hungarian literature and the experience of the nation, which again and again in its history involved exile or emigration as a result of a failed revolution or military disaster. Hungary’s minor involvement in the Nato bombing of Serbia in 1999 was its first successful military endeavour in hundreds of years (and, cruelly, the bombs often fell on ethnic Hungarians in Novi Sad).
Márai packs the country’s great creators into “Funeral Oration”: Bartók, the painter Rippl-Rónai, the writers Arany, Petőfi, Vörösmarty, Babits and Krúdy, as well as scattering elements of his own life, his flat in Mikó Street. The injunction “Keep Smiling” is in English in the original and is a good example of Márai’s style: the slippery simplicity. The words couldn’t be simpler, but what does it mean? You get this, reading Márai: you come across a simple phrase or sentence, you digest it, but a few minutes later you’re thinking — no, what does he really mean? Keep smiling. Is it ironic? If it is, how ironic is it? Or is it simply the only dignified response to tribulation?
“Angel from Heaven” is one of the most popular Christmas carols in Hungary, and Márai’s homonymous poem was written just after the last manifestations of the 1956 revolution were being swept away by Soviet troops and those Hungarian Communists still willing to work for them. Some 200,000 Hungarians fled to the West, while those who stayed faced arrest or worse: hundreds were executed. Márai, like many others, was outraged by the brutality of the Soviets and the inaction of the West.
These two poems contrast with the earlier “Hungarians”, one of my favourites, written when Márai was 20 years younger and had a more sardonic view of his compatriots, who have “revolvers in their hands for no reason” and “who are buried at the consulate’s expense”: the cavalier hussars and hustlers of operetta. Those who know something of Hungary’s history and culture will find Márai’s verse illuminating, while those who don’t can still, I hope, enjoy his artfulness.
Being a Hungarian writer is a hazardous, often lethal job.Hungary’s literature is littered with talent who gave up (József, for example, although he had excellent reasons to give up), were butchered, drank themselves away, sullied themselves or just plain, good-old-fashioned sold out. Aside from the permanence of his writing, I admire Márai because of his diamond hardness: he only yielded, finally, when he was old, ill and alone, shooting himself in the head, having first masked himself with a bag, so there would be less mess.
Márai’s ashes were scattered in the Pacific, so he has no gravestone. If he did I think this would work: “Sándor Márai, Hungarian writer. 1900-89. Unbowed. Undefeated”.
Something from the lakes of great ancient highlands remains in their eyes
Mixed with a cocky light that puts revolvers in their hands for no reason.
They’re neither good, nor worse than others. They just take something along
On the highways of Europe, Asia, Africa and America that makes the
Their death has something of the wild beasts’ haughty reticence
And French Legion sergeants and German neurologists
Have trouble, of course, understanding how they can overlook pain.
Every one of them burns a little—they’re fire hazards—and they rarely leave
They’re buried at the consulate’s expense and their cause of death’s unknown.
Square-browed, they can pursue an idea more doggedly than a
But gypsy-like, they’ll toss friends and family aside when getting drunk
in the coffee house,
Because the air’s more keyed up where they are, and their restlessness
is one with
The flickering flames of questionable geniuses in their garrets, or Stromboli’s
Purposeless scarlet night-time rage that batters the black sky with stones,
And with everything that flutters with hopeless force in this world,
In spastic rage stuck between constraints and civilisations:
But they imitate English squires or Parisian gigolos entirely in vain,
For some of the sparkle of the great ancient highland lakes has remained
And they sometimes burn up like shepherds’ campfires in the world’s
God Himself no longer understands their words, and they wander off
in some fog
With you and with me and with our grandfathers because we’re Hungarian men,
Men, Hungarians, in the fog my blood brothers, my blood and my brothers.
The Waiters Are Dining
I passed in front of the Café Pressbourg at four in the afternoon:
the waiters were seated, eating at the guests’ tables.
I was coming from the Bois de Boulogne and intended to go home,
without any particular conviction, since it’s never certain which
address is the true one and where one’s home really is.
—(But that’s where my dog awaited me, chewing the wooden
reading stand I’d brought from Jerusalem, the stand at which an
Arab had prayed away his whole life.)—
—(How blue the sea was—and I stood on the ship at night, chills
running down me, because I’m a man and it is given to me to
know too of foreign sufferings that one might be able to mitigate
with a better system,)—
—(but I can only think back on this with scepticism, since for
example the spleen of a Boston heiress is not the same as blowing
glass in La Spezia from six in the morning to six at night, and I
don’t honour the sniffles of the soul and no longer say that the
rich are good too,)—
—(because they’re not good, but rich.) There is nothing positive
except pleasure. You have to pay for everything. Only goodness
and suffering are free. I thought this to myself—
—and I no longer believe that a beautiful book can hurt and
complicate in a soul like the corns on the waiters’ feet—
—no, I’ll never believe this again.—
—In other matters I keep vigil over the world because God put a
matchstick in my hands, with which I can offer a light to everyone
who wants to hang around for the length of a smoke,—
—for I don’t understand anything else, St Anthony pray for me.—
—But the waiters sat, pale, sweaty and silent, on the red banquettes
at the guests’ tables at four in the afternoon, in shirtsleeves and
with their towels wrapped around their necks, and they ate in
the filthy bistro amid the newspaper, garbage, smell of congealed
grease and stale cigarette smoke.—
—They ate from a common serving-plate and a sour smell spilled
onto the street, it was four o’clock in the afternoon and on the Eiffel Tower a woman sang Polish songs off key, the whole clockwork
mechanism whirred and the great majority of the populace was
convinced of the proper purposeful functioning of the system—
—and the taste of every meal came up as heartburn in my mouth
and every instance of Lazarus’s hunger at the rich man’s table
churned my stomach and the curse of every foreign malady and
despair spilled inarticulately out of my throat.
Brethren, you see with your own eyes what we are.
We are dust and ashes.
Like moth-eaten cloth our memories tear to tatters.
Can you ever put Margaret Island back together?
Already, all is odds and ends, threadbare, encumbered.
The dead man grows his beard; your name’s a number.
Our language also frays, tatters, its dearest words
Crumble to dust, dry up in the mouth, withered.
Butterfly, pearl, heart—now are not what they used to be
When the poet still could sing in the tongue of the family,
And they understood it, the way a fractious child
Understands his nursemaid’s song in his dream running wild.
Our hearts beat a coded secret; we dream of bandits.
You read Toldi to your kid: he says, Okay, off-handed.
The priest now mumbles Spanish over our coffin:
“The agonies of death have got me locked in.”
In the mines of Ohio your hand is hurt—you’re maimed—
The pickaxe knocks the accents off your name.
The Tyrrhenian Sea roars: Babits’s words are drumming,
Through the Aussie outback night Krúdy’s harp is thrumming.
In deep spirit-tones, they signal, still calling in,
And your body senses its own, like distant kin.
Still you proclaim: “It can’t be that such a holy will . . .“
But you already know! It can. And you mine Thuringia’s hills
For iron. No letters. They dare no longer write.
Each gulag grave’s unmarked: why fuss with the mourning rite?
The consul chews his gum, mad as hell; wipes his specs;
Faced with heaps of forms and stamps, he’s thoroughly vexed—
With a thousand a month plus car. His baby’s and bimbo’s
photographs stand on his desk. Who was Ady to him?
What are folk? What’s a thousand years? What’s Music? Poetry?
Arany’s language? Rippl’s colours? Bartók’s soul, wild and free?
“It can’t be that so many souls . . .” Calm down. It is that way.
The great powers soon will exchange long communiqués.
You: Silence! Attention! Know the little jackal’s alive
Already, whose claws will dig up your African grave.
Already the cactus is sprouting that will cover the new
Name on your Mexican tombstone-no search party out for you.
You think you’re still living . . . somewhere? If nowhere else,
Then in your brothers’ hearts? That dream also is false.
You can still hear the hoarse complaint: “Brother sells out brother . . .“
“Let not your lips speak it aloud . . .” breaks from another.
And one more gasps: “Lest those far away, who mourn for this nation . . .”
And another: “Also be driven to detestation.“
Well, so it goes. KEEP SMILING. And don’t ask, “Why?”
Or: “Was I worse than these? . . .” You’re Hungarian, that’s why.
And Estonian, Lithuanian, Romanian. Now shut up and pay.
In the end, che sarà sarà. The Aztecs too vanished away.
One day a scholar exhumes you, like an Avar horse-head.
The radioactive ash buries all the dead.
Accept it: back there you’re a non-person class enemy.
Accept it: over here you’re a non-person nonentity.
Accept it: that God accepts this, and the wild, foaming skies
Strike no one down with lightning: such is being wise.
Smile when the torturer tears out your tongue,
And from your coffin thank the one who buries you, if there is one.
Insanely guard your dreams, your few remaining attributes;
Don’t flinch when the headman counts your teeth: stay mute.
Hug tight your bundle of rags, your poor, pathetic
Mementoes: a lock of hair, a snapshot, a poetic
Moment, for these stick by you. Miserly, take stock
Of the seven chestnut trees on Mikó Street, your block,
And Gene, who failed to return your volume of Shelley,
And there’s no one to buy the rope the hangman’s selling,
And our nerves dry up; our blood’s as dry as our brains are.
Brethren, do you see with your eyes what we are?
Behold, we are dust and ashes.
“To charred and freezing Budapest”: A Hungarian spits on the head of a demolished statue of Stalin, December 1956
Angel from Heaven
Now Go in Haste
To charred and freezing Budapest.
There, where amid the Russian tanks
No bells are tolling out in thanks,
Where Christmas doesn’t sparkle now,
No golden walnuts deck the bough,
Nothing but cold and shivering hunger.
Teach them to comprehend their anger.
Speak it aloud out of the night:
Angel, report a miraculous sight.
Flap your wings fast and furiously
As the wind: they’re waiting desperately.
Don’t tell them of the world outside,
Where candles shine at Christmastide,
Warm houses with their laden tables,
The priest’s uplifting parables;
The tissue rustles round the gifts,
Wise words and clever plans uplift,
Where sparklers glitter on the trees:
Angel, speak miracle to these.
Tell them this wonder of the world,
The Christmas tree of poor folk snarled
In Silent Nights began to burn;
Now many cross themselves and turn,
Around the world, to stare and stare;
Some comprehend, some unaware
Shake heads: for many, it’s too much.
They pray, repulsed at what they watch:
Not candy canes hung from this tree
But the Nations’ Christ, sad Hungary.
Many of them pass by instead:
The troops who left it stabbed for dead;
The Pharisee who got his price;
The one who had denied it thrice;
Who washed his hands off in its bowl,
For thirty coins sold out its soul,
And as he shamed it, cursed and flayed,
He ate its body, drank its blood.
Now many nations stand and stare,
But speak to it?—not one will dare.
It speaks no more, does not accuse,
But watches, like Christ from the Cross.
This Christmas tree is very strange,
Brought by the Devil or an Angel?—
Those who are dicing for its clothes
They know not what they do, and those
Who sniff and howl, they may suppose
The secret’s underneath their nose:
This Christmas tree is stranger now:
Hungarians hang from every bough.
The world speaks of miraculous sights,
Priests prattle of heroic fights,
The timid statesman patronises,
The Holy Father canonises.
And every order, each estate of
Mankind asks, What’s this in aid of?
Why didn’t they, as asked to, die out?
Sit waiting for the end in quiet?
Why were the heavens rent asunder?
Because “ENOUGH!” one people thundered.
And many could not understand
What tidal wave flooded this land.
What did the ranks of nations shy at?
One people cried out. Then fell quiet.
But many ask: What caused these groans?
Who wrote these laws from meat and bones?
More and more ask: What did they do?
They stammer, they don’t have a clue,
—Those who had always known it freely—
“Is Freedom such a big thing really?”
Angel, let it be understood:
New life will always spring from blood.
They’ve mingled as the centuries pass—
The Child, the Shepherd and the ass—
In dreams beside the manger bed.
If Life turns all that’s living dead,
They still protect the Miraculous birth,
Stand watch above it with their breath.
Because the Star shines, dawn breaks open:
Go tell them this—
Angel from Heaven.
New York, December 1956