A man worth knowing

Be free to eat, drink, make love and sleep! (from Ars Poetica, 1937, trans. by Michael Beevor)

When I was in the habit of making a regular Tuesday morning visit to Buda, I’d stop by the statue of József Attila on the way back to Pest and spend a quarter of an hour or so catching up with him, getting his advice on whatever catastrophe had manifested itself in my life that particular week. I was new to Budapest and was missing the solid, uncomplicated strength that can only be found in a solitary male mind. My friends were few and my life verged on troublesome. Back then, even my issues had issues. József Attila was just the company I needed. He would listen to me for as long as I cared to speak, never interrupting with suggestions of what I should do or ways in which he could fix my problems. He understood me enough to know that I simply needed to vent – and by venting aloud, I would often arrive at my own solutions or else write off the problem as one not even worth bothering about. I just needed someone to listen. Those mornings spent sitting by his side on the banks of the Danube in the shadow of Parliament were nothing short of glorious.

Be what you really want – a man (from No forgiveness, 1937, trans. by Anton N. Nyerges)

József Attila, arguably Hungary’s greatest poet of the twentieth century, spent his life in poverty, suffering from depression, first attempting suicide at the age of 9 and finally achieving it at 32. And yet he had a faith in life’s beauty and an insight into its intricacies that is denied to many. Perhaps it is this melancholy that so attracts me. While I, too, have suffered from depression, the tablet treatment available to me is far more palatable that the spells in psychiatric wards that he endured. Unlucky in love, his affair with a middle-class girl in the 1920s led to a nervous breakdown. He, more than any other man I know, could understand what it is to be caught up in the throes of unrequited love; to weigh societal norms and social acceptance against a baser need to love and be loved. Sitting as he does, knees splayed, head bowed, hat in hand, he is, for me, the epitome of a silent strength that makes me wish I had been born a little earlier so that I could have met him, in the flesh.

When I heard that the government was planning to restore Kossuth Lajos tér to its pre-1944 glory and transplant him to some other part of Budapest, I was upset – perhaps a little irrationally so. I don’t profess to understand the ideology behind the proposed move. I doubt I will ever really grasp this Hungarian hankering for the past. And I am acutely aware of how little I know of the real essence of the country’s history.  I am simply reacting to the thoughts of a dear friend being forcibly evicted from his home (somewhat ironic really, considering the plight of so many still trying to deal with foreign currency mortgages).

I love you as the living love life until they die. (from ODE, 1933, trans. by John Bátki)

A couple of years ago, I ran into a woman at the nagyvasarcsarnok. We were both queuing for bread. I let her go ahead of me as I was busy translating my numbers and readying myself to deliver my ask in Hungarian. We got to talking and she told me that her husband was looking for someone to work with him on his autobiography. She told me he was a famous sculptor. Perhaps I knew him. Marton László. The gods were indeed smiling on me that day as I would soon get to shake the very hands that had immortalised József Attila.  Marton László’s statue By the Danube, which was erected in 1980, is the very one I spent my Tuesday mornings in conversation with. Sadly this great man died last year. We spent a few afternoons chatting over palinka, him in Hungarian, me in English, with his wife translating as needed. Once he made me chicken soup, to get me over a rather nasty cold. I’ve wondered lately whether he and József Attila  are discussing the move in heaven.

There is no place among the living creatures for me. (from It deeply hurts, 1936, trans. by Thomas Kabdebo)

This weekend, on the 3rd of December, 74 years ago, József Attila committed suicide in Balatonszárszó by throwing himself under a freight train. So many years later, his fate once again lies open for discussion. Will he be allowed to stay where he is, on the banks of the Danube, or will be be moved elsewhere to make room for a past recreated?

First published in the Budapest Times 2 December 2011

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  • 3 Responses

    1. Nowadays it is considered that it was not suicide but an unfortunate accident. In ’95 the witness of the accident also reconfirmed that. It also contained in the report of the gendarmery of that time. Nevertheless József Attila was a great poet worth to be read not just by the Hungarians.

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