18 November 2011

From Zugliget to London


Zugliget presents a rather curious geographic formation on the edge of Budapest. With its hillocks and dales it shares a certain similarity with the Austrian Tyrol. Half-way up the hill stood my mother’s little cottage, where I lived from the age of twelve, when we lost our villa due to the bankruptcy of her publishing venture, to 1956, when as a nineteen year old, I left Hungary. Following her death the cottage was pulled down to make way for a larger house to be built on the plot.

After the 1956 uprising came to a sorrowful end and Moscow re-established yet another Communist government in Hungary, I crossed the border, still unguarded in mid-November, arriving in Austria. On the 7th of December, with the assistance of the newly set-up refugee organizations, I found myself in Britain. I chose to settle here because I had some relatives in London, a sister and a brother of my grandmother. Aunty Jolán could not give me shelter because, as she told me, her maid had become too elderly to look after too many people in the household. Uncle Gábor showed much more kindness, he let me spend a week with his family, I could sleep on the sofa in their dining-room.

A correspondence with my mother began almost immediately. It lasted ten years, until she died of cancer at the age of fifty-nine. We wrote to each other twice a week. As a letter-writer she was equal to Madame de Sévigné, superbly amusing and witty. Through her pittoresque accounts I could form a clear picture of conditions in Hungarian society under the rule of János Kádár, its everyday life, and its sombre reprisals during the first period. For a while it was a story of constant arrests, some of our best friends were thrown into prison, including the eminent political thinker, István Bibó, a former member of the Imre Nagy government. Of all this we could only write in code, because my mother’s letters were screened by the censor. We called Bibó “the Prof” and instead of “prison” we wrote “hospital”.

My book, Levelek Zugligetből (Letters from Zugliget), published in Budapest in 2003, was based on our correspondence, but as my letters were destroyed after mother’s death I could only reconstruct their contents from memory, going through my life as an emigrant, from my hard-up student years, to better times, when I secured a job in broadcasting, and found myself a wife.

Levelek Zugligetből was well-received by Hungarian readers, with its snippets of history and some insight into the private lives of well-known literary figures.

My aim, however, was to produce a novel, the story of an exceptional woman, who was simply incorruptible in the corrupt dictatorship which she had to live in.

Incidentally, she was the daughter of Ferenc Molnár, the dramatist, and the widow of the mystical-realist poet and novelist, György Sárközi (1899–1945). In 1946–49, she was co-Editor, with Gyula Illyés, of the famous literary monthly Válasz, strangled by Communist authorities.

Through the popularity of my book she became a kind of Hungarian heroine of her times. Which gives me great satisfaction.

 

From Zugliget to London – Excerpts from a book in progress


Part I

 

My adventure began exactly one month ago and now I am in London, trying to find some ways to be able to settle in this strange metropolis. Today I paid a visit to Vincent Korda. Vincent, younger brother of the recently deceased Sir Alex, and art director of so many Korda films, became a good friend of my grandma during their art-student days in Paris, and now, coaxed by her letter, was ready to receive me.

I am surprised to discover that Piccadilly is not only a large square but also a long avenue. The imposing headquarters of London Film, a palatial office, happen to be right at the other end, at the corner of Park Lane. Consequently, I arrived very late and rather dishevelled. Vincent Korda, in his coat and hat, was about to leave by the time I fell in. Sitting in the great hall, on a white marble bench, he gruffly offered me a place next to him. He was as cold as the marble we sat on. Having rushed to arrive reasonably near the appointed time, I became confused and speechless. What did I want from this wealthy and famous old man, anyway? As I settled down on the ice-cold bench, Korda put one hand inside his coat. Perhaps, he was searching for his wallet, ready to take out a crisp ten pound note, saying: “Here you are my young friend. And when you next write to her, give my best regards to your dear grandmother.”

In an ideal world, the best thing I could hope for would have been to spend an hour or two with Korda, convincing him that although I am only nineteen, still, I would make a very fine film director given some training in the studios. I have plenty of ideas, I am visual, and I have impeccable taste. As I entertained these thoughts, fixing my gaze on the old man’s hat, he raised himself from the stone bench. “Well, I have to go now. But if you need help, please, don’t hesitate to call my number.”

It has been a pleasure to meet you, Mr Korda”, said I. “The huge foot of the giant in The Thief of Baghdad, ready to crush Sabu, is an image, imprinted on my memory for ever. But I value your paintings too. I saw some early oils you painted in the 1920s, while still in Hungary, and in my opinion no other artist captured the likeness and the character of the poet Attila József as you have.”

This visibly pleased Korda. He smiled for the first time since we met and remarked:

Well, that was a long time ago. Poor old Attila. A truly great poet he was. And how miserably he chose to end his life, under the wheels of a train. Look. Here is my card. You should visit us in Chelsea.”

I knew that I would never see him again.

On Friday, I travelled to Hampstead to introduce myself to my grandma’s sister, Aunt Jolán. The maid served warmed up coffee and some fine biscuits as we settled around the dining table. There she was, the widow of Alex Korda’s senior script writer Lajos Biró, all in black, her grey hair smooth and neat under a net.

Opposite me sat her daughter, the spitting image of the novelist. The same protruding nose, sharp features, the shade of a would-be moustache, intelligent but tired eyes. Strong eyebrows, one of which curled into a twisted line whenever she decided to speak.

I hoped to make a good impression. Perhaps I did, in my new Burton suit, worn with a sensible tie. I was chatty. Jolán, the iceberg, slowly melted and became kind and understanding in a grandmotherly way.

This morning I received my mother’s fifth letter.

Could you please post me a good photograph of yourself, one good enough to display on the commode. I’ve seen the snapshot you sent to your sister, it looks as if it was taken by Scotland Yard.

Complying with your instructions to cheer myself I try to get as many dinner invitations as possible. Last night I visited the Kéris. By the time I returned to Zugliget, the sleet had frozen on the steps. After some unsuccessful attempts to go up to the house, finally I took off my shoes and climbed the whole distance on all fours.

I also had dinner with Miklós Borsos the other day. Prof. was the other guest of honour. He is still making up his mind whether to go to hospital with his problems.

Sunday turned out to be average. Unfortunately some of the guests thought it a good idea to bring their girlfriends. Erik arrived with a pretty but bewilderingly dumb girl on his arms, Gyuri presented a slut, picked straight from the gutter, methinks. The melange of these ladies and the Lators, Domokos and the Kozmas eventually became so untenable that the men sat down to play chess, the women to play rummy, and I could read the Sunday paper in peace at last.

How do you spend your Sundays? How is school? Why are you sculpting if you want to be an illustrator? Explain.

So Prof is hesitating as to whether or not he should go to hospital with his “illness”. Decoded, this sentence carries a rather bleak message. Prof is István Bibó, who was a member of Imre Nagy’s government during the revolution. And the new rulers of the country have not yet made up their minds whether they should have him arrested and imprisoned. It would not help their cause to come down harshly on Bibó all the sudden, because the professor’s intellect and utmost honesty is respected in a very wide circle.

How do I spend my week-ends? Whenever the weather is favourable, I go on long walks in London, and amuse myself with the inexhaustibly rich variety of life. The people of London provide a constant spectacle of street-theatre, whether Billingsgate porters, carrying fish on top of their heads, or bowler-hatted city gents pouring out of their offices at five. This country is not in Europe, but it is not America either. It’s a curious and rather fascinating island in the sea. Will I ever get accustomed to it?

 

Part II

 

We experimented with three-dimensional shapes in Elisabeth Frink’s class. Beginners were forced to attempt every art form and although I was taking a book-illustration course, we all have to do some modelling under the watchful eyes of this unfriendly, no-nonsense, horsey woman. In Miss Frink’s class, there had to be complete silence. Not a stir. Little Bernard Roth turned to me for a piece of wire. In a whisper, hardly audible. Bang! A pellet of hard clay hit the back of his head. Who would have suspected that Miss Frink is as good with the reverse screw as any professional water-polo player?

Peter de Francia did not let us go home after his long talk on Aubrey Beardsley. We were taken, some fifty-five of us, to the other side of Soho, into a small private cinema on Wardour Street, where we were shown an amazing film about Picasso in action, drawing like a wizard, right in front of the camera, bang-bang, with inimitable, clear faultless lines. No doubt, this hairy old Spaniard is the greatest living artist in the world.

From the cinema, we cut across some streets with Bernard, towards Piccadilly Circus. By then it was dark and Piccadilly was basking in the light of bedazzling neon advertisements. And all around the square, there were legions of ladies of easy virtue. In tightly fitting skirts, some wearing fluffy fur jackets, their hair done up, sprayed stiff. One remarkable woman walked up and down, appetisingly quivering her enormous tits. On our way back towards Charing Cross Road to catch a bus, strolling down Old Compton Street, a miserable little Irishman kept following us:

Gentlemen! Gentlemen! Can I interest you in girls? Five pounds, front and back!”

As usual, I react to the happenings of the past few months rather belatedly and pretty badly. I cannot sleep well. Mind you, I should be cheered by the dozen or so agreements I signed with various theatres and publishers during last week. Ferenc Molnár’s plays seem to be in the vogue again, and there is also an interest shown in your father’s translations of Thomas Mann, Petrarca and Maurois. So one day I sign contracts as Molnár’s daughter, the next as your father’s widow.

The dog smells – it is going to rain. Auntie Anna, with her usual pessimism, forecasts that frost will return and there will be no lilacs this year. Prof and I still live in hope, perhaps we are both incurable optimists.

I much agree with Doctor Johnson’s sentiment – one cannot tire of London. It is a pleasure to amble about Leicester Square and say “hello” to Shakespeare, who stands on his plinth over the grass, musing most elegantly. On Saturday, the queues reach to the edges from the cinema doors and buskers entertain the queuers.

The snake-charmers are my favourites. They come to the square around five o’clock and spend a long time in a doorway preparing their act. One-half of the team is a clown-like little man, the other does not quite fit the part; wearing a good suit, he could pass as a bank manager. But both stick on their Hitler-moustaches, get into their baggy Chaplin-trousers and each puts on a red fez. Suddenly, they rush to the middle of the road, to the slowly moving line of cars which cross over Leicester Square towards Charing Cross. The plump lady accordionist breaks into an oriental melody and the two Chaplins are happily hoofing amidst the traffic. They throw themselves down grovelling every time a larger car comes along. The crowd loves this. But the best part of the act is still to come. The clown-faced man pulls up his trouser legs and draws a tuppenny whistle from his pocket. The red fez is now down on the floor and he charms a snake out of it. A length of cotton is attached to the end of the flute and when it is raised, a worn pair of bras rise from the fez, dancing snake-like. The audience is splitting with laughter.

Due to increased sunspot activity, we are having storms of ferocity Zugliget has never seen before. Last night it went on for three hours, one bolt of lightning following the other, the sky rumbling continuously.

I spend a lot of time with Prof’s wife, Boriska. Prof is rather unkind, for a long time he did not even write to her. But yesterday a note arrived, saying that he is all right, the room is comfortable, he sleeps well, food is not bad. He asks Boriska to take a summer vacation, adding that he will not be able to help her this autumn to send the children to school. Of course, the children feel in their guts that something is wrong.

Invited to attend a dinner party given by the emigré writer, László Szabó. In his large mews house we sit on chairs and sofas eating his wife’s excellent bean soup, full of smoked pork meat. It is difficult to eat, carry on with the conversation and not to spill any of the soup on either the carpet or ourselves. Professor Andrew Martin is asking me about what I know of the arrest of István Bibó, is he going to be sentenced to death? Andrew Martin came to London in the 1930s, in Budapest he was a well-known lawyer using his original name: Endre Neugröschl. He became a legal bigwig, just now he and his Committee is about to reform the law of Great-Britain. A somewhat pompous man, but with the smile of a little boy.

I am also introduced to a political commentator of the BBC, a fashionable Kensington picture restorer and a leading pathologist. All Hungarians. In Szabó’s library, I find a good selection of the Hungarian middle-class, hundreds of miles away from the country where they were born and raised, chatting, smiling and eating bean soup. They keep up with the happenings of the world, are well-read, and have acquired the British habit of admitting if they don’t know something, instead of reverting to flannel in a typically Hungarian way. Their suits are well-cut, their silk ties are tasteful and the ladies wear real pearls.

 

Part III

 

A first glimpse of the sea

 

Set off from in front of my digs at the Southgate house of Cohen, the grocer, on a beautiful sunny morning. It began to drizzle at Stevenage and by five o’clock it was pouring. From then on, it rained for five days. One hums a little tune, tries to imagine that this is no less than an expedition into the great unknown, and all the time watches out for puddles and pot-holes. This way one lessens the pain and suffering. One’s soaked woollen things smell like a shaggy dog in the rain.

This is how I arrived in Cambridge and went on to Nottingham and Newcastle.

Kitty’s B & B”, said the sign in Durham on a narrow and ugly house. The knocks of the brass lion-head echoed inside, and eventually a small, bespectacled, red haired woman came to the door, wearing an apron.

Kitty’s?”

That’s little me...”

She led me to a room with four beds. Drawing a chair to the window, she stood on it.

If you stand on the chair, you can see a bit of the Cathedral” she announced rather proudly.

She assured me that I would be alone.

After midnight, a very drunk man fell into the bed on the other side of the room and did not stop snoring like a steam engine ‘till morning.

The next day, I went to see one of the most beautiful churches in Europe.

The clouds burst again, a strong wind was blowing, but I was determined to reach the Scottish border, aiming to get as far as Morpeth. Just before New Begin, the rain stopped a little, but once more a steep hill made my journey more arduous. On top of the hill, I went to the roadside and froze with amazement. The horizon became simplified to the extreme. Near to where I stood, an enormous, miles-wide, motionless mass of green-grey began, sharply bordering on the ash-grey of the firmament. It was the sea. I had never seen a sea before. Just now, there were no shafts of light in the air, no waves on the water. A grey ocean lay under a grey sky. Nearer to me, a stretch of mud gave this view a slightly different colour, with a few rocks, a few rusty pieces of metal and the feathery carcass of a fallen bird.

The first chapter of your illustrated travelogue arrived this morning. Well, I have also travelled a little, if not to Cambridge by bicycle, but taking the train to Lake Balaton. Szepezd was the first stop, where my friend Fazék greeted me at the station, tanned and relaxed. He took a room with a retired music teacher who, upon request, can imitate the croaking of a field frog. This could be somewhat tiring, but his wife’s cooking is out of this world. To celebrate my arrival, she presented a five-course lunch, following which we had a walk in the nearby hills and after dark we settled ourselves in the garden of the local inn, under the full moon. The inn is called “Half an Arm”, which is appropriate as the publican lost his right arm in the war. They provide music in the evening: a dreadful violinist is accompanied by a crippled viola player. They employ the latter out of mercy, and he plays the same chord all along, regardless of the tune.

The next day with Fazék we travelled to nearby Aszófõ and walked up to the picturesque villa of Miklós Borsos the sculptor. He knows how to take it easy. He does not listen to the radio, never reads the papers and leaves his mail unopened. He just sculpts a lot and sails a lot. This way his disposition cannot be ruffled by bad news and he only heard it from us that many of his artist colleagues, like Tibor Vilt and Károly Koffán were taken to “hospital”.

I am back in Zugliget now and try to translate a book by André Gide, the publisher requires the finished work by next week. Ooh, how I hate every neo-catholic gay French writer together with his entire literary output!

I go to bed early, try to find some good music on the radio, and listen to that, meanwhile warming my feet on the hot-water bottle. Yesterday, I managed to hear a good recording of this remarkable tenor, Amico Proffo, singing the aria “As Long as I Live”.

Well, this is rather sad and shocking. The last sentence of Mother’s letter, decoded means: Professor Bibó has been sentenced to life imprisonment. I should let the BBC know this immediately.

There are only ten days left of the summer break. Kevin, Sue, Mick and Pip were given the use of a cottage in Cornwall and are taking me with them. The house belongs to Joe Tilson, the painter, he bought it for five pounds. There is no electricity or tap water and one has to gather twigs to make a fire in the stove. It was a very long journey to Cornwall. Kevin’s twenty year old Austin was rattling along when the windscreen wiper gave up, and I had to reach through the open window to give it an occasional shove by hand. Sue curled up on the back seat, sleeping.

After many hours on the road, we were almost there. Asked for directions a couple of times and finally arrived in Nancledra. There was the stone cottage, half-way up the hill, in a sea of green. The meadow was full of white mushrooms.

During the next days I drew whenever I could: a sketch of seagulls circling over St Ives harbour, Kevin sitting in an old chair in front of the huge fireplace. Sue with a stray cat in her lap.

I just came back from the garden and found your letter, the one with the caricature portraits of your teachers. We have started to pick the apples. My neighbour, Mister Révész, recruited an old bus conductor suffering from delirium tremens, and a half-dead ancient doctor of jurisprudence to help with the work.

I feel dreadful, as I caught a nasty cold at the funeral of Lõrinc Szabó. The communist party secretary of the state publishing house delivered the oration, saying that a shining star had now disappeared from the firmament of Hungarian poetry, but on the very same day the Soviet Union launched a sputnik into space, and is it not just wonderful. I am in a melancholy mood because in the cemetery I saw the prime representatives of my own generation dreadfully worn and tired. One should not have a close look at one’s contemporaries.

Further down the road, here in Zugliget, students of the Art Academy took their easels to the park to paint the trees. Passing, I wondered what are you sketching and painting just now?

 

 

NOTES:

 

Vincent Korda (1897–1979). Younger brother of film producer Sir Alexander Korda. Voted Best Film Director and awarded the Oscar for The Thief of Bagdad.

Attila József (1905–1937). One of the greatest Hungarian poets of the 20th century. Committed suicide at the age of 32.

Lajos Bíró (1880–1948). Novelist, screenwriter of many British films produced by Alexander Korda.

Miklós Borsos (1906–1990). Leading Hungarian sculptor, banned from teaching at the Academy of Applied Arts at the time.

László Lator (1927). Poet and editor, a young talent then in the “Válasz” circle.

Mátyás Domokos (1928–2006). Literary critic and editor, another young member of the “Válasz” circle, later a leading critic of modern Hungarian literature.

István Bibó (1911–1979). Political theorist. Professor of Political Science in 1949. A member of the Imre Nagy Government during the 1956 Revolution. Arrested in spring 1957, and sentenced to life imprisonment. Amnestied in 1963.

Dame Elisabeth Frink (1930–1983). British sculptress. Head of Sculpture, St Martin’s School of Art.

Peter de Francia (1921). Painter. Lectured on art history in St Martin’s School of Art.

László Cs. Szabó (1905–1984). A major 20th century Hungarian essayist. Lived in London from 1951. Worked for the BBC’s Hungarian Section.

Joe Tilson (1928). One of the first pop-art painters, a former teacher of St Martin’s School of Art. Royal Academician since 1991.




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