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25 July 2011

The Angel’s Son: Why I Learned Hungarian Late in Life

Books Re-vised

Nem a való hát: annak égi mása
Lesz, amitől függ az ének varázsa... 

The song itself is not what matters most; it has a heavenly other
from which the magic descends.

JÁNOS ARANY (1817–82)


Nem a való hát: annak égi mássa
Lesz, amitől függ az ének varázsa...

The song itself is not what matters most; it has a heavenly other
from which the magic descends.

JÁNOS ARANY (1817–82)


Many persons are fluent in more than one language, but my setting out some years ago at the age of fifty-six to teach myself Hungarian provokes comments and questions from those who get to hear of it.

Like much else seen in hindsight, my enterprise seems to me now to have been inevitable. In my early years I envied various persons for various reasons, but my strongest envy was always directed at those who could read and write and speak and sing in more than one language.

The first such persons that I was aware of were the Catholic priests who celebrated the mass and other services in the churches that I attended in the 1940s. As a child, I considered the Latin spoken by the priest to be the verbal equivalent of the vestments that he wore. I have always been much taken by rich fabrics and by colours, emblems, and motifs. Long before I understood a word of Latin, I responded to the sounds of its syllables as to so many arrangements of white lambs or red blood-drops or gold sunbursts on silk chasubles of the so-called liturgical colours. I had the usual child’s image of the deity as an old man of stern appearance, and I could never imagine either of us feeling warmly towards, let alone loving, the other, but I was moved by the ceremonies that I supposed he himself had prescribed for his worshippers, and I was not at all surprised that he had to be addressed on solemn occasions in a language known only to his priests.

I was only seven when I resolved to learn the sonorous Latin language. I found in my father’s missal pages with parallel Latin and English texts. I imagined I could learn the language simply by finding which word in the Latin text was the equivalent of one or another word in the English text and so accumulating a Latin vocabulary to be drawn on as required. I was brought up short when I found that the Latin for God might be Deum, Deus, Dei, or Deo. This and other problems made Latin seem to me perverse and arbitrary by comparison with my native English but only increased my desire eventually to master Latin. In the meanwhile, I derived unexpected pleasures from hearing or, more often, mishearing the language.

During the last half-hour of the school day on the first Friday of each month in the mid-1940s, the pupils of St Kilian’s School and of the Marist Brothers’ College, after having walked in separate formations for a short distance along McCrae Street, Bendigo, from their respective classrooms to the parish church of St Kilian’s, there formed almost the whole of the congregation during the ceremony of the Benediction of the Most Blessed Sacrament, or Benediction for short. The pupils of the College were all boys. The pupils of the School were mostly girls, although the three most junior classes had equal numbers of boys and girls. Most of the College sat on one side of the central aisle. Most of the School sat on the other side. I was one of the junior boys of St Kilian’s, whose view of the sanctuary was mostly blocked by the heads and shoulders of the older girls.

One of the hymns sung during Benediction was known by its first word, Adoremus (Let us adore...). On the afternoons that I am writing about, I knew none of this. The words of the ceremony would have been printed somewhere in the back of my father’s missal, but I had never read them. I understood much later that the words of Adoremus were intended to sound as praise for the Eucharist, but to me as a child in Bendigo nearly sixty years ago they brought quite other meanings.

No one in the seats around me could have tried to sing any of the hymns, but from the seats towards the front of the church came a slow, drawn-out version of the sacred words. Evidently, the nuns and the brothers had taught the words to their older pupils, but the singers, self-conscious and unsure, produced what sounded to me mainly of sadness and struggle.

On some afternoon that I will never recall, I first heard the four syllables of the word Adoremus as the English phrase sons of the angels. Afterwards, on many an afternoon that I well recall, I heard that phrase not only while the singers droned out the Latin Aaa... dor... e-e... mus, but whenever else the vague sounds of the Latin allowed me. Years later, when I had learned by heart both the English and the Latin words, I still preferred to dwell on my own mental imagery while I sang under my breath my private words.

Sons of the angels...On the afternoon mentioned in the previous paragraph, I had already seen numerous pictures of angels. I had been assured by teachers and by priests that I enjoyed the exclusive attention of my own angel: my guardian angel, as she was called.

I did not hesitate before using the pronoun she in the previous sentence, but I had to struggle somewhat as a child before I could feel sure of the gender of my invisible guardian and companion. I had wanted from the first a female angel, but the same people who assured me of the existence of angels insisted that they were neither male nor female. In fact, the appearance of angels in devotional pictures tended towards the masculine, and the only angels with names – the archangels Gabriel, Raphael, and Michael – were always spoken as of males. Still, the beardless faces, the long hair, and the flowing robes of pictured angels did not much hinder my imaginings. In time, my female guardian began to appear to me, although never as an image of a whole female form. (I have long since come to accept that when I do what is usually denoted by the verb to imagine, I am able to call to mind only details and never wholes.) Her shining hair and flawless complexion I would have derived mostly from advertisements in the Australian Women’s Weekly. Her voice would have come from one or another radio play or serial. I could hardly have been knowledgeable enough to imagine a character or personality to go with her angelic appearance, but if I know anything of the person I was fifty and more years ago, I can be sure that her distinguishing quality was trustworthiness. I could have confided anything to her.

I think of myself nowadays as a person who reads words rather than hears them. At school or at university, whenever I wanted to memorise a passage I studied it in such a way that I was able afterwards to visualise its appearance on the page. I often notice myself reading in the air, as it were, my own and other persons’ words during a conversation. For some years during my childhood, I felt obliged to write with my finger on the nearest surface every word that came to my mind. Walking to school, for example, I scribbled continually with the point of my index finger on the smooth leather of my schoolbag, trying to record in writing the onrush of my thoughts. For how long, I wonder, has English been for me only a written language?

The first sentence that I recall having composed in writing is “The bull is full”.

I wrote this sentence with pencil on paper in either February or March in 1944 and showed it soon afterwards to Eleanor Warde, the part-owner with her husband of the house where my family lived at that time in rented rooms. Mrs Warde was a handsome woman with dark hair and was, according to my best recollection, the first female person that I was drawn to confide in. I can hardly have written my sentence in order to report something I had observed or had had reported to me. The sentence is almost certainly the result of my taking pleasure from the sounds of English before I became accustomed to words as writing.

During my lifetime 1 have become competent, to varying extents, in six languages, but I have only once learned a language by hearing its sounds. That language was, of course, my native English, which was for me no more than a spoken language during the few years before I began to read and write. (I am able to recall a few occasions when I heard for the first time one or another English word and when I subsequently spoke it often to myself in order to savour some peculiar state of feeling that the word gave rise to. I recall even such details as the place where I was standing and the fact that I was strangely affected by the word in question, but of the feelings aroused by the word I recall only the faintest hint. I can see in my mind, for example, a white window-curtain being lifted by the wind while I repeat aloud the word serenade. I am no more than three years old, and I have recently heard that word for the first time; I heard it pronounced in a deep voice by a male announcer during a radio programme. The sound of the word has a strange effect on me as I say it aloud, but I recall nothing of that effect today. When I look at the word serenade, even in the context of this paragraph, I am hardly aware of it as having any sound; it appears to me as a written word around which float a few images.)

Evidently, the one language that I first learned as a system of sounds became for me long ago a system of written words and sentences. 1 became so used to English as a medium and so much occupied with the subject matter of my reading or writing that I seldom noticed or was affected by the audible qualities of my first language.

During my twelfth year, I was fluent in the Latin of the mass. I was an altar boy in the suburb of Melbourne where my family then lived. I had been given at first a booklet with the altar boys’ responses printed in it, but I soon learned its contents by heart and thereafter recited either with eyes reverently closed or while staring at the pattern of dark-green fleurs-de-lis on the pale-green sanctuary carpet or at the embroidered imagery and lettering on the priest’s chasuble or the altar-cloth. I had learned the Latin at first by reading it, but the sounds of the prayers had been more or less familiar to me since my early years. And although I knew well the English equivalent of each Latin sentence, I had not much understanding of the syntax of the Latin. In short, I was more likely to hear myself reciting Latin than to see it unrolling as a text in my mind, and I was easily able to cut myself adrift from the meaning. Admittedly, there were days when I tried to be devout and to utter the Latin responses as prayers, but I was much more inclined to use my small store of foreign syllables for my own purposes.

I began to enjoy hearing myself recite, aloud but to myself alone, the longest piece of Latin from my store. This was the confessional prayer, the Confiteor. When I recited it under the fig-tree in my favourite corner of the backyard in 1950, it seemed inordinately long, but when I recited it just now at a leisurely pace, it took no more than thirty seconds. I have forgotten what thoughts were in my mind during my earliest recitations under the fig-tree, but a time came when I began to hear the chanted Latin as someone might have heard faintly from a distant radio the description of a horse-race.

I have written elsewhere about the importance to me of horse-racing, but there may be some reader of this writing who needs to be told that I have got from horse-racing during my lifetime more meaning than I have got from literature or music or any other branch of what is generally called culture. For whatever reasons, images of horse-racing appear in my mind whenever I have begun to feel intensely about any matter. The most common but by no means the only images are of the last hundred metres of various races. A few of these are races that I have watched in the past. Others are races between horses I cannot even name on racecourses whose very whereabouts are a mystery to me. I am not aware of having any influence on the progress or the results of these races-in-the-mind; I watch them only as a spectator. Even so, I understand as soon as the field of horses comes into my view that I ought to follow the progress of one particular horse, and this I do, having recognised the horse by some imperceptible sign or by a sort of instinct. This horse is only sometimes the eventual winner; at other times it fails by a narrow margin or as a result of misfortune.

My hearing the Confiteor as a description of a horse-race was a new advance for me. Before then, I could expect to see genuine, unbidden horse-racing images only as a result of hearing certain passages of music or of reading the last page of one or another piece of fiction. I did not become wholly unaware of the meanings of the words: the phrase Beatae Mariae semper Virgini, for example, always brought to my mind a set of racing silks in the Virgin’s colours of blue and white. However, I tried to hear the Latin as I heard it formerly in St Kilian’s, Bendigo: as sounds full of a meaning that I myself was free to discover.

The Confiteor, being a comparatively brief prayer, gave rise mostly to racing imagery appropriate for the finishes of sprint races. The longest of the prayers recited aloud during the old Latin mass was the Nicene Creed. This was recited by the priest alone; as an altar boy I was not required to learn a word of it. Impelled, however, by my love of long distance races for staying horses, I determined to learn the Latin of the Creed and, in time, I did so.

These paragraphs hereabouts report events and processes that occupied years of my childhood and adolescence. While the Confiteor was still the only sequence of foreign sounds that gave rise to racing imagery, it became closely associated with a particular race, the winner of that race, and the trainer of that winner.

The racing game, as it was often called in the 1950s, was vastly different from the racing industry, as it is called today. Fifty years ago, the successful and admired trainers were those who said least to journalists and even avoided being photographed. They defied the public to learn about the prospects of their horses and claimed to know nothing of the plunges that were launched on them by well-informed stable commissioners. My father pointed out to me at race meetings the trainers he most admired and told me what he knew of their ways. The man I came to admire most died long ago, never suspecting that his name would one day appear in a literary magazine or, more likely, never suspecting that such magazines existed. Of the many achievements of A.R. (Alf) Sands, the one that became most firmly lodged in my mythology was his trying for nearly two years to bring to peak fitness a horse with such frail legs that a moderately fast track-gallop could send it lame. Alf Sands finally prepared the horse for a sprint race at Moonee Valley. Since the horse had not raced for so long, stable followers secured lucrative odds. The horse led clearly all through the race, carrying the stable colours of gold with red stars. The name of the horse was Lone Saint.

The Nicene Creed is not only longer but also much richer in content than the repetitious Confiteor. While chanting the creed, I was sometimes pleased to have the meaning of one or another bold Latin declaration as the mental background for my images of horse-racing. In time, two Latin passages became as it were, part of this background.

Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum... .This is the second-last utterance of the creed, and the English equivalent in my missal was “And I look for the resurrection of the dead”. After I had begun to study Latin at secondary school, I came to feel that the English in my missal ignored the import of what seemed to me the most striking detail of the Latin: the prefix ex- in the word exspecto. Whenever I chanted the sentence, I got from the single syllable of that prefix a sense of the speaker as not merely looking for but looking out for and even straining to see and finally, leaving behind the literal meaning, hoping to see. Then, on whatever forgotten day in the 1950s this last sense lodged in my mind, there must have appeared soon afterwards the sequence of visual imagery that has been ever since bound up with it. A man stands at the rear of a crowded grandstand overlooking a racecourse. The man’s head is turned towards a field of racehorses just then entering the straight of the racecourse. The head of every other person in the crowd is likewise turned, but the head of the man is the central detail in my vision – although I am able almost simultaneously to see in my mind the field of racehorses that he sees with his eyes and even the one horse that he looks out for and strains and hopes to see. The face of the man is often the face of Alf Sands, although the character and the life-story of the man belong not to Alf Sands, whom I know only by sight, but to an elemental figure from my mythology, a figure whose fate is inseparable from the successes and failures of racehorses.

In order to give to this piece of writing a coherent shape, I have simplified some matters. On the many occasions when I have chanted the Nicene Creed, I have been able to experience much more than is reported in the previous paragraph. Mental events, as any self-aware person knows, are hardly affected by what are called time and space in this, the visible world. While I chanted the second-last utterance of the Nicene Creed, dwelling on the sound of the word exspecto and seeing in my mind the face of the man who was hoping to see his horse prominently placed and even being aware of the axial lines of the man’s character, the field of horses in the race in my mind was still approaching the turn into the straight. After the word mortuorum in the printed version of the creed in my missal was a full point. After the word mortuorum in my chant, I paused for less than a second. During that interval of time, I was able to comprehend an event that might have taken twenty and more seconds if it had happened in the world from which my mental images were derived. In short, by the time when I began to chant the first syllable of the last utterance of the creed, the field of horses in my mind had passed along the straight of the race course in my mind and had arrived at the winning-post.

My chanting of each section of the creed was meant to have the sound appropriate to the equivalent section of the imagined race. But the sense that I got from the words of the last two utterances was such that I was never required to imitate the agitated, almost-falsetto voice of the race-commentator describing the progress of the field along the straight and towards the winning-post. I heard that sound in my mind during the pause of less than a second mentioned above, just as I saw in my mind during that pause images arising from the progress of the field towards the post, but when I chanted the first syllable of the last utterance, my voice had become noticeably more quiet. Out of a turbulence of possibilities had come something not to be doubted; the race had been decided.

Et vitam venturi saeculi. Amen. This is the last utterance of the Nicene Creed.

(I consider the Amen as inseparable from the phrase preceding it.) The English version in my missal was “And the life of the world to come. Amen”. As I write this today, I am annoyed by the shoddy punctuation in my missal. What I have called the last utterance has been punctuated as though it was a sentence. It is, of course, a noun phrase and the object of the verb exspecto. The chanter of the creed, according to my translation, hopes to see not only the resurrection of the dead but the life of the world to come.

The chief detail from the racing imagery produced in my mind by the last words of the creed was a certain movement performed by the rider of the winning horse.

(I remind the reader that even when I chanted the creed as a child, my aim was far larger and more complex than merely to share in the success of the winner. If anyone knew the odds against the so-called dream-ending, I, the son of a reckless gambler on horses, knew them and suffered often as a result of their relentless operation. Even in my dreams I was realistic; the actual outcome was only seldom the desired.) Whether or not the winner was the hoped-for horse, its rider performed often a movement that was for me eloquent and yet provoking. A racing commentator might have described the movement simply thus: “And So-and-so (rider of the winner) puts away the whip on So-and-so (winning horse).” In fact, I never heard any racing commentator use such words to describe the movement that I had in mind. The finish in my mind was usually what was called a hectic finish or a blanket finish or a desperate finish, and the commentator was so much occupied with merely naming the many horses vying for first place and, at the decisive moment, the seeming winner in his estimation that he could never have found the time to report such a detail as a movement performed by a jockey, even the jockey on the winning horse. In any case, the movement was not at all striking or worthy of reporting to persons listening to radio broadcasts. Only I, chanting the Nicene Creed in Latin and trying to call to mind a finish contested by numerous deserving contenders (and one especially hoped for) – only I was free to dwell on that movement; to see it re-enacted over and over, if I so chose, in the silence after the creed had ended and the field of horses had passed the winning-post. The putting-away of the whip always took place, in racing parlance, a stride before the post. Until the moment when he put the whip away, the rider had been using it repeatedly and with much force and had seemed to me, the spectator, to be aware of little else apart from the rhythmical straining of his body and that of the horse beneath him. Never having questioned any jockey about such matters, I supposed that the rider in my mind was only partly aware of his position in the field; that he knew he was gaining on the leaders but that he was no more sure than I of the final outcome. And yet, in the sort of race that had most meaning for me, all the straining and flailing of the rider of the eventual winner came to a graceful end in the shadows of the post, as a racing commentator might have described the place. The last arc of the rider’s arm was shorter by far than the previous ten or twenty. Instead of flattening itself against the rump of the horse, the whip leaped nimbly back to its usual resting-place near the horse’s shoulder while the hand holding it went back to the reins.

Et vitam venturi saeculi. Amen. In the most satisfying of all races, the rider put his whip to rest a moment before his horse reached the post a narrow winner in a blanket finish. Even before I had dropped my voice, the rider of the eventual winner had known that he had done enough: that the momentum of his horse would carry it through.

Afterwards I was both teased and gratified for as long as I considered certain questions that I was never able to answer. How could the rider have known that the moment had arrived when he might safely put away the whip? How could he have seen from among the press of the onrushing horses, and while he crouched with his face against the mane of his horse and plied the whip with all the strength of his upper body, that although he had still not reached the finish-line, the race had been decided? What sign had the rider glimpsed from the side of his eye? What signal had he felt through the straining of the horse beneath him? What sound, even, might he have heard from the watching crowd?

During the twenty years when I was writing most of my published fiction, English was my only language. Nor did I ever feel that my native language was less than adequate for my purposes. Nor will I ever so feel. And yet, for much of my life I have felt that I lacked something by not being fluent in a second language. In 1951, when the first so-called New Australians arrived at my primary school, I persuaded a Maltese boy to teach me to speak his native language. Before he grew tired of it, he had taught me a good deal. I studied Latin and French successfully throughout secondary school. When I began at university in my late twenties, I was obliged to enrol in at least one unit of a foreign language. I chose Arabic and eventually completed a major in it. I was sorry to find that the examinations were only in writing. I never learned to converse in Arabic, although I was able to read and write it rather well. I recall little of the language today, however. Finally, when I was preparing to leave full-time employment in my mid-fifties, I bought two dictionaries and a teach-yourself book with an accompanying cassette and prepared to learn the Hungarian language.

I had seen photographs of Hungarian peasants in a National Geographic magazine when I was barely able to read. The photographs were illustrations for an article about Romania, and many years were to pass before I understood the details of the tragic separation of the millions of Hungarians in Transylvania from their compatriots after the First World War. I stared at pictures of peoples from many parts of the world in the second-hand: National Geographic magazines that my father brought home from somewhere in the 1940s, but for reasons that I have never been able to explain, I was drawn to the Hungarians.

I cannot claim that I was a steadfast admirer during my childhood of Hungarian culture, but I remember instances when I thought of Hungary as having a claim on me. When I first saw pictures of the Great Plain of Hungary, when I first learned that the Hungarians had come from somewhere in Asia; when I learned of the affinity of Hungarians and the horse; and, above all, when I learned that the Hungarian language is more or less alone in the world, bearing little resemblance to any other language – at such times I heard in my mind something like the far-away or Sunday-afternoon sounds of my childhood; I heard myself speaking solemnly in Hungarian or even singing Hungarian songs, even though I knew not one word of the Magyar language.

I have never been one of those who speak condescendingly of the emotional turmoil of their adolescence. I am still sometimes amazed at how I went on leading a normal-seeming life and passing examinations when my prevailing mood was for long periods one of utter confusion. The year 1956 was by far the most turbulent of my youth, and yet I turned away during the last months of that year from my private crises and pored over newspaper reports and photographic images of the Hungarian Revolution. No doubt, many other Australians shared my sympathy for the Hungarians at that time, but it seemed relevant to my own concerns that numbers of persons of my own age had lost their lives in the fighting. And whether I saw a photograph of her or whether I imagined her, a certain dark-haired young woman has appeared often in my mind ever since that time. I often asked myself what this sad-faced girl-ghost might have required of me. It would have been a hopeless task for me to try to learn even her name, let alone any of her history. There was only one thing that I might try to do for her, and that was to learn her language.

In 1977, I read for the first time a book titled People of the Puszta. It was an English translation of Puszták népe, by Gyula Illyés, which was first published in Hungary in 1936. The book had such an effect on me that I later wrote a book of my own in order to relieve my feelings. Any reader interested in this matter is referred to Inland, 1988.

I have read several times during my life that this or that person was so impressed by this or that translation of this or that work of literature that the person afterwards learned the original language in order to read the original text. I have always been suspicious of this sort of claim, but, the reader of this piece of writing need not doubt the truth of the following sentence. I was so impressed by the English version of Puszták népe that I afterwards learned the language of the original and, as of now, have read a goodly part of it.

Even though I learned Hungarian for the first three years on my own, I was trying to learn it as a spoken language and not just a language of texts. I listened to my cassette and I learned by heart and recited often aloud all the passages of Hungarian dialogue in my textbook. I even listened to Hungarian radio programmes, although the speakers were too fast for my comprehension. For three years I kept the Hungarian language confined within the four walls of my study, but then the language could bear its solitude no longer and broke free of me. On a memorable day in May, 1998, I found myself approaching the only Hungarian person I knew. He was a retired truck-driver from my own suburb. I had never so much as nodded to him previously, but on the memorable day I addressed him in my halting Hungarian. He embraced me as though I was a long-lost compatriot.

Joseph Kulcsar had had a humble occupation, but he was an outstanding figure in the Australian Hungarian community. Here, I mention only his extensive knowledge of Hungarian literature and history and his talents as an actor and a reciter of verse, although he was famous and respected for much else. But the day when I approached Joe in the street was a fateful day in more ways than one. Earlier that day, Joe had been diagnosed as having cancer. He lived for two years more.

He was too ill and too tired during those years to teach me as much of his language as he would have liked, but I learned from him how the best of Hungarians love their country and its culture. I hope I may have learned from him also how to die bravely.

This is not meant to be a piece of scholarly writing; nor is it meant to be about the Hungarian language itself. I understand that scholars have for long debated the precise origins of the language – and of the Hungarian people themselves.

It can be safely said that the language is a very old language. The main body of the Hungarian people brought the language through the Carpathians and into Central Europe in the ninth century of the modern era, but language and people had travelled before then an immense distance during many centuries from their place of origin somewhere in Asia. I like sometimes to look at my atlas and to read aloud the name of the city of Alma Ata in Kazakhstan. What I hear are two Hungarian words meaning “Father of Apples”. Likewise the “Bator” in the name of the capital city of Mongolia is the Hungarian word for “brave”. Many Hungarian words and expressions set wondering about the mysterious centuries before the people and their language arrived in Europe. I mention here only a Hungarian name for the Milky Way: hadak útja, the soldiers’ road.

News of the Australian writer who taught himself Hungarian has by now reached members of the Hungarian community in Melbourne. I am touched by the joy of my new Hungarian friends that someone should brave the reputed difficulties of their language, which is so rarely studied outside their homeland. (In my experience, Hungarian is no more difficult than any other language known to me.) My friends at first suppose that I learned Hungarian so that I could enjoy the riches of Hungarian literature, and especially its poetry. Yes, one of my motives was to read People of the Puszta in the original, and yes, I read every day in Hungarian a page, or a paragraph at least, from some renowned work.

I have learned a number of Hungarian poems by heart, plus as many folk songs. And I have translated for publication two Hungarian poems the themes of which relate to this essay. But I try to explain to my friends what I am trying to explain to readers of this writing: that I learned Hungarian for purely personal reasons. My years-long enterprise might even be called an act of self-indulgence.

I learned to hear English and to speak English before I learned to read and to write English, but I long ago lost my awareness of English as a system of sounds. I learned to hear and to speak and to read and to write Hungarian all during the same time, but I am able with only a little effort, while I speak or recite or sing or merely listen, to become aware of Hungarian as mostly sounds. I can never be unaware of the written language. Somewhere in my mind the words go on appearing as writing. But the consistent sounds of Hungarian vowels and consonants and the strangely uniform pattern of stresses (only the first syllable of any word is stressed) take my attention away from the writing.

It may be an unhelpful comparison, but if an English word or phrase is a pane of clear glass with something called a meaning on its far side, a Hungarian word is a pane of coloured glass. The meaning on the other side of that glass is apparent to me, but I can never be unaware of the rich tints of the glass.

In the fourth year of my learning Hungarian and the first year of my friendship with Joe Kulcsar, I happened to hear from a community radio station a recitation of a long poem. Its title in English is “Ode to the Hungarian Language”. The poet is György Faludy. The recitation lasted for perhaps eight minutes. It was sufficiently slow and clear for me to understand the outline of the poem, although much of the vocabulary was strange to me. What I most noticed was the sound of the poem. Some passages seemed to have been written especially to allow the sounds of Hungarian to come into play. Twenty years earlier, while I read an English translation of the prose of Gyula Illyés, I had vowed one day to read the original in Hungarian. Now, listening to György Faludy s “Ode”, I vowed to find the text and to learn it by heart.

On my next visit to Joe Kulcsar, I described what I had heard from the radio.

I spoke as though Joe himself might not have heard of the poem. When I had finished speaking, Joe drew himself up in his chair and recited by-heart the whole of ‘Ode to the Hungarian Language’. Afterwards, he handed me a copy of the text so that I could learn it for myself, and before I left him that day he took me through the poem, explaining difficult passages and historical allusions.

One such allusion occurs in the very first lines of the poem and is relevant for my purposes in this writing. The first four lines may be paraphrased thus in English prose:


Now, as the darkness of evening reaches into my room,

you come to my mind, servant-girl of Saint Gerard,

and your lips from which, under the trees at evening,

the first sad Hungarian song burst out.


What these lines allude to, so Joe explained, is the earliest known reference to the distinctive music of the Hungarians. Saint Gerard was a Venetian missionary to Hungary during the eleventh century, when the nation was converting voluntarily to Christianity. A chronicle of those times reports Gerard’s having heard one evening from his garden a Magyar servant-girl singing while she turned a hand-mill and his having been much affected, although he knew not a word of the Hungarian language.

I soon learned the poem by heart, although I could not say even today, several years later, that I have discovered all its meaning. During much of the poem, the poet considers by turns some of the lexical and grammatical components of his native language. Each of these he apprehends through his senses, so to speak. The ending of the past tense is the black crow’s-wing of Hungarian history, for example, and the dark shadow of the gallows, the stake, and the cross. Adjectives are an endless flowering furrow. Obsolete words are deserted villages. But these few examples of mine can barely hint at the richness of the poem, which leads my thoughts through a quite different sequence of visual imagery whenever I recite it.

I have recited “Ode to the Hungarian Language” many times since I first learned it. During most of my recitations I have had in mind one or another of the sequences of imagery mentioned in the previous paragraph, but I have not infrequently lost sight of the visual imagery and heard line after line as I first heard them from the radio; heard myself reciting only the sounds of the mysterious Magyar tongue. (In Hungarian, the same word, nyelv, means both ‘language’ and ‘tongue’.) It has not yet happened to me, but it surely will happen to me that those sounds will bring to my mind images of a certain horse-race. Or, if the sounds of György Faludy’s poem never give rise to those images, then, the sounds of some other Hungarian poem, as yet unknown to me, surely will.

I have glimpsed already some of the details of that race. I know already that the name of the horse most prominent in the blanket finish of the race will be Angel’s Son. The person looking out from the rear of the grandstand appears as a young female, perhaps the dark-haired young female denoted in so many Hungarian poems and songs by the phrase barna kislány. The rider of the horse Angel’s Son will lower his whip gracefully an instant before the horse reaches the finish-line. What prompts the rider to do this is an event such as could happen only on a racecourse in the mind of such a person as can visualise only a racecourse whenever he looks for a meaning of meanings. The event may be either the rider’s hearing in his own mind or, more likely, the person’s hearing in his own mind as well as in the rider’s mind one or another passage of Hungarian music in the traditional mode, which uses the same pentatonic scale as was used by the Catholic Church for all its Latin Hymns.

During one of my visits to Joe Kulcsar in the last year of his life, I tried to explain to him in Hungarian something of what I have tried to explain in this essay. He heard me out politely enough, but I wondered afterwards how much I had managed to explain. Then, a few months later, I read a report of an interview with Joe in the Hungarian-language weekly, Magyar Élet. The interviewer, Livia Bagin, at one point asked Joe about the Australian writer who was learning Hungarian from him. Joe spoke briefly about me and then, in one neat Hungarian sentence, reported what must have seemed to him the best summary of all he had heard from me about my reasons for making an old, Asian tongue my second language.

#Azt mondja, hogy az angyalok a mennyországban magyarul beszélnek.

He says that the angels in heaven speak Hungarian.


(Eggplant Dreaming, HEAT 5, new series, 2003)

Reprinted in Gerald Murnane, Invisble Yet Enduring Lilacs, selected essays.



Editor’s Note: “Often mentioned as an author in contention for the Nobel Prize, Gerald Murnane is regarded by many as Australia’s most innovative and important writer of fiction”, as a recent appreciation says. Gerald Murnane was born in Melbourne in 1939. He is the award winning author of nine books. Barley Patch, his latest work of fiction, won the 2010 Award for Innovation in Writing in the Adelaide Festival Awards for Literature. His work has been published in Australia, UK, USA, France and Sweden. Fiction presently in print includes The Plains, Tamarisk Row and Inland; and Invisible Yet Enduring Lilacs, A Collection of essays. Gerald is a recipient of the Patrick White Award and the 2009 Melbourne Prize for Literature and is an Emeritus Fellow of the Australian Literature Board. As the first sentence of his novel Inland, Gerald Murnane wrote the following:I am writing in the library of a manor-house, in a village I prefer not to name, near the town of Kunmadaras, in Szolnok county.” As he stated in a letter, Inland’s imaginary world had been greatly shaped by the scene decribed by Gyula Illyés in the passage beginning “Harmadik szomszédunk lánya öngyilkos lett.” in Chapter 7 of People of the Puszta. (Gyula Kodolányi)

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