21 March 2018

A Friend of Czesław Miłosz and Zbigniew Herbert – George Gömöri under Polish Eyes

There is no doubt that George Gömöri is held in high esteem in Poland, in literary circles no less than in the upper echelons of scholarship. He has a place in the Pantheon of those foreigners who have made particularly vital contributions to Polish culture, especially literature. Moreover, he occupies a very special place in the select company of the most distinguished foreign friends of our culture, including the greatest Polonists and the finest translators of Polish literature, although his input should have earned him an even loftier rank than he has been given to date. Let me put it this way: Gömöri’s merits are yet to be fully recognised in our country. And he has worked hard enough, producing an extremely diversified and rich oeuvre, to gain our highest appreciation. As I have found more than once, many preeminent Polish humanities scholars, researchers of the literature of bygone days, think of him as their esteemed colleague from England, a regular participant at international conferences and symposia, and the author of invaluable sources for researchers of the European Renaissance and the Baroque. While few of these works are currently available in Polish translation, a number of them have been published in English – enough, in fact, for him to have been granted the honour of membership in the Polish Academy of Arts and Sciences of Kraków.

Yet his works on literature, not least his monograph on the great 19th-century poet Cyprian Norwid, only form a tiny fraction of Gömöri’s formidable output and input. Indeed, viewed mainly but far from exclusively from our own perspective, he deserves equal credit for being, to paraphrase the title of one of his books, the extraordinary ambassador of our culture in this era. The rarefied distinction of Gömöri primarily is due to the extremely high standards of his work, maintained across a very wide spectrum. From early adulthood, he has been a critic, an advocate-disseminator and translator. To boot, he spent several years lecturing on Polish literature (and Hungarian literature, I hasten to add) at some of the most renowned institutions of higher education around the world, including Cambridge and the University of California, Berkeley, where for a semester he filled in for Czesław Miłosz as his anointee. The second source of Gömöri’s excellence in serving the cause of Polish culture is, in my mind, the sheer range of his activities. It is in large part owing to his efforts that our culture has reached Hungarian readers in their home country and in emigration. Indeed, his audience has been even wider, for Gömöri has published several sketches, reviews, essays and translations in English, in books as well as in highly reputed journals of the world. Last but not least, his unfailing taste in literature has made him a sure-handed critic with a long track record of promoting works of outstanding merit and a thorough knowledge of many prominent Polish writers, often going back to the start of their careers. It bears repeating, then, that Gömöri’s recognition in Poland has not yet come full circle, despite his formidable reputation among some of my compatriots. In short, he still has a future ahead of him in Poland. I personally wish to make that future a bright one, to the best of my ability, so that it may match the brilliance of the services he has rendered to us.

Describing the various facets of these services is a rewarding task in that they harmonise with Gömöri’s colourful personality and equally colourful life, teeming with unexpected turns, adventures, travels, encounters, friendships, initiatives, projects and achievements, many of which somehow seem to have acquired a symbolic significance in hindsight.

George Gömöri is obviously a member of the 1956 generation, a representative of those in a narrower sense, of artists and intellectuals for whom the Hungarian Revolution meant a formative yet traumatic experience which went on to decisively shape their subsequent lives. Incidentally, this experience was not unique to Hungarians. The Revolution of 1956 had a similar impact on the young intellectuals of other countries in the Eastern Bloc (as that fine poet, the Lithuanian émigré Tomas Venclova once confided to me). It also managed to dispel the enthusiasm of young advocates of leftist utopia in the West, I might add. In that memorable October, Gömöri was twenty-two, in his junior year majoring in Polish and Hungarian at ELTE University. He was a member of the student group that organised the demonstration on the 23rd, where it all began. It is safe to surmise that it was partly under his influence that the instigators of the Hungarian Revolution directly emulated the Polish example of the Poznań uprising that had broken out in the last days of June 1956. By then, Gömöri had been to Poland. He had first come here in the autumn of 1953 on a three-month grant from the Hungarian Writers’ Association, and became fascinated with the prominent Polish poets active at the time, notably Broniewski, Tuwim and Gałczyński. He also acquainted himself with the works of Miłosz. Later this proved to be a long, intimate engagement that lasted for decades, as did his friendship with Miłosz himself. But this did not happen until after he had fled Hungary in November 1956. As someone who took an active part in the Revolution and edited the student paper Egyetemi ifjúság (University Youth), he was de facto forced to emigrate.

The way this young émigré found his bearings in a foreign land was nothing short of admirable. He quickly resumed his studies in Oxford, forging a new network of relationships at lightning speed. Of course, his new acquaintances there included a number of Poles, both established immigrants and fresh arrivals from Poland. The young Gömöri was uncommonly interested in and open to the things of the world, bringing to bear on anything he did a superb intelligence, a proclivity to make bold choices and decisions, a lack of any complex, a freshness of mind and, just as importantly, a very physical briskness. Characteristically, as he confessed later, he spent his first stipend from Oxford on a trip to Paris.

In France, he met two of the greatest figures – some would say the two greatest figures – of post-war Polish poetry, Herbert and Miłosz. Here let us pause for a moment in order to use these two connections to illustrate, admittedly on the principle of pars toto, the nature and range of Gömöri’s contributions to popularising contemporary Polish literature.

Gömöri met Zbigniew Herbert, ten years his senior, during his sojourn in Paris through Jerzy Stanisław Sito, the renowned playwright and English translator he had known for a while. The occasion marked the beginning of a friendship that lasted until Herbert’s death. Gömöri penned down the story of his friendship with convincing verve and documented it with six letters Herbert wrote to him. A few years ago he donated this evidence to the National Library in Warsaw. By the time he met Herbert in person, he had read some of his poems in the weekly Życie Literackie, and immediately recognised the promise of a great poet. When he wrote about new directions in Polish poetry for the Oxford Opinion, he placed special emphasis on Herbert’s work. At around the same time, Herbert gave him a copy of his book of poems Hermes, Dog and Star. This included the famous poem honouring the Hungarian October; Herbert supplied in his own hand the title “To the Hungarians” which had been scrapped by the censors. Gömöri wasted no time in translating the poem, introducing the poet to Hungarian readers for the first time through the emigré press and media. The first phase of this long story of reception, roughly until 1964, of political necessity took place outside Hungary’s borders, and relied exclusively on the pioneering efforts of Gömöri, who published his translations of the Polish poet in literary journals such as Irodalmi Újság (1959) and Új Látóhatár (1960). In addition, Gömöri rendered some of Herbert’s verse in English, among them the already mentioned “To the Hungarians”, a poem particularly dear to him, which he translated in collaboration with Clive Wilmer and published several times.

Years later, Gömöri compiled an anthology of his own translations, which he published complete with an introduction and a study under the title Polscy poecy o węgierskim październiku (Polish Poets on the Hungarian October, London, 1986, 1996).

The positive reactions to Herbert’s poetry at the end of this first phase allowed Gömöri to reach closer to Hungary, publishing his translations in the Hungarian journal Híd, published in what was then Yugoslavia. Gömöri hoped they would find their way into Hungary proper, and they probably did. The détente that soon set in triggered a new phase in Herbert’s appreciation in Hungary, with new critics and translators joining the effort. Gömöri himself wrote his name in the annals of Herbert’s reception in several capacities as translator, critic, and reviewer. He furnished a rather detailed assessment of the first Hungarian anthology of Herbert in Hungarian (1979), as well as of the last one, published in 2008 with the title of Fortinbras gyászéneke (Funeral Dirge of Fortinbras), with the introduction and the bulk of the translations written by Gábor Körner. Gömöri’s own selection of Herbert’s poems appeared in 1998, with the title The Power of Taste. This personal anthology inspired Sándor Kányádi to write his Pan Cogitohoz címzett eretnek táviratok (Heretic Telegrams to Pan Cogito), which he dedicated to Gömöri himself.

Gömöri was equally instrumental in promoting Czesław Miłosz, whose works, as I have mentioned, he had first read in 1953. The two finally met in person two years later, in Strasbourg, at the summer university of the Free Europe Commission. Gömöri had been invited by Jan Nowak-Jeziorański, the legendary “courier from Warsaw”, who had for years served as director of programming for the Polish edition of Radio Free Europe. The acquaintance of Miłosz had far-reaching consequences. As Gömöri himself provided a superb account of these junctures in his Encounters and Correspondence with Miłosz (originally in the April 2012 issue the Hungarian literary journal Tiszatáj, and soon to be published in Polish), Hungarian readers have a first-hand knowledge of the friendship, so that it should suffice for me here to add a few details. Well, thanks to the intercession of Miłosz, Gömöri had the opportunity to teach at Berkeley and later at Harvard. It was also the Polish poet who introduced him to the work of certain authors, such as Witkacy, and who served as inspiration for Gömöri’s publication of a book on Norwid as well as his decision to embark on a systematic study of Polish– Hungarian cultural relations. On his side, Gömöri honoured their friendship by translating and promoting Miłosz’s works. In fact, he occasionally albeit unwittingly – contributed to their conception. This was evidently the case with Miłosz’s major poem Moja wierna mowo (My Faithful Mother Tongue), the genesis of which was not known to researchers and authors of monographs on Miłosz.

It goes without saying that Gömöri’s intimate and fruitful ties with contemporary Polish literature were not restricted to the works of the two towering figures I have discussed. He devoted several fascinating writings to many others, including Gombrowicz, whose play The Marriage he translated himself. These texts were published not only in Hungarian but in English as well, including in the brilliant volume entitled Magnetic Poles (London, 2000). In the late 1970s, Gömöri saw to print a fine anthology of contemporary Polish literature in Hungarian with the title Az ismeretlen fa (The Unknown Tree), which I reviewed at length for Twórczość, the foremost Polish literary monthly of the day.

But let us retrace our steps to Gömöri the meticulous philologist, the researcher poring over ancient manuscripts and print editions to unearth (not infrequently, for the first time) the lessons of bygone cultures, alternately casting new light on established facts and searching for radically new interpretations. Gömöri’s tireless creative efforts in branching fields are attested by his more recently published books. The first that comes to mind is his The Polish Swan Triumphant. Essays on Polish and Comparative Literature from Kochanowski to Norwid, a volume of studies and sketches in literary history, in which the author revisits his old pet topics of Jan Kochanowski, the Polish poetry of the Baroque, and the works of Cyprian Norwid. Here, Gömöri brings such an ingenious approach to juxtaposing Polish literature with the appropriate European context that his studies such as his comparative study of the poetry of Mikołaj Sęp Szarzyński and Bálint Balassi or his sketch on the travels of Philip Sidney – strike the reader with the force of something entirely fresh and novel.

One of Gömöri’s particularly exciting discoveries lies in his edition of Ferenc Békássy, an undeservedly neglected Hungarian poet in the first half of the 20th century. (The Alien in the Chapel – Rupert Brooke’s Unknown Rival: Ferenc Békássy; Poems and Letters, Skyscrapers, 2016). From early youth, Békássy lived in Great Britain, conducting his studies and writing in English. We have Gömöri and his wife and collaborator to credit with mapping the colourful, adventurous life of Békássy, who was incidentally a good friend of Rupert Brooke and John Maynard Keynes, the preeminent economist. More recently, in Pécs, Hungary (2016), Gömöri published a remarkable, mostly subjectively voiced volume with the title Magyar-lengyel változatok. Esszék, vázlatok, emlékezések (Hungarian–Polish Variations: Essays, Sketches, Recollections) comprising portraits of Polish and Hungarian writers drawn from the perspective of intimate personal acquaintance. That Gömöri’s own poetic vein is far from being depleted is proven by his recent collections of poems, such as Rózsalovaglás (Riding with Roses, Pécs, 2014) and Az ajtó monológja (Monologue of a Door, Budapest, 2017).

As we have seen, George Gömöri has distinguished himself in several fields with his unflagging penchant for research, his investigative prowess that could be the envy of many a criminal detective when it comes to tracking down scholarly evidence and answers to complicated questions, and, last but not least, with his own poetic invention. Indeed, Gömöri keeps on planning, searching, debating, creating and discovering with the sheer enthusiasm of youth.

Yet I cannot help but feel that his own achievements are still waiting to be charted to the last inch, at least as a poet with more than ten volumes of poetry to his credit. While a selection of his poems has been published in English, and in two editions no less, I think that there is much of Gömöri the poet left for all of us to discover. This, however, is a feat that only his fellow countrymen will be able to accomplish.

Translation by Péter Balikó Lengyel

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