21 May 2019

On the Trail of a Line of Verse

Not many people know that in the Northeastern city of Eger, in early 1945, the local activists in cultural life launched a literary monthly by the name of Nemzedékek [Generations], according to its subtitle a “people’s democratic periodical”. When I was in Eger a couple of years ago (i.e. in 1973 – B. A.) Dr Tibor Ebergényi, director of the Heves County Library, told me proudly that, as far as he was aware, out of all the libraries in Hungary only there was a complete set of this periodical to be found. It is not a numerous set. Nemzedékek appeared for seven months; in other words, it ceased publication in its very first year. I know nothing about why this was so.

On 13 February 1945 I set out on foot from Budapest to go and see my parents in Eger. I did not know whether they had made it through the war, nor did they know whether I was still alive. I got as far as Hatvan by walking and by begging a lift on a Soviet military lorry, went on from there on a goods train, and reached my destination at noon on the 15th. In the first days of my stay in Eger I went to see Dr Árpád Négyessy, Civic Democratic Party MP, and the late Julián Ágoston, poet and monk of the Cistercian order and an editor of the Eger daily Igazság [Truth]. They put in front of me a newspaper that had come from a long way away, from outside Hungary, in which an entire page was filled with verse by Hungarian poets who had been deported for forced labour in Bor in Yugoslavia, prominent among which were Miklós Radnóti’s Hetedik ecloga [Seventh Eclogue] (there titled Az alvó tábor [The Sleeping Camp]) and his A la recherche. They told me that an Eger man who had been sent to Bor had brought it home, folded up in his pocket. Unfortunately, the thirtieth line of Az alvó tábor had become completely illegible because the inferior paper had worn through on the fold. The editors said that they would very much like to publish both poems, but were reluctant to present the mutilated poem in that condition. They asked me therefore to “replace” the missing line, or rather to write one in its stead. I thought it over for a day and finally complied with the unusual request because I felt it most important that the poem should be published in Hungary at the earliest, and in those days – there was still a war on – I did not consider the single appearance of the poem in a non- Hungarian daily paper to be a reliable guarantee of its survival. It seemed certain that this poem of Radnóti’s would thus be published in Hungary for the first time. Next day I gave the paper back to the editor together with my inserted line, but I could not stay to see it printed and thirty years went by before I was shown that in fact it had been.

Anyone, however, that has passed through the gate of the past would like to give a sincere account of his unfinished business. In recent years I have been more and more troubled by the thought that perhaps I had created an obscurity in the work of one of the most outstanding poets of my generation – and, what is more, a martyr – if only to the extent of a single line. I thought that if the poem had in fact appeared in Nemzedékek or Igazság someone might even have spotted the line that did not gel with the rest of the piece, and I would no longer have the means of explaining.

But thirty years had been a long time, and had erased all sorts of things from my memory. I had forgotten, for example, which the missing line had been, and likewise the text of my variant. I read Hetedik ecloga time and again and was quite certain that the missing line had been one in the stanza containing lines 26 to 30. But by then neither could I remember what the newspaper had been that the editors in Eger had placed in my hands in February 1945. I had an idea that it was a Hungarian-language daily from Yugoslavia, but it seemed highly improbable that such a paper should have appeared there in late 1944 or early 1945.

I decided to get to the bottom of it. First I needed to find out whether the poem had in fact appeared either in Nemzedékek or in Igazság. At my request the Eger poet Elemér Apor – undeservedly disregarded in his old age – looked through both papers to check the data that I supplied, and he found both Radnóti poems in the Eger Liceum library, on page 38 of the third issue of Nemzedékek. (The issues of the periodical were page-numbered continuously.) There he found a whole- page article entitled Üzenet Borból [Message from Bor]; in the twenty or so lines of introduction there was no mention of how the poems had reached the editors, only an account of the inhuman conditions in the camp at Bor, stating that even under such circumstances poetry had been written. This was followed by Az alvó tábor and A la recherche.

And so I was reassured that Hetedik ecloga had been published, albeit under another name, but I still did not know what the paper had been from which it was taken. Perhaps I would never have found out had I not remembered, thirty years later, the name of one of the other poets featured there, Béla Mária. From him I discovered that the paper in question was Déli Hírlap [Mid-day Gazette], a Temesvár1 daily, which had filled a whole page of its 30 October 1944 number with a compilation, under the title Költők a szögesdrót mögött [Poets behind the Barbed Wire], of the work of poets deported to Bor. Béla Mária gave a detailed account of this paper and the compilation in the December 1970 issue of Kortárs in his article A meredek út végső szakasza [The Final Section of the Steep Road].2 The poem entitled Hetedik ecloga in all editions of Radnóti was given the title of Az alvó tábor for the occasion, presumably because the editors believed that only very few readers of the paper were likely to know the other six Eclogues, and would be puzzled by Radnóti’s own title.

Lines 26–30 of the poem, in Déli Hírlap and in all volumes of Radnóti, are as follows:

 

Este van, egy nappal rövidebb, lásd, újra a fogság
és egy nappal az élet is. Alszik a tábor. A tájra
rásüt a hold s fényében a drótok újra feszülnek,
s látni az ablakon át, hogy a fegyveres őrszemek árnya
lépdel a falra vetődve az éjszaka hangjai közben.3

 

In Nemzedékek line 30 reads: “ismét megjelenik, szuronyuk hegye villog a fényben.4 So that was the line, the thirtieth of the poem, that came from me.

Today I can see that despite my best efforts to accommodate myself to the tone, the haleine of the poem, I had succeeded only partially. The most substantial difference is that Radnóti speaks of real shadows cast on the wall, whereas I was thinking of figures moving in the moonlight, indistinctly perceptible. My thought was probably distracted that way by the phrase az ablakon át “through the window” in the 29th line. Radnóti wrote in a soft minor key, while my interpolation was harder, rather in a major key. Radnóti shows us moonlight and dimness, and I imagined weapons gleaming in a light brighter than that of the moon. It goes to show how one poet’s line can still stand out in another’s poem even if both are of the same generation, both disciples of the poetic school of Nyugat.

In February 1945 I, like everyone else, firmly believed that Miklós Radnóti had survived deportation and the war, and that we would soon see him again. I was certain that he would not hold it against me if I explained to him what had happened, in fact he would probably find it very amusing. I had only ever had kindness and goodness from him. He had been one of the four poets (the others were Gyula Takáts, István Vas and Sándor Weöres) to write a joint card greeting and encouraging me, the unknown provincial poet, on the publication of my first volume of verse. That had been in 1939. As I spent 1941 and 1942 in hospital and sanatorium we did not meet all that frequently, but he had accepted me at first sight with affection and friendship, did not make me feel the superiority of the acknowledged poet, but looked on me as a member of his poetic generation. I remember one evening when he, István Vas and I went to hear Vilma Medgyaszay perform for the first time after a long interval. On one of the last occasions that we met, in the spring of 1944, he invited me to visit him at home, and spoke of a board game that we would play. “You’ll see, it’s just the game for poets!” he said. The visit, unfortunately, did not materialise.

That is all that I can say of the only verse-forgery of my career. Only the outcome can justify an ethically questionable act, but on this occasion what I did proved superfluous. As we later found out, the poetry that Radnóti wrote in Bor was in Budapest by February 19455 and in safe hands. I am not blaming myself, nor making excuses. I am only trying to forestall any possible future misinterpretation, because blind fate gladly causes complications even when it has to rake up for the purpose a solitary copy of a text that has been gathering dust in a single library.

 

Translation by Bernard Adams

 

(First published in Kortárs, 1975, No. 5, pp. 771–773; In: In memoriam Radnóti Miklós. Erőltetett menet [Forced March]. Ed. Pál Réz, Nap Kiadó, 1998, pp. 374–378 and Hetedik Ecloga, ed. Béla Pomogáts, Nap Kiadó, 2010, pp. 94–98.)

 

Notes:


1 Temesvár (Timișoara) is now in Romania, but has a large Hungarian population.

2 The final section of the steep road: an allusion to the title of Radnóti’s last volume of verse, Meredek út [Steep Road].

3 “See, it is evening, and captivity
is one day shorter, as is life.
The camp
lies sleeping. On it shines the moon,

whose light reveals again the wire’s restraint,
and through the window I can see the guards
casting their weapons’ shadows on the wall
as they patrol amid the sounds of night.”

(Tr. Bernard Adams, Slavonic and East European Review, January 1967, pp. 73–74.)

4 “… appear and re-appear, their bayonet points agleam.” (Tr. Bernard Adams.)

5 Radnóti’s wife Fanni mentions “the two wonderful poems cut out from Déli Hírlap” in her diary for 21 and 25 February 1945 (see pp. 428 and 432 of vol. 2 of her Napló [Diary], pub. Jaffa Kiadó, Budapest, 2014). The manuscript had been taken from Bor to Temesvár by Sándor Szalai. Radnóti’s remains, together with the famous Notebook containing his very last verse, were discovered at Abda, near Győr, only in late June 1946, some eighteen months after his death.






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