A little over a year ago I paid him a visit in his home in America. “Just tell the driver ‘Valley Forge Memorial Chapel’, and I’ll meet you in front of the church”, John Lukács had instructed me on the phone. I steeped myself in the history of George Washington’s battered and dejected army, which waited out the winter of 1777–1778 in this area, cold and famished in the searing cold, while the English wined and dined heartily in well-heated rooms in Philadelphia. (Incidentally, it was in the same year, in 1777, that the first permanent university in Hungary moved from Nagyszombat, today Trnava in Slovakia, to Buda.) That winter proved long enough for von Steuben, a Prussian officer, to make a proper army of Washington’s men, just as a new coach whips a flagging team into shape, which would stand firm in the Battle of Monmouth by the Delaware River in June of 1778.
Lost in contemplation over the annals of history, I soon found out in the cab that I’d have been served to study the map myself instead, as the driver obviously had problems with the directions from the start. The GPS of my new smart phone got us to the destination eventually, albeit at the cost of an astronomical roaming bill that would wait for me back in Budapest. In its dimensions and inspiration, the Memorial Chapel itself, built around 1904, turned out to be just as I had expected from the picture in my guidebook, with more than a passing nod to the Sainte Chapelle in Paris. Waiting for Lukács in the chilly November wind, I whiled away the time by gazing at a poster advertising the Chapel as the perfect venue for wedding ceremonies. Then I glimpsed a stylish sports car approaching rapidly on the winding road. I was hoping it would pass by the Chapel so that I may identify its make and model but the car instead pulled up by the curbright across the street from me, and John Lukács, wearing sunglasses, got out. Not to brag about my ignorance as an inveterate European, but this was the first time I had ever seen a Chrysler Sebring convertible.
It took no more than a handshake, and I was immediately captivated by that voice, powerful but warm and full of emotion rather than simply upbeat. Meeting Lukács is always an easy, no-frills affair, like entering a place by a two-winged door flung wide open. The Sebring had comfortable seats, a satisfying purr to its engine, and a conspicuous fuel gauge. “Nine years old”, Lukács said, almost apologetically. In a few minutes we arrived at his house, one of a group of buildings on airy grounds offering glimpses of a small river through the trees to one side. By the time I got my bearings, I had finished my first glass of Scotch in the spacious living room, furnished on the far end with a tall and deep armchair of the type my mother used to call a bergère (we had one quite like it), with a foot-rest the size of a pig, upholstered in magnificent lustrous brown leather; a white fireplace to one side with an old map of the Iberian Peninsula over it, but no books that I could see. We had downed a second drink, and I began to feel – not just under the influence of the alcohol – as if I were visiting a long-missed uncle bombarding me with questions about how things are going back home.
We had dinner in the open-plan kitchen, finishing a bottle of white Burgundy between the two of us. Sitting relaxed at the table wearing a blue mohair sweater, János gazed in the distance every now and then, lost in thought. Neither of us was in a hurry. We had a leisurely conversation in Hungarian. Later, when I started to feel uncomfortable in the straight- backed chair on account of my lower back, we stood up to have some Armagnac in what I was shocked to learn was where he worked: a large, sunlit two-story space communicating with the converted loft, with books as far as the eyes could see on shelves all around the walls, reaching all the way to the roof. Spiral stairs led up to the gallery, where you can sit down anywhere depending on the location of the book you want to read. “The Krúdys are all there”, Lukács raised his arm to point in a direction that could have been south. He had designed this library section as an organic part of the house, complete with all the details including a desk, a leather armchair and, turned with its back to the desk, a couch for meditation and, I suppose, an occasional nap. With its back to the desk, that’s significant. From the gallery, like a living conscience, a portrait of John Lukács himself stared down at the couch, with an air of subtle irony. The man was leaning against a shelf as we talked about various people (I won’t name names), about Hungarian emigration after the war and in 1956, and Churchill, discussing possible causes behind his continued currency and popularity, and of course about Krúdy, whom Lukács ranks among the greatest novelists ever. We leafed through a few pages of a great book written by his son Paul on the history of wine, but I resisted the temptation to see what he had to say about the wines of Hungary. All along I felt enveloped in János’s subtle love, tactfulness and infinite riches of wisdom about life. This man knows everything and everyone.
Then we got into the Sebring and he whipped us back to the Chapel. It was a fast ride, but I felt safe. The wind had grown colder and sharper, preventing a protracted, affectionate farewell, and the cab had already been waiting at the bottom of the steps. Seeing my tie, the driver asked me politely if the business meeting had gone well. I said yes, thinking, “You got lost on the way here, and now you don’t understand a thing”. How could I explain to him I had just met a man whom I want to be like when I grow up? Like John Lukács, who recently turned 90.
Translation by Péter Balikó Lengyel