The Hungarian Spring Festival of 1991 invaded Santa Barbara with a burst of cultural energy: our local Symphony conducted by the illustrious Yehudi Menuhin played Kodály’s Háry János Suite; the Art Museum displayed major works by a large number of early 20th century Hungarian artists; a scholarly conference was held, arousing, as was to be expected, strong feelings among academics; a poetry reading by the late, great, and widely lamented actress Éva Szörényi was held in an estate in Hope Ranch; and in a small gallery, now a realtor’s office, perhaps the most unexpected examples were to be seen: a good selection of the two- and three-dimensional works of Peter Meller. Professor Meller was known only as a highly regarded Art Historian at the University of California in Santa Barbara, but this show gave glimpses of his almost secret life as an artist in his own right.
The nature and quality of his work was so fully and accurately and sensitively described by Professor Robert Williams of the UCSB Art History Department in the March 2013 issue of this Review, that I can do no better than refer the reader to that superbly illustrated essay. I have discussed my initial luck in discovering Petőfi’s János Vitéz on the walls of the Erzsébet Hotel’s János Pince in 1987, both in the Corvina Press first edition of my translation, John the Valiant, and elsewhere, and explained my desire to make an English verse translation of it, despite my lack of Hungarian, after reading a merely serviceable prose version. My next stroke of good fortune was to meet Marta Egri-Richardson in the 1991 Santa Barbara Hungarian Festival, when I was asked to help her smooth down some rough translations of poems by, as I remember, Babits and Kosztolányi. These were to be read in Hungarian at the aforementioned Hope Ranch estate by Éva Szörényi; our translations were to be for the enlightenment of any English-only listeners.
During our sessions I mentioned to Marta Egri my interest in János Vitéz. “I love it!” she exclaimed (a sentiment almost every Hungarian I have met would echo), and after I had produced an awkward first draft, for a couple of years we faxed stanzas between London and Santa Barbara, Marta annotating and improving my efforts. As she grew too busy with other matters, I continued working over my English until I had a presentable version.
One of the first readers I presented it to was Peter Meller, with the presumptuous suggestion that he might like to provide a few illustrations – “on spec”, as they say, because I had no contract as yet. The few grew into thirty magnificent works of the illustrative imagination, which were accepted by Corvina Press, turning our 1999 bilingual edition into a visual treasure. (And they were printed again in Corvina’s German edition of “JV” and possibly others.) The techniques Peter employed were a closely guarded secret, which has finally been explained by Professor Williams in his Hungarian Review article, which follows the text and appropriately idiosyncratic layout of his monograph, The Zodiac of Wit: Peter Meller and the Graphic Imagination, published in 2012 by the Art, Design and Architecture Museum of UCSB.
The release of that book was accompanied by a double-barrelled showing of Meller’s works, in the main Gallery on campus, and, in town, at the Jane Deering Gallery. I was among the local poets invited to contribute and read poems at the latter opening. The others had all been Poets Laureate of Santa Barbara, but I had known Peter better and could speak more personally. My contribution was the trio of poems here presented.
On Peter Meller’s Self Portrait at Fifteen (1938)
Audacious? Confident, this young Hungarian. Steadfast and serious, the face is a young man’s not a teenager’s. He has already seen plenty of Intimations of Mortality while aiming to extend his name beyond his lifetime, as he has done by dint of wit and work.
The portrait shows he’s ready to meet the world and let it feel his force. Measure it he did, although the world threw him in the first round, Arrow-Cross Nazis tailing him to school; that glare’s for them. Next round, the Russians threw him, he wriggled free, hid in a snowy ditch with his young daughter, escaping to The West.
Italians gave him part-time jobs, and he loved Italy, but then UCSB offered a princely seeming sum to live on. He flew in, settled in, and looked around: This a University? Well, maybe he could help make it one by over-teaching these Gauchos what a Gaucho ought to know, the History of Art.
Meanwhile, at night, he stamped and whited-out, Xeroxed and markered thousands of images. His portrait was prophetic, foresaw calamities soon to be known, as History would tie all Europe down.
Too easy to be negative. Hungary’s troubles have so much darkness in them that it bubbles over in wild, extravagant, mocking wit: self-mocking. Peter’s art survived on it, he, on his art, which we can take to heart as well as mind: the “Buddhist Monk Going Home” asks us: How many rungs more to climb? To what unearthly spiritual height? Eleven to the top of the sheet, young monk. Beyond, you’re on your own in that white space we call the edge of the Universe’s dark matter, both of which Peter imaged: light on dark, like a cappuccino in Malpensa Airport.
Just one more thing. When you write “Peter Meller” don’t call him “Art Historian and Artist,” but “Artist. And Art Historian. And Hungarian.”
Arriving in Italy,
Peter Meller’s first stop in Malpensa Airport was the espresso bar: “The best espresso in Italy” – which is to say, in Europe, the World, the Solar System, the Universe – into which he is now expanding at the speed of sight of all who went to see him off, and all who still see what he made to be seen – but later: too busy making more, to show them off until he’d finished making all of them, which he could never do because each day brought him another image to stamp as his, with one of his five thousand hand-carved stamps, doodled from office supply materials.
How the purveyors of White-Out, when he died, sighed their relief: “Meller’s been whited-out,” and closed down several factories. And Xerox stock dropped seven notches in the Market. The Sharpie makers filed for Chapter XI.
Now he inhabits his cardboard villages, address him: Poste restante, Pisolino, meaning Siesta. He’s taking a long snooze.
Ah, Peter! How often we saw each other, how little we talked – your reticence a match for mine – a match that lit when we scratched it on János Vitéz, which you made all your own with thirty pictures, while I did what I could to English it. That book we made together is more yours than mine: the eyes hold onto images better than ears do words.
So, in my mind’s eyes, you stand in coat and necktie always, smiling shyly and slyly, exiled from Hungary to a busy Pisolino in our cardboard culture. Leaving, you lift one eyebrow, as if to say, Arrivederci! Viszontlátásra!
Peter Meller’s Old House on the Danube Bend
(Scenario for a documentary film)
A camera from the heavens pans upstream along the Duna laden with tourist boats, to the Danube Bend, a double crick in its neck like our local Zoo’s beloved giraffe, then zooms down on a hillside: many summer homes.
Focus on one house Peter Meller’s father, Dezső, the architect, built. They lived in it through World War Two. Peter designed a lamp, wrought iron, his brother’s monogram: who forged it and, picked up by the Russians, died in Russia.
Through a sequence of ingeniously contrived and uncontrived snafus, a friend is driving my wife and Peter up a narrow road to Peter’s house. Peter is protesting:
“The Russians forced its sale at a low price, then commandeered and trashed it. It would be, for me, too painful seeing it after that.”
But at the top of the drive, the small sedan is stuck. Only continuing to the house could it be turned around. Too close for Peter’s comfort, when, as if being conjured up, the present owner stands like a genie offering help, which gratefully is accepted through the driver’s rolled-down window.
“Thank you, and by the way, this gentleman helping John Ridland’s wife to push the car is Peter Meller, whose father built this house.” “You must come in. Come in. Please do come in”, the present owner urges so politely Peter, the soul of politeness, cannot refuse. The house is charming: comfortable, spic and span, a perfect country place, and Wonder of Wonders! (as Petőfi wrote at the end of John the Valiant), the house has been restored meticulously to its original state. Even the lamp of wrought-iron freshly painted hangs from the ceiling.
When Peter tells the owner he designed it, further amazement: the owner says, “We kept it for the initials – they’re the same as my wife’s.” She and my wife are crying with joy. Then someone notices: “A Menorah!” So they are Jewish, as Peter’s father was. Some seventeen family members perished in the Camps.
Meller has found his home, with a bit of luck from Heaven – Jewish Heaven, everyone’s Heaven.
To celebrate, they drive to the nearest town, Szentendre, to eat Peter’s favourite treat, Lángos, heavy pancakes, deep-fried, indelicate delicacies. The driver and my wife split one, while Peter eats two – one each, sweet and savoury. Next day he says, a little sheepishly, they’d kept him up all night.