Tuesday, October 01, 2013

Miklós Szentkuthy: Black Renaissance, Doctor Haydn, and Prae

The cover of the first edition of Prae (1934)
Picture source

This will be my final post devoted to notes and quotes on the Hyperion issue devoted to Miklós Szentkuthy (pdf version is here)…

Filip Sikorski’s “Introductory Remarks on Miklós Szentkuthy’s Prae provides a synopsis of the novel, looks at its main themes, investigates how it can be read non-linearly, and explores Szentkuthy’s narrative technique. “Miklós Szentkuthy: Prae” by Antal Szerb, was one of the few complimentary reviews of the novel at the time of its release. Szerb believed the novel to be a “curious stranger” causing bewilderment in the reader but also decided

There has not yet been a Hungarian book as intelligent as Prae. It skips lightly, playfully, ironically and in incomparably individual fashion around the highest intellectual peaks of the European mind. It will become one of the great documents of Hungarian culture that this book was written in Hungarian.

There are more articles in Hyperion on Prae in French and Slovakian. I’m not going into more detail on the articles in English, saving comments about them for the release of the novel over the next two years by Contra Mundum Press. I’m looking forward to those releases.

In my earlier post on Szentkuthy and masks one of the essays covered was on the Mozart biographical fantasy. Szentkuthy wrote four more of these self-portraits in masquerade, using Haydn, Goethe, Dürer, and Handel to explore themes of culture and history. The fragment from the end of Szentkuthy’s Doctor Haydn (translated by Tim Wilkinson) leaves me wanting more from the novel. It’s very short and well worth checking out. If this is representative of his biographical self-portraits, I hope they are planned for translation.

Fejezet a szerelemről (1936)
Black Renasissance
Picture source

Nicholas Birn’s article ”Startling Dryness: Szentkuthy’s Black Renaissance provides an introduction to the novel. Birn highlights the contradictions that fuel Szentkuthy’s writing as well as Hungarian history, at once both a part of and alien to Europe.

In Black Renaissance, the second volume of his massive mega-treatise-cum-roman flueve called the St. Orpheus Breviary, Szentkuthy explores two infrequently examined but constitutive ironies of European civilization: that its sources are the only partially compatible legacies of Athens and Jerusalem (a paradox perfectly captured in the very idea of “St. Orpheus”), that its sources were about equally from the Byzantine East and the Latin Catholic West of the former Greco-Roman world, and that the very centuries in which European culture was solidified were also centuries of instability, barbarism, and histories which the mainstream Eurocentric really prefers to avoid. (228)

The first part of Black Renaissance, as Birn describes it, lays out a 500-year progressions using Tiberius / Theodora / Dunstan, Sylvester, István (Stephen) / Brunelleschi / Szentkuthy (and us) as the stepping stones for the passage of time. Don’t worry if you don’t recognize all the names…Birn explains it well. The hinge is near the year 1000 CE, when Hungary “converted to Christianity under the leadership of its king, St. Stephen (Szent István) and as guided by Pope Sylvester II.” Birn doesn’t say it but I think it’s implied that the saint, a study of which is provided at the beginning of each volume in the Breviary, is Saint Dunstan (if anyone knows, please confirm or correct me if I’m wrong). Szentkuthy makes Dunstan, effectually a prime minister at times, much more of a sensual and rebellious figure than history describes. Before him is Tiberius and Theodora, Szentkuthy basing much of their stories on Robert Graves’ historical novels (I, Claudius for Tiberius, Count Belisarius for Theodora). Szentkuthy admired and met Graves and although he uses ancient figures, his fiction brings a modern approach and sensibility to their times. (As Birn puts it, “Szentkuthy’s Tiberius and Theodora are not only Gravesian but also above all British.”) He also notes “Szentkuthy portrays people, but they are personalities, not characters”.

This seems to hold true for the second section of the novel which centers on Filippo Brunelleschi, a long section of which can be found at this link, translation provided by Tim Wilkinson. A few more quotes from Birn’s essay before I turn to the excerpt:

Whereas the first section tries to formulate meaning in history, the black Renaissance of Brunelleschi finds at history’s heart naught but its inner meaninglessness. Brunelleschi, in his design and applicability, will not alienate his customer, who will not on the immediate level be able to see the pessimism Brunelleschi has ingrained into his creations. For them, the surface prettiness will be all. (238)

The third section of the novel turns to poetry for a scherzo-like finish, including a “long monologue of a tutor to Princess Elizabeth Tudor (the future Queen Elizabeth I),” resuming “the Hungary-England analogy, as well as indicating the English Renaissance, with its asymmetrical excellence in literature but not in art or music, as, in its unbalanced jaggedness, another kind of Black Renaissance.” This sounds like a study on art and power, too (something Szentkuthy would be acutely aware of in the late 1930s when he wrote this).

So let’s take a look at the second section that can be found at the above link. The vantage point rapidly changes at times, from a young Venetian to Brunelleschi to Pope Sixtus IV to an unidentified “I.” The young Venetian, Monteverdi, admires some of Brunelleschi’s work in Venice. Making matters more complicated is a sharing of names between some characters. The text quickly switches to Brunelleschi’s point of view and his fascination with a “mongrel Spanish-Arab boy” that was a fortune-teller, stargazer, and mathematician to the King of Naples. From this boy, Claudio, Brunelleschi learns many skills he will apply to his works. While this section is a pseudo-biography, it is more about fictional lessons and how he learned them rather than verifiable events in his life. For example, the stars that the Arab adolescent points out to him would find a reproduction in the cupolas of his chapels—the architecture of the universe was reproduced in Brunelleschi’s works. (“The point [star] was a symbolic marriage of mass and nothingness,” (256) something the young Venetian admires in one of Brunelleschi’s chapels.) Just as we can't fully grasp the universe when we look at it, so the artist harnesses his buildings to give the same feeling of inspired awe and difficult paradoxes.

Szentkuthy stresses a paradox of Brunelleschi’s art, weaving mathematical precision with instability and relativity to reflect a new reality. Geometric order and senseless acts coincide at the same time in the same place. “The expression of that duality is what in the Renaissance, above all in Florence, became commonplace.” (257) Paradoxes abound in Szentkuthy’s writing, where “boundless thirst and boundless gratification” (257) effortlessly coexist. My favorite section of this excerpt comes from a supposed letter from Brunelleschi to a patron that had asked him to illustrate Book One of Herodotus’ Histories. Brunelleschi struggles to describe the “essence” or “elements” that he is trying to depict versus what is happening on the surface. He demeans people that desire only reproduction: “But for anyone who likes reality above all else analysis is just a momentary adolescent illusion.” (264) The meaning lies beyond what happens as we see it. Brunelleschi's letter devotes a couple of paragraphs to the chair that Candaules’ wife would throw her clothes while Gyges looks on—how to depict such an insignificant detail so that it has meaning? It's absolutely beautiful.

I’ll include a few paragraphs that give a feel for Szentkuthy’s style and grace. Once again, from Brunelleschi’s supposed letter to the patron wishing to have Herodotus illustrated:

Herodotus is not history, not epic: Herodotus is picture, and Herodotus morality. If the catalogue of my plans tires you, throw it away; but I, my customer, am obliged to lay out on the counter the selection I can offer you.

I would like to paint on the ceiling of the domestic chapel a fresco depicting the excavations carried out by Pisistratus on the sacred island of Delos. For on Delos that Greek potentate announced a grand ‘purification,’ as prescribed by celestial portents, and he dug up the dead from the area around the temple and had them transported to quite another region. That is a topic! Resurrectionless resurrection, the hellish parade of “I don’t believe in the resurrection of the body”—all in a marvelous Delian landscape, a heap of previously dug-up dead bodies amid palms and parrots; carried in the arms of slaves like the abducted Sabine women; Hellene floozies on Saracen shoulders, Greek sages carried in the arms of Persian soldiers, Thracian despots on the backs of Jewish stall-keepers. Is that picture not to your taste?

I want to bore into the frescoes and statues of your villa to the very deepest of the inner meaninglessness of history. I want to formulate all my disappointments with startling dryness . Don’t worry! The connoisseurs will in any case fail to notice my pessimism in the picture—my disillusionment finds expression in such abstract formal tricks that they will not suspect my confession. This transport of the dead is an unforgettable historical lesson—all of that on an island: in a chosen nest of limitedness and narrow-mindedness. (269-270)

Since the patron Brunelleschi wrote this letter to was a friend of Sixtus IV the focus shifts to the thoughts of the (at the time) future Pope. Once again there are many contradictions and paradoxes that Szentkuthy applies in this section, appropriate for the changes Europe was undergoing in the Renaissance.

In an excerpt that has on its final page a mention of “a party rallying in Nuremberg” and a description of “the whole alkali-and-acid-Renaissance,” the question of what is meant by the use of “Black” in the title of the novel continually arises. Birn supplies his interpretation, which is supported throughout the excerpt. “Black” is meant

more as in the contemporary locution “black site”: something off-the-radar, sub toasa, illicit--the flip side of the official, neoclassicist, humanistic Renaissance. A more pessimistic Renaissance, a less officially classicist Renaissance, a more opulent one, one with medieval, Renaissance, baroque aspects, not simply rectilinear and perspectival?” (236)
Or, simpler put, “a more plural renaissance.”


Brian Joseph said...

Superb commentary on Szentkuthy.

Reading your commentary on the author and Prae this work does sound very appealing. I tend to love such experiential fare that touches on so many issues.

In addition I love the ruminations on the history and origins of European culture.

Dwight said...

I'm really looking forward to Prae's release, which unfortunately will be in two parts over two years. Still, I'm excited to see more of Szentkuthy's works planned for translation.

The only drawback I have found in what I have read of Szentkuthy is my ignorance on so much of what he touches on. Not that he points it out directly. It's as if he assumes simultaneously that you will and won't know what he is talking about. The flip side of that is I want to find out more about some of the topics and subjects he raises. "Marginalia on Casanova" makes me want to read the whole Life. Wait...that's a good thing, right?