Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Hyperion Volume VIII, No. 1: an excerpt from Miklós Szentkuthy's Prae

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

Continuing on with articles from the current Hyperion issue (mentioned here, there is a lengthy excerpt of the third chapter of Contra Mundum Press' upcoming release of Miklós Szentkuthy's Prae, translated by Tim Willkinson. In a post last fall I highlighted another Hyperion article by Filip Sikorski titled “Introductory Remarks on Miklós Szentkuthy’s Prae. Sikorski 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. Here is Sikorski's summary of Volume 1's third chapter:

In chapter 3, Touqué continues the monologue but abandons the analysis of desire and looks back into his childhood. In a series of flashbacks, he reminisces about his parents, his mother’s boutique in Cannes, his mental illness and a stay in a clinic, a morning in Cannes when he was sent to fetch a dress from the boutique to the seamstress, and another morning when he observed the Riviera landscape from the window of his bathroom. Touqué’s memories are interrupted by one more italicized passage, the Third Non-Prae-diagonal, in which a woman named Yvonne calls her lover to cancel their rendezvous because she is going to confession.

Leville-Touqué is "a French philosopher, writer, and editor-in-chief of a periodical called Antipsyché." Not all of the summary makes it into the excerpt but most does and it provides fun, challenging reading. The Non-Prae-diagonals mentioned are italicized passages expressing inner experiences. Even though this is the third chapter, Sikorski argues "that the novel is composed out of loosely connected segments and therefore it can be read in a non-linear way." WIth the little bit of introduction in this post the reader should be able to follow along through most of the excerpt.

Additional reading of Sikorski's summary of the novel will help fill in a few gaps but I don't believe it's necessary for the full enjoyment of Szentkuthy's style, his inventive comparisons, and his encyclopedic references. If you have never read anything by Szentkuthy this would be a good introduction. Here's just one sentence, an aside, in case you need prodding to read it (or proof that you don't want to touch his work):

(Because clumsiness is just as important a factor as the Protean bogeyman of instinct or the contrary extreme of stylization: that ought to insert between a Parca-visaged automatism of sincerity and a goddess grown into a permanent mask a bit of ersatz mythology from the Guardian Spirit of Stupidity, who plays a role as a positive inspirer and stylistic creator in life, reaching such concrete boundaries that it is all but impossible to treat it merely as an internal mental property.)

If you are interested in Prae, be sure to read an excerpt from the 1983 interview Szentkuthy gave to literary historian Lóránt Kabdebó at Hungarian Literature Online. (These series of interviews were later published in book form.) The excerpt from the interview addresses some of Szentkuthy's sources and inspirations for the novel. Several snippets I wanted to share:

  • During my university years, I read the German existentialist philosophers whom I… caricatured! let’s say. Heidegger, Husserl, Jaspers, and what have you. So I had a good chuckle at those who supposed (still suppose) that I am rooted in German philosophy of that kind. Quite the reverse: I was parodying real-life existentialist philosophers (and some I made up). For instance, I invented the title of one of those philosophical works: Einleitung in die reine Undheit (‘An Introduction to Pure And-ness’).
  • He [Proust] had demonstrable influence here and there. I am a hypersuperultraimpressionist, and instead of writing short stories, essays, small-scale and grand drama, aphorisms, fragments of memoirs, short novels, etc., out of my fantasies: I had always wanted to weave the fantastic thoughts and thousand impressions of my ‘Proust trauma’ of 1926 into the composition of a single giant work.
  • I read Joyce in 1931; I’ve already related the circumstances in which I did, so here let me just note that the essence of the Joyce connection was his most minute observation of the most mundane reality and, at the same time, the most pyrotechnical mythological games — that duality is flesh and blood to my own psyche and nature: hypernaturalism and simultaneously a luxuriance of fantasy.
  • With regard to the style and stock of similes in Prae, the strongest influence was not Proust or even Joyce, but — my mathematical studies.
  • Back then the Einsteinian view of the world and quantum mechanics were novelties for me and for others. Atomic physics was not so much in fashion as it became. I therefore did read through and study the works of authors who concerned themselves with it, and they had an extraordinary influence on Prae. Its stock of metaphors and logical progression would have been inconceivable without reading and experiencing the writings of those distinguished physicists and mathematicians.
  • Continuing with the spurs for Prae. At the time I read a lot of the works of Paracelsus, particularly because the medicine of antiquity — to the great disdain of many practitioners nowadays — had a strong influence on my own thinking about natural science. The whole universe and living human organisms form a material entity: to me that is extraordinarily exciting. De facto, of course, it does not hold water: the kidneys correspond to some chemical element, and that corresponds to some star — or what do I know? What it expresses globally, though, is the idea that somewhere there is a link between each of my organs, a chemical element, and the remotest nebulae — somewhere they are related. It can be established spectroscopically that the same materials are present as in this or that organ. What I like about Paracelsus, let me repeat, is that somehow he knew how to put over that the cosmic unity of the world. The idea of the material unity of the world also went into Prae!
  • One of the leitmotifs in Prae, partly on the basis of my travels, party gleaned from my readings, is Anglo-French rivalry. The difference between the two countries greatly exercised me. One of the protagonists is French: Leville-Touqué, the other an Englishman: Halbert. After the existentialist, sometimes nihilist, Latin-impish world of Leville-Touqué and Leatrice, etc., comes a humane, profoundly human meditation of Halbert’s father, an elderly English vicar. Prae’s lyricism is made perceptible through these two extremes.

"Witches Sabbath" (1510) by Hans Baldung Grien
Woodcut with tone block
Picture source at Web Gallery of Art
Used on the back cover of the second addition of Arc és álarc (Face and Mask), 1982

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