New work – 12th November, 2012

Miklós Mészöly: Death of an athlete (excerpts)

New work–12th November, 2012

New work

Miklós Mészöly: Death of an athlete (excerpts)

"Death of an Athlete" is a 1961 novel by Miklós Mészöly, one of the most significant prose masters of Hungarian literature of the second half of the 20th century. The novel was first published in French in 1965 and was translated into many languages. The following excerpts are from the first edition of the novel in English translation, to be published soon by Bluecoat Press.

“Faster, higher, longer”

(Nikolay Ozolin, the recorder)


In point of fact, the State Sports Press asked me to compose some sort of memoir about his life—not long and, above all, not too technical. The technical aspects, they said, could safely be left to them, it being anyway rather shaky ground. Ticklish. A whole gamut of aspirations and ruffled sensitivities, club and individual jealousies. They wanted something different from me. They dropped a heavy hint that they would like to see the book being given a title like “Lyrical Memoir of an Athlete Outside Competition,” or something similar. A person who never wrote, only lived, can easily be hoodwinked by those kinds of reservations, can believe that what is at one’s fingertips is as good as on paper. I don’t kid myself. It’s getting round to eight weeks that we found his body in Firestone Valley on the Vlădeasa Massif in Transylvania. He had fallen on his face among smouldering pine logs, and from early morning until late in the evening a blazing sun glared on the nape of his beck. Festoons of Formica rufa, the big European red ants or southern wood ants, had settled under his singlet like the stitching of some secret tattoo. He had on the same black-and-red track shoes as at the competition in Prague at the end of the summer. Those are facts. Yet I know the paper will not be more docile as a result; indeed, it seems to have become even more resistant and mistrustful.

I seriously think that the only person who can be truly objective is one who also has good reason to be biased. There is always a touch of weakness in true understanding. That kind of thing does not go down too well these days, of course, being judged a cowardly line of thought. But women are well aware that this is not so; the case is otherwise. One thing is for sure: this is not the book that I would like to write about him—more an irresolute collection of data in order to finally get to know the person I lived together with for ten years; the man, the adolescent, the boy—all together. Men never manage to break away, once and for all, from one period of their life or other. They carry everything around with them as if, for some reason, they were in constant need of all of it, though it is also possible that it is us who need it. All I know is that if I were to be reborn I would want him to be my son. Maybe as a mother I would be able to be more humble about tolerating someone living beside me whom I love more than anything else but who equally does not truly live beside me or beside anyone else. Not that I, the lover, lacked humbleness either.

When we first came across him on Vlădeasa the blue enamel stopwatch was on him I had the job of forcing his fingers apart and recovering it; I recall I sweated a lot before finally managing it. When it slipped out of my grasp I was seized with such dread that for minutes on end I was unable to open my eyes. In the end Old Man Luka, the caretaker for the kabana, leaned over next to me and pulled me down onto the ground but meanwhile holding out the palm of one hand under my hand, counting on my dropping the curious, coloured stopwatch. I did not drop it. I stared fixedly, thinking that when he had fallen on his face the reset button must have been pressed because the hands were at zero. As a result it was impossible even to guess what distance he had covered in those last minutes. Wherever Bálint trained, whether on cinder track or cross-country, he never omitted to keep a check on the time. For my par I was so familiar with lapses of time that he set himself for covering any given distance that I was able to keep track from that alone. But the index hands stood at zero.

All that happened barely two to three weeks after we had returned home from Prague. That Prague meeting was the last one in which he participated, though even that was just half-heartedly. In the semifinal he left his competitors standing with the ease one had come to expect, but then quite unexpectedly did not take the starter blocks in the final. Our pleas were futile; threatening him with disciplinary action, unavailing—it was no use. He dug his heels in; the harder people tried to persuade him the more politely he ignored them. I already knew him: it was the sign that he had already reached a decision for good and all. He withdrew quietly into a corner of the dressing room and watched with great attention the gymnastics of one of our young sprinters. Bartosi was going through exactly the same movements as Bálint himself between getting dressed and stripping off. There was nothing odd about the exercise: he casually raised a flexed knee up to waist level, even leaning a bit towards it, before supply stretching the leg in front. Whether putting on or stripping off his tracksuit bottoms, that movement fitted in naturally with the operation of changing clothes.

I noticed that a wry smile was playing around his lips as he watched Bartosi. The latter himself noticed that he was being watched; he became flustered, and (inasmuch as one could tell on his-tanned face) I think he blushed.

Neither of us said anything, however.


The Cul-de-Sac of Sport (appendix to Death of an Athlete)

In our world the concept and practice of sport have gone to rack and  ruin, been emptied, defrauded. It is not only in the much-cited Greek sense that we no longer have any feeling or need for it, but we have also forgotten about the spirit and aims of the first ‘modern’ Olympic Games. The more archaic significance and meaning of sport would strike us as almost ridiculous if one were to bring it up among sports fans. In its original signification and practice, sport was a contest, which, both intentionally and unintentionally, transubstantiated the competition of life itself into a game—except it was ferocious. The merciless dynamism of life was a sublimated form of the ancient instinct to gain the upper hand. As a result, it is also a school of the psyche—at least what we know about it. The Greeks were alive to it; indeed, they also  took care (later on symbolically as well) not to celebrate a nameable person in victory but victory as such. Similarly with a still living rite: in the elevation of the host, for example, what counts is not the priest who raises the chalice but what he raises. I find it marvellous that in the oldest Olympic contests, for instance, the only representation one was permitted to make of the victor was a tiny, almost distorted statuette with unrecognizable features, and the prize was always symbolic, of pointedly immaterial value. Subsequently the dimensions of the statuettes were enlarged, but the sketchiness and impersonality survived for a long time. When the dimensions of the permissible statuette started to approach life-size, it still remained the rule that it should not (or just barely) exceed actual life size, and recognizability was only permitted in a highly stylised form. Incidentally, that also had an impact on the singular transformation of Greek sculpture: the fine harmony of the personal and the impersonal. They were still able to conceive of a champion not as someone whose personal achievement but as someone in whom the human achievement needed to be commemorated. That of universal man. The situation nowadays is almost sick, schizophrenic, unappetising. In the direct sense of the word, it is not a question of we ourselves doing anything for our own ability to compete being elevated to a game; instead, we breed spectacular sportsmen who act in our stead and drive themselves in our stead, for us then to marvel at them and celebrate them like well-trained machines. There is no question of body and soul; it is a matter of business, blind pressure, well-paying receptions and the like. We are familiar with this, along with all its scandals. We even wish to find gods among them—once they have been shot down from our sky. One has to be stuck somewhere. Let him be the champion; a sports diva. That is putting it somewhat  radically, but in essence it is what I think about the kind of sport which is in fashion today. In Death of an Athlete the archaic meaning of sport was what I was attracted to and interested in; it was  on that account I chose the main protagonist and subject. To be very honest, it was not purely on an appealing  whim that as the epigram for my 1968 novel Saul I selected a Biblical quote which relates a big parable in sporting terms and similes. No, it was done very deliberately. Sport without a soul is nothing. As is a soul without sport. All one has to do is put in place the words, the sense and practice of the words.

(Extract from A pille magánya [‘The Loneliness of the Moth’]. Pécs: Jelenkor Kiadó, 1989, p. 221-222)

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