Portrait – 21st June, 2004

Dezső Tandori


Portrait–21st June, 2004


The poet whose first two volumes initiated a radical process of renewal within modern Hungarian poetry was born on December 8 1938. What we know about him is minimal: he was born and educated in Budapest, and was taught during his grammar school years by the poet Ágnes Nemes Nagy, who so to speak introduced him to literary society.

It was thus he became acquainted with Géza Ottlik and Iván Mándy when he was still very young. He read Hungarian and German at university, and met his wife Ágnes during his youth. He has lived in Buda since his childhood, in the very house, the very flat, where at one year old he received as a gift his teddy bear, Mr. Bubu.

We mention this bear because this eccentric poet consistently and categorically refuses to let any detail of his sentimental or emotional life, his marriage or childhood memories, become public. We know almost nothing of his parents and family. We don't know which political party he would vote for, and have no idea of whether and in what measure the change of regime has affected him. He doesn't let his readers know about his life: the only thing we know of him is the space he has created for himself, we know about his real dogs and toy bears, his many birds, the creatures he has allowed into his flat and surrounded with his love and care.

We know about his adored and much-sung sparrows, which he raised, cared for, and buried with his wife. We know of his passion for horses, we know that alternately he fiercely loves travelling and loathes the very idea of having to leave his flat, and that he is so adamant in keeping everybody out of his solitude that the only hours he spends in his beloved Budapest are at dawn, when the city's streets are almost totally deserted.

His first volume, Töredék Hamletnek (A Fragment for Hamlet), was published in 1968. It contains dense, concise poems of a philosophical depth, many still clearly bearing the imprint of János Pilinszky, but most following a totally new path. This volume attracted the attention of fellow poets and literary circles, and met with great success. After the publication of his second volume, Egy talált tárgy megtisztítása (The Cleaning of a Found Object, 1973), the young Tandori was acclaimed as the restorer of Hungarian poetry. With this second volume, full of playfulness, irony, heart-rending jokes and puns that wittily turned the Hungarian poetic tradition in derision, we were called to celebrate the glorious renewal of lyrical space.

After this, Tandori created his own vital space: his volumes contained either poems about his reading experiences, creating thereby some kind of private artistic mythology, or else verse describing segments of his birds' life, a closed, artificial world, the micro-climate of life and death, a space of love and care from which the human being as an individual worthy of love is completely excluded. It was in fact then that Tandori's image as an eccentric poet emerged; it was then that his readership branded him as incomprehensible. Yet this peculiar bird-universe, tormented, distressed, threatened by death and illuminated by small joys as it is, is in fact a mirror of the outer world.

From the end of the 1970s on, Tandori also wrote children's verse, and even published a novel for young people. The principal characters of his poems are mostly teddy bears, and his youthful readership much appreciates his mordant, misty, philosophic works.

Tandori has also produced some very original crime stories: bloody, serious, playful and gripping. Often they are a parody of the genre, mixing astounding lightness with extremely complex solutions.

Tandori's élan as a translator is legendary. He has rendered an astonishing amount of literary works into Hungarian, including Musil's The Man Without Qualities.

Tandori's exceptional talent has found expression not only in the way he transformed Hungarian poetry around the 1970s, and in his vast output produced in a wide range of genres, but also in the remarkable way he periodically renews his own poetic space. We need only mention his volume Koppar Köldüs, published in 1991, in which, through the use of word fragments, phrase scraps and fractions of unspoken sentences, he creates a fascinating, bewildering universe.

Tandori's 60th birthday was celebrated in 1998. Almost all Hungarian writers, poets, critics, essayists, composers, painters and graphic artists were present at the evening celebration of the event, and all brought a gift - a piece of writing or music, or a painting - to present to the Master. Another birthday surprise was an exhibition presenting the whole oeuvre of the poet-writer-translator, all the books he had written or translated: they filled an entire exhibition room.

Tandori has published again since. His lyric art has grown even more dense, lethal and wounded.

Among other awards, he received the Attila József Prize in 1978 and the Kossuth Prize in 1998.

Judit Ambrus


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