Portrait – 4th October, 2006

Reports from a sinking world

On István Kemény

Portrait–4th October, 2006


At the mega-size fancy dress ball of “Budapest rock’n’roll” he created a costume combining the decadent components of the fin-de-siècle. He was in search of a world which makes its being conspicuous by its decline and disappearance.

Even though István Kemény is a contemporary poet, and a member of the younger generation, if we wish to discuss his poetry, we must position him in the context of literary history. It may seem odd to map out literary trends from the modest perspective of twenty years, however, latter-day Hungarian poetry is articulated by fault lines which deserve mention.

1961 for a date of birth is more than just a year in his biography: it is a central parameter in the birth certificate of an entire generation; indeed, of a whole culture. We are talking about people who spent their youth or, to put it more optimistically, became mature adults, during the 1980’s. This is the era which provided their determining cultural experiences, this is where the values they chose or rejected, the models they assimilated, came from. In Hungary, this decade was characterised by the confused and confusing games of cultural policy, by a neverending ride in a maze where it was no longer clear whether a particular work or author was banned, tolerated or supported by the regime. Increasing political freedom made life ever more unpredictable, while various alternative art forms (underground bands, folk dance groups, theatres, ateliers in the fine arts) created and expropriated an ever growing number of venues, similarly almost to the flares of the avant-garde movement of the 1960’s. There also existed certain intersections in between the illegal public space represented by minor groups which, by this time, identified themselves as part of the political opposition and the subcultures which were also shaping their sense of identity. This period is often referred to as one of détente, but the majority of its witnesses and actors did not have the perspective and the hope at the time to think ahead beyond the very short term. If we look at the period from the point of view of the author under discussion, the period appears more like one of permanent partying, of small circles of people in search for an experience of freedom.

The reason why all of this is worth considering is that there are a number of points where one could easily demonstrate mutual influences between the various arts. In terms of literature, we can certainly capture the presence, now apparent, now more like an underground river, of the lyrics of alternative bands. When we take the trouble to outline the age, this is not simply in order to fulfil the traditional dramaturgy of this kind of writing, or to create a neat tripartite unit; instead, we are trying to highlight the fact that in the 1980’s one of the central experiences for Hungarian intellectuals was the inability to grow up. To be sure, the problem applies to the totality of the Kádár era, particularly from the 1970’s onwards. Yet it was the 1980’s which, according to the bard of the era, Tamás Cseh, were “years wearing caps”, “all ten caps pulled down over the eyes”, years with white sticks in their hands. In the 1980’s, the need for autonomy and sovereignty was often articulated as a claim for eternal childhood or adolescence – an attitude of infantilism – as a token of freedom. (Witness lyrics by bands such as Balaton, Trabant, Bizottság etc).

The works of the fledgling poets of the age served to demonstrate as well as ventilate the above described conditions. István Kemény, however, is a man who chose a different path from the very beginning. At the mega-size fancy dress ball of “Budapest rock’n’roll” he did not appear dressed as a singer, a junkie or a prophet but created a costume combining the decadent components of the fin-de-siècle, with Endre Ady as a key note. He bypassed the “heroes” of his age. He also managed to circumvent György Petri who was then at the apex of his cult: Petri was perhaps the bravest iconoclast stripping away the last vestiges of any illusion about a national Hungarian poetry with a sense of mission. At the same time, he was the shining beacon of a particular type of attitude among the Hungarian intelligentsia: the type which was well past caring about a publicity controlled by bureaucratic means: a self-destructive but intellectually highly potent emblem. Finally, Kemény even managed to bypass the option still offered, in dying flickers, by the rural-minded trend, the collective myths sustained by László Nagy and Ferenc Juhász. And within this, that paternalistic poetics which watches with an anxious frown over the destiny of the nation and struggles with the demon of history. Nor did he want to be avant-garde. What he wanted was to find his way home to a different Hungary, one that may never have existed. He was in search of a world which makes its being conspicuous by its decline and disappearance.

The early volumes of Kemény’s poetry caused a positive explosion on the literary scene and, particularly, in the public space of the universities. His titles are revealing: Circular Staircase to the Forgotten Departments (1984), Playing with Poisons and Anti-Poisons (1987), The Art of the Enemy, a novella (1989), Themes from the film Rococo, short stories (1991). His poetic and prose forms revealed a need for a kind of classicism and, for a while, a new type of symbolism and sensibility. Besides, he was majorly influenced by the prose of Borges which – with its enigmatic, mysterious, unresolved situations – had such a massive impact on contemporary Hungarian prose as to be still discernible today. Kemény has never been a verbose author. As his poetic and prose-writing career progressed, his use of form became ever more boiled-down. This is what we encounter in his works today, too. The process began long ago, in the volumes Silent H, Cold, and Something about Blood. The way in which he increasingly involved the use of everyday vernacular language invokes the perspective created by Wittgenstein: words mean nothing in themselves, they assume their potentials through their usage. In his poems Kemény repeatedly makes us face up to the fragility of everyday language.

Reviewing the entire oeuvre it is particularly interesting to observe just what the author has shed over the past decades. Over and above everything else he has retained his elegance, but has become liberated from the sometimes mannered languidness of his spleen. He has loosened and expanded his linguistic boundaries but has retained his value system: his running commentaries from a sinking country and a sinking world still radiate a sense of loss. The points of departure and destination for each poem are more concrete and easy to grasp, and yet his works are not threatened by an over-didactic clarity. His is “civilian” talk, but always with a touch of something aristocratic: not pride so much as a bitter reserve. The ever-available option of resignation: the only valid and realistic chance left.

Kemény’s poetry gained fans as soon as its first words were spoken. People in the generation directly following found that it spoke to them and made Kemény their master. János Térey, Krisztián Peer, Zoltán Poós, István Vörös and Árpád Kun became his followers. Since that time each has become a poet in his own right. Kemény’s economic, short-spoken poetry, his thin volumes come at the even pace of deep breathing; slowly, but surely.

Lajos Jánossy

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