Prae, Vol. 1, by Miklos Szentkuthy (trans. Tim Wilkinson). $35.00, 788 pp. Contra Mundum Press.
Ever since its first publication in 1934, Miklós Szentkuthy’s Prae has continued to baffle generations of critics and readers alike. Regarded as a seminal work by some, dismissed as a pretentious monstrosity by others, Prae, Szentkuthy’s first work, was published when the Hungarian author was merely twenty-six years old.
To date, the book has never been translated in its entirety into any language, though excerpts appeared in French and Serbo-Croatian in the 1970s, and sections had been translated into German in the 1930s but were never published. It is quite an enterprise, then, on the part of Contra Mundum Press, to commit to publishing Prae, following two other works by Szentkuthy—Marginalia on Casanova and Towards the One and Only Metaphor—all three translated by Tim Wilkinson. For a translator, the sheer bulk of the book is daunting enough, not to mention its myriad stylistic idiosyncrasies: long, convoluted sentences, stunning metaphors and neologisms, the references to branches of learning as diverse as art history, physics, philosophy, and biology, as well as Latin and German phrases, often invented by the writer.
When it comes to writers of stature, comparisons used as advertising catchwords are usually more misleading than helpful, but to give an idea of what reading Szentkuthy may remind the reader of, I would say that he is Joycean in his masterful juggling of European culture in describing everyday life, Rabelaisian in his grotesque extravagance, Sterneian in his predilection for digression as a structural device, and Proustian in his keen and precise recording of sense impressions and their sediments in our mind. He is certainly similar to these authors in that he invariably evokes strong—positive and negative—impressions in his readers.
What are we to make of the title? It seems to indicate that the book is a mere introduction, a series of finger exercises, or notes towards what will then presumably be “the real thing.” That sounds like irony or false modesty, seeing that the two volumes run to 1,200 pages in the original Hungarian. Yet it is neither: one can certainly read Prae as a work of conscientious preparation for writing; or, indeed, as an anatomy of the writer’s trade.
To think of plot (and character development) in regard to a text like Prae is somewhat senseless, since plot and character have no priority in the book, being just two constituents among many, but whatever plot the book has is certainly meager—a summary of Prae is comparable in length to a summary of Ulysses or Finnegans Wake: Leville-Touqué, a French philosopher and editor of the journal Antipsyche, and two English students, Halbert and Anny, meet Leatrice, a Russian Jewish interior designer who works as a prostitute in a nightclub called The Perspective in Cannes, and discuss her plan to quit her job and start a new life. The novel, if one can call it that, is a proliferation of characters’ internal monologues; descriptions of landscapes, people and scenes; philosophical meditations on the theory of art, architecture, and society, as well as extended metaphors and similes. The book betokens an author who seems to have had more than the usual five senses, and an extremely acute consciousness which registered a thousand sparks of perception within a mere second, so the reader feels she has all her life been walking around deaf and blind. The overabundant metaphors and descriptions are at times revelatory, a glimpse of a true genius, though sometimes they can be absolutely maddening. A typical Szentkuthy metaphor is like a Baroque concetto, or conceit: the juxtaposition of far-fetched things that, seen together, cause great delight, or even a sense of sudden enlightenment.
Incongruity extends to point of view: there are constant, dizzying changes of perspective—the consciousness at work behind the text moves with animistic ease from man to statue, from plant to particle. Time is slowed down; proportions are monstrously distorted; cause and effect, tangible and intangible realities are subverted; and synaesthesia is rampant. All these devices are deployed to serve the same goal: not to leave the smallest minutiae of perception undescribed—from the mechanism of adolescent desire to an expression lingering pointlessly on a person’s face.
Amid this flow of material are perfect gems of stories, stunning descriptions of landscapes and people, and witty dialogue so chiseled and well-proportioned it could certainly stand its ground in traditional novels—business cards, as it were, dropped by the author to signal that he surely knows his trade and could write otherwise if he chose to.
However, it is neither well-rounded character nor a finely constructed plot that Szentkuthy is after in Prae, and neither is the book a novel of ideas. What is he after, then? One way to characterise Prae is as the enactment of perception and artistic expression. Life is viewed as an endless series of masks and metamorphoses—”the most primal principle of life is theatrical,” Szentkuthy writes in Towards the One and Only Metaphor. However, as things metamorphose into something else, they become even more themselves: when the eyelids around a woman’s black eyes are likened to beach parasols over a black powder compact, we feel they become even “more” eyelids and beach parasols, plus something else that has an even more powerful and, so to say, untameable existence than those aforementioned things. And that “plus” is artistic expression—form—if not the principle of life itself: constant form-making, metamorphosis. The “agents” of metamorphosis in Prae are mostly gentle, Ariel-like: there are lengthy descriptions of how light/darkness, silence/sound, sleep/wakefulness transform a scene or a landscape; how a person’s facial expression affects another person; how the beauty of a woman affects a man—hardly perceivable metamorphoses, similar to the transformation of the world in the hands of artists.
Prae, however, is also about inexpressibility: Szentkuthy likens artistic expression to the Catholic practice of confession—as the sinner pronounces the name of the sin, and the number of times he committed it, he immediately feels it is untruthful, simply because the realm of truth is so different from that of life, which is unrepresentable. And it is precisely this unrepresentability that Prae tackles, while admitting that the spark of reality itself falls away in the act of expression, with only words remaininglike smoke after the explosion of a firework in a “neutral horizon,” a no man’s land between truth and life. And behind the words—behind Szentkuthy’s hyperintelligent and hypersensitive prolixity—the cantus firmus (the pre-existent melody) is “No Word,” that is, inexpressibility.
But as much as Prae is about inexpressibility, it is also about the aching desire to find “the one and only metaphor,” expressing the root cause of all things, the desire for which, Szentkuthy claims, is as likely to be found in the most tasteless dresses, buildings, or writings as in abstract concepts or numbers. As he puts it, “the most paradoxical sexual straying is also, in essence, a logical impatience of Platonism.”The world is not secretive, one of the book’s characters claims, “only at most it may sometimes speak quietly, in which case I move my ears a couple of centimeters closer and everything will be alright.”
Whether we regard Prae as mere raw material, disordered proliferation, or something more than that, depends on our expectations of form. Surely, Prae does not have a focus or a clear structure, and whatever plot it has is certainly slight (so much so that the reader, kept on a meager diet, starts to squirm in her seat with expectation and excitement at the first sign of a plot, like when Leville-Touqué notices a lost love letter floating in the water while walking toward another lover). This makes reading the book extremely challenging, often like cutting through a jungle. Yet it is by no means formless. Some critics have said about Prae that it charts the process of the workings of the human mind. However, take a passage like this: “The dawn quiet does not tolerate, so it seems, any sort of bungling dualism and sought to fuse Touqué into itself: he was ashamed of himself, just like when he attended a social gathering for the first time—here everyone was either a caryatid or a canal or a window shutter left open, according to the rules of etiquette—he alone was in human dress.” One surely cannot say that the human mind works like this; there’s a great deal of form-making here from the raw material of impressions, sensual and mental associations, and emotions.
On the whole, though lacking a clear structure, the book has a certain fractal nature—similar patterns, ideas, images, etc. are often reiterated on various levels. Natural phenomena are interpreted in terms of artistic intention; the structure of “the new novel” is imagined by the narrator with analogy to modern building, vector analysis, typographical solutions, and an aquarium (Chapter 5); or just take the title of this subchapter: “lessons of the coastal waves for the history of ideas, simile from the science of electricity: the separation of power and intensity; its appearance in fashionableness.” Szentkuthy discovers such analogous patterns in multifarious aspects and levels of reality. Nature, the history of ideas, sense impressions, the mechanism of desire, physics, architecture, fashion, nonverbal communication—these are some of the realms he most frequently visits, walking in and out of them and entering another with dizzying ease.
Indeed, Szentkuthy is second to none when it comes to squeezing a maximum of cultural information into a scene. Take, for example, the subchapter in chapter 8 entitled “the pedagogic Guignol commences”: who would have thought that an episode as banal as a woman calling a doctor could contain so much psychology, anatomy, sociology, as well as literary and religious allusions—all the minute movements, shifts of tone and attention are perceived with a keen eye and noted down effortlessly and with a sense of humor. One should note that his parallel interest in all these subjects, as well as his non-hierarchical treatment of them prefigures popular culture studies and cultural anthropology.
Apropos of cultural anthropology: there is something of the magic of pre-scientific consciousness in Szentkuthy’s similes and metaphors; he often looks at natural scenes as if he was the first man on earth, trying to make sense of the drama of nature with his limited means. Under the layer of early twentieth century European bourgeois consciousness there is an undercurrent of a more primordial—at times savage, almost animalistic—gaze: the inorganic quality of a new dress on a woman reminds the narrator of masks used in tribal dances; the movement of the muscles of a woman in stilettos is described as a mini-drama between nature and culture. There is nothing naïve about this gaze; if anything, it is eminently modern in its clairvoyance about how easily the veneer of civilization can and does strip off of humans, in spite of sophisticated efforts to the contrary.
Though there are some weak moments of sententiousness (which can be put down to age—twenty-somethings, especially if they are as bright as this author, tend to be more sententious than when they get older and wiser), Szentkuthy certainly does not lack a sense of humor, and many of the descriptions and dialogues are extremely funny and witty. Somewhere in the book he describes one of Prae’s characters, or rather, the gesture of that character, as that of “a magician in whom there is something of the chic of self-irony,”and this description is actually quite fitting for Szentkuthy himself. He wrote just as he talked in life: effusing and pontificating, gesticulating widely, then suddenly stepping back, mocking his own gesture, or changing to a hush, only the eyes gazing and moving intently—all in all, giving the impression of a clown or a jester.
Perhaps the main reason why Prae remains such a hard nut to crack is that it certainly challenges our reading habits in more ways than one. Over a period of half a century, Szentkuthy wrote a cycle of ten novels entitled St Orpheus Breviary. Apart from the irony in the title, treating his works like “breviaries” certainly makes sense as a way to approach Szentkuthy’s works: they can be perused in a way monks and priests use their breviaries, rather than read in a linear fashion and at a steady pace. One needs to slow down, and then slow down even more, to read his sentences. In this sense, reading Szentkuthy in our speedy age is untimely but therapeutic: like a long walk in a forest or by the sea, it reminds us that we should live more slowly and attentively.
There is another way in which reading Prae is a peculiar experience. After working her way through those endless pages about a thousand ways of perceiving a gesture, a wrinkle in a dress, a habit, or an idea, the reader finds herself resonating with landscapes and works of art in completely new ways, and much more strongly. (This is certainly my experience as a reader, and when I shared it with some other people who have read Prae,they immediately knew what I was talking about.) In a way, then, reading Prae can be compared to training, say, for a martial art—while training, you sometimes feel that all you do is scream and sweat and kick and jump, but it eventually leads to an altered consciousness. In this sense, Prae is not only a preparation for writing but also a preparation for living. All those painstaking descriptions and endless variations add up to something unique: the recording of the genesis of expression, charted in extraordinary complexity. Reading Szentkuthy certainly requires dedication, and perhaps sometimes forgiveness, but it is ultimately deeply rewarding.
Ágnes Orzóy is the editor of Hungarian Literature Online and editor-at-large at Asymptote.
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