Len Rix has translated the complete novels of the Hungarian author Antal Szerb for London’s Pushkin Press. His most recent translation, Szerb’s The Queen’s Necklace, was published in September. Rix has also translated from the Hungarian Tamás Kabdebó’s A Time for Everything and Magda Szabó’s The Door, receiving the the Oxford-Weidenfeld translation prize in 2006 for his The Door.
Paul Morrow: You note briefly in the Afterword to your translation of Journey by Moonlight that you only became aware of that novel—and indeed of Szerb— when a Hungarian friend pressed the book upon you. You omit the telling detail that at that time you did not yet know Hungarian. What was it like learning the language through Szerb, and at what point did you decide to translate him?
Len Rix: I had in fact been teaching myself the language for about a year, so by the time I was given the book I had mastered the grammar and acquired a vocabulary of several thousand words. But of course I had a long way to go, and this proved a very interesting method. One problem with self-teaching is that words memorized in vacuo is that they remain a bit abstract and are easily forgotten. Encountering them in the more vital context of a novel—especially such a witty and moving one as Journey—provides a powerful reinforcement, and of course shows usage, as opposed to simple “meaning.” So I would certainly recommend it.
The decision to translate Szerb made itself. The first few pages of the novel inspired such a trust in the writer I “knew” at once it would prove a masterpiece, and when I found it had never been translated into English, it was a challenge I could not refuse. This was some time in 1990. Luckily for me, the friends who first lent me the book showed my early efforts to the poet and novelist Tamás Kabdebó, He gave me every encouragement. He even wrote to Szerb’s ageing widow, whom he knew personally, to recommend me as a translator. But that’s another story.
The same friends, Dr Béla and Livia Abrányi Szabó, took a close interest in the work, in fact they insisted on going through the first half, word by word, phrase by phrase, pouncing on the tiniest deviation from literal sense. This ensured that my first draft was squeaky-clean, from a literal point of view—in fact squeaky all round. For the next six or seven years I reworked it and polished it, weeding out flaws, not so much of literal meaning but of missed ironies, nuances and internal echoes. The construction of the novel is almost musical. Turning it into literary English was a learning experience in more ways than one—though I was by no means new to literary translation at the time.
PM: Journey by Moonlight met with considerable interest upon its publication, particularly for a work of literature in translation. Nicholas Lezard wrote in his review for The Guardian that he had “started urging it on friends, casual acquaintances, complete strangers.” I should add that he commends your translation, and at the end of his review even borrows a line from your Afterword. Did you—or anyone at Pushkin Press—anticipate such good press? How did the book’s success affect your view of yourself as a translator—a vocation to which, after all, you were rather late in coming?
LR: Pushkin’s remarkable proprietor Melissa Ulfane knew of the success the book was having in Italy, so clearly she had some hopes for it. I must say I was personally astounded, and thrilled, by the way first the reviewers and then the reading public took to it. I know Pushkin were equally delighted. They had spent years patiently bringing “obscure” European writers such as Stefan Zweig(!) to the attention of the British audience, without great reward. The scale of this novel’s success was a turning point for them, and it certainly changed a lot of things for me.
As for my self-image as a translator, I had by that stage (2001) already published my first book from the Hungarian. This was the novel A Time for Everything by Tamás Kabdebó, the writer I mentioned earlier. I could not have had a better “mentor.” He was enormously encouraging, and trusted me to make whatever technical changes I felt necessary for the best literary translation—things like punctuation, tenses, the sequence of phrases and sometimes even of whole sentences. The opening section of the book is a brilliant piece of literary impressionism, and it cried out for an imaginative rendering. The experience gave me a real sense of self-belief and a willingness to trust my instincts; especially as the book was well received.
But of course the critical reception of Journey by Moonlight was something else again.
It is true I was “late in coming”; to Hungarian, but not to the whole art and mystery of translation—something that fascinated me even in childhood. I had spent many years at school and my two universities working from French and Latin (the latter especially useful for decoding an agglutinative syntax!).
PM: How did you settle on the order of publication for the novels? Was there a sense that, after the “acknowledged masterpiece” (as you’ve referred to Journey), The Pendragon Legend might be of the most interest to an English-speaking (and more specifically, to an English) audience?
LR: In 1999 Pushkin originally wanted to publish the pair together: at that time they were the only two Szerb novels in print. I was the one who doubted whether The Pendragon Legend would have as great an appeal. I felt that the philosophical and psychological arguments would be too easily missed below the parodic cleverness of the surface—as has indeed rather proved the case. But Melissa kept faith with it, and I am very glad she did. The third novel, Oliver VII, was only reissued in 2006, after a long period of near-total neglect, so in that case we were responding directly to the event.
PM: One of the things I like best about your translations of Szerb’s novels is the Afterwords that you’ve written for each of them. These have become richer with each new publication, and in a way they’ve had to do so, since each novel published so far appears at first glance wholly unlike the ones that came before. Your remarks aim not at providing context or overcoming perplexities presented by the books’ different times and places but rather at showing that Szerb is in fact pursuing something like a coherent vision through all the various kinds of stories he tells. How did you first react to the novels you read after Journey, and how important was it for you to discover in them some kind of unity?
LR: There certainly is a coherent sensibility that links the novels (and permeates everything else he wrote), but whether this could be described as “pursuing a vision” I am less sure. There was nothing programmatic about Antal Szerb—he tried not to take himself too seriously.
But yes, the unity, the common core of preoccupations, and of sensibility, is there. It was something I discovered only as I worked through the two later novels. The little Hungarian criticism I had read certainly made no connection between either tale and Journey. It helped that my own practice, as a teacher and critic, had always been to look—in any piece of writing—for a central core, whether of “meaning,” sensibility or intention. You have to trust the writer to know what he is doing and assume it is in there somewhere. Once you examine the novels in this way, the internal structural elements fall into place, and the connections between all three become obvious.
PM: In those same Afterwords you also argue convincingly that Szerb’s novels, though highly engaged with the literary conventions and idiosyncrasies of his period, are not themselves period pieces. Could you please say briefly what it is you think Szerb adds to our understanding, as English-speakers, of his era?
LR: Szerb is unique in so many ways, a one-off, so utterly impossible to fit into literary-critical boxes, whether of genre or period, that I can understand why traditional criticism back in Hungary, with its obsession with categories and labels, despaired of him. He defies classification. Temperamentally, he is at once intensely idealistic and deeply disillusioned, an (apparently) lapsed Catholic with a strong sense of the mystical. He is fascinated by all forms of dishonesty and wickedness, but writes about them in an amused and benign way. He addresses deep philosophical issues in an irrepressibly playful manner. The way he juggles with different modes and genres within the same novel (Pendragon) is almost post-modern. And though his writing often involves an element of self-exploration and self-parody, the settings of the novels are wildly heterogeneous.
What also makes it difficult to assimilate him into a received notion of period is that he is so pan-European, so clearly at home with other national traditions. (Another reason for his neglect in Hungary is that he “never” writes about the country of his birth.) He greatly admired Goethe, while Oliver VII carries echoes of Feydeau, Pirandello, and late Shakespeare. In other ways, as I argued in the Afterword to Journey, his is in many ways an 18th-century cast of mind.
What does of course align him with the ’30s is his post-Freudianism—the interest in unusual states of consciousness—and his dismay at the failure of bourgeois civilisation to accommodate of our inner promptings and desires. It’s no surprise that the contemporary English writer he most admired was Aldous Huxley. But then the novelist he chose to translate was P.G. Wodehouse!
PM: I know that I am considerably affected, while reading Szerb’s novels, by my knowledge of the circumstances of his death: his refusal to flee Hungary and the Nazis despite opportunities and his eventual murder in a labor camp. There is something almost incredible about the fact that he published Oliver VII, a very light-spirited book, in 1942. You discuss the relationship between his art and the events at the end of his life quite astutely in the Afterword to that novel; what I’d like to know is how your knowledge of these events affected you while translating him. Was there a sense of added responsibility, an increased urgency to do right by the books?
LR: You put this extremely well. Absurd or pompous as this may sound, I have always felt that sense of responsibility toward his work. What happened to him, and the neglect he has suffered since, seems so unfair; not least that he had remained unread in English, the language and tradition he most admired. And like you, I am still, after many years, deeply affected by the circumstances of his death. I’m of that generation who are remain haunted by the Holocaust, and Szerb’s individual case seems especially poignant and dreadful, given the sort of person he was—so kindly, gentle and generous, plus the extraordinary way he faced up to his end, and the utter mindless waste of a brilliant mind. So, yes, it’s all felt very personal—a labor of love indeed.
PM: Szerb’s final major work, The Queen’s Necklace, was just published in September. Please describe it briefly. Does this book provide any kind of closure for readers who have been following Szerb’s novels as they have been translated, or does it rather compel a reexamination of the whole body of work?
LR: The narrative describes an elaborate scam, whereby the eminent Archbishop Rohan was persuaded to buy the biggest and most expensive necklace ever made “on behalf of” Marie Antoinette, as a way of regaining her lost favor. Szerb uses the episode as a viewpoint from which to explore every aspect of the period—the Ancien Régime in the years leading up to the Revolution. The text is alive with political and economic ideas, but the main focus is the sensibility of the age, one Szerb feels very much at home in. It places an unusual degree of emphasis on the contemporary obsession with Freemasonry, and its often absurd ethos of “charitable benevolence.” Once again we find Szerb probing psychological and religious ideas shaping events, and feeling his way to a holistic reading of this extraordinary period. But the writing remains relaxed and often playful, despite the mass of erudition on which it is based.
Readers coming to it from the three novels will find many echoes of earlier themes, verbal mannerisms and situations. To take just one example: when the bored young King in Oliver VII organizes a coup against himself and goes into exile, he soon discovers that the only role he has any training for is that of a con-man (he goes on to impersonate himself). Given the satirical (and indeed existential) implications, the reader might see this as a purely comic convention. But in The Queen’s Necklace he gives it surprising historical substance, exploring the attitudes and more desperate strategies of the impoverished French aristocracy. And of course the occult material sends the reader back The Pendragon Legend with renewed interest.
As for closure, in a different sense: that certainly seems to be the feeling that Szerb wants us to have. He knows he will probably never again return to that “beloved haunt of his youth, the Bibliothèque National in Paris,” and indeed that this book might well be his last. So it ends with an intensely personal elegy for what he felt was a grand and glorious age, an age “as beautiful . . . as the autumn air in Hungary, where the reddening leaves are scented with the inexpressible sweetness of death.” It’s impossible not to read those lines without some sort of personal application.
But does it prompt a total re-reading of the whole opus? Only in the sense that it sends you back for more.
PM: Now that you have translated all of Szerb’s novels, what are your plans? You have already translated several books by other Hungarian writers; are there more to come? Have you considered translating works from other languages (which, given your background, I imagine you could)?
LR: As regards Szerb’s fiction, I am coming to the end of the road. All that remains is a volume of short stories and novellas entitled Love in a Bottle, which will appear next year. It has some real gems, which once again throw light on his concerns in the novels, but the collection also has a more general interest, in that the pieces range from what are little more than juvenilia—his early preoccupation with myth and legend—to very late work showing his revived concern with history, with some wonderfully ironical modern pieces in between.
Beyond that, there are three substantial volumes of essays and reviews (of works in many European languages), and the great Histories of Hungarian Literature and World Literature. One hopes their time will eventually come, because they hold a great deal of literary-historical and social interest, as well as new bearings on the fiction, but right now there probably isn’t a readership (or indeed a market) for them.
As for other languages: I have twice now been approached by publishers to translate from French, specifically Paul Morand and Flaubert, and felt sorely tempted. But while the Szerb project remains unfinished it’s out of the question. In any case, I’d rather stay with a language and literary tradition that remains so shamefully under-represented in English. That seems a much better use for whatever talents I have. Besides, though French is a brilliant and charming language, Hungarian tugs at the heart like no other.
Paul Morrow is a writer and graduate student studying philosophy in Nashville, TN. He has written on the NEA’s translation grants program and on the goals of the American Translators Association.
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