Language and Hyperbole

Last night I had a dream in which a Hungarian person spoke to me in English and I gave a passionate litany, in Hungarian, about why I wanted to speak Hungarian instead. I remember the ending words: “és nagyon fontos számomra, hogy beszéljek magyarul amennyire csak lehetséges!” (“And it is very important to me to speak Hungarian as much as possible!”) My Hungarian has come a long way; I sense it when reading news, reading complex emails with no trouble, participating in conversations on an array of topics, handling a doctor’s appointment, being interviewed for my residence permit, and much more. Yet there is still a long way to go. For instance, the litany could have been a bit punchier, with more colloquialisms.

This is true for everyone. Even at advanced levels, people make mistakes or ignore nuances in foreign languages—that is, languages they didn’t grow up with. English is fairly forgiving of inaccuracy, since so many people from around the world speak English at different levels and in different ways. The language itself stretches to accommodate these levels. Hungarian is like the stone in the Polish poet Wisława Szymborska’s “Rozmowa z kamieniem.” To get in–to persuade people to speak Hungarian with you at all–you have to be inside the language already, to some degree. Mistakes tend to jar a Hungarian’s ear; Hungarian spoken by a foreigner is a rarity in the first place, except for a tourist’s köszönöm and jó napot. But I love this about Hungarian perfectionism; once you start taking part in it yourself, it’s like playing music; you want to hit the right note even more than others want to hear it.

With a language, you have to get used to going on and on, learning endlessly more and endlessly less, becoming more accurate and flexible in your expression yet still making mistakes, even basic ones, no matter how far you advance. Oh, this makes me think of Nabokov’s Pnin, which I long to reread.

“Information, please,” said Pnin. “Where stops four-o’clock bus to Cremona?”

“Right across the street,” briskly answered the employee without looking up.

“And where possible to leave baggage?”

“That bag? I’ll take care of it.”

And with the national informality that always nonplused Pnin, the young man shoved the bag into a corner of his nook.

“Quittance?” queried Pnin, Englishing the Russian for “receipt” (kvitantsiya).

“What’s that?”

“Number?” tried Pnin.

“You don’t need a number,” said the fellow, and resumed his writing.

Fluency does not come quickly; it goes beyond the highest levels at school. You can be advanced according to the tests but still far from fluent. People used to exaggerate my language knowledge, calling me fluent in Russian when I really was not. I never mastered the Russian verbs with their many prefixes, my vocabulary had gaps, and there were many colloquial expressions I never heard. But because few in the U.S. spoke Russian at all, even conversational proficiency came across as fluency. In graduate school, most of our courses were in English. Only one or two professors taught in Russian. We were allowed to write our essays in English (though I wrote some in Russian); our oral exams and dissertations were in English too, except for quotations.

In college, graduate school, and afterward, I had some opportunities to travel to Russia; I just didn’t take them. I had a strong desire to stay put for a while. For years, going abroad for a long time didn’t hold much appeal, since it had already been a big part of my childhood (we lived in the Netherlands for a year when I was ten, and in Moscow for a year when I was fourteen). It was only later that I wanted to live abroad again—here, where I am now.

Three years in, I am happily in the thick of it all, with heapingly much to do, projects galloping through the mind, kind people in my life, and all of this persisting and growing even during Covid. It’s amazing to me that there’s the book of poetry translations, the Orwell project, Folyosó, regular teaching, my synagogue role, and so much more, and the language all around me, taking form in my ears, in silence, in my dreams.

I took these pictures within the past week. The second one, as you may have guessed, is the view from my windows. I love that view and its many changes.

A Kind of Puzzle

I am almost always working on a story in my head; eventually it gets down on paper. Somewhere along the way, I run into the story’s puzzle. When it’s in its beginning stages, I know where it’s going, more or less, but don’t know what it’s about, until something clicks, a piece that fits right in the middle, or a little off to the side. One of these years, I will have a story collection out, even though publishers, I hear, avoid story collections like grilled dill pickles with chilled vanilla filling. It has been a long-term dream; years ago, I intrigued an agent slightly with my collection-in-progress The Dog Park, and Other Tales of a Wounded Ego. The title will be different, but the collection will come.

I was recently reading Tad Friend’s great, long piece in The New Yorker on Bill Hader, which mentions that Hader met with George Saunders and Tobias Wolff for dinner at one point. I had a flash of jealousy: why did he get to have dinner with them, two of my favorite story writers? Why did they get to have dinner with him, one of my favorite actors, screenwriters, comedians, interviewees, lovers of literature? (Here he is on SNL with one of his classic Keith Morrison impressions.) Why do celebrities float around in a world where they need only utter a wish, a dinner invitation, and it’s “Open Sesame”? Not that that’s really how it is. But then I felt better when I learned that Saunders and Wolff would be speaking over Zoom at the Bay Area Book Festival–about Russian literature, no less! (The event, “Writing, Reading, and Being All Too Gloriously Human: George Saunders with Tobias Wolff on the Storytelling Greats,” takes place today at 7 p.m.—so, 4 a.m. tomorrow my time.) I signed up and paid the registration fee, only to be informed that the event was only for people in the U.S., according to the terms of a contract. My registration fee was refunded, but the excitement was not. Oh well.

I had been thinking about parallels among three of my favorite stories: George Saunders’s “Winky,” to which I have returned again and again, Tobias Wolff’s “In the Garden of the North American Martyrs,” and Nikolai Gogol’s “The Overcoat”; also, in a way, “Fat Phils Day” by Hubert Selby Jr. These stories all end with a swift motion into some kind of revenge, retribution, or release–except that in the case of “The Overcoat,” it’s a bit of an oddity, a coda in the form of a ghost story, which seems disconnected from the main story but also not. And in the case of “Winky,” the ending seems both a victory and a defeat at the same time: Yaniky’s victory over the cult nonsense he has been fed, a gut inability to carry it through, but also, in his mind at the time, a terrible failure, because he will never be able to liberate himself from plain old life. But what I find in common is not the message of these endings, nor even the particular quality, but the motion itself, the way it brings everything together.

A great thing about writing is that you don’t have to meet other writers in person. In fact, if I did, I probably woudn’t know what to say, or even want to say much. Just by virtue of reading and writing, you are part of that world, and your work will speak for itself, as theirs does to you. I’m not saying this to console myself. It’s true: I would feel awkward at a party with writers I admire, though I’d happily take their classes or attend their readings. The work is the thing I am drawn to, though once in a while in my life, the writer has also become a friend. Some of this is set up in advance, by others; we know only of work that we have access to. Some writers’ work never makes it into print, unless they self-publish; some gets published here and there, and some takes off. There’s both justice and injustice to it all; lots of good work gets published, lots of mediocre stuff does too, but somewhere along the way, sooner or later, writers and readers find each other.

Therefore reading is part of the puzzle. If there weren’t readers, there would be no reason to write in the first place, and so reading completes the act, or maybe just continues it, since the things worth reading are worth reading again and again. I don’t read nearly as much or as quickly as I would like–but the reading that does take place is a kind of participation in the work itself. Today the Orwell project begins; a few of my students and I will join Columbia Secondary School students on Zoom to discuss the first few chapters of Nineteen Eighty-Four. Over the next two weeks, we will read the entire novel together. And because this first joint class is happening in just a few hours, and I have some errands to run beforhand, I must leave off here.

I took these pictures yesterday.

“Winter is icumen in….”

Finally it feels like winter. Above, a picture from today’s bike ride home from several errands. After a packed day of teaching, I sent off the last required document for my residency application.

You know you have been living in Hungary for a while when you walk into a store and have the following conversation with the storekeeper (translated here):

Storekeeper: Nothing to be done.
Me: I’m beginning to come round to that opinion.

Just kidding; that’s the beginning of Waiting for Godot. But it wasn’t too remote from that:

Storekeeper: No teaching?
Me: Yes, from home.
Storekeeper: Oh, yes, from home.
Me: It’s a difficult situation, all around.
Storekeeper: Yes, yes.
(A long pause.)
Me: It’s cold outside.
Storekeeper: And how!
Me: Finally winter is coming.
Storekeeper: Yes, but it will be short.
Me: Yes. Too bad there’s no snow.
Storekeeper: I miss it.
Me: So do I.
(Another long pause.)
Me: Well, thank you, all the best!
Storekeeper: All the best.

For those unfamilar with the “Winter is icumen in” reference: it’s Ezra Pound’s parody of the medieval canon “Sumer is icumen in,” which I will teach at school sometime, once we are back in person and can sing again. Maybe that will be when sumer is icumen in.

Short Bike Trip, Long Thoughts

Yesterday I took one of many bike trips to Tiszakécske, a town on the way to Szeged. No time for a Szeged trip right now, but this was lovely in its own snowless-wintry way. Here’s a view through a bus stop.

Closer to Tiszakécske, the sunset.

Then scarecrows, or scare-something-or-others, next to a beekeeping place.

Then a church, with a cemetery outside it, near the center of Tiszakécske.

Soon afterward, dark fell, and I took a train back home.

It’s a busy time, and I can barely keep up. The translation project, Folyosó, the Orwell project, regular teaching, and synagogue responsibilities–that’s enough in itself, but on top of that I have been reading Beckett’s trilogy, working out a new story in my head, eating pomegranates (a labyrinthine endeavor), and trying to make sense of what happened at the Capitol on Wednesday. It was good to get on the bike, look around, and let the thoughts sift themselves through. And to come home to the cats.

On Loyalty and Its Dangers

Last night I checked the New York Times and saw that they were livestreaming the Congressional debate over the certification of the Electoral College results. I started watching and then realized that some students, particularly in my eleventh-grade American Civilization classes, might be interested, so I posted a link on Google Classroom. When I returned to the livestream, it was no longer going on; there was uproar in the hall and loud noises coming from outside. Lawmakers were huddling on the floor or hurrying out. Then sounds of crashing and yelling, rioters bursting into the room. It was probably the strangest event that I had watched live on TV or through streaming. A debate and then, suddenly, a broken debate.

There is little to say about it that hasn’t already been said; I watched for a couple more hours on ABC News; nothing seemed to happen but more and more chaos, Republican rebukes, a bizarre video from Trump, people scaling the walls of the Capitol. Finally the police and Secret Services managed to clear the rioters out of the building. In the morning I tuned in again to see that the certification process had resumed. Within an hour or two, it was complete, and Biden’s victory had been officially accepted by Congress. But the tumult isn’t over; for one thing, it has to be dealt with in many different ways, and for another, it could resume.

I don’t know whether any of my Civilization students tuned in–we meet just once a week–but if they did, right then, the sight must have been surreal: first democracy in action, then mobs.

Plato was right that democracy runs the risk or encouraging selfishness and self-satisfaction. But that is part of the reason why the Constitution was written so carefully, why so many procedures and checks and balances were set in place. The unwieldy structures and processes of U.S. representative democracy are supposed to prevent and restrain extremism of various kinds. What, then, has gone wrong?

This question has been discussed endlessly–but one word that kept coming up in the news interviews was “loyalty”: the idea that the rioters felt loyalty to Trump and were doing this largely out of loyalty, because he had incited them toward it. As someone mentioned, he himself classifies people terms of loyalty: who is loyal to him–that is, never criticizes him–and who is not.

A certain kind of loyalty can destroy a government, a relationship, an institution. It is the loyalty that usurps integrity and ethics, that goes on reckless attack, that gives up anything just to prove itself again and again. This loyalty comes with a thrill: of imagined belonging, acceptance, revenge. It is horrifying but not far away. Probably each of us has known a speck of it at some point in our lives, either in ourselves or in those close to us. The one who doesn’t dare say anything critical about so-and-so, because that would be unloyal.

No one teaches this in school, except through literature and history. There is a virtuous loyalty that has room for criticism. There’s a kind of patient, rugged loyalty that does not lose its mind. But there’s another kind that tries to rid itself of mind, because thinking seems like treason itself. This can happen on the right and on the left. It can happen outside of politics. It is only a fraction of what was happening yesterday in DC, of what has been happening in the U.S. and around the world. It falls far short of explaining everything. But for what it holds, it is worth bearing in mind. Its ruins have no end. The burdens of the mind are light compared to this.

I took the above photo yesterday afternoon from inside Szolnok’s Holocaust memorial. I did not intend any sort of connection between the Holocaust and what happened yesterday. They are profoundly different and should not be trivialized through comparison. But it occurs to me now that a dangerous kind of loyalty runs through both.

The Privacy and Publicity of Religion

Each religion, in its different ways, has both communal and private dimensions; its believers will have different proportions of the two tendencies. Some people take part in a religion primarily for the social aspects, some for the solitary. Judaism emphasizes the communal, but it is not only communal, just as some branches of Christianity, while placing great emphasis on solitude and privacy, do not live in these alone.

Degrees of privacy do not necessarily correspond with degrees of observance. A person can be highly private about religion but also highly observant, or highly private but barely observant at all. All of the combinations not only exist but are needed. In all the possible variety, the greatest danger comes from excessive certainty and self-pride, on both the believing and the nonbelieving ends. The variety helps to mitigate the certainty.

Do we know that God exists? We have no empirical proof of this; faith is different from knowledge. Do we know that sacred texts are true and divine? Again, we have no empirical proof. Yet we believe strongly, one way or another. Those on the opposite ends–those who say the Bible is perfect and divine, and those who say it’s a bunch of rubbish–will likely disparage each other. Those profane atheists who deny the True Way! Those wacky religious fundamentalists who don’t live in the actual world!

But all of us probably need people who are more observant (or believing), and people who are less so, than we ourselves are. (Not that it’s always a question of “more” or “less”–but this imperfect framework will do for now.) From those who are more observant, one can learn a great deal about centuries-old wisdom and practices; from those who are less so, flexibility and openness.

Once, in the U.S., I was in an awkward situation, in a Shavuot all-night study session. I was sitting next to someone who was at the synagogue for the first time, and new to Judaism. She was eager to start learning Hebrew and liturgy, and asked me if I could recommend any resources. I named a few, which she began to write down. Then I saw three rabbis looking intently at me.

It took me a few seconds to realize what was happening. It was a holiday; you aren’t supposed to write on certain holidays (including Shavuot and Shabbat), nor are you supposed to encourage it. They were looking at me because I was the one they knew. Then one of the rabbis approached the woman and gently asked her not to write.

In the moment, I was mortified, but I realized that the rabbis were not trying to embarrass either of us. They simply needed to maintain the expected practices in shul, for everyone’s sake. After that incident, I came to realize that this prohibition against writing on specific holidays is upheld by Orthodox and Conservative synagogues but not necessarily by Reform. In addition, I saw that even within Conservatism, individuals differ widely in their practices. Once in a while, on Shabbat, one person might give another a phone number, or an email address, and the other person would step outside, or at least out of the sight of others, to write it down. Some write on Shabbat and other holidays, but not when others are looking. Is this hypocrisy? Not necessarily; it can be seen simply as respect.

But then you have those who wouldn’t even consider writing on a holiday, and, on the other end, those who think it’s absurd not to write if you wish to do so. There’s a distinction, moreover, between private and public practice: there are those who justify writing in private, but not in public.

Why does Jewish rabbinic law prohibit writing on holidays? The reason is that writing constitutes a type of creation, which is a form of work. Torah explicitly and repeatedly prohibits work on Shabbat and specific other holidays; rabbinic tradition interprets writing as work. Creation is work in that it brings something into existence that was not there before. The holidays cannot allow for work; they are meant for worship and rest. This has profound meaning and challenge at once. It takes tremendous discipline, but it opens up into beauty. Honoring this in its fullness can be a lifelong project and more: the project of generation upon generation.

On the other hand, there are reasons to question this prohibition. In the case above, where a newcomer has come to the shul, it feels awkward to say, “Yes, I can give you resources, but you shouldn’t write them down.” Or: “If you come back next Shabbat, I’ll give you a list I have prepared in advance.” There are many other times when writing might be not only reasonable, but helpful. I was surprised, at my (European Progressive) shul here in Hungary, so see people taking notes during Shabbat study sessions. At a basic level, it makes sense; if you are studying something, don’t you want to try to remember it? And yes, some people remember better when they just listen (I am one of those), but others are greatly helped by being able to underline, jot down words, and so on.

Back to the question of stepping out of view to give someone a phone number: Doesn’t this obscure the situation? If people are actually writing, shouldn’t they do so openly, so that those who do write know they aren’t alone? Maybe it’s time for a reassessment of writing, especially in the internet era, and during Covid, when it’s a way for people not only to keep in touch, but to lay out their thoughts, to come to terms (or not) with the world.

On the other hand, the public and private questions are truly separate. What you do in public (at shul, for instance) must take into account the expectations and rules of that particular public or community. What you do in private has to do with your own conscience and standards. This is why the private aspect of religion is so important; it allows you to follow what you truly believe, while also participating in a larger whole.

My own beliefs are ambivalent. On the one hand, I see reasons, both sacred and practical, to refrain from writing, and from numerous other activities, at specified times. In our incessantly active world, where we’re expected to be doing, doing, doing, a sacred time for stopping can bring profound restoration. The fact that Judaism explicitly builds and protects this time is cause for awe. On the other hand, I am uneasy with the taboo and its effects: the guilt, the shame. Some of my best writing happens when I have a stretch of time before me, not when I am caught up in the rush of the week. For the first forty-nine years of my life, Shabbat wasn’t even a concept for me. Since my shul-going days began, I have sometimes written on Shabbat, when the ideas were there and I didn’t think they could wait; when I had a pressing deadline; when I wanted or needed to contact someone; or when I had so much teaching preparation to do (preparing lessons, commenting on students’ writing) that refraining would have put undue pressure on Sundays, leading to exhaustion at the start of the teaching week. That said, when I had left Columbia Secondary School to write my second book, I deliberately structured my writing week so that Shabbat could be dedicated to shul, reading, and relaxing. I loved that rhythm–and had plenty of time for writing, since the weekdays were devoted to it.

I do not think God, if there is one, would condemn me for writing on Shabbat or any other time, unless I were writing mean and vile things. Yet I also believe that the day of rest is an infinite gift that asks something of us not in return, but in response. Abraham Joshua Heschel’s The Sabbath comes to my memory again and again.

Back to the beginning: the public and the private, the greater and lesser degrees of observance, all offer something, for the simple reason that no one has the complete answer, not for others or for oneself. I brought in the example of writing because it affects us all and because it illustrates how perspectives and practices can differ, even among people together in a room. People inevitably judge each other to an extent; this results naturally from setting standards for oneself. But judgments can come with questions. In a world overfilled with certainties and dogma (just as it is overfilled with activity), perhaps the questions should come first: and first among these, the ones we ask inside the soul.

I made a few minor edits to this piece, in several stages, after posting it.

On the Eastern End of the Time Zone

I have long noticed that it gets dark earlier here in Hungary than it does in other places I have lived. Well, there is a simple reason for that: Hungary is on the eastern end of the Central European time zone. In Romania and Ukraine, which border Hungary, it’s an hour later. In Santiago de Compostela, Spain (nearly 3,000 kilometers west of here), it’s the same clock-time as here; yet because of Santiago’s relatively westerly location, the sun sets there at 18:11 today, two hours later than here.

Those are some of the peculiarities and incongruities of time as we have set it up.

Speaking of Santiago de Compostela, Bennett Voyles’s book Onward, Backward! A Ramble to Santiago–about the family’s bike-and-walking trip from Le Puy en Velay, France, to the very Santiago named several times here here–is now available! I have ordered a copy, which should arrive this week, I think.

And that is all for today.