If Only

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Often in my English classes we work with counterfactual conditionals: “If I hadn’t overslept this morning, I wouldn’t have arrived late”; “If I knew that you would be waiting, I would have called you”; etc. The curious thing about all these statements is that we have no idea whether they are true. We think that if we had done such-and-such, things would have turned out differently, but we don’t know precisely how. All we know is what actually did happen, and (to a lesser extent) what choices went into it. So when I look back on the past sometimes, and think, for example, “If I had taken a class with Harold Bloom, if I had majored in English while also taking Russian literature classes….” my conclusions, though appealing, come down to speculation.

I tried positing this–the unreality and uncertainty of the things that didn’t happen–in a one-session workshop on the philosophy of time (which I taught at school last year on Katalin Day). I didn’t talk about my own experience but focused on the texts I had brought and on the discussion in the room. A few students protested vigorously that my argument denied free will. But it doesn’t; it merely posits that we have no way of knowing what would have happened if we had done this or that differently. This doesn’t make the choices unimportant or unreal. To the contrary: by choosing an action, we give it a reality that the other hypothetical possibilities can never attain, except in the mind. It is true that we can return to, and embrace, a rejected option later. But we are now doing it as a different person from before, with the accumulated experience.

Well, I take that back. There are certain physical certainties, or relative certainties. If I take a book out of the bookshelf in my apartment, it will stay out until I put it back in; if I do not take it out, it will stay there. I can say, with some confidence, “If I hadn’t taken that book out of the bookshelf, it would still be there.” But as soon as other people and complex situations are involved, the alternative possibilities and their outcomes become less definite.

Let’s take the example of majoring in English. I see now that my reasons for not doing so were foolish. I paid too much attention to the amateur advice-givers around me. People were saying that the English major was overcrowded and that you “couldn’t do anything” with a degree in English. I don’t know about the first assertion, but the second was false. English majors can become writers, editors, scholars, critics, and much more; if they decide to change fields–for instance, to go into law–their studies will serve them well. Moreover, they will carry many of the works they read, and memories of the lectures and discussions, for the rest of their lives.

Why do I sometimes wish I had majored in English? Part of the reason is that I wanted to do this, early on, but let myself be dissuaded. Part of it is that I had a difficult time choosing a major at all; I finally chose Russian, but this came after I entertained many other possibilities. And there lies the catch. There are many reasons why I had difficulty choosing a major: a multitude of interests, contradictory and confusing advice, too many opportunities to change my mind, and profound uncertainty about what I was doing. There is no guarantee that any of this would have abated if I had chosen a different major.

Moreover, I loved the study of Russian literature and excelled in it. The one problem was that I didn’t want to go to Russia to study for a semester or year. I wasn’t required to do this, but it would have helped my Russian greatly. I wanted to stay put–having traveled and moved a lot in childhood–and this placed a limit on my Russian. My Russian was considered proficient at the time, but it wasn’t fluent. I could express myself well in certain areas, write essays, and read Dostoevsky without a dictionary, but there were swathes of vocabulary and colloquial expressions that I didn’t know. My deficiencies were even more basic than that; I made mistakes with perfective and imperfective verb forms and was far from mastering the prefixes.

Over the long term, I learned and accomplished things I never would have predicted–but beyond that, this is the only life I know. All those things that might have happened, that might have turned out differently, stay part of the imagination. Like any human, I take them up in the mind, but I can be certain of none of them.

Back to my students’ objections: If there is only one way for things to turn out, what happens to free will? I question the question’s premise. There are many ways that things can turn out, but only one way that they actually do. But even that is only partly true. Do we ever know, with certainty, how things turned out? To a degree, we can state what happened. But the meaning of what happened is continually changing; our perspectives change, and we learn from others’ perspectives. So, in a sense, an event many turn out in many ways at once. We have more free will than we even know: we not only make choices in life, but later choose how to interpret what we and others did. In this interpretation, the things that did not happen play a large role. There is still a distinction between things that happened and things that did not, but both sides involve the imagination, and the choices are infinite. (I didn’t manage to say all of this in class; these thoughts, provoked by the students’ challenges, came later.)

I am very sorry that I never took a class with Harold Bloom (or even met him in person). That’s on my mind now, since he died last week. But in ways I didn’t realize, I was learning from him indirectly. My friends and professors (and later my colleagues) spoke of him often; I picked up and returned to his books, which I read in passages and parts. He was in my life in some way, and he remains.

I have a similar (though different) feeling about Toni Morrison, who died in August. I would have learned so much from being in the room while she was speaking. I thought the day would come, but it did not. Still I continue to learn from her.

I didn’t miss out, though, even in terms of English courses; I had the great joy of taking two classes from John Hollander, as an undergraduate and a grad student. I think that was how things were supposed to be, since I sought those classes out. There was nothing like them in all my years of school; I return to them often in my mind. I am so far from missing out in life that a regret seems frivolous. But regrets have a place, when not taken too far. They help us perceive things that did not come to pass and that never will. Without such imagination we would fall for a much more dangerous illusion: that we are always justified, right, and complete.

Babits and Beyond

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Today, for the first time in months, I visited my favorite bookstore in Szolnok, the Szkítia-Avantgard Könyvesbolt és Antikvárium. I walked out with an armful of books: some literature textbooks (I want to understand better what students are reading in literature class and what they are learning about these works), a volume of Mihály Babits’s poems, and a big, thick book of Hungarian folk and historical songs.

I first opened up the Babits to p. 48, “Egy szomorú vers” (A Plaintive Poem), narrated by a poet with no friends, which amazed me when I got to here:

barangoló borongó,
ki bamba bún borong,
borzongó bús bolyongó,
baráttalan bolond.

which looks like nonsense syllables, but it isn’t–this not only means something in Hungarian, but makes sense in context. Still, it sounds almost like nonsense, and that brings the loneliness home, because when you’re at the extremes of loneliness, even your own words feel foreign. I have not yet read anything like this in Hungarian, and I see, looking through the rest of the volume, that Babits often plays with words and sounds.

This is the first weekend in months where I haven’t been in the midst of intense preparations- I have much to do–the trip to Dallas is just two weeks away, and I have some other projects–but things are in good shape.

It all came together–Rosh Hashanah, the ALSCW Conference, and Yom Kippur–but I know I took on too much. Even before the conference, before Rosh Hashanah, I had felt a slight sore throat, but I thought I had overcome it, and the conference itself was thrilling. Yet during my flight back to Hungary on Sunday night (with a transfer in Istanbul), I started feeling distinctly sick. This affected my voice badly at the Kol Nidre service on Tuesday evening, which I was co-leading with the rabbi and another lay cantor. By the morning of Yom Kippur, though, I was already a bit better, and halfway into the morning service I had come back into full swing. (The rabbi led most of the morning service so that I could give my voice a break, but it became clear that I could re-enter without qualms.) Shacharit, Mazkir, the afternoon shiur–things became fuller and fuller, and at the end of the day, in the Neilah service, when we all gathered in a circle and sang “El Nora Alilah,” I knew that we had built something together.

My colleagues at school were helpful and kind–those who covered my classes on the days that I was gone, those who asked how everything went, and others too.

I have more thoughts about all of this than I could put down here, or that I even want to put down–but I learned and thought a lot over these past two weeks. More thinking lies ahead, and more learning, and some rest.

Honors, Arts, and Travels

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This is a short post, since I leave early in the morning for the U.S. (for the 2019 ALSCW Conference in Worcester, Massachusetts, where I will be leading a seminar and presenting a paper). I will get to see my friend Joyce, who lives in Worcester, tomorrow evening.

Last Friday I had the great honor of being interviewed by Zsolt Bajnai, author of the wonderful blogSzolnok (which I read daily) and many other articles, essays, interviews, and stories. it was my first interview in Hungarian. Here it is.

Rosh Hashanah at Szim Salom was beautiful. Lots of people came. Now I have to stay strong and healthy for Yom Kippur (and beyond). I have many more thoughts about the holidays than these brief jottings convey.

Last night I saw a film that doesn’t leave my mind: Akik maradtak (Those Who Remained), directed by Barnabás Tóth. I recommend it to everyone and hope to say more about it another time. It was followed by a discussion between Zsolt Bajnai and the director and producer. They talked about how the film differed from the movie, how the actors were chosen, and more.

The week was filled with performances and other good things. Yesterday, during our long break in the morning, the music teacher (Andrea Barnáné Bende) and a group of students put on a short concert in honor of the school’s 90th anniversary. They sang and played a selection of songs from the past 90 years.

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And today (see the picture at the top) the ninth-grade bilingual class, under the direction of the drama teacher (Zsuzsanna Kovácsné Boross), rehearsed a short play on the theme of libraries and humanity, which they will perform this week (and next, I think). Since the rehearsal took place during our regular English class, I got to see it–in the beautiful new school library, curated and maintained by the school librarian, Judit Kassainé Mrena.

Also, Issue 12:1 of Literary Matters came out! It contains my translations of Gyula Jenei’s poems “Piano,” “Cemetery,” and “Madeleine“; my review of John Wall Barger’s The Mean Game; and much more.

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Finally, I am grateful to my colleagues for covering my classes during my absences. Speaking of absence, it is now time for sleep.

Stretches of Time

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It is good to have these stretches of time–to work on projects, go out on the bike, play cello, think about things. It is often said that humans are social beings. This is true, but we are solitary too; each of us has a different combination of the two, and in each of us, the combination changes. Somehow we are led to believe that we aren’t supposed to be alone–but certain projects, even ways of thinking, require a good bit of aloneness. This isn’t the same as being isolated or detached; it can lead to better company, since you have done your work (or part of it) and can enter clear and rich conversation.

Thanks to the streches of time this past week, I have been able to accomplish a few things. I finished the entire first draft of the translation of Kata Bajnai’s Farkasok, the first draft of a review of John Wall Barger’s The Mean Game, and the first draft of a translation of a poem by Gyula Jenei–the tenth that I have translated so far of his poems. I intend to revise all of these and translate two more poems in the next week–and then, by the end of the month, write the paper that I will present at the ALSCW Conference. There will be lots else to do this month–getting ready for teaching, going on a faculty trip to Serbia, etc., but all of this will be possible now. The projects have been enjoyable in themselves, and the focus only made them more so.

The fall is full of commitments and projects–including teaching, serving as vice form teacher–not the official form teacher, but rather the support person–for the incoming ninth grade bilingual class, leading services (about once a month, in addition to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur) at Szim Salom, participating in the ALSCW conference, going with my colleagues Gyula Jenei and Marianna Fekete to Dallas at the end of October (see the event descriptions here), and translating some poems by Tomas Venclova, whose work I translated in the past. In addition to that, I want to take some new steps with my writing and music–and bring my Hungarian to a much higher level.

And to ride the bike, too; the fall is my favorite time for that. Last week I bicycled to Besenyszög–not an especially long ride, but long enough in the heat. (Tonight and tomorrow’s rains should bring the temperatures down; there’s already a vigorous breeze.) I took the photos on the road. In the sunset photo, I like the way the grass picks up a tinge of the pink and orange of the sky. The farm machines are beautiful too. How much work gets done, and how many ways there are to do it, beyond anyone’s individual knowledge? Work of the mind, work of the fields, work of the stage, work of the bakery–wherever we go, there is some work that requires someone’s work; much of the time, we have only a fragmented idea of it, if even that much.

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Verging on Home

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I was exhausted and thrilled to arrive in Szolnok, take a taxi home, enter the apartment, greet the cat (not the one pictured here), run down to the river, walk across the river to the SPAR, go back home, take a long nap, then walk around town in the wind, under the pressing clouds. I have said “home” three times so far, but for me Szolnok is a home in the making. I have lots to do before I can fully call this home. The plans are getting clearer and clearer.

In November 2020, when I will have been here three years, I intend to apply for permanent residency. Around that time–maybe sooner, maybe later–I will try to purchase an apartment. The prices for downtown apartments are now high (by Hungarian standards and my own), but it’s possible to find something roomy and inexpensive on the outskirts: for instance, near the old sugar factory, which would allow for a daily bike ride along the Tisza to school.

Assuming I can work something out with my school for the longer term, I would plan to teach for another 10 years–no more than that, since I want to retire with some force left in me. Upon retiring, I would devote myself to writing, music, Szolnok culture, biking, translation, and Jewish study and practice.

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Also, while I won’t become fully fluent in Hungarian within the next year–fluency takes years–I hope, in this coming year, to read much more Hungarian literature and to speak comfortably on everyday subjects. I want to continue translating.

I hope that it will be possible to continue teaching at the Dallas Institute in July and to visit the East Coast before and afterward. This would be good not only for the known reasons, but for unknown and surprising ones too.

Any pieces of this could change. Emergencies come up; plans get thwarted or diverted. But these plans have been steady for a while. I look forward to seeing at least some of them take shape. In the meantime–particularly in the next few weeks–I have lots to do:

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1. Finish at least a draft of a translation of Kata Bajnai’s play Farkasok. I have translated the first scene and intend to translate the whole play by August 15. That will leave time for revisions and adjustments–first on my own, and then in consultation with the author and others.

2. Write a review of John Wall Barger’s book of poetry The Mean Game. I hope to complete it by August 15.

3. Translate a few more of Gyula Jenei’s poems (by August 20 or so).

4. Prepare for the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture’s 2019 Education Forum, presented by the Dallas Institute’s Louise and Donald Cowan Center for Education.

5. Write the paper that I will be presenting at the 2019 ALSCW Conference (on Frederick Douglass and Robert Hayden, in Ishion Hutchinson’s seminar)–by the end of August.

6. Plan the seminar that I will be leading at the ALSCW Conference (on the nature of great literature).

7. Translate at least one of Tomas Venclova’s more recent poems, and then translate more over the coming months.

8. Read books in Hungarian, beginning with the books I have received as gifts or begun reading on my own.

9. Take bike rides, including long ones.

10. Go with my colleagues to Serbia for three days.

11. Get ready for the school year.

12. Write sketches for the next book.

13. Write some other things.

14. Play cello. (This appears in 14th place but should go higher.)

15. Learn Rachmaninoff’s “Vocalise.” (Thank you, Tonya Fisher!) This should go higher too.

16. See friends, answer emails, make a few phone calls.

That’s just a start.

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I took all four pictures in Szolnok on Tuesday, August 6.

Friendship and Place

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The past few days have reminded me how friendship and place go together. I associate friends with certain places; when we meet in those places, old memories get layered with the new; when we meet in a new place, it can bring something out of the friendship. I will not talk here about the conversations I had with various friends; that is not for reporting on the blog. There must be something that a person can keep offline. But I will say a little about the places, in reverse chronological order.

Yesterday afternoon I arrived in Dallas, and that evening I went with my dear colleagues and friends to Gloria’s, the Salvadoran, Tex-Mex, and Mexican restaurant that we have visited so many times. I did not take pictures, but the conversation and meal are fresh in my mind.

On Tuesday evening, a friend and I met at the New Leaf restaurant in Fort Tryon Park (in the Washington Heights neighborhood of NYC). Both of us had been there before, but not together. She lives right by the park; so did I, in the two years before I moved to Hungary. The photo at the top is of the park as I walked through it after dinner.

On my way to dinner, I walked through the long subway tunnel at 190th Street.

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Earlier in the day, I went with another friend to the New York Public Library. (Both he and the friend I first mentioned were also my colleagues at Columbia Secondary School.) We had gotten together there before, but this occasion was different; his wife, who works at the library, arranged for us to see the Lewis Carroll and Charles Dickens special collections; this included the copy of Alice in Wonderland that Carroll dedicated and presented to Alice Liddell, as well as the copy of A Christmas Carol, replete with handwritten cuts and edits, that Dickens used for his public readings. After that, we got to see the very first handwritten copy of the Declaration of Independence, in the hand of Thomas Jefferson. It was difficult to take a good picture of it; here is one of my attempts.

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Before and after the Declaration of Independence, we went to the children’s reading room, where his two children were playing, and saw the original Winnie the Pooh toys.

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That morning I met with a friend in Edgar’s Café, which has become our traditional meeting place. It is named after Edgar Allan Poe; its original location was on Edgar Allan Poe Street between West End Avenue and Broadway. It was there, right on or near that street, that Poe lived from March 1844 to August 1845; it was supposedly there that he wrote “The Raven.” I didn’t take any pictures, but here’s one I took in February, when I came to NYC for two days to give a book reading and had breakfast with the same friend. (Neither of us appears in the photo.)

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The previous evening, I met with a friend in a gorgeous apartment on Washington Square Park (it belongs to one of her family members, who was away). We had never met there before; it ended up hosting a good, long conversation. I took no pictures indoors, but here’s one of a street corner nearby. The arched windows of the tall building across the street were glittering in the sun, but the picture doesn’t catch that.

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On the way there, I passed by the Stonewall National Monument. It was the day after the Pride Parade, so it was quiet (but still full of visitors). I missed the parade on Sunday–well, I could have caught the end of it, probably, but was too tired and jet-lagged to realize this. The quiet walk was good, in any case.

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Each of these places was beautiful, and just right for each of the meetings with friends–but I think it’s partly because I was alert to them. Living in Szolnok has made me more aware of places and their relation to people. I think of the rivers, the school, the library, the places where the banketts were held, the Tiszavirág Fesztivál grounds, the Tiszavirág bridge, the café where I met weekly this year with Böbi and Tündi, the many streets I got to know by bike, the buildings whose history I am slowly beginning to learn. A person not only becomes part of a place, but gives something through it, so that the place becomes a messenger, but the opposite of Hermes and Iris, since it needs no wings but rather does its work by standing still.

Different Kinds of Rest

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Rest will be scarce over the coming months (or plentiful, from some perspectives), so I will be looking to make the most of it. I have three different translation projects ahead and am excited about them all. I am participating in two literary events in the U.S. in October: the ALSCW Conference in Worcester, Massachusetts, and a series of events at the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture featuring two of my Hungarian colleagues (more about that soon!). In addition, I have a few writing deadlines, will continue my synagogue responsibilities as usual, and may hold another event at the Szolnok Gallery/Synagogue in September. The event on May 23 went beautifully. The audience was enthusiastic, everyone joined in the singing, and the acoustics lifted the voices.

Yes, and there’s the upcoming Hamlet performance and discussion–by some of my tenth-grade students–at the Ferenc Verseghy Public Library on June 14! They will perform three scenes from Hamlet, followed by discussions and interviews with the characters. We are now heading into our final rehearsals.

All of this is in addition to regular teaching, which is in an irregular state right now, since I am meeting frequently with seniors to help them prepare for their oral exams.

The next few weekends will be packed. Next Saturday I go to Esztergom to enjoy the Comedium Corso festival–where 1LIFE will be performing–and explore the surroundings, which look stunning in the photos I have seen. (I will take my bike on the train so that I can explore more easily.) From there I go to Budapest to lead Szim Salom’s Shavuot service on Sunday. The following weekend, we have the Hamlet performance on Friday; right after that, also in the library, there will be a performance by Zsolt Bajnai and Marcell Bajnai (father and son)! On Saturday, June 15, I plan to attend a folk dance festival in Zagyvarékas; one of my students, Dániel Lipcsei, will be performing in three groups, and there will be many more groups from all over the country. Some of it might look and sound like this:

Then on Sunday, June 16, I go to Budapest for the Budapest Festival Orchestra’s annual Dancing on the Square event. Later in the week, Szolnok’s Tiszavirág Fesztivál begins; I look forward to its concerts–including an acoustic show by 1LIFE–and other festivities. The following Shabbat (on June 22) I lead a service–with a bat mitzvah ceremony–in Budapest; on June 30, I leave for the U.S.  I will be teaching, for the ninth consecutive summer, at the Dallas Institute’s Sue Rose Summer Institute for Teachers; this year we focus on tragedy and comedy, as we always do in the odd-numbered years (the even-numbered summers are devoted to epic). Those will be an intense, focused three and a half weeks, with lectures, seminars, panel discussions, films, and more. A few days on either end for visiting people–and then back to Hungary on August 5!

Back to the topic of rest: there are different levels and kinds. One of the reasons that I find Shabbat challenging (and important) is that it takes me about a day to wind down from the week. Resting on Friday evening and Saturday takes planning, focus, and determination (and I don’t always succeed at it). On Sunday, a greater calm sets in, but by then it’s already time to gear up for Monday. I have found it difficult, even in “free” time, to read books unrelated to my teaching, projects, and other preparations; several books have been waiting for months, not because I lacked time for them, but because my mind would not fit them in. I have now returned to The Book of Why by Judea Pearl and Dana Mackenzie; this time I hope to stay with it instead of letting more months go by. It gets more and more interesting as I get farther into it; I will have more to say about it later. I am also overdue with Cynthia Haven’s biography of René Girard, Evolution of Desire, not to mention books in Hungarian, which I read especially slowly.

Reading a long book (for pleasure and interest) takes a particular kind of  restfulness. It’s different from reading a poem or short story; while these require intense focus and attention (and time), they tend to take less time on the initial reading than a novel or nonfiction book; thus you can reread them many times. I enjoy rereading more than I enjoy first-time reading, because of the new understandings that come with the repetition. To come to know a long book, you have to be willing to dedicate many hours just to the first reading. This is especially true for slow readers like me. I know people who can read a 350-page book in an afternoon or two; I am not one of these.

So there’s the rest that involves unwinding and the rest that makes room for reading. What other kinds are there? Writing, playing music, and other creative activities require stretches of time for trying things out, going back and revising, etc. There’s also the rest that comes through exercise: biking, for instance, over long distances. There’s the rest that comes from spending time with others: laughing with them, playing music with them, sitting down for a meal with them. There’s the rest that comes from doing something different: going somewhere on vacation, for instance. There’s the rest that comes from attending a concert, reading, or other performance. There’s the rest that comes from sorting things out in the mind: reflecting on the week, remembering important things, and putting less important things in their place. Then there’s the rest that comes with pure laziness: puttering around, doing what you feel like doing, whether or not it’s productive. There’s the rest that comes from sitting quietly and doing nothing. There’s structured, time-bound, hallowed rest, such as the rest of Shabbat. Finally, or near-finally, there’s sleep, and, at the end of life, death.

These all overlap, yet they are distinct, taking different forms and playing different roles. Yet each one can be well or poorly carried out. It’s all too easy to compromise rest, to try to make it serve something else. To rest well, you have to rest with all your heart. Or maybe that’s what makes something restful in the first place: doing it with all your heart, instead of pulling it this way and that.

I end with Walt Whitman, “A Clear Midnight“:

THIS is thy hour O Soul, thy free flight into the wordless,
Away from books, away from art, the day erased, the lesson done,
Thee fully forth emerging, silent, gazing, pondering the themes thou lovest best,
Night, sleep, death and the stars.

“A legtöbb szünet után mindig jön egy új hang”

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Two days after a terrific Passover seder in Budapest, I was on the train to Kisvárda, my starting point for a three-day bike trip. I read the first two stories in Zsolt Bajnai’s Visszaköszönés. I was taken by the quote at the end of “Dobtoló,” “A legtöbb szünet után mindig jön egy új hang” (“After most breaks a new sound always comes”), because it’s both poignant and funny, with the mixture of “legtöbb” (“most”) and “mindig” (“always”).

As it happened, the previous day I had been trying to make practice recordings of two of the three songs that we (two language classes, two colleagues, and I) will be performing in a short concert at school on Monday. Each time I began recording, or sometimes a few minutes in, I made a mistake. The two songs were too freshly learned and figured out; they needed time to sink in. After about four hours of attempted recording, I realized a rest would be good. And sure enough, when I came back from the bike trip, I recorded them both in a few minutes–not perfectly, but much better than before. I will say more about the concert after it happens!pici koncert 2

The story “Dobtoló” is not about rest, though, at least not obviously; it’s about a boy by that nickname, who is the soul of the band even though he does not play an instrument. He had such a strong sense of rhythm that his two legs seemed like a metronome. You grow fond of him over the course of the pages, but you also realize that people didn’t know much about him, that they just accepted his presence. He was the one who remembered the others’ birthdays; they didn’t remember his. In that sense, the story is about rest, or rather, death: all the things that come together in the memory after a person is gone.

Something about the story (and the previous one too) brought back dim memories of Simon Carmiggelt, whose stories I heard at age ten, when we were living in Holland. I think my father read some of the stories aloud; others we listened to on tape. They leave you wanting to hear or read more stories and tell stories too.

To call the bike trip great would be an understatement, but I gather that understatement can build character, so I will go ahead and call it great. The things that stand out, though, are not the magnificent views, not the downhill slope into Slovakia, not even the pond at sunset–

 

 

–but the slow familiarity with the area (this being my third bike trip there in two years), the recognition of roads, buildings, and farms, the sounds of farm animals in the morning and evening, the kitten I befriended, the thoughts that came and went, the various yet few conversations. All of that, and a turning point on Monday, the day I biked to Kassa (Košice), as I did last year. I had had a somewhat late start, and was tempted not to bike there at all, but instead to spend the day in Sátoraljaújhely and the environs. But then I got on the bike path, and within minutes I was up in the hills. Not only did it seem silly to turn back, but I figured that if I could get to Kassa in three and a half hours (which I did), I would be able to catch the 4:06 train back to Sátoraljaújhely, bicycle back to Vajdácska, and arrive at the guesthouse in time for dinner. The timing all worked out, and dinner was worth every rotation of the pedals.

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There was much more to the trip, in terms of sights and thoughts, but part of the treat is keeping some of it to myself, or maybe holding it for later. One does not have to say everything about everything right away. In most trees there is always a story waiting for its time.

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A Library Down the Road

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The Verseghy Ferenc Public Library, just a block away from school, has become one of my favorite places in Szolnok. It brings back library memories but also takes me into new thoughts and the Hungarian language. I have been there many times this year, for poetry and prose readings and for my own book event. I love the luminous room where the readings are held.

Yesterday afternoon I went to hear Levente Csender read from his work and speak with Gyula Jenei. A week from tomorrow, on April 13, I will return from Budapest in time to attend the evening part of a day of literary events: a reading by László Darvasi and, after that, a performance by the Varga Katalin Gimnázium Drama Club (Varga Diákszínpad) of a play written by one of the troupe’s own members, Kata Bajnai.

april 13

This is just the beginning; I look forward to many more events and quiet hours. In June, at the library, my tenth-grade students will perform scenes from Hamlet; before then, I hope to get a library card. Yes, a library card is essential–but so far, I haven’t had much reason to take out books, since I read so slowly in Hungarian and have so many books waiting on my shelf.

My life has held many libraries. In early childhood, in Amherst, Massachusetts, I often went to the Jones library; at the time, they catalogued and displayed a little book that I wrote (with pages stapled together) about a rainbow. At the Forbes Library in Northampton, there were weekly screenings of classic cartoons (Donald Duck, etc.); I used to go and laugh. In high school, I loved the school library with its spiral staircase between the two levels. Later on, in college, graduate school, and in between, I worked at the Yale library and did research there; when I later returned to New Haven to write Republic of Noise, I walked to the library almost every day. Other libraries (such as the New York Public Library and the Berkeley library) have also been large in my life. But the Verseghy Library in Szolnok stands out among the libraries I have known. Here I can listen to Hungarian literature–taking in as much as I can, striving to understand more, saying hello to a few people afterward, and leaving with a new book or two in hand and the evening’s language in my mind.

One day, when my Hungarian is much stronger, I will remember these library days and what they held. I will come back to the works I first met there, remembering how they sounded the first time. I hunger for that return, maybe because I will understand much more by then, or maybe because I will get to look back on these bright, dear days.

P.S. I heartily recommend Bob Shepherd’s piece “The Limits of Learning.”

A Way of Hearing the World

LW298-MC-Escher-Metamorphosis-I-19371

Isn’t reading literature in the original one of the fundamental reasons for learning a language–and not just a side benefit or frill? Isn’t reading Shakespeare one of the great rewards of learning English? You can’t come close to Shakespeare in a translation, though some are of exceptional quality, or in “Shakespeare made easy” editions (which are watered down beyond pity). You have to plunge into Shakespeare’s language, struggle with it a bit, and then start to see it make glorious sense all around you.

Overall, I admire the gimnázium curriculum here in Hungary. What students learn is valuable not only for their future careers, but for independent thought and life. Literature is central to their learning; they read poems, novels, stories, and more (in Hungarian). They also learn math and sciences (to advanced levels), history (in depth and detail), grammar, technology, languages, arts, and physical education. My two criticisms are (a) that the curriculum is crammed, with little or no flexibility or choice, so that students have no time to absorb what they are learning; and (b) that in the language courses, literature is treated as an extra, something the teacher may add to the lessons if time and inclination permit. (My school has been very supportive of my Shakespeare projects–but still, in relation to the official curriculum, they are something added on.) Language instruction–and all the textbooks I have seen–focus on grammar, vocabulary, and conversation on everyday topics (health, food, family, nature, school, the environment, technology, etc.), which repeat and repeat, at increasingly advanced levels. All of this is good and important–but language instruction without literature is like music lessons without music. I am not the only one who brings literature into class–many teachers do–but still, it may seem an appendage, not an internal organ.

I have sometimes been asked why I am having students read Shakespeare in the original, when they will not need to use Shakespeare’s language later in their lives. My response: they will use it! They will recognize words, phrases, quotes, allusions all around them; they will gain a way of hearing the world; and they can return to the plays and poems throughout their lives.

But to the point: this year, the tenth-grade students (who last year adored A Midsummer Night’s Dream) are getting a little restless with Hamlet, or many are. The reasons are understandable: we read only in class (since the books stay at school, and I am reluctant to add to their already hefty homework); we meet only twice a week, and have not always devoted both sessions to Hamlet; there have been various interruptions and absences, so many students have missed at least one key scene of the play; it’s longer and more difficult than Midsummer; and in my desire to continue onward through the play (so that we can later go back and focus on certain scenes), I have not explained certain passages as well as I could. But we are close to the end; and I am confident that when we go back, reread, and enact particular scenes, the experience will be different.

Also, they have fond memories of Midsummer–and this is a very different sort of work. Comparing the first to the second, they may well feel some disappointment at first (though some have said that they find Hamlet more interesting). Last year their readings and performances were joyous and funny, and here a different mood sets in, though there is plenty of humor in Hamlet too.

Why Hamlet, out of all of Shakespeare’s plays? Well, for one thing, Hamlet is a play of the mind; it takes us into thinking itself. It is also full of play and trickery; the play itself is full of plays, not only the play within the play, but other enactments too–so that we are not always sure whether Hamlet is speaking his thoughts or acting for a perceived audience. Also, there is the question of metamorphosis: what must happen to Hamlet, how must he change, to do what he has set out to do? And the question of “minor” and “major” characters: might Polonius and Laertes be more important than they seem? The whole play has to do with “seeming” and “being”–so that when Hamlet first replies to his mother (in Act 1, Scene 2), his words, in a sense, introduce the play:

Seems, madam! nay it is; I know not ‘seems.’
‘Tis not alone my inky cloak, good mother,
Nor customary suits of solemn black,
Nor windy suspiration of forced breath,
No, nor the fruitful river in the eye,
Nor the dejected ‘havior of the visage,
Together with all forms, moods, shapes of grief,
That can denote me truly: these indeed seem,
For they are actions that a man might play:
But I have that within which passeth show;
These but the trappings and the suits of woe.

And there you have the beauty of Hamlet: despite all the changing appearances and illusions, despite all the plots and tricks, there is an integrity, something that cannot be reduced to “just” this or that. It can only be revealed, though, through the illusions. We see Hamlet playing with Polonius here (in Act 3, Scene 2):

LORD POLONIUS
My lord, the queen would speak with you, and presently.
HAMLET
Do you see yonder cloud that’s almost in shape of a camel?
LORD POLONIUS
By the mass, and ’tis like a camel, indeed.
HAMLET
Methinks it is like a weasel.
LORD POLONIUS
It is backed like a weasel.
HAMLET
Or like a whale?
LORD POLONIUS
Very like a whale.
HAMLET
Then I will come to my mother by and by. [Aside.] They fool me to the top of my bent. I will come by and by.
I will say so.
HAMLET
By and by is easily said.

Here Hamlet tests Polonius (craftily) to see whether he will continue to agree with him. But Polonius’s continued agreement reveals to Hamlet that he himself is being played with, in a more serious manner–that is, that Polonius has made some plan with the king and queen (or a larger “they”). So the play reveals the play–and Hamlet speaks through it all: “They fool me to the top of my bent,” suggesting that even his outwitting of Polonius may be partly an illusion, as there may be something beyond Polonius that he cannot outwit.

In some ways Hamlet cannot be a group experience. Last year, a few students took strongly to the play, not together but alone, and their responses set the tone for classes. I see this happening this year as well, but it has yet to come through. I believe that this will be worthwhile for everyone, not only now, but later. But to make it worthwhile, I have to think more about the scenes that we will study closely: how to interpret them, stage them, “character” them. Then, I think, good memory will be built.

Image credit: M. C. Escher, Metamorphosis I (1937 woodcut printed on two sheets).

I made a few additions to this piece after posting it.