Returning to Hesse’s Demian

My painted dream-bird was on its way in search of my friend. In what seemed a miraculous fashion a reply had reached me.

—Hermann Hesse, Demian, tr. W.J. Strachan

When I was twelve or thirteen, reading one Hesse novel after another, adults used to tell me, “You’ll outgrow Hesse when you get older.” Not only did this not happen—I have returned to Hesse’s work repeatedly over the years—but I now see that both they and I misunderstood his writing in different ways. I will focus here on Demian. (If you have not read it but intend to, please hold off on reading this post.)

“I wanted only to try to live in accord with the promptings which came from my true self. Why was that so very difficult?” This quote from the fifth chapter, which often also appears at the beginning of the book, has a complex meaning. The adults probably saw the concept of self-searching as immature; for my part, I probably took the characters of Demian and Eva, and the magic of the book as a whole, too literally. On my last reading, completed today, I understood much more.

In 2017 or 2018, when I had not been living in Hungary for long, I purchased a copy of Demian in Hungarian translation. Because of my beginner-level Hungarian, it was slow going (even with such a familiar text), so I set it aside for another time.

That time came last week, when the Poket edition came out—with a wonderful preface by Gergely Balla, who was to be interviewed and play his music at a Poket event in Budapest, on November 10. I wanted badly to attend the event but had to supervise a physics competition from 6 to 7 p.m. So, in the afternoon before my supervision duty, and during the hour itself (I just had to be in the room keeping an eye on things), I read the first three chapters from the Poket edition. Today I finished the book. It took a while for the Hungarian to resonate with me; my memories were bound to the English phrases and rhythms. But by the fifth chapter or so, the text was singing in my mind. Here, though, I am quoting from several English editions and translations.

The adults in my teenage years probably thought that “self-searching” loses importance when you grow up and have to take care of others. But Emil Sinclair’s self-searching in Demian is not solipsistic or narcissistic. The book’s philosophical refrains play against the changing, moving life of a young man in the world, so that with each repetition (about breaking out of the egg, or differing from the herd, or bearing a sign on your forehead), a new nuance is added. Moreover, the book moves continually through paradox. Seeking your true self requires the recognition that this is impossible; that there is something inside you that moves, acts, and knows but that does not reach the rational mind. It is through painting that Sinclair starts to find out who he is—but it is not only himself that he finds there.

Early on, through a conversation with Max Demian and through his own thoughts, he discovers that he must leave falsity behind: false oppositions (between “good” and “bad,” for instance), false morals, false education, false company, false occupations—or, in contrast, to accept them all as true, insofar as they accompany him a part of the way.

But Sinclair’s struggle goes farther and deeper. He asks Demian, and later his mentor Pistorius, whether following your fate means you are allowed (and even obligated) to kill people whenever you feel the urge to do so. Neither one gives a full answer, but both suggest that this is not the case. Being true to the self does not mean following every urge or feeling. Pistorius suggests that when you feel an urge to kill a person, it’s actually the person’s mask that you want to kill, because the human below the mask is like you. But even this thought remains unfinished, for Sinclair to work out on his own.

As a teenager, I misconstrued Demian himself. (He is an intense, reflective boy, a few years Sinclair’s elder, who befriends Sinclair and shares with him what seems like uncanny, otherworldly wisdom.) I took him too literally; I thought I would find a Demian in my own life and was disappointed when it turned out that no one, no matter how exceptional or caring, could live up to the role. Today I see Demian as a metaphor, or maybe a perfection and elongation of certain encounters that do happen.

In contrast, Pistorius, the organist and mystic, seems to be of flesh and bone. His relationship with Sinclair reminds me of many I have had in my life (whether I was the mentor or the one being mentored). My favorite passage in the book is where Sinclair breaks with him without meaning to, by saying a word that hurts him. The passage is tender and vivid—but also a metaphor in its own way, since our lives are filled with teachers and students, formal and informal, with whom we must make a break at some point, or who must break with us. In fact, this may be the essence of education itself: reaching the point where you break away.

For a long time we stayed in front of the dying fire, in which each glowing shape, each writing twig reminded me of our rich hours and increased the guilty awarness of my indebtedness to Pistorius. Finally I could bear it no longer. I got up and left. I stood a long time in front of the door to his room, a long time on the dark stairway, and even longer outside his house waiting to hear if he would follow me. Then I turned to go and walked for hours through the town: its suburbs, parks, and woods, until evening. During that walk I felt for the first time the mark of Cain on my forehead.

(Tr. Michael Roloff and Michael Lebeck.)

This time, rereading the book, I took in every detail of Sinclair’s relationship with Pistorius: the way it begins (with Sinclair secretly listening to Pistorius playing the organ, first from outside, then from within the church), the things they talk about, the idea of Abraxas, the break with its guilt and acceptance, the memories of Pistorius long afterward.

What sets Sinclair apart, even from Demian, are not only the breaks he has to make with others, but his hesitations, pauses, misgivings along the way. Profoundly attracted to Eva, Demian’s beautiful, hauntingly androgynous mother, he does not know what to do with his desire, but it finds its own form, which has to do with the tender respect between them, his dreams at night, his painting, and the changes in the world that will soon force him to go his own way. Eva, like Demian, seems more god than human, but also part of Sinclair himself, even before he meets her.

The world itself does not stay still in Demian. At the end, a war is breaking out; a sadness and worry sets over things. Demian speaks at length about the dark times ahead. Sinclair has to say goodbye to Demian and Eva (but also learns how to find them) and give himself over to a duty that troubles and heartens him at the same time. The possible optimism (thoughts of a new world coming into being) are offset by the painful last kiss and Sinclair’s statement that everything since then has hurt.

But back to the search for self: Hesse may be hinting, throughout Demian, that while each person has a singular fate, unlike anyone else’s and not governable by social morals and rules, the self is not discrete but instead bound up with others; that we call out to others, even in silence, and they answer. In this sense and others, self-knowledge and self-loss may join together. This unity requires courage and brings loneliness and uncertainty. As Eva tells Sinclair, there are no everlasting dreams; one dream replaces another, and we can’t cling to a single one. If we could, though, would paintings, music, and literature exist? Would we? Don’t we depend on dreams’ coming and going?

A Third Book Underway

I have begun writing my third book. The first draft of the introduction is done, and I have most of the rest in my head, although it may change as I go along. As usual, I won’t talk about it until the manuscript is complete (in about a year, if all goes well). This time, I am going to do everything possible to find an agent, one who will help me find a trade publisher (that is, one that publishes for a general readership). Generally, trade publishers work only through agents.

I will have to demonstrate that the book is indeed for a general audience. In the past, my books have been dismissed by agents as “scholarly” (yes, that term can be used as an insult). It’s a way of saying, “oh, that may be of interest to intellectuals, but not to the average person on the street, or even the average college-educated person on the street, or even the average college-educated person in a café.” “Intellectual” is another insult in these contexts; it means “out of touch, abtruse, up in the clouds, unfeeling, unsensual, out of date.” But even while dismissing “scholarly” and “intellectual” writings, trade publishers eagerly release and promote books that claim to explain what “research has shown” about the mind, human nature, etc. Mine isn’t that kind of book either. It has more to do with uncertainties than certainties.

I will have to show what the book is and why it isn’t for a niche audience. There is nothing wrong with writing for niche audiences—and the book certainly won’t be for everyone—but its whole point is to bring people into something unfamiliar (but recognizable in the end).

Like the previous two books, this book does not fall easily into a category. But unlike the previous two, it will explain and show why not, so that the reader will not end up baffled. Not everyone was baffled by the first two books, but for some, the sheer lack of a clear genre was an obstacle. They couldn’t understand, for instance, why Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture had so many digressions into literature. To me this was obvious: literature comes out of solitude and often gives solitude a form. Likewise, when you think about a work of literature, your thoughts come from solitude (even in a class discussion). So, even obliquely, you learn something about solitude through literature: not lessons, not takeaways, but resonances, shapes. I didn’t take the reader carefully enough through these steps, or explain why a plunge was important. I don’t want to overexplain, much less pander, but given that people usually want to know what to expect from a book (especially a book of nonfiction), I have to make a stronger case for not knowing what to expect.

So, as the expression goes, the book will “get meta” at times, and that will be part of its fun, for me at least. Let’s see how this turns out.

Art credit: Paul Klee, Open Book (1930) (The Guggenheim Museum).

Talking About Solitude Today, Tonight

Solitude is difficult to talk about. I wrote a book about it (Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture) but knew all along that only certain levels of it can go into words. But I have been invited to talk about it—or rather, about the book—on LinkedIn Live. The event will begin at 2:30 p.m. New York time, 8:30 p.m. in Hungary. Keil Dumsch and Matt Barnes will be conversing with me, and the audience will probably participate too. The focus will be on the overemphasis in U.S. schools on small-group work, which severely limits what can be taught, learned, pondered, and created. I am not at all opposed to group work. I use it often in my teaching (it can be good for language practice, for instance, and for activities and projects that inherently involve small groups). But it does not suit all lessons or topics, nor should it replace listening, focused discussion, and quiet thought.

I look forward to the discussion and am honored that Keil and Matt like my book so much. I reread parts of it the other day and was surprised by its freshness (for me) even ten years after its publication. I would write it somewhat differently today, but that’s to be expected.

If you are on LinkedIn, come to the discussion! All you have to do is follow the event link.

Two Reviews of “Always Different”

When Gyula Jenei’s Always Different came out (my first Hungarian-English translation in book form), I was surprised at first by the silence. How could there be no response? But I remember, again and again, that these things take time. Serious reading, any kind of reading, takes time. Writing thoughts about a poetry collection takes time. So I am honored that two wonderful reviews have appeared so far.

The first, written by Claudia MacMillan (Allums) and posted on Amazon, brings out something of the essence of the collection in just a few words.

There is an urgency pulsing under each of Jenei’s poems here, something compelling one forward into the volume. Simple, unflinching words that are also somehow tender create a tone of wistful hopefulness that never fully reconciles itself into hope, although it is far from despair. I love this book of clear-sighted descriptions, lyrical musings that invite one in with a medias res feeling, the “forty years” refrain providing a lens from which to consider befores and afters strange yet familiar to us all. Jenei’s use of unpretentious language and his dogged attention to small details, people, and things remind me that a poet notices what the rest of us do not, until he show us. The title is a little poem itself. Thank you Gyula and Diana, for this lyrical retreat!

The second review, written by Christie Goodwin and published yesterday in Hungarian Literature Online, weaves through the volume with humble, brilliant insight. As I read it, I thought at moments that I was dreaming. Thank you. I quote from the end:

“Homeroom Teacher” seems to offer a metaphoric key to understanding the poet’s unraveling sense of memory and identity. He looks through the old photographs and notices “and only a few pictures identify me / as the one who took the reel”. He says that “as for the view, / i try to edit it. to the extent possible”. He does the same in his poems – presenting a picture, a shifting and “vague” one, punctuated by emotion and sharp imagistic moments. The poet seems to accept the discrepancy between the child and adult voice – his own unreliability – “i still imagine a future that will not come to pass. but forty years later the lack of it will no longer trouble me – slowly i get used to myself.” This fractured, heartbreaking collection makes us consider what and how we remember. Perhaps, as Jenei says in his poem “Passageways to God” we will encounter memory in a similar way:  “afraid of the depths” and yet unable to get our “fill of / the view”. 

Update: A wonderful review by T.M. has appeared on Amazon.

Always Different by Gyula Jenei, translated from Hungarian into English by Diana Senechal, offers a form of time travel. The speaker has more life behind him than ahead, yet he relates his childhood not as someone looking back so much as someone who has reentered the time before and now marches forward again through the years, with the dual consciousness of child and adult. The descriptions are rich with sensory detail, first making the mundane come alive—we are fully on the street with him, and in the barn, and at school—and then, in piercing flashes, revealing the turbulent emotional depths below. Children, experiencing so many dynamics for the first time, often don’t know how to interpret what happens to and around them. The adult comes back and, with careful attention, can sift through “last year’s leaf layer, the one before last year,/ the thick, fat litterfall may show its year-rings like/ an archaeological find, but below it the earth may stay/ slimy, wet and cold, with disgusting crawlers, worms,/ earthworms, cocooned lives, deaths.” The verb tenses are often future or conditional, leaving the reader at the precipice—in digging through the past, some outcomes will surely happen again, but changes are also possible; the meaning we make each time we touch a memory is always different.

Looking Back on My Books

Twice, while in NYC, I left a teaching job to write a book. Teaching was too consuming to allow for that kind of writing in spare time; each time, I needed to focus fully on the book. It’s different here in Hungary; teaching here is consuming too, but not nearly as hectic or exhausting. Anyway, in both cases I left the job completely; I didn’t keep any benefits. It was impractical, but it was the best decision for me. Thanks to the second departure (though I had no idea this would happen at the time), I was able to come to Hungary. At that point the book was almost done, and I was ready for a new plunge.

The first book, Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture (2012) came partly out of my experience teaching in NYC schools, where teachers were expected to incorporate group work in the lesson regardless of the topic or content. The insistence on small group work (in an already noisy environment) came at the expense of sustained thought, dialogue, introspection. The group emphasis was apparent not only in schools, but in the surrounding “culture” (I put it in quotes because it’s a tricky word) and social media. The book also took a closer look at solitude and its complexities, with forays into Petrarch, Sophocles, Newton. In that sense the book came out of something longer and larger: a life of involvement with language and literature, a life of solitude (in many senses of the word) and companionship.

Some people complained that it was too much about education; others complained about the literary and other digressions. Still others complained that it wasn’t like Susan Cain’s Quiet. (Why on earth should one book be like another one?) But overall, it found a wonderful audience and has been quoted in books and articles that I respect. And when I return to it, I am surprised by its details and depth. Work, thought, and life went into it.

With my second book, Mind over Memes: Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies, something went wrong with the marketing and readership. In some ways (though not all) I think this was the better book: tighter, punchier, more concise, but also long-lasting. Unfortunately it reached the wrong readers before it reached the right ones. The initial reader reviews were written by people who clearly hadn’t read even the introduction, or if they had, they had skimmed through it, making their own judgments instead of paying attention to what I was saying. Here’s the full text of a review I received on Goodreads:

When I saw this title on NetGalley I felt it my duty to read this and write the slangiest, most sarcastic review possible. Unfortunately, Diana Senechal has sucked the passion out of my plans. Mind Over Memes is basically a snooty English teacher’s collected opinions on how young people do, and especially how they say everything wrong.

I do have to emphasize that the author is thoroughly learned in what she is writing, and the passion of hers is clear. The problem is that this comes across as incoherent babbling to me; pretentious, holier-than-thou, grammar nazi, babbling.

There are so many tangents and grammatical anecdotes that I really struggled to keep focused on the topic at hand. And really, none of these anecdotes seemed to have any relation to her points. Also, to be frank, this book made me feel like trash, like stupid, illiterate, memeing trash. Here I am, the Meme Queen, crying as I reign over my garbage domain. I try to see what’s up in the adult world and I get slapped in the face. God, this book is depressing.

First of all, the book isn’t about young people or young people’s language at all! All the words and phrases I take up are used by people across the generations. When I did bring up young people in the first chapter, it was sympathetically. I told a story (imaginary, but based on a true story I had been told) about a summer internship interview where high school students had to summarize a project in thirty seconds. I thought this was unfair to those who could not express themselves quite so quickly or glibly. The pressure to be glib is hard on the young and old alike, but maybe especially the young, who are competing for college admission or for their first jobs.

Second, the book isn’t telling anyone, young or old, what they are doing wrong. The point is to call certain words and phrases into question: to think about where they come from and what they mean. There’s no finger-pointing, no English-teacher snootiness here. And for God’s sake, there’s no grammar-Nazi babbling. As for digressions, the chapters are tightly structured and focused, with a little bit of whimsy too.

Third, the review doesn’t mention anything specific about the book. Not a quote, or a detail, or even an overview. What kind of review is that?

So what went so badly wrong? First, there was the problem of the title. I had wanted it to be Take Away the Takeaway, but the editor said the marketing team found that too vague (and subject to misinterpretation in the UK—not that it has received much distribution there). My next choice was Verbal Resistance, which almost made it, but at the eleventh hour the marketing team rejected that as well. They finally settled (with my halfhearted consent) on Mind over Memes, with that lumbering, confusing subtitle (Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies). There are two problems with this: first, the book has nothing to do with internet memes; second, the subtitle gives the impression that a lot of chiding and correcting will be going on. In fact, it seems that the book will be criticizing passive listening and toxic talk themselves. (Not so: one chapter questions whether listening is passive at all, and another questions the overuse of the term “toxic.”)

Another problem was the write-up on the back cover. The endorsements are great. As for the book summary, I wrote the initial version, but then someone on the publisher’s end changed some of the wording. In particular, this inserted sentence could throw the reader off: “Too often our use of language has become lazy, frivolous, and even counterproductive.” This really does sound snooty, old, and weary; it doesn’t convey the tone or content of the book.

Still another problem, I think, had to do with where the galleys were sent for review. NetGalley is not the best place for this; reviewers receive a free advance copy in return for the review but are not bound by any obligation to be thoughtful or even to read the book carefully. The book did receive thoughtful reviews in Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, and Quartz, as well as a superbly insightful review on Amazon by Dana Mackenzie, but beyond those, a few nice comments elsewhere, and the dismissive reviews mentioned earlier, there was silence. I think people were steered away from the book before finding out what it was. (The book events are another matter; I had lovely events for both books, at bookstores and at the Dallas Institute.)

Both books have their flaws. Sometimes I get so carried away with a turn of phrase that I don’t realize how silly it sounds in context. If I were to go back, I would change some of the ornate language to something simpler. Also, Republic of Noise has too many quotes; I could have relied more on my own language and observations. But on the whole, both books are highly readable, and the subject matter is at least as relevant as it was then.

My point is not to complain about the publisher (in both cases, Rowman & Littlefield, though the first was specifically R&L Education). They accepted both manuscripts without the intervention of an agent, they were very nice and responsive along the way, and I continue to receive small royalty checks. Nor do I think I could have insisted on a different title (I tried hard) or back cover description; those are areas where the publisher does have the last word. But I think one lesson to learn from this is that the publisher and author must have a common understanding of what the book is. If there’s a misunderstanding, then the publisher will be pulling to present it in one way and the author in another.

I shouldn’t forget, though, what an accomplishment it was to write and publish these books. So many people talk about writing books, or start writing them and never finish. I know that I can pull off something like this and will rearrange my life as needed in order to do so. Also, both books opened up new eras of my life. The first book led to the Hiett Prize and a long association with the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture; the second, in some ways, brought me to Hungary. Who knows what the next book will be and where it will lead.

Yes, indeed, what about the next book? Well, there has been a book of translations, Always Different: Poems of Memory (Deep Vellum, 2022) which was every bit as big a project as these two books. My next book or two will likely be translations too. But then what, after that? I have been submitting stories for publication; if a few get taken up by journals, then I may be able to publish a collection as well. Poems, too, come now and then, and they are getting better. I also have an idea for a nonfiction book, but as with my previous books, I don’t want to talk about it until I have at least a manuscript in hand (which may be a few years from now). In any case, I expect some books of different kinds in the coming years.

That is why I treasure this time at home in the summer; so much is possible in this stretch (which goes by fast). Even though I don’t get as much done as I’d hope, I do a lot. I love the peacefulness of it: having the whole day to focus on things, without having to rush anywhere. This is hard to explain to people who don’t live in this way, but do I have to explain it? No, just live it, and do as much with it (at the different levels of doing) as possible.

I made some additions and edits to this piece after posting it.

An Award, A Poem, and Two Concerts

Twice in my life (so far) have I received a translation prize. The first was when I won the Scott Prize in Russian upon graduating from Yale. The prize was in recognition of my senior thesis, which consisted of translations of contemporary Russian poets and commentary. The second came just the other day: an Honorable Mention in the Jules Chametzky Translation Prize, for “Scissors,” my translation of Gyula Jenei’s “Olló.” This Honorable Mention was even more honorable than it may appear; usually this prize has only one winner, and this honorable mention comes with a cash award and an interview. But beyond that, the poem is one of my favorites in Gyula Jenei’s work, and I am fond of the translation too. I am honored that the MR editors and judges loved this poem.

“my grandmother will have other scissors too:”—the poem begins—”smaller, larger, / sharper—but most of all i will love the pair that has, below / the rings, on the wide-opening, ornate handle-necks, / the likeness of a man and woman embossed.” You can no longer make out the faces, but the grandmother claims that they belong to Franz Joseph and Sisi. The poem continues with the grandmother contemplating the two heads through her “one-templed spectacles” and telling stories: of the boy’s own family, of the coronation of Charles and Zita, “heaps / of tales she happily tells.” While she is telling her tales, the boy cuts something or other with the scissors, and the faces come close without actually touching.

only the rings make
a metal clap, and the blades scrape, and then the past
dissolves into the future, and then they bury my grandmother,
and i forget her stories, all i remember about them is their
having been, and only the scissors have remained, and
the sewing box with the thimble, then the thimble got lost too.

It goes on from there to my favorite part, which I won’t quote here, since you can read it. The poem is full of surprising gestures. Here’s a physical object that has remained over the years: the scissors (which I have actually held in my hands, yes, the scissors of this poem)—but they are about as vague as memory itself, since the faces have been worn and polished over time. But through this wearing down, some essence comes through: a statement, a retraction of sorts, and a final image and truth. The poem has tenderness, memory, forgetting, a sweep of history, and a pair of scissors whose clapping and scraping you can hear even if you never get to hold them.

I remember translating the first draft of this poem during a long break in my school day on a Wednesday morning (I think it was a Wednesday, in the fall of 2018). I remember thinking: How do I go back into the world after this? But I did, and it worked out well.

So, that’s what I wanted to say about the award and the poem. As for the two concerts, yesterday I had an exceptional evening. First I went to hear the Platon Karataev duo at the Esernyős in Buda. What a beautiful concert it was, and what an attentive audience. Several times they mentioned how much they appreciated the audience’s quiet attention. Here’s a photo taken by the venue’s photographers, I think.

Sebő then had to rush across the Duna (and southeastward a bit) to the Akvárium’s Petőfi Terasz, where he gave a wonderful Cz.K. Sebő/capsule boy concert. Many of us likewise went, as audience members, from the first concert to the next. There I did take a picture. But much better pictures and videos were being taken (see below); if the official video ends up on YouTube, I’ll include it here too. I loved hearing the songs and sounds find their way: a song he wrote that morning, some songs that are changing over time, some songs still in the works, songs ceding to sound and sound to songs, songs leading into songs, all together forming something joyous, thoughtful, and melancholic that I could get swept into alertly.

At that concert, the (very large) audience was listening closely for the most part, but there were a few loud people as well. Two young women planted themselves in front of me—when they could have stood to the right of me, blocking no one’s view—and proceeded to talk and gesticulate. The woman sitting next to me (around my age or a little younger, and intensely listening too) motioned that I could sit closer to her and see. I was grateful for that. The Petőfi Terasz, being outdoors and free, draws a mixed crowd, some there for the concert, others for entertainment and drinks. The music and listening won out; it was a beautiful show. But I don’t understand people who talk loudly without even bothering to move to the side or the back. (Update: From the photos I later realized that one member of the noisy pair is the lead singer of a band whom I have never heard live but three of whose albums I have. That’s even more disappointing. In the future I’ll just ask noisy people to move or be quiet, whoever they may be.)

So this leaves me with the thought that attention—in the form of reading, listening, conversation, or something else—isn’t just one of the best things to give or receive; it’s also essential. Where would any of us be without it? Isn’t despair the sense that no one is paying (or receiving) attention? And if we can’t give attention to everything (at least I can’t), isn’t it good to have a few people, things, and occasions to devote it to?

I added a little to this piece after posting it. The last picture is by Dávid Bodnár, courtesy of the Akvárium Klub Official. You can see the whole album here.

Update: Here’s the video of my Chametzky Prize interview with Aviva Palencia, a summer intern at The Massachusetts Review.

Three Upcoming Events for “Always Different”

What better place to start than at the school where the translator and poet are colleagues, and where the director, librarian, and others have eagerly offered to support the event? On Tuesday, May 24, the school library will host the first launch event for Always Different, Gyula’s poetry collection Mindig más in my English translation, published by Deep Vellum in April 2022. This has special meaning for me, because if it hadn’t been for the school, I might not have met Gyula in the first place or embarked on the translation of his poems. Also, early in my second year at Varga, before I had even started the translations, one of my students brought up Gyula’s literary events. “He brings writers to talk to us; it’s really great,” he said. “Sándor Jászberényi came to talk to us. Do you know him? You should read him; he’s really interesting.” I started coming to those events, which opened up into others. So in several ways, this is where it started.

The second event will be on June 8, during Book Week, at the Verseghy Ferenc Könyvtár (the public library here in Szolnok that hosts and supports so many projects, including the Shakespeare festival that we held for the first time this year). Marianna Fekete will be our beszélgetőtárs (“talking partner”—that is, the person who interviews us). This, too, is a great honor for me; I have attended and participated in many Verseghy Library events, but this one stands out in all sorts of ways.

The third will be on June 25, at the evocative and cozy Nyitott Műhely in Buda. I first went there in February for an event featuring Csenger Kertai and the pianist Loránt Péch. I loved the event and the place. I started dreaming about having an event there one day. Now it is happening, and Csenger will be our beszélgetőtárs.

There will be still more events for the book over the coming months—online events, U.S. events, and others—but this is an exciting beginning. Details for the second two events are forthcoming, but in short: the one at the Verseghy Ferenc Könyvtár will begin at 5 p.m., and the one at the Nyitott Műhely at 6.

As in a Dream

Do you know the kind of dream where you realize that you know exactly how things will unfold, because you have already lived them? The poems of Always Different (my translation of Gyula Jenei’s Mindig más) have this kind of dream-insight, but they are not dreams. Or rather, the memory they play with resembles certain dreams. We go back in time to look forward again and see things happen just as we know they will, except that nothing is certain, some key facts get lost along the way, and even verb tenses and moods start to wobble. The poems are surreal and real at once: familiar, reminding me of things, but shifting under my gaze and thoughts. I am proud beyond thoughts that this book has come out and that I can now hold it in my hands.

The project began in the fall of 2018. I had figured out that my colleague Gyula Jenei was a poet and his wife, Marianna Fekete, a literary critic (as well as a teacher of English and biology). My first conversation with Gyula wasn’t a conversation at all. I walked up to him out of the blue and recited one of his poems from memory. I am pretty sure he wasn’t expecting anything like this, but he took it in good cheer.

Soon after that, I found Marianna Fekete’s essay on Béla Markó’s haiku poems. I thought that it would be great to translate that essay and the many haiku poems within it. I began translating Gyula’s work and hers, and we began talking about them. At first, my spoken Hungarian (as well as my Hungarian overall) was very tentative, but over time it grew and relaxed.

Then Literary Matters published five of Gyula’s poems (in the original and in my translation) as well as my translation of Marianna’s essay. (The Massachusetts Review later published a translation as well.) Then the extraordinary happened: the Cowan Center at the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture invited us to be the featured guests at their 2019 Education Forum. Little did we know that Covid was a few months around the corner; we went to Dallas in October 2019 and had a glorious autumn week filled with events, conversations, and long walks around the city. Thank you, Claudia MacMillan, Larry Allums, the I.M. Terrell Academy (which we visited), the Dallas Institute, and everyone who was part of this.

One of the Dallas Institute events that week was a private luncheon with guests, including Will Evans, the founder and owner of Deep Vellum Publishing. He was excited about Gyula’s poetry and suggested publishing a book. This book came out in April 2022 and reached me (60 copies) in a big box today.

In the interim between October 2019 and today, there were stretches of industry: completion of the translations, preparation of the manuscript, reponses to the poetry editor’s many comments and queries, review of the proofs, and so forth. There were slight delays because of Covid—but only very slight. The Deep Vellum editors and other staff were committed and helpful all along the way.

All of this sounds spectacular but basic too. The book would not exist, were it not for these people and events. The joy, goodwill, and sheer surprise of the week in Dallas comes back again and again, as do the long conversations with Marianna and Gyula. But for me the best part of all was the translating itself: the long, quiet stretches at home or in a deserted café, with hours ahead and behind, the poems in front of me, and coffee and big dictionaries nearby. I remember translating a poem during a long break in the school day and thinking, how do I return to the world after this? The poems are not removed from the world, but they differ from the hecticness that we wrap ourselves in. Hecticness is only one way of considering time. The book offers something else, something different from anything I have read or lived before.

A Festival, a Book, and a Conference

The Shakespeare festival is arriving soon! On April 22, the Verseghy Ferenc Public Library and the Varga Katalin Gimnázium will hold a day-long event filled with acting (by students from six different schools), sonnets, songs, games, lectures, workshops, an art contest, a jury, and more. Everyone is welcome! (At Varga we have no classes on that day.) This festival has been in the planning for two years. It had to be postponed a year because of Covid, but now we can actually hold it, in three weeks and a day from now!

Next, my translation of Gyula Jenei’s poetry collection Mindig más (Always Different: Poems of Memory, published by Deep Vellum) now exist; the publisher has already received copies from the printer! Gyula and I will receive five complimentary copies each, and I am ordering many copies for events. We intend to hold at least two events here in Hungary, and if everything works out, I will give readings in Dallas and NYC as well. The official pub date is still a few days away (April 12), so I will make a new announcement then.

Finally (for now), the ALSCW has released its Call for Papers for the October 2022 conference, which will take place at Yale. I will be leading a seminar on “Setting Poetry to Music,” which may feature guest presenters from Hungary, if everything works out! More about that later—but in the meantime, if you are interested in presenting a paper in any of the seminars, please follow the instructions at the top of the document.

I should have a few more announcements very soon, but that is enough for now.

(The photo is of my students’ performance of Hamlet scenes at the Verseghy Ferenc Könyvtár in June 2019.)

Seven Reasons to Come to the Pilinszky Event

It looks like lots of people are coming to the Pilinszky online event on March 20! But if you are undecided, here are seven reasons to come:

  1. János Pilinszky (1921–1981). Whether you grew up with his work or haven’t heard of him until recently, this event will introduce (or re-introduce) you to a few of his poems.
  2. The guests and hosts. This is a rare chance to hear Csenger Kertai, Gergely Balla and Sebestyén Czakó-Kuraly discuss Pilinszky and perform from their work. For the hosts—Diana Senechal and the Association of Literary Scholars, Critics, and Writers—this event is an honor and a joy.
  3. The languages. How often are literary events held in both English and Hungarian? The discussion will be mostly in English, with some translation back and forth; the poems, in both Hungarian and English, and the music, in one or the other. And speaking of that….
  4. The format. Instead of having a discussion followed by a performance, or vice versa, we will be combining discussion, poetry, and music. Literary events in Hungary are often conducted in this manner. It’s exciting because of the unexpected connections that arise between the various parts.
  5. The ease of attending. All you have to do is log in via Zoom. There is no charge. The instructions are on the website and the Facebook page. To find out exactly when the event starts in your area, go here. We have also prepared a downloadable program (containing the Pilinszky poems and quotes that we intend to discuss).
  6. The lack of dogma. We are not trying to drive home a particular message about Pilinszky or his world. The discussion will be inquisitive rather than didactic. We have a few working ideas but do not know where they will lead.
  7. The chance to ask questions. We will save time at the end for a few questions and comments. We can’t promise to get to all of them, but we do hope for some exchange with the audience.

The list could go on and on, but instead I will leave off with a quote from the poet Ágnes Nemes Nagy (whose centennial is now being celebrated in Hungary, a year after Pilinszky’s). I would only combine it with a suggestion that Pilinszky’s poetry contains exhilaration too, the exhilaration of facing the spectre.

“Pilinszky added a dimension to our lives (all our lives, now, the life of poetry), he enriched us with want, with being lost, the dearth of existence pared down to the bone. The extraordinary catharsis of his poetic power arched over such dearth. It would be good to look now into those places to which he opened a breach, look in through the inner doors of the ante chamber, to those places where destruction is spread out like the sky.”
 
—Ágnes Nemes Nagy, “János Pilinszky: A Very Different Poet” (1981), translated by Rudolf Fischer

“Egy dimenziót csatolt hozzá Pilinszky az életünkhöz (most már mindnyájunk életéhez, a költészet életéhez), meggazdagított a hiánnyal, elveszettséggel, az egzisztencia csontig, képletig letisztított ínségével. Költői hatalmának kivételes katarzisa ilyen ínségre boltozódott. Most volna jó benézni oda, ahova ő nyitott rést, benézni az előszoba bentebbi ajtaján, most volna jó oda, ahol a pusztulás úgy terül el, mint egy égbolt.”
 
—Nemes Nagy Ágnes, “Valaki más” (1981)

P.S. Seven reasons, but eight books? Yes, well, the eighth reason is up to you.

  • “Setting Poetry to Music,” 2022 ALSCW Conference, Yale University

  • Always Different

  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

     

    Diana Senechal is the author of Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture and the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Her second book, Mind over Memes: Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies, was published by Rowman & Littlefield in October 2018. In April 2022, Deep Vellum published her translation of Gyula Jenei's 2018 poetry collection Mindig Más.

    Since November 2017, she has been teaching English, American civilization, and British civilization at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium in Szolnok, Hungary. From 2011 to 2016, she helped shape and teach the philosophy program at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering in New York City. In 2014, she and her students founded the philosophy journal CONTRARIWISE, which now has international participation and readership. In 2020, at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium, she and her students released the first issue of the online literary journal Folyosó.

  • INTERVIEWS AND TALKS

    On April 26, 2016, Diana Senechal delivered her talk "Take Away the Takeaway (Including This One)" at TEDx Upper West Side.
     

    Here is a video from the Dallas Institute's 2015 Education Forum.  Also see the video "Hiett Prize Winners Discuss the Future of the Humanities." 

    On April 19–21, 2014, Diana Senechal took part in a discussion of solitude on BBC World Service's programme The Forum.  

    On February 22, 2013, Diana Senechal was interviewed by Leah Wescott, editor-in-chief of The Cronk of Higher Education. Here is the podcast.

  • ABOUT THIS BLOG

    All blog contents are copyright © Diana Senechal. Anything on this blog may be quoted with proper attribution. Comments are welcome.

    On this blog, Take Away the Takeaway, I discuss literature, music, education, and other things. Some of the pieces are satirical and assigned (for clarity) to the satire category.

    When I revise a piece substantially after posting it, I note this at the end. Minor corrections (e.g., of punctuation and spelling) may go unannounced.

    Speaking of imperfection, my other blog, Megfogalmazások, abounds with imperfect Hungarian.

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