Go see “Heights and Depths” (Magasságok és mélységek) as soon as it comes your way!

If there’s justice in the world, and if such justice comes the way of Magasságok és mélységeg (Heights and Depths, directed by Sándor Csoma), it will be winning multiple awards at festivals this year. I have seen nothing like it. A tense, meditative film that goes to a difficult place and stays there for a long time… and through this, subtly and slowly, points a way toward hope. Without a trace of a cliché or false solution.

I went to see the film because Platon Karataev’s song “Létra” (to be released this week) is in it. This was not one of those situations where a song ends up in a “soundtrack,” coming through for a few moments and then fading away. Its placement is perfect and gives it full honor. Go see the film, and you will know the song when you hear it, even without having heard it before.

The film steps inside the mind of Hilda Sterczer (Emőke Pál), the wife of a famous mountaineer who dies in a descent from a Himalayan peak. As she tries to contend with her loss, the press and town gossips won’t leave her alone. We don’t always know what she’s imagining and what’s “real,” but we also know that the imagination is as real as anything for her and her six-year-old daughter, Gerda (played lovingly and brilliantly by Enikő Nagy). The question is how to live with its torments. There are no quick or pat answers. But slowly, hope and help come into view. I don’t want to say more.

The acting, the cinematography, the directing, the pacing, and the music are all phenomenal.

The film does not rush out of the agony of loss, or melodramatize it, or frame it in some comprehensible way. Loss is madness itself. You don’t even know if it happened, let alone why. You keep thinking you’re wrong and the person will come back. Or you shut off all hope prematurely. Or you do both at once (which makes no sense from the outside, but still plays itself out).

What do you do, then? The film takes you inside the bewilderment while also showing you rooms shimmering with light, a forest soft with color, roads and windows, snow and mountain peaks, the innards of a freezer, a tent in a downpour, beautiful and suffering faces.

What do you do, indeed? The film has no direct answers, but one character shows such patient, humble wisdom that I wished I could talk to her myself. Speak, the film says, at least. But it says a lot more.

Too Busy for Balaton Biking?

When I do something like go biking in the Lake Balaton area at the beginning of the school year (and a little over a month before a big trip to the U.S.), I can imagine people saying, “Biking at this time of year? You can’t be very busy.” Well, no, I am extremely busy right now, but I make time for this and am glad. Besides, I see no reason to prove that I’m busy. Being busy isn’t always good; some projects, some aspects of life require slowness. So anyway, heck, I went.

In August I had gone on a shorter bike trip around Tihany (a historic village and peninsular district at Balaton). It left me wanting to come back. So when I saw the announcement for an all-day trip, I signed up. I thought things would be somewhat hectic work-wise, but not extremely so. As it turned out, the trip came during several crunches (deadlines, rushes, requests). But oh well! I had paid for the bike tour already! Nothing to be done! (And my advice: When in a crunch, take a bike trip. You come back with energy and perspective and can roll through the things you need to get done. Or at least that was the case this time.)

Getting out to Balaton from Szolnok isn’t all that easy. You have to go to Budapest and then transfer. Doing this early in the morning wouldn’t have gotten me to the starting point on time. So I stayed in Budapest on Friday night. In the evening, I led a service at Szim Salom, then went to my hotel. Around 6 a.m. I headed out to the Déli train station, then caught the train around 7.

It took a little over two hours to reach Balatonfüred. From there I walked to the bike tour’s starting point. It turned out to be a big tour, broken into several groups (by ability level). These bike tours are run in Hungarian and generally draw Hungarians, which is great. No English-speaking nonsense. (I’m kidding—I love the English language—but it is important to me to be speaking Hungarian in my free time.)

When I arrived, Felső Tízezer’s “Semmi pánik 2” was playing over the loudspeaker (maybe from the radio or a Spotify playlist)! I signed in, found my group, met the leader, and waited for things to get organized. After a few announcements and photo shoots, we took off.

We had a great leader and a spirited group. Before my first Balaton bike tour, I didn’t think I liked biking in groups. I love biking alone because of the reflection and quiet that this allows. But one advantage of the group is that you get to experience it together, traverse terrains you never would have known of, and learn from a pro. We went up and down steep dirt-rock paths. We flew through fields. We cycled through many a lovely, old, hilly town. Saw vineyards, cows, horses, rolling hills, the lake in the distance. All day long. There were refreshment stops along the way where we could have a (delicious) snack. At the end, we had dinner and wine-tasting at a restaurant.

The trip had another wonderful aspect, which I was only vaguely aware of in advance: its theme was the 2022 coming-of-age movie Együtt kezdtük (We started out together), which was set and filmed in the Balaton area; one of the main actors, Toma Hrisztof, was in our group. As it started to dawn on me what was going on—the teenager in our group, Gábor, adores the film and had all sorts of questions for Toma throughout the day, and we visited some of the actual shooting sites—I was actually glad that I hadn’t realized in advance, because it was such a nice surprise. Toma is kind and thoughtful—he took interest in the rest of us and asked me lots of questions about how I learned Hungarian, what brought me to Hungary, etc.

And I just looked and saw that the film will be playing at the Tisza Mozi here in Szolnok beginning this Thursday, so I got a ticket! How exciting: to see the film after visiting some of the filming sites and spending the day with one of the actors and with others who showed so much excitement about the film.

The bike trip ended on a happy note. A delicious beef stew, tasty local wine for dinner. Lots of conversation. Then a few of us took off to catch the earlier train (at about 6 p.m.) and talked along the way. I had originally planned to take the later train, which would have gotten me back to Balatonfüred by 9, but this seemed like a good ending point. The panzió where I was staying had a reception office that was open only until 8. The owner had agreed to give me the key later, but it seemed simpler to check in on time. Then I could relax and maybe leave earlier in the morning than I had planned. I had a lot waiting for me when I came back.

That is how it worked out. I checked in at the lovely Aqua Panzió (where I hope to return) around 7. My room had a little balcony with a view of Tihany, so I relaxed out there for a while, then planned my return trip to Szolnok. It turned out that if I left Balatonfüred at 4:50 a.m. and didn’t miss either of the two transfers, I could get back to Szolnok before 9, which would allow me to reassure and feed the cats and then catch up with a translation. In the morning I woke up very early, dozed off again, and woke up at 4:30. I got up, scrambled, got out the door by 4:40, walked briskly to the train station, and caught the train just barely. Everything went well with the train transfers and the plans; I finished the translation and will soon be going to a klezmer concert at the Szolnok Gallery (formerly one of Szolnok’s synagogues). Then I will still have the whole evening to get ready for tomorrow.

This is probably my last Balaton bike trip of 2022, because so much is happening in the next two months, and then the weather will get cold. But boy was it great.

I will sign off with a video of birds on, around, and above Lake Balaton.

Sliding Love (a new Hungarian film)

Even before the film started last night, you could feel the emotion in the room: the excitement of being back at the Tisza Mozi for a a special film event: this time a pre-screening of Viktor Oszkár Nagy’s film Becsúszó szerelem (Sliding Love), followed by a discussion, led by Zsolt Bajnai, with the director, the lead actress (Viola Lotti Gombó), and another cast member (Ádám László Piller). István Demeter, the owner of the Tisza Mozi, welcomed us heartily.

I loved the film and understood about 95% of it, the most I have understood so far when watching a Hungarian film without subtitles. It’s a somewhat eccentric, melancholic romantic comedy about a couple that wants to have a baby but can’t conceive because the husband, a football “ultra,” is sterile. At an adoption orientation that they attend, prospective adoptive parents are asked what they would hope for in a child. The husband says, “A Hungarian,” and makes clear that he does not want to adopt a Gypsy; this and a few other missteps more or less kill their prospects. Then one day the wife brings home a pregnant Roma (Gypsy) girl, Lüszi, with the idea that they will adopt her child. Things take unexpected turns from there.

The film explores the football (soccer) fan subculture: the rough-and-ready groups of buddies who follow their favorite team all over the place and keep getting into fights and scrapes. It takes on Hungarian racism against Roma people. And it shows a vulnerable, spunky young Roma woman who, over the course of the story, shows and finds out who she truly is. It has heaps of satire too: of various self-help groups, of the justice system, and of the lives of petty thugs.

The lead actors were the ones who enchanted me: András Ötvös as Gyula, and Viola Lotti Gombó as Lüszi. Viola Lotti Gombó has extraordinary range and grace: in the beginning, she plays crass and bored, annoyed with everything; slowly, as the film develops, she lets Lüszi unravel into beauty. I am eager to see what she does in the future.

There’s that moment, at the Tisza Mozi’s special screening, when the film is over, the credits are still playing, and the lights start coming back on, signaling that the discussion will shortly begin. The photo below is from that very moment. “Hang” means “sound”; that was the sound credit, and you can see the light shining onto the chairs below the screen.

During the discussion, Zsolt Bajnai asked the director about the origins of this film, about how it differs from his previous work, about how he learned about the football fan subculture, and about the casting. The football fan subculture part was particularly interesting; he said that he had made contact with various people, friends of friends, and visited some of the games to see and experience this world, and the world of football-hooligans too. Mr. Bajnai asked Viola Lotti Gombó a few questions too. From her responses, you could see how much she loved this role and what it meant to her to be in the film. There were a couple of questions from the audience. Then István Demeter thanked everyone for coming and brought the evening to a close.

On my way out, I had a chance to say hi to the Bajnais, whom I haven’t seen in person for months, and then I zipped home on the bike, happy and full of thoughts.

In Dreams Begin Responsibilities

I must have read Delmore Schwartz’s story “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities” as a teenager, because it was in the anthologies that I read cover to cover. But it wasn’t until Rabbi Adam Roffman mentioned it in a teaching at Shearith Israel in Dallas that I returned to it, and I have reread it many times since then. Each time I teach it to my students, I admire the language and imagination all over again: the movie theater, the young man watching a grainy, clumsy film of his parents before they got married, the narration in the present, taking us in semi-snapshot style (the snapshots are moving, but not much) from one moment to the next, both on the screen and in the theater itself. I won’t give away the second half, since some of my students are reading it now. But here’s one of my favorite paragraphs, at the end of the third part:

My father and mother go to the rail of the boardwalk and look down on the beach where a good many bathers are casually walking about. A few are in the surf. A peanut whistle pierces the air with its pleasant and active whine, and my father goes to buy peanuts. My mother remains at the rail and stares at the ocean. The ocean seems merry to her; it pointedly sparkles and again and again the pony waves are released. She notices the children digging in the wet sand, and the bathing costumes of the girls who are her own age. My father returns with the peanuts. Overhead the sun’s lightning strikes and strikes, but neither of them are at all aware of it. The boardwalk is full of people dressed in their Sunday clothes and idly strolling. The tide does not reach as far as the boardwalk, and the strollers would feel no danger if it did. My mother and father lean on the rail of the boardwalk and absently stare at the ocean. The ocean is becoming rough; the waves come in slowly, tugging strength from far back. The moment before they somersault, the moment when they arch their backs so beautifully, showing green and white veins amid the black, that moment is intolerable. They finally crack, dashing fiercely upon the sand, actually driving, full force downward, against the sand, bouncing upward and forward, and at last petering out into a small stream which races up the beach and then is recalled. My parents gaze absentmindedly at the ocean, scarcely interested in its harshness. The sun overhead does not disturb them. But I stare at the terrible sun which breaks up sight, and the fatal, merciless, passionate ocean, I forget my parents. I stare fascinated and finally, shocked by the indifference of my father and mother, I burst out weeping once more. The old lady next to me pats me on the shoulder and says, “There, there, all of this is only a movie, young man, only a movie,” but I look up once more at the terrifying sun and the terrifying ocean, and being unable to control my tears, I get up and go to the men’s room, stumbling over the feet of the other people seated in my row.

So the narrator’s mother and father are watching the ocean, the narrator is watching the ocean and his parents (who have not yet given birth to him), and the reader is watching them all, wondering, and then understanding, why the narrator bursts out weeping. He sees what his parents do not; he sees the force of ocean and sun, he understands that these forces are stronger than us, stronger even than our awareness of them. His parents are participating in something they do not even notice. The lady says to him, “all of this is only a movie, young man, only a movie,” not knowing that the opposite is the case. It is far from “only” a movie; it is happening right now, the sea and sun and forces, and each of us came into the world through others’ oblivion.

One of my students began speaking eloquently and effusively about the story, as we read the first three parts aloud in class. It brought so much to his mind. Others picked up on details. But the story, even at the end, leaves me unsettled, and that’s how I think it is meant to be. It has a message, yes; its strangenesses get somewhat resolved, yes. But it leaves me with the feeling of the movie theater, of sinking into the darkness and watching something unfold that is more true than I can stand, and that I want to protest but can’t, because I am part of it, even without appearing in the film. The protest is not just that of an immature young man. The protest is everyone’s, because much of life we do not see until art, or some other convulsion, brings it right in front of us, and then we’re alone with it while the others gaze absently past it or say, “there, there, all of this is only a movie.”

Photo of Coney Island courtesy of Wikipedia.

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. (Update: The Bay Area Book Festival kindly sent me the link to the video they made of the talk, so I will be able to hear it after all.)

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.

Instead of “Growth Mindset,” Good Tinkering

I have written numerous posts–and a chapter of a book–on problems with the concept of “growth mindset” and the phrase itself.* But I keep tinkering with the idea, because there seems to be something more to say. Until now, my objections have come down to this: Growth mindset proponents either say or imply that everyone should strive for more growth mindset, no matter how much they already have. Yet it is possible, even likely, that people benefit from a mixture of mindsets, from a sense of possibility and limitation. Also, the phrase sounds overly grandiose, like a polka-dotted umbrella stretching over the world; it claims to encompass more than it does.

I still hold to the above. But I realized something else while listening to Bill Hader’s Q&A with students and program host Tova Laiter at the New York Film Academy’s Los Angeles campus. Throughout the discussion, he keeps returning to the point that no matter where you are in your creative life and career, you fail and fail again. You learn to figure out what’s going wrong and how it could be better. That becomes your primary way of thinking: puzzling things out, looking at possibilities, following your instincts but also listening to others and recognizing when something isn’t working. Trying again. Knowing when you have hit upon what you were looking for. There’s no way to simplify this; it’s contradictory and complex, because you have to let yourself be both right and wrong. You have to listen to yourself but not only to yourself. You have to try all sorts of things that don’t work out at all. Failures do not end.

In the entire hour, he did not once say “growth mindset,” nor have I heard him say it in any other interviews. I admire his work, especially on SNL (eight seasons), in the HBO series Barry, and in the film The Skeleton Twins, and I enjoy hearing him speak about it. He answers questions courteously and thoughtfully, in his own words, without catchphrases. I am sure he has heard the phrase “growth mindset,” but from what I have heard so far, he hasn’t used it. Why not? I have no way of knowing, but I think he’s saying something slightly different.

The point is not to have a “growth mindset,” or even to strive for one. The point is to tinker with stuff and to tinker well. For fun and for results. Try this, try that, and listen closely. Be alert to what you are doing; catch whatever seems slightly off. But also catch whatever is good. Develop a better and better ear and eye for this.

No one does this across the board. We have a few things in our lives that we tinker continually with, and other things we leave alone. I mean “tinker” in the best possible sense: to fiddle, experiment, play with something in order to get it right. There’s tinkering that leads nowhere or that is done haphazardly, with no clear intention. But once you have a grasp of what you are doing, you start tinkering better. It doesn’t always have to be productive; sometimes you do it playfully, to see what happens.

I don’t assume that Bill Hader agrees with me here. For all I know, he might be a “growth mindset” fan. But he seems more concerned with the work itself, and the possibilities within it, than with a “mindset” of any kind. Yes, this does require certain attitudes and assumptions. You don’t tinker at all if you expect your work to be perfect as soon as it comes out of you. Tinkering requires that you see imperfections. But after that, what really matters is the practice of it, the daily immersion in the work and the questions it brings up.

In the NYFA discussion, he returns several times to the importance of focus–and how you can create focus yourself, just through the way you look at your work. A couple of students ask him how he manages to wear different hats in Barry and elsewhere–as writer, director, and actor–and he responds that he focuses on the story. That way, all his different roles come together, and the focus isn’t on him and all the different things he has to do.

Someone like Bill Hader must have to turn down hundreds of projects and possibilities, not just within film and television, but outside. Why not take up a musical instrument? Learn how to repair a car? Go on a speaking tour? Accept this or that interview request? Please, please? The phrase “I can’t” permits not only survival, but dedication to the projects at hand. Sure, stretching yourself into new areas could represent “growth,” but if you aren’t beholden to a concept of growth mindset, you get to decide what and what not to take on.

That must be one of the most difficult parts of a career like his. Even I, who am nowhere near famous, get requests that I have to turn down, but he must get them all the time. He has some people to filter them, but of those invitations and proposals that do get through to him, he probably takes on only a small fraction. Why? Because infinite availability will kill you. People will not respect your limits.

And there it is. To work on something serious, you also need limits, things you can’t or won’t do, things you say no to, implicitly or out loud. This becomes your den. There, in the warm light, you get down to work.

*Growth mindset, according to Carol Dweck, consists in the belief that one’s “talents can be developed (through hard work, good strategies, and input from others).” Growth mindset proponents routinely oppose growth mindset (good) to fixed mindset (bad). They acknowledge that people have a mixture of mindsets (in which case, is it even a “mindset?”) but ignore the possibility that such a mixture might be necessary.

The photo at the top is courtesy of HBO via a wonderful article in Vanity Fair (Sonya Saraiya, “Barry Is Still Killer in Season 2,” March 29, 2019).

The Week in Pictures

Yesterday the winners of the first Folyosó contest received their certificates (in the hallway, the “folyosó,” outside the teachers’ room, in the long break after the second lesson of the day). Their pieces will appear in the autumn issue of Folyosó, to be published on November 2. For this contest, I had invited four colleagues to be on the jury with me, and they happily agreed. It was exciting to read and reread the pieces and make our final choices. Congratulations to all!

The week had lots of rain, which meant that there were lots of umbrellas at school, which meant photos of umbrellas. At one point, when stopping to take a photo (in a rush on my way to class), I dropped everything, including a piece of chalk, which broke into many bits. A student kindly stopped and helped me pick everything up again–and I took that picture. The one below was taken a little later.

It’s hard to go out on weeknights, especially this year, when I am working on the translations and have so much to do from day to day. But on Tuesday there was no way that I could resist. I first went to an art opening by Gábor Homolya at the Tisza Mozi (Szolnok’s art cinema, which has ongoing exhibits, concerts, and more, in addition to films). My friend Éva from Budapest had told me about it. She took me and a few others on a detailed tour of the pieces. It was the third time I had seen his work up close; these ones were filled with allusions to literature, music, and film. Here is “1984.”

With the art opening, the 2020 Alexandre Trauner Art/Film Festival began. After a an introductory speech about Mr. Homolya, and after people had some time to look at the works, we all headed together across the courtyard to the synagogue (gallery) to hear the Bartók Béla Kamarakórus, one of Szolnok’s musical treasures and the only professional women’s choir in Hungary. After that, there were words of welcome, followed by the presentation of the Szignál-film awards.

We then walked back to the Tisza Mozi to see the film of the evening: Éden, directed by Ágnes Kocsis. It was an eerie, moving work that cannot (or should not) be described in terms of its plot. Afterwards Zsolt Bajnai conducted a discussion with the director and two others.

Between that, Folyosó, and regular classes and things, it was a fantastic week, topped off by bike rides along the Tisza.

A Great Tuesday Evening

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I had planned to spend most of the afternoon reading Krisztián Grecsó’s Vera, from which Grecsó will read on Thursday when he visits our school and the library. Before today, I was about thirty pages into it. I figured I would read for five hours or so. But I got home only to realize that I had left the book at school–and I was planning to see the movie Seveled at 8:15 at the Tisza Mozi. It seemed best to go back to school, pick up the book, bike on down to the Tisza Mozi, and read for a few hours at the cinema’s café. I read up to page 109, without a dictionary, and expect to reach at least the halfway point tomorrow. It’s a wonderful novel and–assuming I keep this up at a reasonable pace–the first novel I will have read in Hungarian.

Seveled (directed by Dénes Orosz) was bittersweet and funny, with some intense beauty. I read about it on blogSzolnok and decided to see it. And I understood it! That was a happy surprise, since it was the first Hungarian comedy film I had seen. In some ways, comedy is easy to understand–a comic situation is often recognizable–but in other ways, it’s more difficult than the weightier genres. So it was really rewarding to get the jokes and laugh along with others. There were many good things about this film, but I especially loved the mother character (played by Juli Básti).

And then there was the bike ride home. To return from the Tisza Mozi, I just have to go north on Szapáry (which has a generous bike lane) and then make a few short turns. It’s a five- or ten-minute ride–and where the path is clear, I pedal full speed.

Here is a photo from earlier in the day, on Batthyány Street, where the pet supply store is located (but this isn’t a photo of the shop). I got a few things for my cat Minnaloushe and then walked home in the rain, enjoying this street (I had not brought my bike to school, knowing that I would have some big things to carry home). So, come to think of it, it was a pretty good day–and I haven’t even brought up the teaching, which went well too.

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Sátántangó (the film)

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I had been looking forward to this for weeks: Sátántangó, Béla Tarr’s 1994 film based on László Krasznahorkai’s novel. Over seven hours long, with two breaks, this event lasted from 2 until 10 p.m. (I took the picture at the end of the second break; this shot stayed still for a minute or two before the film resumed.) There were ten to twelve of us in Auditorium “E” at the Tisza Mozi. I expected that I would know or at least recognize someone there, because the people who show up for this film probably have something in common, and because I have been living in Szolnok for over two years now. And indeed: a parent of one of my former students was there, and someone else looked vaguely familiar.

When I entered the movie theatre, it seemed like a Krasznahorkai setting itself: the place was being torn down, nothing recognizable was in sight, and the workers didn’t know where the movies were. I soon found out that I had to enter through the side (the front entrance was being renovated).

The film unrolls and reveals human depravity–cheating, affairs, swindling, idolatry, gullibility, all-out alcoholism, and greed. There’s nothing redeeming in the characters (except perhaps the doctor and the girl Estike), no sentimentality at all, nothing romanticized, no one to feel sorry for (except Estike, maybe, and the cat), and nothing in the scenery except for mud, rain, more rain, trees, dilapidated buildings, more mud, more rain. But somehow this becomes gorgeous–through the long, slow scenes, Krasznahorkai’s sentences and phrases, the long gazes, the bells ringing and ringing, the animals mulling around, the dance that goes on and on, the accordion haplessly playing, and the scoundrels’ indomitable belief that the arch-schemers Petrina and Irimiás will lead them to a better life. Irimiás has a gift for soft-spoken oratory and–in a brilliant performance by Mihály Víg–leads people to want to believe him and his partner, against all evidence. I loved the ending, which I won’t give away here, except to say that everything goes dark and the story begins.

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.

  • “To know that you can do better next time, unrecognizably better, and that there is no next time, and that it is a blessing there is not, there is a thought to be going on with.”

    —Samuel Beckett, Malone Dies

  • Always Different

  • Pilinszky Event (3/20/2022)

  • 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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