Blogging, “Winky,” and More

Blogging is a kind of mental relaxation for me, and a way to start working with ideas that may take a different form later. I have just started to realize how old-school it is. Not that many people blog any more, or when they do, it’s partly to make money. I make no money off of this blog; I pay a little each year to keep adds off of it. I do make money from other forms of writing, but this is a place where I can say what I want, on my own terms and timing, and that’s how I want to keep it.

I have gotten weary of the new economy of punditry. So many people are competing to be pundits, to make ponderous pronouncements about the state of the world, pronouncements aimed at winning followers and subscriptions. Very few of these pronouncements have any lasting quality. The whole thing feels vain to me, and boring. But then, I have my vanities too.

My students (that is, one of my tenth-grade sections) read George Saunders’s “Winky” last week. The other section didn’t read it because we had too few classes left in the year—that is, just one. We have been reading a lot of stories this spring: Delmore Schwartz’s “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities,” Tobias Wolff’s “Bullet in the Brain,” Alice Walker’s “The Welcome Table,” and now “Winky.” They are so lively and thoughtful in discussion that my planning only goes so far; things come up that hadn’t occurred to me.

It’s hard to talk about “Winky” without giving spoilers. But I’ll try. The story begins at a strange motivational seminar, in which a tacky modern version of a medieval morality tale is playing out on the stage. One of the characters, “You,” is trying to reach “Inner Peace,” but then a number of other actors, including “Whiny,” “Self-Absorbed,” and “Blames Her Fat on Others” get in the way. Finally a GoldHat appears and drags these obstacles into jail. The crowd then bursts into the familiar mantra: “Now Is the Time for Me to Win!”

Then Tom Rodgers, the founder of the Seminars reveals himself and begins telling the audience about how he learned to stop letting people crap in his oatmeal. (This becomes the bizarre ruling metaphor of the session.) Then the participants line up for the Personal Change Centers. Neil Yaniky finally finds himself face to face with Rodgers, who helps him identify the main obstacle in his life—his sister, Winky—and the main problem: “Needs her own place.” Yaniky resolves to go home at the end of the session and tell Winky precisely this.

In our discussion, the students quickly saw through the Seminars and the message they were broadcasting. You can’t just treat people as obstacles in your life, especially people close to you; you can’t solve life problems by cutting people out of your life, sending them away, etc. But they saw this even more when we were taken into the world of Winky.

Winky is unsummarizable. A little bit out there, in her own world, Christian, full of happy fantasies, but also with her shair of pain from being taunted and lonely. We see her catching herself in the middle of daydreaming and realizing she had to get ready for Neil-Neil’s return home at the end of the day. She rushes up the stairs “with a strip of broken molding under her arm and a dirty sock over her shoulder.”

The students saw that Winky adores Neil-Neil, that he is at the center of her world, and that she also takes care of him, cleans for him, cooks for him. One student was very upset by Winky’s Christian faith, her belief that she really should turn the other cheek when people abused her. “How can you let other people bully you and not fight back?” she asked. We talked about this for a while. In the story, it’s complex, because we’re supposed to see Winky’s naiveté, but we also see that she’s happy in her own way.

Neil-Neil has fantasies of his own, as we learn on his way home. A beautiful wife, a Jaguar, a feeling of power wherever he went. But he’s short and bald, and Bev, whom he apparently dated for a little while, left him, so the fantasies are far, far out of reach, except in his mind. But he doesn’t think so as he walks home; he thinks he’s on the verge of winning. The seminar has pumped him up.

And he gets home, and things don’t work out as he planned. But he doesn’t have an epiphany either. I can’t give away the ending. It’s wonderfully mundane and disturbing. I asked the students, why does the story end this way? Why doesn’t it end with him realizing that he was wrong and that he loves his sister?

“This isn’t Disney,” one of them offered.

“That wouldn’t be Neil-Neil,” another said, explaining that he clearly has limitations, and it would be too much out of character for him to have that much insight at once.

Then another student spoke. “I think we all have a little bit of Neil-Neil in us,” he said. We talked about that until the end of class.

And now is it clear why I love teaching at Varga?

We didn’t have time, but I wanted to bring my students an article, in The Economist, about how young adults in the U.S. are increasingly cutting off contact with their parents. At one point the article points to one of the causes (or at least contributing factors): “Those who decide to break off contact with their parents find support in a growing body of books (often with the word ‘toxic’ in the title), as well as online. Threads on internet forums for people who want to break ties with their parents reveal strangers labelling people they have never met as narcissistic or toxic and advising an immediate cessation of contact. This may make it easier to shelve feelings of guilt.”

In my book Mind over Memes I devote a chapter to the word “toxic” and the damage it can do when overapplied. (I bring up “Winky” in the chapter too.) Surely some situations are toxic in some way. But to call people toxic, without first trying to understand what is actually going on, can lead to more harm than the so-called toxicity itself. There are situations in life where you do need to cut someone off, and that may even be a family member. But there are many more cases where you actually don’t—where, through learning to say “yes” and “no,” and through learning more about the situation, you can find a way to relate to each other. It can have limits, it can be imperfect, but it’s still a relationship of some kind.

The fad of cutting off relationships, and justifying it blithely, is nothing short of monstrous.

But “Winky” does much more than teach a lesson, and it leaves a lot unresolved. (The story is not punditry, thank God!) The students were able to take this.

The title of this blog piece promised “more,” but that will have to wait until next time.

Folyosó, a Concert, and More

The past few months have been full, and I think I have finally met all the pressing deadlines. So now it will be possible, while wrapping up the year, to resume work on some projects and go on a long bike ride or two. The summer will be varied; except for ten days in the U.S., I expect to be here, relaxing, working on projects, riding the bike, and going to the Kolorádó music festival in August.

The spring issue of Folyosó (our first anniversary issue) came out on May 17, and it is beautiful. There’s a section with pieces about walls (of many different kinds), a section of short absurdist scenes, a section of miniature stories, a section of speeches, and some beautiful art by Lilla Kassai. Click on the picture to view the contents. If you feel so moved, please post a comment on the comments page.

This evening I am going to my first concert of 2021, a highly anticipated solo concert of Cz.K. Sebő, who is going to treat us to a double program at the TRIP Terasz, the outdoor part of a ship nightclub on the Danube. In the first part, he will play his own songs, including one or two entirely new ones; in the second part, he will play covers of some of his favorite songs. Because a maximum of 80 people can be admitted, and priority is given in order of arrival, I can’t take any chances. So that means: get there very early (when they open at 4 p.m.) and bring something to read, and I have the perfect thing: Csenger Kertai’s poetry collection Hogy nekem jó legyen, which I ordered after listening and relistening to Sebő’s musical rendering of Kertai’s poem “Balaton,” in which Kertai reads the poem and Sebő’s music paints it underneath.

This little book is not easy for me to understand; there are words I don’t know, expressions to puzzle over, meanings to ponder, but so much the better; the time will whisk by (on a ship on the Danube, with a beer), and then the concert will begin, and there will be time to sink into it, and then I can return to the poems later, on the train ride home, and again and again over time. I will say more about all of this later, after it has happened.

Speaking of songs, I wrote my first song in Hungarian and will try to record it over the weekend (I may need more time). The song is mostly set in my mind; it just needs to be played, in its various parts and instruments. The title is “Időköz,” which means “time interval.” It’s my first serious attempt at a song in a language other than English; at age 14 I composed a round with brief Russian lyrics, but that’s it. I don’t even remember the first part, but the second part went, “Счастлив человек, который каждый день слушает музыку.” (“Happy is the person who listens to music every day.”) Before posting “Időköz,” I will run it by a native speaker, just in case there’s something impossibly wrong with the lyrics. A few quirks I don’t mind.

I have to run, so that is all for now.

Song Series #14: One Morning in May

This morning I had the joy of listening to songs with my ninth-grade students, as part of the music unit in the American Civilization course. A few weeks ago, while we were still online, I had introduced them to U.S. American and Canadian songs and pieces from various genres: jazz, blues, folk, country. They then had to choose one of the songs from the playlist and write a reflection on it. From their reflections and songs, I chose five, and added one more (which isn’t American but which is clearly influenced by these traditions, particularly folk): Platon Karataev’s “Orange Nights.” So here was what we listened to, in person, this morning in May.

First was the remastered version of Freddie Hubbard’s “Mirrors,” which an eleventh-grade student had strongly recommended to me. I listened to it and understood why he thought I should hear it. A person could listen to this piece alone and fall in love with jazz. One ninth-grader wrote, “In the first second when I heard the jazzy piano, I knew
that this song was going to be good. The wind instruments are played like they are the singers I’m a fan of. It is really calm and smooth.” Another mentioned that he might include a sample from this piece in one of his own musical projects.


The next one was Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne,” which I have brought up on this blog before. While Cohen was Jewish and observant, as well as being involved with Buddhism, the verse that describes Jesus is heartbreaking. That is part of the song’s opennness; Suzanne in the song carries the spirit of openness, the ability to feel with the world and to love with a purity that sweeps up everything.

And Jesus was a sailor when he walked upon the water
And he spent a long time watching from his lonely wooden tower
And when he knew for certain only drowning men could see him
He said all men will be sailors then until the sea shall free them
But he himself was broken, long before the sky would open
Forsaken, almost human, he sank beneath your wisdom like a stone

And you want to travel with him, and you want to travel blind
And then you think maybe you’ll trust him
For he’s touched your perfect body with his mind

The next was “Little Red Rooster” by the great blues musician Howlin’ Wolf. A student found it intriguing because nowadays teens don’t listen to this kind of music. “I noticed his beautiul energetic voice,” he wrote, “which is incredible.” He gave some brief background on Howlin’ Wolf (Chester Arthur Burnett), his teenage life on a cotton plantation, and his musical evolution.

The next one was Sarah Jarosz’s “Song Up In Her Head,” this version recorded during the Music Fog sessions at the 2010 Americana Music Festival in Nashville, Tennessee. The students who had written about this song had been taken by her voice and the way the song gets you to sing along. “I personally think that the lyrics are catchy,” one wrote; “they are easy to memorize. After listening to the song two or three times, you can already sing along easily. There aren’t many too high or too low notes, because the focus is more on the instruments, as the genre is bluegrass.”

From there, we moved along to Bob Dylan’s “Simple Twist of Fate,” which had appealed to several of the students. The song has layers and layers of memories for me. I love the languourous mood, the characteristic soaring of the voice, and the way the song tells a story and then, in the last verse, moves into the first person.

People tell me it’s a sin
To know and feel too much within
I still believe she was my twin
But I lost the ring
She was born in spring
But I was born too late
Blame it on a simple twist of fate

To wrap it all up, we listened to Platon Karataev’s “Orange Nights,” which they hadn’t heard before. I chose it because it is gorgeous and because it fit so well with the rest; also, because they could hear how a Hungarian band draws on U.S. folk traditions in a genuine and original way. The music wraps you up and carries you along; you can hear and see the orange nights in Pest. The lyrics are full of textures and meanings. One of my favorite aspects is the rhyme of “Pest” (“pesht”) with “detest,” “rest,” “best,” and “chest”; another is the pair of lines “Solitude, you’re with me in the end / We salute as old friends,” with “salute” pronounced with a stress on the first syllable, so that it sounds very close to “solitude” and brings out this beautiful paradox of solitude and greeting. No native English speaker would come up with this, and it’s perfect; the song, after you listen to it a few times, starts playing in the mind and limbs.

What a happy lesson, and a rare treat at school: to be able to listen to songs like this, one after another. The students were tranquil and thoughtful, and several commented at the end that they had enjoyed this. One of them doesn’t like slow songs, so it wasn’t quite as enjoyable for her; but others were strongly enthusiastic (one especially loved “Orange Nights”), and in any case, this is an opening into more: for instance, the full albums, or these same songs again, or something else. Who knows where listening will lead?

To see all the posts in the Song Series, go here.

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.

“The Vanished City Hall”

On Monday, January 13, 2020, around 7:45 a.m., I bicycled past Szolnok’s city hall on my way to school, just to make sure it was still there, and took the above photo. Earlier in the morning, I had read Zsolt Bajnai’s story “Az eltűnt városháza” (“The Vanished City Hall”); while I realized it was satire, I couldn’t discount its plausibility, since the days had indeed been foggy, the story had a bite to it, and such things do happen in the world…. A year and nearly three months later, my translation of the story has been published on the Asymptote Blog, in its Translation Tuesday feature!

https://www.asymptotejournal.com/blog/2021/04/06/translation-tuesday-the-vanished-city-hall-by-zsolt-bajnai/

Are Hungarians Especially Sad?

Yesterday evening a former student wrote to me to wish me a happy Women’s Day and to ask what I thought of a certain Mariana Hernández’s comment on Quora that Hungary is the saddest country in Europe. “I can say I have never seen such bitter, depressed people as the Hungarians,” writes Ms. Hernández, who has been living in Hungary for eight years. She goes on to explain that she loves Hungarians and considers them open-minded, peace-loving, freedom-loving. They just have an extremely pessimistic outlook (in her opinion), don’t believe dreams can come true, and rarely smile.

No, this is not my experience. First of all, I would avoid any sweeping generalizations. I know Hungarians who are generally cheerful, Hungarians who are generally gloomy, and many whose mood and outlook fluctuate. That said, Hungarians do tend to be less optimistic on the surface than many U.S. Americans I know, but they also work toward what they want to do. If that isn’t optimistic, I don’t know what is. There’s a sense that life is difficult but that if you’re alert, clever, and persistent, you can find solutions to problems, and learn things while you’re at it. Also, here people are generally more open about their problems than in the U.S. (where such disclosures can come across as “too much information”). Maybe all of us have sadness, but some cultures show it more than others.

I have a hard time measuring happiness and sadness anyway, because they have so much to do with each other. They are intermeshed. I think of the stanza from W. H. Auden’s “September 1, 1939“):

The windiest militant trash
Important Persons shout
Is not so crude as our wish:
What mad Nijinsky wrote
About Diaghilev
Is true of the normal heart;
For the error bred in the bone
Of each woman and each man
Craves what it cannot have,
Not universal love
But to be loved alone.

Or a haunting poem by Endre Ady that I read recently, “A sorsom ellopója” (“Thief of My Destiny”), which begins:

Ki az én sorsomat ellopta,
Láttam,
Nipponban vagy Amerikában,
Nem emlékszem:
Álmomban láttam.

The one who stole my destiny,
I saw,
In Nippon or America,
I don’t remember:
In my dream I saw him.

I wouldn’t say that these poems bring happiness, but they do bring a kind of joy, since they give form to something hidden in us. Form is one of the biggest longings, one of the biggest fears, in a human life; we don’t want imposed forms, outworn forms, forms that fit us badly, but we want form in a deeper sense.

There are certainly Hungarians who believe that the current forms in the country are rotten: that the economy, government, and infrastructure have been overtaken by human greed, and that nothing better can possibly come, since human nature will not improve. But there are others who focus on doing their best with whatever they have and showing kindness to those around them. And having a good laugh here and there. The humor here is wonderful.

Just an example of basic goodwill: last week I went to see my general practitioner for the first time, so that he could enter my information in their system and then let me know when it’s my turn for a vaccination. The doctor’s office is on my street (the address is officially on Indóház, but the entrance is actually on Vörösmarty utca). I waited in the waiting room for just 15 minutes or so, and then I could go in. He and two assistants were in the office; the phones were constantly ringing, and he cheerfully handled the appointment while he or one of the two women took the calls (people calling anxiously with questions about the vaccines). It seemed hectic to me, but they were handling it all so skillfully and calmly, just taking the work as it came along. Doctors don’t get paid much in Hungary, and only the fanciest places have actual receptionists in the waiting area. But they admitted me cheerfully and charged me nothing.

Or another: last week I got an official letter in the mail, written in intimidating bureaucratic language (which I now understand, though I sometimes have to read it slowly), which informed me that I had to appear at the government office to apply for an address card and personal ID (which are required now that I have a permanent residence card), and that I had to bring certain documents, including a birth certificate with official translation. I despaired at this momentarily, because I had sent the official translation to Debrecen when applying for the residence permit, and had not received it back. It hadn’t occurred to me that I would need it again.

Then, just when I was about to go to the translation office, I received word of the new lockdown. All services and stores, except for the essential ones, were to be closed for two weeks. So I raced to the translation office and explained the situation. The OFFI worker looked me up and saw that the translation was still in the system; all I needed was to order an official copy, which she could have ready by Monday. I asked whether the office would be open, and she said she wasn’t sure, but she’d call me on Monday morning, and if I couldn’t come in, she’d mail it to me. “Megoldjuk” (“we’ll solve it”), she said. And indeed: she called me on Monday and said I could come pick it up.

This kind of thing has happened many times, at school as well. There’s a willingness to solve problems, as well as an eagerness to do good even on a small scale. How many times a colleague has left a bag of fruit tea, or a piece of chocolate, on my desk? How many thoughtful gestures have I received? There has to be some kind of optimism in this. But it’s just not the “pumped-up, rah-rah” kind.

This week I brough George Saunders’s story “Winky”—one of my favorite stories in the world—to my twelfth-grade students. Reading it with Hungarians was very interesting (and moving) because of what they understood. They didn’t all grasp the first part, at the Seminar led by Tom Rodgers. They understood that it was a kind of success workshop, and a few figured out that Tom Rodgers was a con man, but the situation itself wasn’t familiar to them. The self-improvement craze hasn’t reached the same extremes here. But the parts they understood profoundly had to do with Neil Yaniky and his somewhat dimwitted but kindhearted sister, Winky. They understood Yaniky’s error: his belief that if he got rid of his sister, if he just told her to leave, he could succeed at last. And they understood how deluded this was.

Despite all my qualms about spoilers, I have to quote the ending of “Winky” to explain what I mean. At the Seminar, Yaniky has been convinced that Winky is the one who has been standing in his way, (“crapping in his oatmeal,” to paraphrase Tom Rodgers), and that now is the time for him to win. He gets all geared up for his great moment. In the meantime Winky is happily getting ready for her brother to come home, walking around with a sock over her shoulder and a piece of molding under her arm. And when he gets home, he just can’t do it.

… and as he pushed by her into the tea-smelling house the years ahead stretched out bleak and joyless in his imagination and his chest went suddenly dense with rage.

“Neil-Neil,” she said. “Is something wrong?”

And he wanted to smack her, insult her, say something to wake her up, but only kept moving toward his room, calling her terrible names under his breath.

He isn’t happier, he hasn’t had some rosy realization that family is what really matters in the world, but we are the ones left relieved. As a student said, “They have a history together.” Something in him can’t go against that. Maybe it’s cowardice, maybe it’s weakness, but whatever it is, it keeps him from doing that awful thing, and my students knew that it would have been awful, sending Winky out into a world she had no idea how to face.

Human nature is no better in one country than in another. But in my experience, Hungarians know that there’s something to be said for being among others and treating them well, even with imperfections and limitations (on all sides). Like Yaniky, Hungarians may mutter terrible names under their breath, but they (or many of them) reject the ultimate selfishness. And if that isn’t hopeful, I don’t know what is.

ALSCW Zoom event, March 21: Zsolt Bajnai and Marcell Bajnai (3 p.m. EDT, 8 p.m. CET)

Zsolt Bajnai’s photography opening at the Tisza Mozi on September 2, 2020.
From left to right on stage: Marcell Bajnai, Gábor Benő Pogány, Zsolt Bajnai.

I am excited to announce that on Sunday, March 21, at 3 p.m. EDT (8 p.m. CET), in a Zoom event hosted by the Association of Literary Scholars, Critics, and Writers (ALSCW), I will be interviewing the fiction writer, journalist, and blogger Zsolt Bajnai and his son, the songwriter, musician, and university student Marcell Bajnai. After the interview, the father will read several of his stories, and the son will play his own songs in between them. A Facebook event page has been set up. Please come and invite others! Here’s the Zoom information:

Ernest F Suarez is inviting you to a scheduled Zoom meeting.
https://cua.zoom.us/j/87577216462?pwd=cXNMaUhkOVRmUCs2K0pZcEJIdDQ3UT09
Meeting ID: 875 7721 6462
Passcode: 442761

The Bajnais are exceptional contributors to cultural life in Szolnok and Hungary. Zsolt’s wife, Judit Bajnai, is an editor and reporter for SzolnokTV, with a focus on culture. Her eye and ear for what is worth reporting, her interview questions, her way of engaging with the guests, and her speaking voice all contribute to making her programs enlightening and beautiful.

Judit Bajnai interviews the cellist Éva Nagyné Csontos and the actor Botond Barabás on SzolnokTV.

Kata Bajnai, Marcell’s sister, is a young playwright, actress, director, and university students. Her plays have won awards here in Szolnok and have been performed by the Varga Drama Club at venues around the city; I translated her darkly whimsical and satirical Farkasok (Wolves) with hopes that the Varga Drama Club could perform it at the Veszprém English-Language Drama Festival, but unfortunately Covid delayed those plans. Kata has a lot coming; I am eager to see what she does in the future.

Performance of Kata Bajnai’s Farkasok by the Varga Drama Club at the Verseghy Ferenc Könyvtár, June 22, 2019.
Third from left: Kata Bajnai.

The family doesn’t end there; the grandparents come to the events full of love and pride (and kindness—they have welcomed me warmly, and we sat together at the performance below), and there are other relatives I haven’t met yet.

Now for our featured guests. When I first discovered Zsolt Bajnai’s blogSzolnok—an exploration of Szolnok’s history through postcards, photographs, maps, and other artifacts—I knew I had come upon a treasure. What can you learn from a postcard? Much more than I had considered before: you can figure out when the photo was taken, what its significance was, what buildings looked like at the time, what the postcard-writer was doing, and much more. I made a practice (which has since slowed, because of the demands on my time) of reading the blog every day, as this allowed me to practice Hungarian and learn about Szolnok, both at once. Mr. Bajnai also gives (or, until Covid, gave) lectures based on his blog; people crowd into rooms at community centers, libraries, and other places to hear him speak, share memories of the past, and ask questions. Soon after finding the blog, I came upon his first two collections of fiction and started reading them. When I read “Korrupcióterápia” (“Corruption Therapy”), I knew it had to be translated. The satire is dead-on and pertinent to us all; the story has a lively rhythm and musical feel, with motifs and phrases cycling and returning. I especially enjoy hearing Mr. Bajnai read it at events, because of this and the audience’s laughter. (My translation was published a little over a year ago in The Satirist; you can read it here.) His most recent collection, Az eltűnt városháza (“The Vanished City Hall”), came out last April. Just a few days after its release (this was during the first Covid lockdown), I received a phone call from Mr. Bajnai himself. He asked what my address was, and I thought he was going to mail me the book. A few minutes later, the doorbell rang, and there he was on his bike, with an autographed copy in hand! That not only made my day but opened up hours of enjoyable reading. The title story tells the incredible (and fortunately fictional and satirical) story of the disappearance of Szolnok’s beautiful city hall; the events are so close to reality that, after first reading the story on his blog, I had to bicycle past the city hall to make sure it was still there.

Marcell Bajnai was my student in 2018–2019, the year when his band 1LIFE (now Idea) released their first album, Nincsen kérdés (There Is No Question). I remember when the album came out; one of my colleagues told me about it and even procured an autographed copy for me. The first listen called for many more. One tuneful, energetic, thoughtful song after another; the three band members together fill the air with sound but also know how to texture the songs so that you can hear everything. I was amazed and moved by the song “Maradok ember” (translatable as “I remain human,” “I will remain a person,” and similar variations), to the point of covering it on cello. I listened (and listen) to the band many times: on CD, at concerts, and online. In addition to being the band’s lead singer, guitarist, and songwriter, Marcell—currently a student of Hungarian at the Faculty of Arts of the Eötvös Loránd University, where he studies literature and linguistics—has been writing songs for years and has begun a solo project. The songs move people of many ages; they show young wisdom, courage, and a love of working with words and music together. The songs truly play, even in sadness; they take up a theme and turn it in different directions. One of my recent favorites is “dühöngő” (“raging”), which you can hear below.

People often talk about the importance of contributing to a community, but the Bajnais bring meaning and life to this concept. I could go on, but you will get to hear Zsolt and Marcell yourselves, if you attend on the 21st. I am happy and grateful that during this new lockdown—except for grocery stores and private health care, all stores and services are closed until March 22—we can come together for an interview, stories, and music. Please do join us.

Photo credits: Szolnoki Koncertek (photo of Zsolt Bajnai’s photography opening at the Tisza Mozi), Verseghy Ferenc Könyvtár (photo of the curtain call of Kata Bajnai’s Farkasok).

Update: The event went wonderfully; thanks to everyone who came, and thanks for the many enthusiastic comments we received afterward! Also, on a related subject, my translation of Zsolt Bajnai’s story “Az eltűnt városháza” (“The Vanished City Hall”) will be published on the Asymptote Blog on April 6!

Légszomj (diary-poems by Gyula Jenei, art by György Verebes)

Légszomj (Shortness of Breath), a pandemic diary of verse by Gyula Jenei and graphics by György Verebes, came out in mid-December, but since I was finishing up the manuscript of poetry translations and reading a couple of other books,it took me a little while to begin reading. When I did, it took me in with its humor, deadpan truth, terse comments on human nature and death, and details and places, many of them familiar to me. I loved it and read it in a few sittings, looking up only a few words in the dictionary. The art is dreamy (in a nightmarish sort of way) and dancelike.

Two thoughts come to mind. First, while this book is topical and timely to some extent, I believe it will outlive the pandemic, assuming the latter fades away. It’s about what we are going through now, but it is full of grim, matter-of-fact, resilient humor. It doesn’t leave the mind easily, and I am confident that it will continue to be pulled out of the bookshelf over the years. Along these lines, I think someone, or many people, should translate it into other languages. Not in a rush, but in good time, with care.

The first entry, “Day 1 / March 11” begins, “azon nevettek a feleségével, meséli ismerősöm, / hogy tegnap este a bevásárlóközpontban / miképp óvatoskodtak az emberek.” (“My acqaintance tells me that he and his wife laughed / over how, last night at the mall, / the people were so cautious around each other.”) The acquaintance goes on to describe how, if one person blew his nose, the faces of those around him would purse up; the mouths would get narrow. And the narrator laughs too, imagining these people, and imagining himself too; and then, at the end of the poem, the three of them (acquaintance, acquaintance’s wife, narrator) are laughing with self-abandon, to the point where they no longer know who is imagining whom, just that “lepkeként verdes bennünk / a szorongás” (“anxiety is beating inside us / in the manner of a moth”).

The fifth entry, “Day 6 / March 16,” describes a faculty meeting that I also attended. I remember exactly the scene described; a few people in the room were coughing, and you could sense others looking nervously around. In the poem, someone starts to say, “we will begin our next meeting with….” and the narrator whispers to his neighbor, “standing in a moment of silence,” and then, in the poem, compares this to the moment at a burial when the priest calls on the people to pray for our brother who will be next to go, and then he (the narrator) wonders who they will stand in memory of at the next meeting; and what if he is the one?

I have a few favorite poems in the book, including the two above; “Day 27 / April 6,” a winding reflection on how power and vulnerability change people, but not down to the essence; how humans remain more or less the same, and the vulnerable are not more virtuous than the powerful; and “Day 31 / April 10,” about the profusion of videos of quarantine poetry readings on the internet, and how the narrator really doesn’t enjoy them, doesn’t enjoy readings in person either, except for a few, and how he makes a video himself at the library’s request, after quite a bit of trial and error. But the last and longest entry, that of November 2, is my favorite of all, I think, with its allusion to Sophocles’s “Ode To Man” (in Antigone) and its commentary on Covid vogues:

az elején sokan mondogatták, divat volt mondogatni:
a járvány után nemcsak más,
de jobb lesz a világ.
emberibb.
mintha lehetne mérni a jóságot mérlegen vagy centivel.
pedig a görögöktől is tudhatjuk, az ember nem jó,
csak csodálatos.
más fordításban: a sok szörnyű csodafajzat között
a legszörnyebb.

In informal translation:

in the beginning many people kept saying, it was in vogue to say:
after the pandemic, the world will be
not just different, but better.
more humane.
as though you could measure goodness on a scale or with a ruler.
but we can know from the greeks that a human is not good,
just wondrous.
in a different translation: among the many terrible wonders
the most terrible.

The art is integral to this volume; the figures–humans, lungs, gestures?–can be seen breathing, imagining, playing, huddling, extending an oversized hand, lying down. Look closely, and the relations between the pictures and the poems start to come through. One can read and enjoy the book in many ways: in sequence or not, quickly or slowly, silently or out loud, with or without a mask. But however read, it will provoke recognition of one kind or another.

The Winter 2020–2021 Issue of Folyosó

It is here! Peruse it with abandon, and leave a comment if you wish! I have copied my Letter from the Editor below.


Folyosó began in the spring of 2020, when school in Hungary had gone online in response to COVID-19. After a brief interlude of in-person classes in the fall, we have been back online since mid-November, with ongoing hopes of returning to school. During this time, students have written essays, stories, short scenes, contest entries, and more; this issue features some of these winter fruits, along with Lilla Kassai’s art.

We proudly present our first international contest, for which students wrote pieces about imaginary inventions. The jury (Judit Kéri, Anikó Bánhegyesi, Nándor Szűcs, Edit Göröcs, and I) had a difficult time ranking the ten finalists; while we eventually chose winners, we are delighted to publish all ten pieces here. It was an honor to receive entries from the Lycée Sainte-Pulchérie in Istanbul, as well as from many Varga students; we hope to bring the two schools and others together for an online Folyosó event this spring.

For the scenes based on A Midsummer Night’s Dream, students were supposed to start with something in the play and take it in a surprising direction. The scenes published here—Áron Antal’s “Something Even Stranger,” Gréta Tóth’s “A Midsummer Night’s Gestalt,” Gergely Sülye’s “As from a Voyage,” Dorottya Turza’s “The Surprise of the Century,” Dávid Csáki’s “Let Him Roar Again,” Bertalan Szegi’s “Act 1, Scene 1,” and Zsófia Szabina Gávris’s “A Nice Article”—abound with wit, emotion, and surprise.

This is also the first time that we feature writers from Class 9.B (which I teach once a week); I have been impressed with this class’s imagination and look forward to publishing more of their work.

The winter issue does not include any writings from the Orwell project, but we may publish a few of them in the spring. For this project, Varga students joined with a class of tenth-graders at Columbia Secondary School to read and discuss Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. It was a great experience; you can read much more about it on the project website.

Some of the pieces in this issue grapple with difficult problems: isolation, introspection, death and grief, political vanity, and disillusionment; others delight in books, friendship, everyday mishaps and mistakes, and visions of the future. The issue’s overall spirit brings to mind William Blake’s “Auguries of Innocence“: not just the famous lines

It is right it should be so 
Man was made for Joy & Woe 
And when this we rightly know 
Thro the World we safely go 

but much more. In this issue you will find a procession of experience, thoughts, questions: from Szabina Tamara Da Cunha Carvalho’s essay “The Problem with BLM Movements in Hungary” to Hunor Gangel’s “From Late to Early”; from Gergely Sülye’s “Transformation” to Lili Forgács’s “The Truth”; from Sándor Tor’s “Is This the Future?” to Zsófia Vona’s “A Dream Come True”; from Sándor Szakács’s “Challenging Times” to Adél Mihályi’s “Personalities”; from Bettina Czékus’s “Arbya” to Eszter Aletta Hevesi’s “The Story of Gen E”; from Tamás Takács’s “Michael the Caterpillar” to Botond Vass’s “The Shelter.”

We wish you good health, happy winter reading, and many returns! As ever, we welcome your submissions and comments.

Sincerely,

Diana Senechal
English and Civilization Teacher
Editor of Folyosó

Announcements and Pictures

This is one of my favorite photos that I have taken in Hungary. My friend Jenny Golub asked about it, and I replied:

The Tisza river, just a few meters away from this photo, is famous for its mayflies, which emerge from the river by the thousands for a few hours in late June. They do a mating dance in the air and mate, the females lay eggs in the water, and then they die. I haven’t managed to see them yet–you have to catch them at just the right time–but when it happens, the air shimmers with mayflies. We have an annual Mayfly Festival (Tiszavirág Fesztivál) which we missed sorely last June because of Covid. It’s one of Szolnok’s treasured events; bands play, food and beer abound, and you can have a great evening (or two or three) by the river.

These are two statues of mayflies. In the background, a beautiful Calvinist church. I see the mayfly statues almost every day–but have never seen them catch the light in this way before. It was raining lightly, there was a light fog, and everything was glowing. I took a picture in the other direction too, looking toward the former synagogue (now Szolnok’s gallery).

The first of my announcements is long in advance—but mark your calendars now!

On Sunday, March 21, at 3 p.m. EDT, in an event in the ALSCW Winter/Spring Zoom Series, I will be interviewing the writer Zsolt Bajnai and his son, the songwriter and musician Marcell Bajnai, in Hungarian with English translation. After the interview, Zsolt Bajnai will read a few of his stories, and Marcell will play his own songs between them. Please come and invite others! It will take place at 12 noon PST,  3 p.m. EDT,  8 p.m. in Hungary. (This is a rare weekend when the time difference between NYC and Hungary is only five hours, because of the different dates for the Daylight Savings Time switch.) I will send the Zoom information as soon as it is available.

You can read more about the Bajnais in the official event description: https://alscw.org/news/alscw-winter-spring-zoom-series/. In addition, you can read my translation of Zsolt Bajnai’s story “Corruption Therapy,” published in The Satirist, and listen to Marcell Bajnai’s song “dühöngő.”

The second is just two days in advance: on Monday, February 15, the Winter 2020–2021 issue of Folyosó will appear! You will be able to read the contest winners, Shakespeare-inspired scenes, stories, and essays. Here’s the beautiful cover (art by Lilla Kassai):

And here is one more photo, taken on the same evening as the one at the top. This is of Szolnok’s gallery, formerly a synagogue. I have taken many pictures of the inside and outside and posted many on this blog. This time I love it against the evening blue.

  • “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

  • 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 February 2022, Deep Vellum will publish 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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