Listen Up: Platon Karataev

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Photo by Tamás Lékó / Phenom’enon.

One of the most exciting things about music–any style–is the feeling, when you listen to something exceptional, that you must both take time with it alone and bring it to others. When you tell someone, “You have got to hear this!” you mean, “The music will not stay secret–and even if it is well known already, it will become even more so, right now.” Even if you’re just one of thousands of listeners, or hundreds of thousands, you have to do your part.

Many songs, many compositions have had this effect on me, but now it is the Hungarian band Platon Karataev. I was introduced to their music indirectly, through online recommendations of Marcell Bajnai, the guitarist, lead singer, and songwriter of Idea. At first I was intrigued by their name (after the peasant in Tolstoy’s War and Peace whom Pierre Bezukhov comes to know in prison, and whose attitude toward life inspires his own transformation). Then, once I started listening, I kept returning, and then something took hold. They have elements of The Smiths, Elliott Smith, Radiohead, and Grandaddy (especially The Sophtware Slump), but their style is their own, with unabashed intellect and feeling and gorgeous sound. Their new album, Atoms (released just last month), whirls both inward and outward. According to the band’s own description, “This album is about searching for our innermost selves, and also about questioning everything. The title, ‘Atoms’, refers to the idea that just like us, each song on this album is an individual shivering atom on its own.”

They usually sing in English. Usually I prefer to hear Hungarian bands sing in Hungarian–not only for my own immersion in the language, but because English has become the language of streamlining and mass access. Many songwriters write in English in hopes of reaching a wider audience. While that’s understandable, it’s a loss to the Hungarian language (and sometimes to English too). But when Platon Karataev sings in English, it’s different, because they bring something unique to the language. Take, for instance, some of the lyrics from “Aphelion” (one of my favorites on the new album):

I’m a paraphrase
Of silence as I’m floating over nameless days
With sanguine eyes
And blue lips I lie on God’s chest I’m paralyzed

If there’s such a thing
A spiral of nothing
Well, it pulls me down

Hearing this for the first time on the radio, you might think they’re singing “Ophelia” instead of “Aphelion.” That would work, too; the whole song could easily be about Ophelia in Hamlet. But it’s “Aphelion,” the outermost point in a planet’s orbit–that is, when it is farthest from the sun. The song takes you into private and cosmic pain. (By the way, Earth’s 2020 aphelion was yesterday. )

Another of my favorites–and so brief that I have to play it over and over again–is “Ex Nihilo,” the first song of Atoms. It starts out with the chorus, “Ex nihilo nihil fit,” which catches the ear because of the rhythm of the syllables and the way the end becomes the beginning. This is one of those songs that you would want both in a philosophy or physics class and on a desert road trip. But not for background music, ever.

I know why I love these songs and the others on Atoms. They have everything: sound, hooks, lyrics, character, guts–and together they form an album. But it’s harder for me to explain what’s great about “Elevator,” for instance.

On the surface, the lyrics sound ordinary:

You can call it anything, but that was love
When we were happy just because we shared the blanket.
You can call it what you want
You can call it anything, but that was love.
That was pure Love.

But if you listen carefully to the rhythm, the lilting of “You can call it,” you find that the genius is right there–taking simple words and setting them to time and tune in an absolutely memorable way. That, and the “elevator” part, which takes you by surprise, and the way the song progresses–the tight, surprising structure and the a cappella ending. All together, “Elevator” has what many songwriters long for: the feeling that every second belongs and must be heard and sung along to, again and again.

And that’s what songs are, isn’t it? These short musical stretches of time that you want to repeat and sing along with, because, like the character Platon Karataev in War and Peace, they bring something inside you to life.

You can find Platon Karataev’s albums and songs on their website, as well as on Bandcamp, Spotify, iTunes, YouTube, and elsewhere. Photo credit: Tamás Lékó; photo originally published in Phenom’enon.

This is the first post in a new series called Listen Up (different from the Song Series), in which I will write about things worth listening to.

Meet Sisi/Sziszi (also known as Füsti)

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Yesterday I went on an expedition to the twenty-third district of Budapest to pick up Sziszi, the kitten I was to adopt. Why go so far? I had tried twice to adopt a local cat or kitten, but each time, I called or wrote too late; the cat had already found a home. When I saw Füsti’s pictures and found that she was still waiting for a home, I knew the distance did not matter. I could get there and bring her back.

I named her Sisi after Queen Elisabeth (Sisi, spelled Sziszi in Hungarian), Empress of Austria and Queen of Hungary, who went to masquerades and wrote poems singing of her fictional adventures there. One of the poems, “A sárga dominó dala” (“Song of the Yellow Domino”) has these lines:

Az arcomat fedte az éjszinü maszk.
– De rég volt, de rég volt, de rég! –
A lelkemet nem fedte, láttad te azt!
– És hidd el, az többet is ért! –

My translation (with liberties taken for rhythm and rhyme):

A night-colored mask enshrouded my face.
– But long ago, long, long ago!
My soul it left bared, you were witness to this!
– And that was worth more, you should know! –

Sisi the kitten looks like she is wearing a mask–but a white one or a black one? Either way is possible.

Sisi also appears in Gyula Jenei’s poem “Olló” (“Scissors”), my translation of which will appear in The Massachusetts Review sometime in the coming year. (The quote below is as the text appears in Jenei’s 2018 collection Mindig Más; a slightly different version can be found here.)

vonásaikat már nem lehet rendesen kivenni,
egyébként is aprók a portrék, de nagyanyám állítja,
hogy az ferenc józsef és sziszi. ő persze erzsébet
királynénak fogja mondani, s a félszárú pápaszem
mögül elnézi nagyon öreg szemével a megkopott
vonású fejeket, amiket még tovább koptatok,
ahányszor smirglivel kifényesítem őket.

Back to the kitten. When I arrived to pick her up, the whole family was standing outside and waiting for me: the two parents, the two boys, the little girl, who was holding Füsti (“Smokey”), and the dog, who ran to greet me. The girl was crestfallen about giving up the kitten. The mother cat had had seven little ones, and Füsti was the last to be given away. (The family kept the mom, who was recovering from her spaying operation.)

They asked me to send them pictures; I did so last night and will send them more. Because they were so kind, and because the little girl was so sad to lose her, Sisi is keeping the name Füsti too. She will be Sziszi Füsti, or whichever name I call her at a given moment.

At first she meowed in the cat carrier, but on the train ride home, she settled down and started playing with the toys. She slept a bit too.

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When we got home, she immediately started exploring–running here and there, hiding, darting out of hiding and running back again. Then the temptation to play grew too much for her, and we played for a long time.

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Then she flopped down on the rug and slept.

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But that was only the beginning. By nighttime, she had discovered the bed, decided that she liked it, and revealed her cuddly, purring side. Now she is completely at ease. She jumps and leaps around, then curls up and basks in the quiet. She loves it when I cuddle with her. She has figured out everything in the apartment: she knows where her food is, where the litter box is (and, fortunately, how to use it), where the toys are, where the comfortable places are, and where to find me. She knows how to stretch out and curl up, how to wiggle her paws. Tomorrow her cat tree will arrive; once she can climb to the top, she will be able to look out the window. (Update: it is here.)

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How does a little kitten know how to do all of this? How did she make herself at home so quickly? I think she had a great start in her original home–but I think cats also have a sense of home in their souls, especially if they are born into a home and not on the street. Each cat does this in a different way, and in changing ways over time, but they get to know a place, run and leap in it, and fall asleep in it too. I think of the ending of Edward Hirch’s “Wild Gratitude” (and of the beginning, too, and the middle):

And only then did I understand
It is Jeoffry—and every creature like him—
Who can teach us how to praise—purring
In their own language,
Wreathing themselves in the living fire.

Bike Rides and Their Layers

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One thing I love about long bike rides is that they allow me to think without interference. I can sift through many things over those hours. Another thing I love is the discovery: exploring towns and countryside, taking detours here and there. A third is the return: coming to know a place better through visiting it again and again. Then these three things start to play with each other in counterpoint: the thinking, exploring, and return, so that the bike ride becomes a kind of music.

Music! someone might say. What are you doing talking about music? There’s no time for that. You should be out on the streets protesting.

But music is not an escape. It is protest of its own kind. It demands and allows truth.

I stayed in Vajdácska, at the bed-and-breakfast I have visited four times now, in four consecutive years. The owners are welcoming, the food is delicious, and the place is lovely and full of original touches. The photo at the top was the view from my window. Here, below, is a view from about 300 meters away. (The church on the left is Hungarian Greek Catholic; the one on the right, Protestant.)

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In 2017, when I first visited, I biked around the surrounding towns and villages. In 2018 and 2019, I bicycled up to Kassa (Košice) and took a train back; this time, I biked to Tokaj and back. Tokaj is famous for its wines, especially sweet white wine–but it is the dry Furmint that especially appeals to me.  Anyway, I had more than one reason for going to Tokaj: I wanted to stay within Hungary, see Tokaj itself, see what this southbound route was like, and start figuring out a future bike trip–about two and a half days long–from Szolnok to Vajdácska.

But this bike ride took me beyond what I had expected. In Vámosújfalu, I noticed that every house had a well next to it. That is, everyone drew their own water. The next village, Olaszliszka, had something magical about it, but I didn’t start to understand it until the way back. Then in Szegilong there were storks in nests, one after another, all of them feeding their young. (There had been storks before, but this was the first time that I saw them in a row.)

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As I drew closer to Tokaj, I started seeing wineries and vineyards, one after another.

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Then Tokaj itself–a place where you were invited to take a rest and enjoy yourself. A statue of Bacchus, by the sculptor Péter Szanyi, sets the mood in the town square. (Tokaj legends include a cult of Bacchus, thanks in part to the Jesuit teacher and poet Imre Marotti.)

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I had some goulash at the Bacchus Restaurant, then visited a wine cellar (the Borostyán Pince, over 350 years old), where I bought some Furmint and talked for a while with the owner, who showed me the currency he had received from visitors from around the world and asked me many questions about how I ended up coming to Hungary to live and teach. (All the conversations on this trip were in Hungarian.)

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So far, this sounds more or less like a typical tourist trip, or tourist bike trip. But I had been noticing some other things too. When I entered Tokaj, I passed by a large Jewish cemetery, larger than the one in Sátoraljaújhely. It was closed, so I just looked at it for a few minutes. (To take this picture, I passed my hands through the gate.)

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On the way back, I was thinking about how some of the villages were entirely inhabited by Roma people (“Gypsies”), others by white Hungarians, others by both. I thought about how each village had its own history–sometimes a violent history–of ethnic conflict. I didn’t know anything yet about Olaszliszka, but on the way back, I took a little more time to look at it. It seemed to be all Roma–I saw children playing in the streets, parents pushing their babies in strollers, teenagers chatting outside a corner store. I saw medieval ruins overgrown with greenery.

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I saw a sign pointing the way to a Jewish synagogue and cemetery–and biked in that direction but found nothing. Later I learned that this was a famous center of Hungarian Hasidism–where the first Lisker Rebbe, Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Friedman, lived. The village apparently still has a memorial synagogue site.

The village was also the site of a murder in 2006, which became part of the subject of a play by Szilárd Borbély. A white Hungarian biology teacher, Lajos Szögi, was driving through with his two daughters when his car hit a little Roma girl, who fell down but was unharmed. The family attacked the man and beat him to death in front of his daughters. The father of the little girl later received a life sentence; all the others involved received stiff punishments. There have been some discussions of why this happened, but for many, the incident confirmed existing prejudice and hatred. (There has been repeated violence against Roma people too.)

A village like this keeps everything secret and tells all. Knowing nothing of this yet, I stopped to listen to the swooping birds. I hope to go back and see more, including the synagogue memorial.

Before and after, I was thinking about the U.S., about police violence, about the protests. I support the protests in that they call out truths and necessities. I do not stand with protesters who shame and debase people who disagree with them even in part (for instance, those who booed and shamed Mayor Jacob Frey of Minneapolis when he said that he did not support abolishing the police force). This leads to no good; it alienates some possible allies and coerces others into false agreement. It makes deliberation impossible.

On the other hand, protests need their fire. Many protesters are understandably tired of moderate arguments; too often moderation has squirmed away from its promises.

The next day, on my way to the Sárospatak train station, I passed by a rose garden. It was beautiful, so I stopped. The gardener saw me and cut a rose for me. I thanked him and headed on. Then I turned back and asked him if he would take a picture. He obliged. (There is much more to say about Sárospatak, and far more to learn.)

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I wondered, throughout the trip, whether my own uncertainty (over politics and many other things) was a sign of strength or weakness. I don’t think I can answer that yet (or maybe ever). But for better or worse, uncertainty is part of what I do, what I have to offer. I know that I don’t know the entirety of another person, a country, myself, or a crumbling building. But I want to come back and learn more.

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

The First Issue of Folyosó

folyoso coverIt is my joy to announce the first issue of Folyosó, an online literary journal by students of the Varga Katalin Gimnázium in Szolnok, Hungary! This first issue is entirely in English (except for a handful of words); this means that the authors are writing not in their native language, but in a language they have been learning at school and on their own. Later this year, Folyosó will become bilingual (English and Hungarian), with a section dedicated to translation. In 2021 it will be open to submissions from high school students around the world.

This inaugural issue features students’ fiction, nonfiction, and art (including Lilla Kassai’s painting “The Lonely Castle,” which is also the cover art), a “high-stakes test,” and an interview with Dániel Lipcsei, a folk dancer currently in the eleventh grade at Varga. One story has a teenager behind the wheel of a tractor on a hot day; another shows a woman spying on her neighbor. One is told by a narrator who has taken up miniature-building; another, by the footman from Nikolai Gogol’s “The Nose.” Students grapple with current and ongoing questions, ranging from the future of the coronavirus pandemic to the nature of envy.

We wish you fruitful reading. Please feel free to leave a comment on the comments page. Here’s to the arts, here’s to languages, here’s to good health for all, and here’s to Folyosó!

Update: SzolnokTV interviewed us about the journal. I added the video here.

The Lantern Bearers

IMG_1903An extraordinary essay by Megan Craig, “The Courage to Be Alone” (NYT, May 1, 2020), is about much more than its title suggests: not only the courage to be alone, but also the hidden light and joy in people’s ordinary lives. She describes taking a walk through the woods with her youngest daughter, and talking both with her and apart from her, listening and not listening, being quiet and being pulled back into conversation. She hopes that these walks will stay with her daughter and one day give her strength. They are not just about being present for each other, or for nature, or for anything; rather, they are about glimpses along the way, those sudden streams of words, or the sight of a flower on the path, incomplete, unfinished, and never fully known. She writes:

Suddenly I am reminded of William James’s essay “On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings,” in which he writes about the difficulty of being present to another person’s life. James uses a Robert Louis Stevenson story of young boys who form a secret club of “lantern bearers,” hiding small tin lanterns under their heavy coats as a secret emblem of participation. From the outside they look just like anyone else hurrying by in the cold night. But when they meet one another, they lift the edge of their coats to reveal a hot burning light hanging from a belt loop. I have always loved the image of these kids hiding fire, their faces momentarily illuminated to one another in lamplight, triumphant in their allegiance to the game.

Her references to William James and Emmanuel Lévinas–as well as songs by Nick Drake, Leonard Cohen, and September 67–demand time and patience, since to understand them, you need to go read and listen to them (again, if you already have). In a sense, this time and patience is the point of it all: being willing to listen to someone else, even to oneself, without looking at the watch and rushing off to the next thing. But this listening will always be flawed, even at its best; there is always something that we miss, not just in the details, but at the center of it all. So part of the “courage to be alone” has to do with understanding the imperfection, resisting the temptation to sum up others, or an encounter, or the world at large, in our minds. “And now,” asks James, “what is the result of all these considerations and quotations?” (His essay “On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings” quotes Stevenson, Wordsworth, Whitman, and others.) He replies:

It is negative in one sense, but positive in another. It absolutely forbids us to be forward in pronouncing on the meaninglessness of forms of existence other than our own; and it commands us to tolerate, respect, and indulge those whom we see harmlessly interested and happy in their own ways, however unintelligible these may be to us. Hands off: neither the whole of truth nor the whole of good is revealed to any single observer, although each observer gains a partial superiority of insight from the peculiar position in which he stands. Even prisons and sick-rooms have their special revelations. It is enough to ask of each of us that he should be faithful to his own opportunities and make the most of his own blessings, without presuming to regulate the rest of the vast field.

I have been painting the smaller room of my new place (not the room pictured here, which I will leave as is). I am not an experienced painter–I have painted before, but not in a long time–but I have been finding my way into it. It’s a small enough room that I can give it several coats without trouble. I start to work out a technique and a rhythm. And now I understand what friends over time were trying to convey when talking about their home remodeling projects. When you are alone with the materials and your place, you get to test things out, make mistakes, try again. It’s exciting when you finally get it right, but even the errors have their fun when they aren’t disastrous.

I have been exploring the new neighborhood on bike and on foot–looking at walls, through empty buildings, down streets.

It is not just their beauty that excites me, but the thought of getting to know them little by little over time, seeing them through the seasons, and sometimes not fully noticing them. There is something reciprocal in this. In giving time to a person or place, in letting the acquaintance be imperfect, I, too, am given time; I too, have a chance to be known and unknown and unfinished. So we meet like lantern bearers.

In Person

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The coronavirus isolation is not all bad. It’s good for working on projects, sifting through thoughts, going on bike rides. Even on a short bike ride, I find all kinds of things to explore; I turn off onto dirt roads (which are dry, not muddy, right now), discover a bridge or path I didn’t know about before, take detours, cross meadows, peer into the river, and turn back when I think it’s time.

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So that’s isolation, on the one hand. At home, too, there’s a lot of exploring in it. Putting together the online journal Folyosó, which will appear on May 11, I have been editing pieces, experimenting with layouts, fixing this or that feature, and getting so absorbed in the whole thing that I stay up late.

But the pandemic is bringing out, in different ways, the necessity of doing certain things in person. Zoom and other online services are substitutes, and substitutes only. Sometimes a substitute will not do. For instance, we (the drama club, the drama teacher, and I) were going to take Kata Bajnai’s play Farkasok (Wolves) to the festival in Veszprém this June. The festival was cancelled; of course it was. First of all, if the drama troupes cannot rehearse, how can they prepare for a festival? Second, a festival of this kind cannot take place virtually. We were disappointed, but this just brings out how drama requires physical presence–of the actors among each other, of the stage and space, and of the audience along with the actors. The actor and director Joel Grey wrote about this in a memorable and treasurable New York Times piece.

With teaching, too, the best thing is to have classes in person. We work with the substitutes because we have to, and some good things come out of them. But there is nothing like being in the room together, seeing each other’s facial expressions and gestures, sensing the mood as the lesson progresses, picking up on understanding and uncertainty, and above all, living the lesson–be it grammar, literature, or something else–together. The substitutes–Discord, Zoom, Messenger, Google Classroom, and so on–are functional, but functionality is not everything. I think of Dostoevsky’s Underground Man:

You believe in the crystal palace, eternally indestructible, that is, one at which you can never stick out your tongue furtively nor make a rude gesture, even with your fist hidden away. Well, perhaps I’m so afraid of this building precisely because it’s made of crystal and it’s eternally indestructible, and because it won’t be possible to stick one’s tongue out even furtively.

Don’t you see: if it were a chicken coop instead of a palace, and if it should rain, then perhaps I could crawl into it so as not to get drenched; but I would still not mistake a chicken coop for a palace out of gratitude, just because it sheltered me from the rain. You’re laughing, you’re even saying that in this case there’s no difference between a chicken coop and a mansion. Yes, I reply, if the only reason for living is to keep from getting drenched.

–Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes from Underground, translated by Michael Katz.

I don’t think anyone is mistaking Zoom, etc., for a palace. But it’s also good to see them for what they are: substitutes. Less than ideal. Not the ideal itself. Granted, they can do some things that in-person gatherings cannot (for instance, bring together people from all around the world). But that doesn’t make up for the losses.

A new video by the rock band Kiscsillag expresses this uproariously (and bawdily). The song itself, “Nem szégyellem,” precedes the pandemic–and appears on the band’s new album, Tompa késekbut the video itself was shot on mobile phones, just a few weeks ago, in the band members’ homes. (See a Music Backstage article on this.) A gem of quarantine rock and home filming–and you don’t need to know Hungarian to appreciate it, though each word raises the appreciation higher.

 

 

There you have the soul of it, ticklish but true. It isn’t just that certain things are best done in person. It’s that when all the things around you–the food in the fridge, the bathtub, the rocking horse, the vacuum cleaner, the chess board–start acting as substitutes for the world, then you know that you, too, have been substituted.

 

Old School in Hungary: Part 9

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We finished the novel, and then schools throughout Hungary closed on account of the coronavirus. We didn’t have a chance to discuss the book as a whole. But at least we completed it and discussed the ending together; we devoted our last lesson to the last half of the last chapter. Afterward, as we quickly adjusted to online classes, students’ written responses started to arrive in my box. The days went by, and I thought about how strange it was that for us, too, school had become a memory–a recent one, yes, but a memory all the same.

The students’ responses to Old School varied in emphasis, idea, emotion, and more. I am quoting a few here–with the authors’ permission–to give a sense of the range. In this one, a student describes a change of perspective over the course of the reading.

At first I didn’t know what to think of the book. It felt dull, like just another book about writers coming to visit a private school. The fact that we don’t know the name of the narrator didn’t help either. It made me feel like it’s not even an individual story, which, now that I think about it, is not even a bad thing. I couldn’t relate to the main character. He had different problems, feelings, and attitudes towards the questions of life. In chapter ”Übermensch,” for example, he read a novel and suddenly realized that he belongs to the next level of humanity. How am I supposed to place myself in that situation?

But as I read more and more, I started to get the picture. The discussions helped me understand the deeper meanings that I wasn’t able to recognize while reading at home. There was one part in particular that I couldn’t stop reading. It was the part when the narrator got expelled. One reason for that is that I can’t put a book down not knowing what happens next. What’s more, the way the narrator heard the same usual sounds of the school brought up some memories of mine, memories of my last day at primary school. Although it wasn’t an expulsion, I felt the same way. Now that was relatable. The way I, once a student, became an outsider.

It is difficult to summarize the whole novel as one single unit. It has parts that seem to be only storytelling, but in reality have a double meaning. There are also philosophical parts, which require the reader to think about certain questions for themselves. Overall, this book has definitely changed my perspective on life.

Another student, after explaining what he didn’t like about the book–the difficulty of the language, the lack of information about the characters, the lack of clear signals when a dialogue is beginning or ending–went on to discuss what he liked:

The characters were very interesting, especially the “narrator” in the perspective from which we could usually see his thoughts mostly, not his physical acts. Also the way he plagiarized the book, and thought that it really was his.

I really liked (or disliked) the other characters as well. For example my favourite of them all was Mr. Ramsey, who won this place because he was so different in the school than after the narrator was expelled, in the car and at the station. And when he gave the pack of cigarettes to the narrator: that was such a middle-finger to the Honour Code which he did not agree with. And there was Goss, who behaved disgustingly. And this was, I think, some of the biggest magic of the book: you could really associate with the narrator, how he felt in these situations, and what his feelings were about other characters, and it was so well written! And anyone can associate with these feelings, because there is no human being who never felt the stressful pressure while being charged by something, knowing/realising what he did and what the consequences will be, but unable to say a word for his protection. And also, these characters are so real, that you can really associate with them.

One student brought up the loss of innocence in the book–the realization that the school has double standards and that the world isn’t a “pink bubble”:

Old School deals with many moral issues and social problems. It can be read as a parody or satire on the value of art and morals in society (for example, the racial boundaries). But what caught me the most that the novel introduces us to an academic environment with strict standards, but later we can see them as double standards and false standards. Like when the boy is caught copying, he knows he has broken an ethical code (which I think is not so perfect), but what he doesn’t know then, he learns later in the book: All the people who judged him so harshly were liars too, as was the idea of “not lying.”

My personal favourite part is when the narrator whistles a song what he learned during his summer job. I had no idea why the school’s handyman Gershon was so upset when he heard it. It was a big suprise when it turned out to be a Nazi song. I found it the story’s most shocking part. That was when I felt that the writer pulled us out of the little sweet school life to push us into the true and cold reality. This was a powerful point for the narrator (and for us). At that moment he finally realises that the world isn’t a pink bubble. He experienced bad things before, but lots of people experienced so much worse. And he started to cry when he found out the truth about the song and Gershon’s past. I think it was very a human reaction from the narrator. At that moment I could sympathize with him.

Another student went through some changes of perspective and understanding while reading–at first noticing what the book wasn’t, but later realizing what it was.

Through the last few weeks, I have been a part of a story whose atmosphere was unknown for me in many aspects. At first the book itself sounded great, as though there would be some action and adventure. Yet it wasn’t as I expected it to be. For me the most interesting experience was that when I was reading the chapters I didn’t feel any of this great adventure, but as I am now fully aware of the whole story, I look back and see lots of expressions, conflicts, confrontations, secrets. I think this is why it is unusual for me but these things take the story to a whole other level. Now I think reading a book like this can help us with understanding some real important issues we will be having in our lives, so I think it teaches a lot about how to handle some situations.

What I have realised is that reading a book is one thing, but to talk about it with people of different opinions is the best way of understanding what it may hold hidden between some pages. Through the discussions, I could feel sometimes that some parts of the book are just boring and like the story wasn’t going anywhere, but after all I think these might have been the most essential parts to make a full story. If we think about the fact that throughout the story we have met some famous writers who, in other cases we wouldn’t have met, this is a story full of knowledge. If we think about it, this book really broadens our minds.

I am glad that we had class discussions, as now I can see lot of things more clearly, and I think this built a stronger trust between some classmates.

One student wrote about the book in terms of the questions it raised:

My first question is why Makepeace gave money to his wife, if they didn’t live together. He could have loved her very much.

The other question that makes me think about is Susan and the narrator’s relationship. I can’t stand how could Susan be so kind and friendly with the narrator, after what he did. She could have become a talented writer if he hadn’t stolen her novel. I can’t stand this, but I have to recognize her. When they were at the restaurant, she said “writing is too frivolous; it makes you selfish and doesn’t really do any good,” but she knows that the narrator was a writer, and she hurts him with this monologue, maybe just accidentally. I think the narrator liked Susan more than as a friend, before they met, but during the “date” Susan gives clear signals that she doesn’t like him. Why does the narrator accept Susan’s idea for a meeting place, if he knows there’s won’t be anything between them?

One of my favourite citations in the book is: “let sleeping dogs lie….” We discussed the meaning of this sentence, but it started the gears in my brain. Is it a good decision to keep the truth hidden? Maybe, if I were Makepeace, I would have told the truth. He felt guilty, and he could feel much better through making a statement. On the other side, it could make others lose their confidence in him. But he hasn’t got any choice, because that was one of the headmaster’s terms. In my opinion, Makepeace was a totally honest and good person, if he got hurt by this little lie.

Another student focused on the ending:

I think this ending was very messed up and unordinary. As I like to read, I have gotten used to some types of endings, such as in the crime stories, where they find out who the murderer was. But this was absolutely different. We didn’t get to know whether the main character visited his old school or not.We didn’t get to know about his family life, or what his job was alongside writing. Although I would do it differently, this ending was good in his own manner. It was a plot twist, and the readers hadn’t expected that. And the good writer pretends to surprise his or her readers.

Another had a striking comment on the copying of “Summer Dance”:

What made an impression on me? Well, I liked reading this book because it wasn’t a fairy tale. It had some real-life problems, and these things made it better. When I found out that the narrator was Jewish, I didn’t really understand why he didn’t say it to Dean Makepeace. He could just say it, and this way he shouldn’t have apologized. A while later I finally understood that he was afraid. Afraid because he didn’t want to be an outcast in the school. Afraid of what his friends would think of him. And I felt sorry for him, not knowing that he was going to be strong enough to say it.

This is why I was so happy when he copied “Summer Dance.” Even though it wasn’t his, everyone thought that it was. He had the power to announce the truth about himself. The whole school found out that he was Jewish. He was no longer afraid or embarrassed about his true self, and this is what made an impression on me.

Another student expressed ambivalence–relating to certain things, finding the ending and overall style unsatisfactory, but enjoying the experience overall:

Quite frankly, the story was relatable. The protagonist went through some character development, which happens to the most of us at his age. He even cycled through the same outlooks on life as I did, or am currently doing. Having your role-model be the perfect and peak performance of a human, without any faults. Of course he too realized how stupid that is.

The only thing I can nit-pick about is how the end left too many questions open, and how solving them required a lot of post-processing and theorizing by the class. Some people find these things entertaining, and I have to admit it is kind of smart, but since I personally would have missed the hidden meanings, I find it under-handed.

I would never really voluntarily read stories like this one. It was honestly more of a documentary than anything, although it was relatively enjoyable even though it was a mandatory read. The class discussions were fun and I think they were better than simple classes where we learn things I mostly already know.

Many students wrote about the discussions themselves. Here are a few quotes:

Although I really enjoyed the weird storyline at the end, my favorite part was discussing the story, because it was very interesting to hear my classmates’ thoughts about it. I also enjoyed that I could give some useful thoughts to these discussions. I felt that I understood the meaning of the story, so I am really happy about that, especially because I am not a huge fan of reading books. This book encouraged me to start reading more often.

Another:

The class discussions let us get to know each other’s personality more, which was really important for our little community. They also showed how intelligent my classmates are. I noticed it when small arguments came up in class and everyone could keep their chill and talk about the disagreements with respect.

Another comment that brings up the class arguments:

To begin with, the characters of the book had really big effects on me. I could “see with their eyes” and think like them. For example, Ayn Rand’s personality and features were exciting and disgusting at the same time for me. Besides her, Ernest Hemingway and Robert Frost also impressed me. Also the calm and kindness of the narrator’s grandparents melted my heart. In a nutshell I was able to observe so many people with different lives, habits, and features.

For me the most important part was the class discussion, so I would like to focus on this. Due to the discussions and arguments, I could hear my classmates’ opinions on a given topic. It helped me get to know them a little bit better. I could see how they could argue and what their reasons were. It also showed how wise and mature they are.

Lastly, I stepped out of my comfort zone too. I read something that I thought I would never choose, but as it turned out, it was very good. So in a percentage of the reading I tried something new, and new things are always exciting.

Taking everything into account, I liked this book, but I liked how we elaborated on it even more.

I could go on with the comments, but after all, not one of them is the last word, for the students individually, for the class, for me, or for the book, so I don’t need to turn them into anything conclusive. Instead, they show how some students met the book in time: what it meant, didn’t mean, or came to mean.

I think of how quickly it all went by. Walking into the classroom (sometimes seeing students up at the board drawing diagrams of the plot–they were nervous about the pop quizzes), starting the discussion, hearing students’ comments, looking at passages closely together, raising more questions, and then hearing the bell and realizing that we had run out of time. I also think back on the long conversations with students who didn’t like the book but would linger after class to talk about it. Liking or not liking–that’s secondary to what happened here. For this I am grateful to Old School, to my school, to my colleague Marianna (who helped make this possible), and to my students.

 

This is the last in a series of nine posts about reading Tobias Wolff’s novel Old School with ninth-graders at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium. All the students quoted in this post gave permission to have their comments included. To view all the posts, go here.

Old School in Hungary: Part 8

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Somehow we finished Old School just before the Hungarian schools closed on account of the coronavirus. We didn’t get to have the last discussion I had planned, a discussion of the book as a whole, but the students wrote about it, and I have been taking in their responses all evening.

On Friday, when the second section finished the book, I asked whether Makepeace had the right to kick himself out of the school, whether he could possibly be a fair judge of himself (and whether in general people can judge themselves accurately), and whether it was the right decision for him.

Regarding the question of rights, one student said that no, he didn’t have the right to kick himself out, because he had responsibilities toward others. Another asked whether anyone else besides him was in a position to expel him. That’s a trickier question than may seem, because the headmaster, while technically entitled to fire a teacher, would probably not do so except under extreme circumstances. A matter of conscience like this would probably not have made the cut.

(In the other section, students overwhelmingly agreed that he had the right to kick himself out. But one student pointed out that that didn’t make it a good decision.)

Then the question of whether he could judge himself fairly: a student said that since he was elderly, he was likely to be too hard on himself. Young people up to age 30, he explained, rely on others’ judgments; people in their 30s and 40s (I think) realize that the world doesn’t care about them, and older people tend to judge themselves. This observation helped us see Makepeace in time; his age makes a difference here. We talked a bit about how people can judge themselves too harshly (or, in some cases, too lightly).

We spent some time on Makepeace’s regrets, and what he missed about teaching; and then we made our way to his return, which a student read aloud. Then I asked what this ending was about–they picked up on the Prodigal Son reference right away–and what it had to do with the narrator.

A student suggested that it had something to do with the epigraph at the beginning (from Mark Strand’s “Elegy for my Father”).

Why did you lie to me?
I always thought I told the truth.
Why did you lie to me?
Because the truth lies like nothing else and I love the truth.

She explained that the narrator, by ending the story with Makepeace, was telling his own truth through a “lie”–that is, through a fiction about someone other than himself. I then passed out a longer excerpt of the poem–I had meant to hand it out on Monday, but now seemed the time–and read the first two parts aloud. The same student commented, “He answers each question in two ways. The first answer is factual, and the second is from the soul.”

Then she continued: “The narrator is doing the opposite of what he did before, when he copied ‘Summer Dance.’ There he copied someone else’s story and submitted it as his own. Here he is telling his own story, but making it into someone else’s.” (Her words were slightly different, but this was her point.)

Students recognized that not only Makepeace but the narrator had come home, and that this ending was about coming home, really coming home, and being welcomed  and forgiven.

But it isn’t pat. A student in the other section, who didn’t like the book, said, “It isn’t a happy ending.” He was right. There is sadness in the ending, and there are those who don’t like the book, even though they argued with it, thought about it, and carried bright insights into it.

The sadness is maybe this: that the homecoming required a great loss. The final image has a heartbreaking aspect: “Though the headmaster was the younger man, and much shorter, and though Arch was lame and had white hairs coming out of his ears and white stubble all over his face….” Although the “though” is typically the weaker part of the sentence, the “concession,” here you feel its weight.

I won’t quote students’ written responses here. Later, I might ask permission to quote a few, but only after some time has gone by. Responses are still coming in. So far I admire their genuineness, their fresh language, their differences from one another. There’s nothing generic about them. They are downright beautiful.

I didn’t know that this would be the end of class discussions for a while. But having built something, we can let it stand for a little while. It won’t come apart, and meanwhile we will work on other things. As in the book, though, how suddenly a cherished part of daily life can pause, change, or end.

 

This is the eighth in a series of posts about reading Tobias Wolff’s novel Old School with ninth-graders at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium. To view all the posts, go here. There will probably be one more post in this series.

I made some additions to this piece after posting it.

Old School in Hungary: Part 7

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“In this book, two things happen,” one student said. “The first is that the boy gets expelled. The second is that the story ends with Makepeace.” That was that. But I wanted to hear more. How did he understand these actions? What made them stand out? Did he see a relation between them?

Arch Makepeace, the dean of the school, resigns from his position when the boy (the narrator’s character) is expelled for submitting someone else’s story as his own. Makepeace argues that if the boy is being punished for laying “false claim to a story,” he himself has “laid false claim to much more–to a kind of importance, to a life not his own.” All this time, he has lived, taught, and served as dean in the midst of rumors that he knew Hemingway in World War I–and while he has not confirmed this outright, he has not dispelled the rumors either.

In class on Wednesday, one student pointed out that Makepeace is partly responsible for the very contests he hates: not only has he failed to speak up against them, but his own reputation has fueled them.

Then a student suggested that Makepeace actually comes to believe the rumors that he knew Hemingway in World War I. There’s more to that than may appear; I’ll get to that in a moment.

Another student pointed out that he actually does know Hemingway, since he knows his work. Thus the lie is true in a way. This brings up a lot that might have passed by us otherwise: the way he drops A Farewell to Arms from his honors seminar but keeps something by Hemingway on the reading list. (That in itself shows an intimacy with Hemingway’s writing.) He behaves toward Hemingway’s writing the way one would toward an old friend who gets annoying at times.

Back to the other student’s point: although nothing suggests that Makepeace really believes that he knew Hemingway personally, he does seem to have fallen for the sense of being special. This, in fact, allows him to resign; he somehow believes that he has the wherewithal to live without the school and without teaching. There’s a submerged hubris at work here. Later he finds out how wrong he was (191):

In former times Arch had supposed that his sense of being a distinctive and valuable man proceeded from his own qualities, and that they would sustain him in that confidence wherever he happened to be. He’d never imagine that this surety was conferred on him by others, by their knowing and cherishing him. But so it was. Unrecognized, he had become a ghost, even to himself.

And just a couple of pages earlier (189-190):

Up to the moment he resigned he must have imagined that teaching was a distraction from some greater destiny still his for the taking. Of course he hadn’t said this to himself, but he’d surely felt it, he later decided, because how else could he not have known how useless he would be thereafter? For thirty years he had lived in conversation with boys, answerable to their own sense of how things worked, to their skepticism, and, most gravely, to their trust. Even when alone he had read and thought in their imagined presence, made responsible by it, enlivened and honed by it. Now he read in solitude and thought in solitude and hardly felt himself to be alive.

If the Hemingway rumor has fed his own notion that he is destined for something greater, then through believing this notion, he has come to believe the rumor. But the rumor is also true to an extent; not only does he know Hemingway’s work, but Hemingway the person rises up again and again in it: “Who could not think of Hemingway when reading about Colonel Cantwell pissing on the Italian battleground where he’d been wounded, or Santiago pursuing his big fish?” Arch keeps trying to muffle his Hemingway but has doubts about doing so; he “distrusted his growing aversion to both the man and the work. It might well be a dishonest form of chagrin at his own false position, or simply resentment at looking so small beside the giant to whom he’d let himself be linked” (184-185). Even as he thinks he looks small beside Hemingway, he unknowingly imagines himself a giant of sorts. He is too reticent to show this off or even accept it in himself, but it becomes part of his thought and action.

And there–we concluded yesterday in class–lies a parallel between him and the narrator. Both take on a story that is theirs and not theirs. Both pay for this truth-lie by leaving the school: the one through being kicked out, the other through resigning.

I’ll stop here for now, since the second section finishes the book tomorrow (the first finished it yesterday). I think back on the words: “In this book, two things happen. The first is that the boy gets expelled. The second is that the story ends with Makepeace.” We will take this up on Monday, our last day with the book.

 

This is the seventh in a series of posts about reading Tobias Wolff’s novel Old School with ninth-graders at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium. To view all the posts, go here.

Old School in Hungary: Part 6

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It has become more difficult, just within the past few days, to talk about these Old School discussions, since something has changed in the classroom. From “The Forked Tongue” onward, they have become more urgent. As if the story were happening around us and with us and by us.

Last week, because I was giving entrance exams Monday through Thursday and because we had a long weekend, one section had one class with me; the other had none. This week we resumed our rhythm, and students had lots to say.

One student asked, “Why is this writing competition destroying friendships and even breaking the school apart?” Another student suggested that the privilege of a private audience with the visiting writer was too extreme; only one person could receive that privilege, but to the boys it meant everything. Maybe, he suggested, the school could have given the honor to a small group of students instead of just one. They would all get to meet with the visiting writer.

Another student found it strange that Mr. Ramsey made the initial selections. (For the Hemingway contest, he chooses three and sends them to Hemingway, who selects the winner.) How many manuscripts might have been ignored just because Mr. Ramsey didn’t happen to like them? Was it right to give students the impression that their work was being read and considered by Hemingway (or whoever it happened to be)?

Some students picked up on the ironies at work: Bill White telling the narrator that it was his (Bill’s) story that he had written, not his own–and the narrator replying that if it had been Bill’s, Bill would have written it. They noticed that George Kellogg knew that the writing didn’t seem like the narrator’s; one student explained how George rationalized this discrepancy.

A student suggested that the narrator, by copying and submitting someone else’s story–a story that seemed to be about his life–has broken an unwritten and unspoken rule at the school: that you don’t actually reveal yourself in your writing. Until now, the boys have not been revealing themselves; now he has. The unfairness goes beyond winning the contest. He has taken a shortcut to something he wouldn’t otherwise have dared to do, and this upsets the other boys for reasons they don’t know how to articulate.

But all those different insights are only part of what has been happening. It isn’t uniform at all; one class is much livelier than the other (though the quieter class comes up with beautiful ideas). Besides all of this, at least two things are happening at once. One is that the students are considering Old School as a story. How, they asked, did everything happen so fast just now–with the narrator winning the contest and then immediately getting caught and expelled? And how can it be that there are still many pages to go? (“I smell a twist,” one student told me.)

The other part is that we see these questions of truth, fairness, and justice coming up in the discussions themselves. A student brought up things he had said months ago that he realized had come across wrong. He felt so bad that it had come across as rude. I saw my own mistake after unfairly giving a student a 4 out of 5 on a multiple-choice quiz–and my even greater mistake in making this known to the class. In Hungary, grades are usually a public matter, but all the same, that doesn’t justify announcing them all the time. His answers, as it turned out, made sense when he explained them; in addition, he had been participating energetically and thoughtfully from the very beginning. I apologized and changed the grade–but it still stings in my mind. Even calling on people, and recognizing when they need some room to be quiet, can be a tricky matter. Some students are reading and thinking ahead, whereas others need a little more time to take in what we read last week.

One of the sections hasn’t gotten to the narrator’s expulsion yet–or at least we will be discussing it tomorrow–but with the other section, we spent a long time with Mr. Ramsey’s goodbye.

Here one says something, he said. It’s not the end of the world, be game, you’ll work things out … but for all I know you won’t work things out. How should I know? He patted his pockets for the Gitanes, put one in his mouth, and offered another to me. When I hesitated he stuck the pack in my shirt pocket and stepped down onto the platform and walked away, two long sweat stains darkening the back of his jacket. I was glad to see him go; several minutes remained before departure time and I’d worried he might stand vigil outside, watching me through the window and giving sad little nods whenever our eyes met.

Why, I asked, did the narrator not want Mr. Ramsey to wait? For some this was a difficult question; they themselves would have preferred to have their former teacher (now more of a friend) stay until the train departed. But then a student pointed out, “He hasn’t had any time alone yet, he hasn’t had time to process any of this.” And then we talked about the last paragraph (where he makes his way to the smoking car with his copy of In Our Time, a gift from his classmate Purcell), and how different it is from the other time that we saw the narrator on the train (with a copy of The Fountainhead). At that time he felt full of himself and sure of himself, at least in the uppermost registers; now nothing is certain, and he has been brought down low.

Now all depends on how we approach the ending. I think we will finish the book in four more lessons and then take an additional lesson to discuss not only the whole book, but the discussions and the whole endeavor. This has been something out of the usual, and the students more than lived up to it. We have been building something together. I will miss it when it is over, but I don’t think it will go away.

 

This is the sixth in a series of posts about reading Tobias Wolff’s novel Old School with ninth-graders at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium. To view all the posts, go here.

I made a few minor changes (for clarity) to this piece after posting it.