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.

 

Stretches of Time

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

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

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

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

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Verging on Home

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

9. Take bike rides, including long ones.

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

11. Get ready for the school year.

12. Write sketches for the next book.

13. Write some other things.

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

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

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

That’s just a start.

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