AThis journey cannot begin elsewhere: the dining car on the train from Berlin to Budapest is closed, the landlord only sells bottled beer – mainly to a gentlemen’s company that will get off again in Dresden. With the prospect of at least twelve hours of fasting comes the right mood: I may actually be on a kind of pilgrimage, maybe I am on a pilgrimage to see the library of Miklós Szentkuthy (1908 to 1988), probably the strangest Hungarian writer of the twentieth century. His work is only slowly being discovered in the German-speaking world; Timea Tankó was awarded this year’s Leipzig Book Fair prize for the first complete translation of one of his dozen books, “Apropos Casanova”, the first volume of the “Breviary of Saint Orpheus”.
So I will arrive at the goal of my “peregrinatio” sober. Before the cellular network fails, one last look at the liturgical calendar online: It is the feast day of St. Jean-Marie Vianney, the great confessor of the Catholic Church. I, on the other hand, travel in a state of heavy heart; that would have pleased Szentkuthy, the pious blasphemer, whose deep religiosity did not prevent him from playing jokes not with the holy of holies, but with everything holy. And even if you wouldn’t do it otherwise, you have to believe all of this now: that there is sin and sacrament, blessing and damnation, and that all of this occurs at all times and all the time. Later, after crossing the border for the first time, the dining car will open, I won’t have to go hungry and I will also learn that the liturgical reform has messed up the dates in the saints calendars between Szentkuthy and me. But the exercise in magical thinking has already been done; it will be useful.
Reading with your mouth open
When you go to Szentkuthy, that can hardly be any other way, not to the Pest plain, but to the Buda hills. From there one ascends into a veritable cosmos of books, to which Mária Tompa gives me access, as the administrator of Szentkuthy’s work and guardian of the memory of him and of him. It leads me into (if you count the corridor) four clearly arranged rooms that Szentkuthy lived in for most of his life and that only the number of books in all rooms – on the terrace, in room dividers, behind glass doors and on stacks – leads to a bourgeois one Apartment makes; my visit here will take as long as the train ride.
It is not uncommon for anyone who reads Szentkuthy to do so with an open mouth; In the reviews of “Apropos Casanova” (FAZ of May 18) one can read genuine astonishment, a perplexity as to how this literature should be classified. As for the majority of the not only professional readership, my engagement with him is mediated in every respect. In front of the Hungarian I stand, a banal confession, completely at a loss. The only thing left for me to do is to use existing translations: in French, in particular, which has been translated into most so far, in English, thanks to the commitment of Rainer J. Hanshe in his “Contra Mundum Press”, including partial translations into Polish, which have appeared scattered in various literary magazines.