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Miklós Szentkuthy: Prae (Prae Part 2)

While, from the perspective of the Hungarian text, this second part of Szentkuthy’s monumental work, carries on in more or less the same way as the first part, there is a change as regards the English text. Tim Wilkinson, who translated the first part, sadly died. The second part has been taken over by Erika Mihálycsa, another first-class translator.

As I mentioned in my review of the first part, one of the key themes is love/lust. This part opens with Leatrice, whom we have already met, and it is becoming more apparent that she is, as Szentkuthy very much implies, Everywoman, Eve. From Eve’s nakedness every single leaf, flower and blind rapture-aspic turns into scintillating gnosis and it is through Leatrice, we more and more see the world. Indeed, we start this section by wondering who she might be before jumping to Venice and a story about a cardinal. This is by no means the only story he has concerning church officials. In this case it is about a mad girl who believes herself to be the sister of a cardinal. First we learn that the sister is really dead and then that the cardinal never had a sister, only a brother. This could be Leatrice’s life story- the guignol-dogmatism of the complete irreality of of individual life and of personality.

We pursue the everywoman theme: We must describe every imaginable woman so that from the whole some Leatrice be born. From there he goes onto lust, with women in swimsuits and the traditional heterosexual male obsession with women’s breasts and legs, stockinged and unstockinged. He even points out that Leatrice tended not to wear a bra.

We are off on another story about a man who gets a woman pregnant and even thinks of murdering her and certainly imagines various scenarios.

But, of course every plan to represent Leatrice is naive. How can you represent Everywoman?

Leatrice stands looking at the sea and, of course, he links the sea with her dreams. As we have seen before, her thoughts and dreams are linked up with objects from the real world. For example there is a clock with Roman numerals and these numerals have an effect on her.

I have mentioned love/lust as a key theme but loneliness clearly is also a theme. Many good literary heroes/heroines feel at a loss without any real friend and Leatrice is no different, as we see her lost. For example, she thinks about her Uncle Peter’s affairs and how they are all somewhat sordid and miserable and remind her of cold winters. He makes the interesting comment the preservation or loss of women’s physical virginity is irrelevant from the perspective of love but the wearing off of metaphysical virginity means all the more.

We have a story to illustrate this with an Italian princess who is planning to leave her husband and go off with her brother but, once again church figures appear as it turns out that her paternal uncle has been named pope and he forbids her to leave her husband but ends up shooting him!

Another key theme of European literature of the early twentieth century was the idea of physical sickness being symbolic of moral sickness, Tuberculosis was the illness often used for this and, of course, we have seen it in the twentieth century with AIDS/HIV.

Szentkuthy turns to this theme – the cult of sickness he calls it. This cult of sickness had of course nothing to do with actual bodily ailments: rather it was a grey Arcadia in which the nymphs were figures of senseless grisaille who in their songs united nothingness and pedantry in the way grown-ups did in real life… to be sick means to be going about all the time in disguise, to dissimulate. Szentkuthy does not go for the obvious in his comparisons but, rather, comes up with a way of putting it that makes you stop and think about what he really means, all the while giving you an unusual image.

Dreams are often key to literature and sometimes they work and all too often they do not. While Szentkuthy does show dreams he is more concerned with how they work – what he calls the struggle between dream,thought, thinking, action,language. He also examines, through Leatrice, the view of the world as seen in dreams and as seen in ordinary daytime reality.

As mentioned we have several side stories, which he calls Non-Prae-diagonals and the story of a fisherman’s daughter and a Chinese princess is particularly strange though features the usual untimely deaths and the church.

While Leatrice may spend much time on her own ruminating about life, she does meet Zwinskaya, a beautiful actress and, like other characters in this book, a drug addict. She is of peasant origin and tough. Leatrice felt that a certain kind of female beauty like Zwinkaya’s for instance is not an aesthetic feature but an embodiment of the human being’s most ancient moral struggles, therefore such female beauty is more beautiful than beauty. Szentkuthy continues his examination of what is beauty (and what is not). We go off on another of his side tracks as he examines the role of female beauty in the detective novel, in an article nominally written by Halbert, the Englishman who is a friend of Leatrice and whom we met in the first part of this book. Indeed, Halbert had written a detective novel with the interesting title The Blessed Practical where the detectives cannot solve the crime but a theoretical physicist, an Indo-German linguist and botanist combine forces to solve it, though it is a half-mad musician who apprehends the criminal.

The final and by far the longest chapter is perhaps the most interesting. It is narrated by Halbert’s father, a sixty old Anglican priest living in Exeter. (Szentkuthy had spent some time in England and taught English.) Halbert Senior gets carried away on a variety of topics, including several we have come across before. He is a drug addict, like other characters (though fiercely opposed to alcohol, an issue in his parish.) Inevitably church issues come to the fore with topics such as Anglicanism vs Catholicism.

He says of himself My colleagues consider me a nihilist or lily-livered impressionist when I am a universal human being with more rigid bigotry than all the Catholic and classical ideals put together. He may be religious but, like Szentkuthy, he is familiar with contemporary theoretical physics. However, he claims his main concern is ethical problems.

Like many a good priest he tells us that he has no relationship with God. He is not the praying kind but the churchy kind of priest. He struggles with life, religion, the pleasures of the flesh, money and the higher life. His purpose in writing the meditations we are reading is to analyse absolute unhappiness, that is one lying far beyond the simple sense of sadness.

In these meditations, he roams far and wide over a large variety of topics from private property ownership to nature, from sex (he has not been a faithful husband) and women generally to the Gothic novel and many, many more. However, he tells us . I am really bored, no less than my imagined reader, of these ruminations which are due solely to the fact that I used to explain the Catechism to small children every Sunday.

We learn in some detail of his relationships with the opposite sex, which are often fraught, particularly his relationship with his wife, of whom he is very critical and with whom he seems to have frequent fights. (Sadly this is not the sort of book where we get her side of the story.)

He tells us some stories – it seems that he has written a few himself, including a project for a 17th horror drama called Night of Innocence, where, as we have already had several times during this book, churchmen behave badly (a cardinal thinks he kills his rival for the papacy, though he does not and the survivor thinks he is a woman!)

He gives us his words of wisdom on many topics, particularly love, lust and women: Nihil humanun in amore [There is nothing human in love] and oddities such as For me, there are only two kinds of entirely pure gestures: dance and politics, though neither topic features much in this book.

We can see how much he jumps around by taking a random few pages. In these pages he goes from Bernoulli numbers to three editing techniques that he has used and then jumps to Surrealism and of course back to women and beauty before moving on to electrical circuits.

Some of his statements are profound, e.g. I haven’t been living on joy and pain, on joy of life or artistic inspiration, but on these nameless intensities that are inhuman, destructive and frivolous. How is it that the greatest emotion has no name? while others difficult to comprehend and some more frivolous. Above all however, he keeps you thinking all the time.

He covers a wide range of subjects in these books. There is no doubt that topics such as women/love/lust, loneliness, unhappiness, morals, the arts, religion, theoretical physics, dreams and other major themes predominate but he is happy to discuss anything. There are a few minor issues/symbols that occur on and off throughout the book – flowers, clock faces, women’s clothing, colour theory, characters who are considered half-mad or half-idiots are just a few – and some future Ph.D, student could while away many hours digging these out and determining their significance.

I think it is clear that had this book been written in English, French or German, it would be much better known though, like Proust and Joyce, for example, known more than read. It is clear it is a book you would need to read several times to get even an idea of what it is about though, as I hope I have shown, even on one reading you can get an idea of some of his concerns just as you can get an idea of what is going on in Joyce and Proust on one reading, even if several readings might be more effective.

Ir has been hard work though ultimately rewarding making my way through these two volumes. I must give a huge amount of credit to the two translators – Tim Wilkinson, who translated the first part and who sadly died and Erika Mihálycsa who translated this part. It cannot have been an easy task . Credit must also be given to Contra Mundum Press who are slowly introducing an English-speaking readership to the work of the forgotten genius Szentkuthy. I look forward to reading more of his work in English.

Publishing history

First published in Hungarian in 1934 by Egyetemi Ny
Volume 1
First published in English in 2022 by Contra Mundum Press
Translated by Erika Mihálycsa

This review was written in collaboration with HLO, an independent literary hub for all things Hungarian literature: new works, news, interviews, essays, and reviews