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Miklós Szentkuthy: Prae (Prae Part 1)

In this article in the TLS, Paul Griffiths states What if, besides Proust and Musil and Joyce and Kafka, there were some other writer who had reconsidered what prose could be about? He goes on to rightly suggest that Miklós Szentkuthy should be in this club. I could, of course, name several others though my colleague Andrei at The Untranslated has done a far better job than I could do. However, I would firmly endorse Griffiths’ suggestion that Miklós Szentkuthy should definitely be included and almost certainly has not because of a lack of translation and because he does not come from a West European country, Szentkuthy is best known for his Saint Orpheus’s Breviary series, a ten volume masterpiece of world literature. I first read these in French translation as they were not available in English translation. However, Phébus, the French publisher stopped publishing them after the fourth one in the series. Fortunately for us the very wonderful Contra Mundum has taken over and has now published several Szentkuthy works in English including Prae.

This work, Szentkuthy’s first, has never been translated into any other language, apart from the first chapter appearing in French, which explains why it is so little known. However, when it first appeared in Hungarian, it did not get great reviews. Some said it was unreadable. Antal Szerb was one of the few to praise it: There has not yet been a Hungarian book as intelligent as Prae. It skips lightly, playfully, ironically and in incomparably individual fashion around the highest intellectual peaks of the European mind. It will become one of the great documents of Hungarian culture that this book was written in Hungarian. It fared better on republication in 1980 and 2004.

Szentkuthy himself compared it to Proust, Joyce, and Huxley, though I am not sure I can agree with that, particularly the Huxley comparison. Others, as the TLS article linked above shows, have added Musil and Kafka. As with all of these writers, Szentkuthy is very much sui generis and is not a Hungarian Joyce, a Hungarian Proust and so on. He is an original.

We see this from the opening chapter when we meet the French philosopher Leville-Touqué. He has a periodical called Anti-Psyche and is writing an article on the novel and the creation of novels. We will soon find out that his approach is unconventional and, at times, not always easy to understand even though we know he is considering a theory of the novel. He goes off on tangents but one thing he does is link philosophical concepts to physical objects – in this case sunflowers and the building of a Venetian ship and a hat. The hat he sees in a window in Paris when out with his girlfriend. It is the only hat in the shop and somewhat strange so, perhaps not surprisingly, his girlfriend is not interested in buying it but he is highly critical of her, for her lack of taste, so much so that he leaves her at once. Of course this is not a hat but a hat as a symbol of worldliness.

In his his Saint Orpheus’s Breviary series, he will often slide off into the past and he does the same here with a story about a miserly girl of Semitic origin who becomes a nun, is almost canonised and leads a Turkish fleet against a Lutheran pope.

Another technique he comments on is wordplay, an essential tool for many modernist author. He shows us, as an example, the relationship between hippopotamus and hypochondriac. Etymologists will be aware that hippo comes from the Greek for horse while hypo from the Greek for under. However he is not interested in etymology. He comes up with the word hippopochondria which is forcing two foreign things together. it excites the fantasy most advantageously for instance by adding to the picture of a hippopotamus to the mental world of a pale, thin, pretentiously decadent poet.

Another key technique he uses is the idea of duality. This is a common theme in both philosophy and literature and Szentkuthy makes much use of it, from the obvious – order vs chaos, teenage desire vs mature desire, poetic love vs mundane love and the inseparable parallelism of extreme truth and extreme falsehood in the new intellectual ordinary life but also, less obviously, the duality of emotional-ontology and arbitrary action fiction,the dualism of Venice and Heidegger vs Heisenberg. We see it in people such as Ena :Always dressed in the latest fashion but she was anti-mondaine. There are numerous other examples of this throughout the book.

So what does Prae mean? Well, we are not going to get much help from the author on this. Does Prae have anything to say about what it wants? No. It does not. It does not even come anywhere close to itself. It clearly is indicating the sense of before as that is what prae, pre mean in Latin. As it is Szentkuthy’s first book it is there perhaps prefiguring his later works. Or maybe not. He will later comment running behind, beside and around the text of Prae is an organic accompanying stream, and the Non-Prae, inseparable from Prae (more duality). Chaos and non-chaos?

Amongst the many philosophical diversions, there is a sort of plot. We have already met Leville-Touqué and he will continue to be part of the novel. He meets up with various people, including Leatrice, a Russian prostitute who wants to cease being a prostitute and, indeed, does so and moves out of her prostitute quarters to other accommodation, and Ena who prefers the English poet Halbert to Leville-Touqué. We learn more about the backgrounds of the two women, including Ena’s time in Norway, in a clinic. There are also Veronica Chamaedrys and Ulva di Chara who live in the building where Leatrice moves to. However, this is not a plot-based novel. We will be in the middle of the plot when suddenly Szentkuthy or one of his characters will take over and go charging off into a discussion, a long philosophical examination or some other non-plot based digression, often lasting for a great number of pages.

So what is this novel about?

Critics have described it in many ways. Early Hungarian critics called it formless. It has been called Joycean though Szentkuthy himself commented Perhaps even now I hear the name of ‘Joyce’ being cranked out, in what is virtually a hurdy-gurdy variant, in connection with Prae; a misconception on the part of people who have never read either Joyce or myself while Mihály Babits, the poet who was one of the first to use the epithet Joycean, admitted that he could no more bring himself to read Prae than he persevered in reading Ulysses.

Other terms include encyclopedic, a mock-essay, the ultimate failed modernist hyper-novel, though not quite a novel, is certainly a sort of anti-novel or meta-novel, an eerie attack on realism; the epitome of the modernist novel, forerunner of the postmodern novel and of Nouveau roman and an attempt to find the one and only physical and metaphysical principle that would account for all of the phenomena of the world. His goal with Prae was “to absorb the problems of modern philosophy and mathematics into modern fashion, love, and every manifestation of life. I think I like the last two best.

Szentkuthy must, of course, have the last word. I never, in any shape or form, considered Prae to be a work that belonged to an avant-garde. At most it was different from [the middle-brow] Lajos Zilahy or Ferenc Herczeg. If I had chopped the whole thing down into neat chapters, it would have become, disregarding a few (never consciously created) stylistic features, a more or less sober-minded collection of essays, diary entries and novellas. As with a lot he says, this is somewhat tongue-in-cheek.

I shall mention what to me are a couple of key themes. I would stress that these are very much not the only themes. Indeed, other intelligent readers will undoubtedly focus on other themes. Any good book will allow the reader to see what they want to see and not limit the reader to a narrow theme.

The first key theme is clearly one to be found in many worthwhile and a whole load of less than worthwhile novels – love. This is not a conventional love story any more than, say Ulysses is a conventional love story. As he himself says it is about what everyone has tried so many times, consciously or unconsciously: which is to experience love and woman separately as unrelated elements. Despite this admonition, love slithers through the book, whether as plain carnal lust or something more lasting. He discusses in detail mature vs young love Most of the main characters have some sort of feeling for at least one member of the opposite sex and though this is not what the novel is about, it keeps on coming up.

Another key theme of many a literary work is order vs chaos and how to create order out of chaos, Shakespeare and Milton did it, of course, and we find it, albeit often somewhat hidden, in many great works

Leville-Touqué feared chaos because it was too easy to perceive it as order. However, chaos hummed in the order – because he was disgusted by by a ‘chaocosmic’world,where by virtue of petty bourgeois automat, confusion and harmony were always unequivocal and identical. We are always trying to make sense of things that seemingly do not make sense and this book certainly struggles with this idea, as do many others. The idea can be religious (Milton), philosophical (many philosophers, though Heidegger is one that features in this book) and physical. Considering that the book was published in 1934, Szentkuthy is remarkably well informed in modern physics. We know that he had numerous books on physics in his private library. Dirac, Heisenberg, Rutherford, Einstein and Schrödinger all appear and all, of course, were very much involved in trying to make sense of the physical world.

But he is writing a novel and with Leville-Touqué, who may be seen, at least in part, as an (not the) alter ego of our author, we see his views on writing a novel . Leville-Touqué does not just focus on novels. He critiques a (fictitious) painting as lacking a unifying theme and clearly this is important to Szentkuthy.

I have not touched on all the plot elements, the swathes of philosophising the strange dreams, the odd characters that appear out of nowhere and then disappear, the stories of the childhoods of some the main characters and the various travels. Moreover, I am not an academic and have no pretensions to to being one. I am writing this review as an ordinary intelligent reader who wishes to read quality fiction, with quality fiction often meaning challenging fiction. If you enjoy reading Proust, Joyce, Musil and Kafka, even if at times you may have struggled with them and if you want to read a novel that blazes a new path for the novel format, then you should be reading Szentkuthy. Far more intelligent critics than I have written and will write learned theses on Szentkuthy and some of these will certainly help our understanding of Szentkuthy. Meanwhile I hope my humble introduction to the first part of Prae will inspire you to investigate it.

I must conclude by mentioning the huge effort in translating this work by the late Tim Wilkinson and also to credit Contra Mundum Press for publishing it.

Publishing history

First published in Hungarian in 1934 by Egyetemi Ny
Volume 1
First published in English in 2014 by Contra Mundum Press
Translated by Tim Wilkinson

Other links

Link to review on Hungarian Literature Online (HLO)
This review was written in collaboration with HLO, an independent literary hub for all things Hungarian literature: new works, news, interviews, essays, and reviews