Today, ambition lacks nuance. Perhaps influenced by Americanization, world literary discourse traffics in gross superlatives, announces the next big thing, the cathartic breakthrough, in a declarative way that, as Paul de Man warned us in “Literary History and Literary Modernity, violates the way any true sense of innovation must exist in tense dialogue with the tradition it steps beyond.
Even when rediscovering works from the past, there is often a frenetic, insistent quality on the greatness of these works, that they will alter the canon, that just as, fifteen years or so ago, it was proposed that Lake Champlain be considered the sixth Great Lake, so Proust, Joyce, Musil, Faulkner, Woolf will have to welcome somebody else to the club. This language, seeming to speak in the tones of aesthetics and culture, is merely hype and marketing veiled with a velvet glove.
So I want to avoid this kind of hype when talking about the publication by Contra Mundum Press of Tim Wilkinson’s translation of the first volume of Miklós Szentkuthy’s St. Orpheus Breviary, Marginalia on Casanova. But I think this is truly a seminal work, both because of the breadth of its range and the nuance and slyness whitch which it traverses this breadth. Szentkuthy reminds us that to be intellectually omnivorous is a wasted asset without a sense of irony; he is, in a sense, Arnold Toynbee as written by Henry James. He writes of the rise and fall of civilizations as if they were extended drawing-room conversations—that is to say in what James would consider a civilized way. Szentkuthy will unquestionably enter and alter the canon of twentieth-century literature as we know it.
Szentkuthy--often known by his fans as SzM, bearing in mind that, as in Japanese, in Hungarian the last name precedes the first and his name was in fact Szentkuthy Miklós--was one of the youngest of the successive generations of Hungarian modernists that flourished between the wars. This period was no utopia—no one would confuse the regime of Admiral Miklós Horthy with anything resembling democracy or tolerance—but it was a time of true independence for Hungary, no longer in the uneasy condominium with Austria as it had been in the prewar years and infinitely more benign than the nearly half century of rigid Communist control that succeeded the second war and also was laden with the trauma of the Holocaust and its aftermath, which, as chronicled in the works of writers such as Imre Kertész, nearly annihilated and irretrievably dispersed the once-vibrant Hungarian Jewish community. In this era, Hungarian writers were genuinely modernist, much as was the case in Czechoslovakia—fully conversant with the Western European avant-garde and perhaps even exceeding them in self-conscious experimentation. In a sense, that the best-known cultural figures of this era from Hungary are composers like Bartók or Kodály who, albeit in a very intellectual way, used folk-motifs in their music. Although some Hungarian writers like Gyula Illyés were roughly analogous in their refracted populism, there were also figures like Szentkuthy who were rigorously intellectual, and highbrow even to the point of, as in the manner of Wallace Stevens, risking dandyism. In his lifetime, Szentkuthy was best known for his 1934 Prae, still perhaps one of the most experimental works in the century, described by Zéno Bianu, in his introduction to the Contra Mundum edition, as a “completely fragmented narrative.” St. Orpheus Breviary was Szentkuthy’s epic riposte to this initial deconstruction, but as with all the truly worthwhile writers these epic assertions were questioned, called into doubt by Szentkuthy’s cognitive astute clowning, his deliberate refusal of his text’s overwhelming aspirations. Another factor came in here, though: Communism, whose iron grip prevented Szentkuthy from pursuing, or at least publishing, a work so obviously aesthetic and inutile in any banal sense. After doing five volumes of the Breviary in quick sequence, Szektkuthy paused. Instead, Szentkuthy wrote what seemed to be novelistic biographies, mainly of composers, but also of writers and artists. It is interesting that this was also the recourse of the Russian Formalist critic Boris Eikhenbaum who presumably under Stalinist pressure renounced his linguistically provocative aesthetics and turned to a traditional biographical project on Tolstoy. Communism on the one hand would seem an unlikely correlate for the biographer, with its denial of individual agency in favor of the mass. But Eikhenbaum and Szentkuthy both turned to the form in order to delude and thwart their censors. Is there something Communist about biography?
The lead persona of the Breviary, St. Orpheus, (who presumably emerges more in the subsequent volumes) is so obviously a non-traditional object of biography—a phantom, a composite, an untenable hybrid of classicism and Christianity, hagiography and sensual song. The fact that St. Orpheus is a concept as much as a person makes the Breviary different from the other twentieth century examples of the roman fleuve with which it might be compared—Proust, Robert Musil, Anthony Powell (who was also interested in Casanova, Venice, and voyeurism). All of these, despite their intense intellectuality, tell the life story of one person. Szentkuthy’s more essayistic approach uses different eras and motifs to illustrate fundamental, constitutive tensions in his work and in European identity—between classicism and Christianity, between Eastern and Western, European and Asian identities, between narcissism and altruism, Enlightenment and romanticism, between a civilization and a barbarism that not only, as Walter Benjamin intuited, potentially co-author documents but also share virtues and flaws alike.
The entire series does not focus on Casanova; only this first volume. As such, it is difficult to tell the reader just what they might be getting. Casanova is associated with sexuality, with promiscuity, even if in a very intellectual mode. But this book is not at all titillating or prurient. Indeed, Szentkuthy’s intellectual is, as a Venetian, somewhat like Mann’s Gustav von Aschenbach without the sex; a dilettante speculating on himself. And yet, we miss a huge part of this book if we do not realize that, even if Casanova puts the experience of sexuality several levels away from his persona, it is always there, always a reservoir underneath or noumenon above, the persona’s garrulous musings. He is (91) "life, not literature”. He is just out of touch with reality. He is "aware of the essence of love” but does not exemplify or embody it. He is “vegetative instinct” and “curious about variants in female personality", a curiosity as probing, inquisitive, as it is merely voyeuristic. Poised liminally between instinct and intellect, in Venice Casanova is also poised between land and sea, continent and island. Rome and Byzantium. (”'Venice in Byzantium’, that is as colorful a tautology as Venice in Venice”, 166). If to stand between pure sensuality and pure intellect is “the unluckiest spot in the world” (252), especially in a twentieth century that insists on annihilating all such independent stances that defy its insensate intellectual currents—it is at the very least a productive one for author, character and reader.
In this handsomely produced edition, the odd numbers are on the left side, the even-numbered pages on the right. The book begins with zero, as if to say, in the spirit of de Man, every beginning must try to be a new beginning even if it knows it ultimately cannot, that encrusted expectations must be jettisoned with each new read. Without zero, nothing can exist. This can stand for how genuinely innovative—without, again, merely participating in the rhetoric of the large, the ambitious, or even the revived classic—that this remarkable book is, and will be again and again on the many rereadings it merits.