“That feeling is inexhaustible” – On Miklos Szentkuthy’s 1934 notebooks (TLS 2014)

“The Most Mysterious Thing in Life”, The Times Literary Supplement (7 February 2014), 22. A review of Miklós Szentkuthy, Towards the One and Only Metaphor, trans. T. Wilkinson (New York 2013). An excerpt from the author’s typescript is copied below:

Szentkuthy, 1908-1988

In the first pages of a notebook he kept in the summer of 1934, Miklós Szentkuthy lies sweating in bed. He stares at “the lathes of the roller blinds” in his bedroom, the spreading “milky-blue leaves” of house plants. Budapest is hot, “fermenting at daybreak”, but it is not just the city’s heat that makes him sweat: he is also sick with fever. Waves of ultra-hot particles blast out of the sun, loosening the “foliage hawsers of the trees” in Budapest; a wavelet of toxicity is excreted by Szentkuthy’s gallbladder, heightening and disordering his sensations. The sphere of outer heat is nothing less than the world; the sphere of inner heat is little more than a sickbed. Yet both types of heat are physical, primordial, real. Which, then, is more essential: the sun over Budapest or his distempered gland? By which he means, metonymically: the outer perspective, the “not-I”, the systematic; or the inner perspective, the “I”, the impressionistic? Szentkuthy pursues this question with inventiveness and flair over the three-hundred-page notebook he published in 1935, in 112 numbered sections, as Towards the One and Only Metaphor (Az egyetlen metafora felé).

Szentkuthy’s title promises a reduction – a reductio ad unicam formulam, in his Latin phrase – but he delivers a series of experiments. Section 11 sketches a “philosophical” typology of plants (“Young acacia … optical hypotheses incarnated as lamellæ”), while section 36 is a masque played by Szentkuthy and his wife Dóra in the guise of King Charles II and Queen Catherine, likely inspired by the “Bedchamber incident” at Charles’s court (and featuring T.S. Eliot as a footman, Stearns). In section 45, he analyzes Béla Bartók’s transcription of a fugue by the Baroque composer Girolamo Frescobaldi (“When the first contrapuntal harmonies appear, I cannot imagine anything more sensual … and more mathematicized”); in section 67, he appropriates the conversion of St Augustine (“Augustine got up from the hetæras’ table the way a blackbird will suddenly fly out of a bush … I shall also get up that way one day”). Section 86 dwells on the phenomenology of loss (“That feeling is inexhaustible just because … its subject is ‘nothingness’ or a special ‘not present’”), and section 111 reports his impressions of Sir Thomas Browne’s Urn-Burial (“‘Cretaceous and chalky concretions’: the entire metaphysics of ‘expression’ inheres in tautologies of that kind”). Szentkuthy’s tendency is in no sense reductive: his sources and topics proliferate. …

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