It is an unusual thing to see a press specifically focus on a single author, but that is what Contra Mundum Press has done with Hungarian author Miklós Szentkuthy, and if Towards the One & Only Metaphor is any basis to judge the rest of his work, the decision is one to be celebrated. Though one of those novels (this term used here in its most all-encompassing definition) that is “not for everyone” and one that is unabashedly difficult, it is also inviting and at its highest points gorgeous, thrilling, and plainly new, even if it was originally published in 1935. Szentkuthy makes it clear throughout the work that he is aware of the challenge he is asking readers to undertake with him, and more than once expresses an attitude not of the confidence and bullying that authors like Nabokov or Joyce hold dear, but instead a reassurance that a reader doesn’t need understanding firmly embedded in concrete for every passage—at one point Szentkuthy admits he is “too lazy” to define a concept, moves on with the sense of a definition, letting implied understanding between writer and reader hold the course.
Called “nearly-unclassifiable” and “something of a manifesto” by the jacket copy, Towards the One & Only Metaphor is made up of 122 numbered sections. They run a wild gamut that includes philosophical musings, theological rumination, aesthetic riffs, historical fictions, seeming diary entries, contemporary vignettes, and, because why not, a few lists. Ideas, historical persons, phrases, and images reoccur and link sections, Szentkuthy becomes suddenly enamored with an idea or a strategy, holds it for a while, and then drops it, having exhausted its engine and come to the end of the path. All of this works for the reader willing to dive in deep, find their sources of joy or connection, and when lost in a section, patiently move forward with Szentkuthy to find their next bright spot.
That sense of moving with Szentkuthy runs throughout the work and is an essential bit of surrender that the reader needs to make. Rarely has a single word in a title, “towards,” seemed so apt to both the author’s aims and the reader’s path to grasping those aims, and enjoying the way. Towards the One & Only Metaphor is a paced novel, moving in and out of various rhythms, but always having one. Szentkuthy does not force you along, his are not waves that drown you if you are unable to float with them, but gentler waves that leave you behind if you don’t find the current, or send you down an offshoot tributary, lost. This control of movement is true from the numbered sections through to word-to-word connections. Often, it seems better to read a sentence, enjoy the sounds and pace, but not comprehend totally, and move on to the next, rather than hold up the ongoing towards. When you are fully in sync, in understanding, in rhythm, the book comes to life and that is when the most glorious moments are encountered. When lost, unclear, one can give up and float down the gentle river with him, or hit the shore and walk back not a sentence or two, but a paragraph or more, to get back in the water and find both clarity and the movement. For an author to bring diverse influences, tones, and styles into a single towards is a wonder, and we are fortunate that translator Tim Wilkinson has the same sense, and grateful to the wisdom of Contra Mundum to not only commit to Szentkuthy as an author, but to Wilkinson as his translator.
As sentences weave their way through multiple clauses, filled with repeated dashes and colons, sound and visual aesthetic speed ahead of sense, and after you take a moment to catch your breath, sense and sudden clarity settle on you. Bizarre, seeming off-kilter descriptions blend senses of sight, sound, and feeling: “Drawings cool one: if I look up at the optical mosaic of trees, the sharpness of a million contours is cooling.” In the space after a colon, a drawing becomes like living trees, moving outlines of leaves and branches above you, and the visual cools you. Then, the whole image comes forth, the physical cool of a nap in the shade of a tree is handed off by the representation of trees.
Word combinations you can’t expect, like “tree boughs in grey moldy-patinated velvet,” come through without a hitch. He creates similes that require two insights, finding new visions of both X and Y instead of using X to understand Y. Szentkuthy has the power to describe a cliché such as love at first sight so wonderfully, and so casually, that it hardly registers as the something so familiar. In the lack of weight a cliché carries, space expands. It is in these new spaces he becomes ecstatic, and we along with him: “Every parallel, refrain, and repetition excites me: the rings of ripples on lakes, the escaped powers of ovals on branches, of acacias, fence laths, etc.”
Between and throughout the heights of his prose, Szentkuthy’s concerns, thinking, and style are complex, but he wants to open pathways for his writing to follow, and for those pathways to reach the reader too. One of the ways he opens the book to the reader is the same way a house opens to the world: lights on, windows with open blinds and cracked to the breeze. At times the windows are opened subtly, other times pointedly, as when he begins a section, “The perennial problems of any journal-like work:” and what follows the colon is a shared questioning of his project.
Through one of those windows, he shows us one of the oddest and utterly compelling definitions of and argument for experimental writing. Szentkuthy compares the idea of “rational, self-analytical” experiments with the experiment that is the natural world: “Biology is so explicitly an experimental domain that no distinction is made between a ‘final result’ and an undecided, exploratory trial.” In Towards the One & Only Metaphor, and the best experimental writing, there is no place for that distinction either—both are brought into the home.
These open windows are not only a stylistic habit or approach, Szentkuthy is keenly aware of their use, and attached to them. It isn’t a metafictional trick though, not an emphasis on self-awareness, not deconstructing the writing process. In a one-sentence section, he ends with the conclusion that “metaphors are the tadpole of reason.” At some point past metaphor, where reason is clearly outlined, something is lost, so the aim becomes to create a cloud of tadpoles, let some stay as the tiniest tadpoles but let others grow, sprout their little frog arms and become plump tadpoles, ready to drop their tails and hop on land, and abandon them before they become frogs. These glimpses inside the house let us see all of the tadpoles as they break from their eggs.
The tadpoles matter precisely because of their free movement in the current. Towards the One & Only Metaphor is also a book full of contradictions and shifts around them. Szentkuthy describes things using opposing terms, trots out two things he may believe but which must eliminate each other for one to become conviction, and vacillates between self-loathing and praise. By writing in that place before reason, opposites don’t eliminate each other; one does not need to override the other as the reasonable conclusion. The aim here is also not a yin-yang companionship, but to move back and forth between opposites, quickly, beautifully, consciously, and with each move from one to the other, to bring them closer to Szentkuthy’s repeated “one & only.” When those tadpoles are at their liveliest, full ideas that sound like nonsense but hold more sense than shear rationality could stand come forth: “What is destiny if it is not the mysteriously close impossibility of the mysteriously close possibility.”
As philosophically inclined, as high art as Szentkuthy reaches, it would be a mistake to not see how he regularly returns to the ground without ever losing his composure. Oftentimes passages are intensely personal, looking at his own life, his own ways of acting, but he also turns outward to the mundane world. That turning outward is best expressed by Szentkuthy himself, as “an enigmatic human synthesis of absolute gospel truth and absolutely bestial fury.” He questions what kind of just church allows certain funerals to be more important than others, and he rages against the “idealization of ‘work’” in a way that coherently, with passion and humor, expresses ideas and realities that led to Occupy Wall Street: money as “the thousand and one ethical masks of fraud” and the conviction that “businessmen are the most sentimental, puerile-spirited people in the world: ten-year-old girls display more cynicism and realism than these ‘leaders.’” His humor is darkly funny, but utterly serious, and it is worth remembering that the beliefs of Occupy Wall Street are not new, and shouldn’t weaken, in fact need to gain strength, and that fresh strength can be found in Hungarian writers from the 1930s only just now being translated into English.
Szentkuthy reaches little in the way of answers in Towards the One & Only Metaphor, but for him, it isn’t about finding them, because he is “not a person enquiring about the secret of the world but the fact of the world’s big, universal questions.” Just the fact that there are those questions, that there are movements against life, against addressing these questions, that is his concern. At one point he defines sainthood as “continual smashing, active taking notice” and while it’s unlikely he meant to call himself a saint, by his own definition he is, and even in the moments of beautiful stillness, his writing is a protest against the world, but a protest that allows him the yes he desires, allows him to be the flower he idealizes, and to, if only for a moment, be “the simplest blue being in the Sun.” With Towards the One & Only Metaphor, we too can face the reality of those questions, rage against the adversary, and be that simple blue being.
“I preferred the war to the plague,” writes Curzio Malaparte in his 1949 novel, The Skin. He speaks of World War II and the destruction it has wrought on Italy, the city of Naples in particular. But the plague he. . .
With the steady rise of feminist scholarship and criticism in recent decades, it is little wonder that the work of Louise Labé should be attracting, as Richard Sieburth tells us in the Afterword to his translation, a “wide and thriving”. . .
In Conversations, we find ourselves again in the protagonist’s conscious and subconscious, which is mostly likely that of Mr. César Aira and consistent with prototypical Aira style. This style never fails because each time Aira is able to develop a. . .
You are not ashamed of what you do, but of what they see you do. Without realizing it, life can be an accumulation of secrets that permeates every last minute of our routine . . .
The narrative history of. . .
Literature in translation often comes with a certain pedigree. In this little corner of the world, with so few books making it into this comforting nook, it is often those of the highest quality that cross through, and attention is. . .
Alessandro Baricco’s Mr. Gwyn is a set of two loosely interlinked novellas that play with narrative and the construction of character. Ably translated by Ann Goldstein, Mr. Gwyn plays some subtle metafictional games as Baricco delves into what it means. . .
I must admit upfront that I went into reading Saadat Hasan Manto’s Bombay Stories almost entirely blind. I have not read Salman Rushdie. I have read, perhaps, two short stories by Jhumpa Lahiri. I might shamefully add that I really. . .