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október 24th, 2018 § 0 comments

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Bíró-Balogh Tamás, szerk/ed. Különben magyar költő vagyok: Radnóti Miklós levelezése I [Otherwise I’m a Hungarian poet. Miklós Radnóti’s Correspondence]. Budapest: Jaffa, 2017.

The first volume of Radnóti’s correspondence contains the letters the poet wrote and received over 19 years, between 1926 and 1945, 467 documents in total. The aim of Tamás Bíró-Balogh’s scholarly and carefully edited corpus is to publish all authentic letters Radnóti exchanged with his relatives, friends, colleagues, and publishing houses, except for those exchanged with his wife Fanni Gyarmati. Tamás Bíró-Balogh, literary historian and writer, was the editor of Aladár Schöpflin’s collected letters (2004), and Miklós Radnóti’s dedications (2016). Bíró-Balogh lays down his editing principles in the postscript: “This collection is not a critical edition, but it was made with a critical claim.” He presents the exact text without correcting it according to current spelling. Radnóti’s spelling was not perfect. Even if this editorial principle makes it harder to read these letters, it shows exactly what letters the poet wrote and received. The editor also notes that we can be certain that we do not know all the letters, new ones will always be discovered. Many letters may be in the possession of the heirs of former correspondents.

The correspondence with Radnóti’s relatives, friends, colleagues, and publishing houses is organized chronologically from the age of seventeen until the end of Radnóti’s life. It contains much new information (about circumstances of the publication of poems, volumes of poetry and literary translations) with the literary references being of most value. Radnóti’s comments on his own poetry, on politics, and on his fellow poets are also interesting. Beyond personal relationships, the letters paint a vivid picture of literary life between the two World Wars: the Szegedi Fiatalok Művészeti Kollégiuma (College of Art of Young People in Szeged), the circles of the journals Nyugat (West) and Szép Szó (Beautiful Word).

The quote in the book’s title offers a psychological point of view on the letters: the poet’s relation with Hungarian and Jewish identity, Christian religion and culture. An important letter about his identity is the one written to Aladár Komlós in 1942:

On the wall of my room I have three “family pictures”, three photographic copies. A copy of a fairly unknown portrait of Arany by Barabás, the head from the same painting, and a copy of a recently discovered portrait of the old Kazinczy by Ferenc Simó. […] They are my great-uncles. My relatives are also Balassi who changed his faith, the Lutheran Berzsenyi and Petőfi, the Calvinist Kölcsey, the Catholic Vörösmarty or Babits, or the Jewish Ernő Szép or Milán Füst to come closer to our time. […] I never denied my Jewishness, I have “Jewish religion” also today, but I do not feel Jewish myself, I was not educated to Jewish religion, I do not need it, I do not practice it.

He wrote in April 1943, a year and a half before his death:

About fifteen years ago I decided to get baptized before my 34th birthday. Christ was 33 years old and has not been 34 when he was crucified, that’s why I thought so. And because I thought that this crazy and despicable world would be fine by then, the persecution of the Jews will cease, and my baptism would be a private, internal affair, no one will think of speculation or escape.

We learn much of his suffering during two forced labour services, and the emotions of two love stories before and during his marriage. For example, we have his correspondence with the painter, graphic and ceramic artist, textile and puppet designer Judit Beck, who was his muse for three important poems in 1941–1942. One well-documented friendship is the one with graphic artist, woodcutter, book artist György Buday, who illustrated some of Radnóti’s volumes. Their relationship was not without tension because Buday was always late with his work.

The correspondence also introduces the extent and nature of French culture in Radnóti’s thinking (mainly influenced by his trips to Paris). Studying philosophy, Hungarian and French language and literature at the University of Szeged, his most important professors were the poet, translator, literary historian Sándor Sík, and Béla Zolnai, a specialist of the history of Hungarian and French literature in the 18th–20th centuries. They also helped the poet in his later career. Radnóti first stayed in Paris on his own for two months in the summer of 1931. During the second stay, now with his wife in the summer of 1937, he attended International PEN Club events, and he met French poet Pierre Robin. In the summer of 1938, he stayed for one week at the invitation of the French Pen Club, then he spent three more weeks in Paris, again with his wife. The fourth stay was also with his wife and friends in the summer of 1939, when he met Pierre Robin again. In February 1940, Radnóti wrote to Pierre Guerlet, minister of France in Hungary, to receive the French state scholarship: he emphasized his research on Apollinaire’s poetry and the translation of his poems into Hungarian. His application was ranked first, but the scholarship was given to someone else.

Below each letter appears the description of the document (any significant endorsement, the location of the manuscript). Next comes the textual apparatus (notes), which explains all the details of the document (identification of people, places and works mentioned, translation of the letters into foreign languages) and compares the data with other documents, such as the poet’s diary or his wife’s journal. In some cases variants and existing drafts of the letter are also cited in this part. In some notes the publisher admits that the data could not be found. I have found three of these unidentified items and share them here.

  1. “Valencia: unidentified dance type” (p. 10) – Valencia is a dance hit composed by José Padilla Sánchez (1889–1960) to the most beautiful Spanish dancer, Valencia in 1924, and it was also adapted to film in 1927. (V. A. Egy dalt adott a világnak: Beszélgetés José Padillaval a valenciáról… [He gave a song to the world: Interview with José Padilla about Valencia…], Pesti Napló, 12 June 1927, 37.) (Found in adtplus.arcanum.hu)

  2. “Maurice Scève: Poésies (Garnier) an unidentifiable edition of poem collection” (p. 290-291) – This edition is surely Oeuvres poétiques complètes de Maurice Scève, édité par Bertrand Guégan, Paris: Garnier frères, 1927, 335 p. (Found in catalogue.bnf.fr)

  3. “Pierre Guerlet (?–?) Ministre de France en Hongrie (1938–1940)” – He was born in 1883 and died in 1953 (gw.geneanet.org)

The notes also often refer to photos published in the book “You are a sharp light in shade”, photos of the Radnóti couple edited by Edit Krähling, published one year before this correspondence volume with the same publishing house, Jaffa. With the second volume containing all known letters exchanged between Radnóti and his wife, the complete edition of Radnóti’s correspondence will give us a new perspective on his life and poetry.

A szerző az MTA BTK Irodalomtudományi Intézet
Bibliográfiai Osztályának tudományos munkatársa

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