Silence in the place of sound – but what in the place of silence? Remembering Dezső Tandori

A tribute evening, dedicated to Hungarian author Dezső Tandori who died this February, will be held in the Müpa tonight. It won’t be a mere event about him, but also with him, as not only actors and actresses will recite his poems but also he himself will be evoked through audio-visual recordings.

Lajos Jánossy literature expert says that Tandori was a passionate but also playful author. His lifestyle relates to Rousseau’s solitary walker figure, letting some carefully listening companions to walk with him for some parts of the path. His life was rewritten by literature and literature was rewritten by him, challenging conventions yet respecting traditions. Sparrows, his roommates for years, became fixed stars of his poetry. My interview with Lajos Jánossy revealed even more about all this.

You chose the title of a 2014 Tandori book, Triumph in Defeat, as the title of the event. How can we interpret this phrase after his death?

We were devastated by his death, and one strategy for us to cope up with it was to ask the question: what can still be ‘won’ from this horrible loss? Therefore, my fellow editor Gábor Németh and myself both feel an urgent need to we keep working with his texts, reflect on them, keep them alive, reinterpret them.

Is this book the main source for the event?

The title-giving poem will be part of the remembrance evening, but its core parts are from The No Hand and Or Almost That poem collections, both published in the 1990s within a short timeframe. This is an arbitrary choice, as the enormous life work makes it impossible to create a representative collection for a single evening. We also preferred these books because we wanted to use recitable poems. Actresses and actors will recite one poem after the other, and they also shouldn’t overwhelm the audience. Musical and performative parts will divide this flowing river. Eszter Novák, director of the event, decided on the final form of the literature basis that we provided.

What is your first association if you hear the name Dezső Tandori?

Dezső Tandori. (c) Tibor Várnagy

Dezső Tandori himself, his figure, as I knew him personally. We talk about someone whose life was basically literature itself. Not a traditional life, partly avant-garde, but in the end impossible to categorize. He addressed and renewed traditions, and sometimes confronted with it, but also evoked fellow writers who were about to be forgotten by then. No one else was capable of this. He gave justice to Ernő Szép (1884-1953), for instance, when he showed his interest for song form in poetry.

Maybe that’s why he mentioned every time he won an award that Ernő Szép was also equally awarded.

Yes, but we can also mention Zoltán Jékely (1913-1982), also rediscovered by Tandori. He let Jékely’s poetry be so alive as if he was still our contemporary. I can also think about the life work of Tandori as a huge epic story, with the mentioned authors being eternal characters in it.

How do you remember talking to him?

We had brilliant discussions, about all kinds of topics, many different scales of arts, he always talked about things that were deeply on his mind and gave long monologues of them. It was lovely to listen to him. I loved him very much and he was also attached to me, I guess we can call it friendship.

István Margócsy says that Tandori uses the rhetoric of paradoxes, and this is an essence of his poetry. In your necrology on the Litera, you also remember him through contradictions.

He was a philosophical writer, referred to Wittgenstein a lot, and treated language as an empirical material. With contradictions of language, he mirrored the contradictions of the world, this is how Tandori’s special thinking and relation to words worked in the praxis. He found his philosophical language in his poetry, and he didn’t do it on the usual basis of philosophy vocabulary. His poems are at serious existential stakes, they make you think, to get shocked, just like great artworks usually do.

In an 1976 poem, Tandori says that “everything is just a quotation mark”. It seems he put the world around us in quotation marks.

Yes, he has a two-line poem:

“Silence in the place of sound.
But what in the place of silence?”

Order and consequence are in an infinite in his thinking, so it is incomprehensible. That makes his art unique as well.

Literature historian Zoltán Kenyeres thinks that after three certain Hungarian poets, one couldn’t write poems on the previous way anymore. They are Mihály Vörösmarty (1800-1855), Endre Ady (1877-1919), and Tandori. What does his poetic reform mean?

His first book, Fragment for Hamlet, was a big moment in Hungarian literature, as Tandori broke up with conventions of his time. He didn’t feel authentic in the language of writers following the literature journal Nyugat’s traditions – a humanist voice, but in a civic culture in front of library sceneries. However, the language of the ‘folkish’ direction that saw the substance of the nation in rural folks, was equally stranger to him. So he created an own universe, went on his own path, and after his poetry arrived to collective consciousness, no one could think the same old ways anymore.

How did his contemporaries find his novel way of poetry?

Since his sparrow-bear-phase, people have been suspicious towards him. It was an unusual voice, and only few of his fellows dared to believe that his special world has a solid basis. Tandori, just like György Petri (1943-2000) and Imre Oravecz (*1943), changed conventional poetry from its basics. Péter Esterházy (1950-2016) also counted Tandori as his big influence, especially in terms of his decision to move towards literature, and the way he did it.

What would you recommend to someone who doesn’t know Tandori’s poetry at all?

There is no such text that I could see as an introduction to Dezső Tandori. He has a whole collection of so-called children’s poems about bears, but they are in fact not conventional children’s poems. They are popular, easy to absorb, so they might be a good choice for people who are used to traditional poetic forms. Also, Triumph in Defeat can be a good starting point. We should still be very open-minded while reading his works, letting the poetic will defeat or preconceptions.

[At this point of the discussion, an elderly man comes to us and says he couldn’t help but listen to our conversation and found it intriguing. He even comes back from the door while leaving, to say once again how great it all was. As Lajos Jánossy comments, that was a real Tandori motive of our time spent together.]

They say he was like Sándor Weöres (1913-1989). Do you think he really was?

Their habitude, levitation, fertile and vulnerable poetic loneliness was similar. And they both knew everything about poetic forms. They keep saying: what Tandori didn’t know doesn’t exist.

There will also be dance in the programme of the remembrance evening.

This is the result of director Eszter Novák’s poetic imagination. From Tandori we can associate to air, self-confidence, height, the dimension of up and down. This is a poetic evening but we need other elements as well, so that it won’t be too static. As far as I know, this is the first Tandori show which is not organized by Tandori himself. There will be a female presenter as well, as his floating texts are not necessarily written solely for a male voice.

Interview: Anna Rácz

Translation: Zsófia Hacsek