Edina Szvoren: If I could play Purcell on peppers filled with water…

Edina Szvoren, one of the most prominent and innovative writers of contemporary Hungarian short fiction, will be the special guest of the Müpa Literarium in January. Her work has won numerous awards, including 2019’s Libri Literary Award.

“Her 2010 short story collection Pertu is a distinctive debut, each of her texts is not a work in progress, but a meticulously distilled prose vapour, down to the molecule”

– writes Lajos Jánossy, host of the evening. We interviewed Edina Szvoren before the event.

You are a music teacher as well as a writer. And is that something to wonder about? How do you reconcile the two professions in everyday life? When do you find time to write while teaching?

I guess you don’t have to wonder. On the one hand, a relatively large number of writers come from music, and on the other hand, there are more of us who do not make a living from royalties and for whom the financial security is the wretched teacher’s salary. Many times I have said that writing is something I rest by teaching, and teaching by writing, and nothing new can be said about that. No change!

As a writer, have you ever been a teacher? would you like to teach creative writing? Do you habitually mentor aspiring writers?

I’ve been in a situation where I’ve had to advise, if not teach, then discuss the writing of aspiring writers. Not a completely new experience, but it seems that you can teach nothing, but learn from everything. Anyway, it was embarrassing to find myself in these situations, how, seeing narrative solutions that didn’t work, that for some reason went wrong, I almost reflexively went after the familiar, tried and tested methods, some of them worn out, while I don’t do everything the way my predecessors did. In fact, just as ten or so years of blind, desperate groping are largely due to my distrust of existing narrative voices, so my writing itself is largely due to this. Even today I can see better what I don’t want to do than what I do.

You have mentioned predecessors. Did you have any mentors or masters you would like to highlight?

I didn’t have a mentor. I don’t have many masters either, it’s just that from time to time you can get envious of different works. I find that the attraction can come from both sides – although it doesn’t necessarily show in the finished work. It can come from the works of writers of a completely different constitution, on the grounds that someone is doing something in a completely dissimilar way, and it can come from the same direction, on the pretext of a constitutional affinity, with a magnetic reduction of small differences. I may not always notice such things. But then it would also be impossible to say honestly and accurately what I consider literarily unfamiliar, since my writing is not born with me, not where my primary gifts, my temperament, are, but where my behaviour, my self-limitation, my self-reflective attitudes, their essence is precisely to deal with difference, even strangeness, to mix, to compare, to contrast, to distinguish, to see similarities through differences, and vice versa. Nor can I even know what is external and what is mine, because these things are in motion, and their essence is precisely this movement. Now that, for Nádas’s anniversary, I have brought out and reworked an earlier, unpublished pastiche of mine I can see much better than before what binds me to him. It is interesting, however, that in his world the alien element ,his double vision, his gigantic and microscopic coexistence, has never appealed to me as a writer, whereas I am otherwise a receptive and delighted reader of this vision.

I see your characters, in many cases, as animals skulking in the pitch dark of a floodlit night. In their impossibility, in their weakness, you focus in on them and their cramped environment, oftentimes on their physical flaws. I assume you are intrigued by these gestures, which attempt to conceal them from the outside world? What for?

I don’t think there is literature, not even from the more popular genres, that can fill pages with the states of certainty. When people ask me such a thing or when I read it in reviews, I am more and more convinced that my texts aren’t really distinguished by these awkward melancholic characters, namely, this hasn’t been detected quite accurately. Anywhere I look, I see that literature is about missing features. Either in the sense that we lost something, or that we want to obtain something, or that something is not right. Anywhere I look, I read about conflicts of the visible and the invisible. What else would be literature about? It is also a necessity of depiction technique, but that’s a longer story. However, it might be important to define what it means and to whom that a work is “about something”. What role the senses play in a situation when the writer speaks about missing and failing features and pretenses. Imagination takes the place of different senses if we read Mándy or Esterházy. These are writers’ worlds which do not differ thematically but in their sensory ways. Literature usually encourages two things. Some texts emphasise knowledge and novelty – see “novella” -, and others the gamified, experienced, sensed nature of knowledge. These modes requires different reader attitudes, but yeah, the mindset of missing and melancholy can be the same.

For me, in your last volume, wonder was also a synonym for idle talk. But that cannot really be said of your texts. Every word is placed with pinpoint accuracy, there is no chatter or empty sentences. I presume you are strict with your own texts? How many of your short stories end up in the bin by the time they reach their final form?

Nice thought about wonderment being idle chatter, I’m glad for it. It’s not just rigour. You can write a great novel of epic swagger with austerity, and you can write a Ernő sz trilogy. I actually touched on accuracy in answer to the previous question. What I mean is that I suspect that what we feel to be accurate in literature is what we can vividly imagine, what we can act out while reading. More precisely: what would a text that feels accurate be in line with? What are the contours of what it finds, given that fiction can only be consistent with itself? The reader imagines along the lines of the writer’s instructions, and if what he imagines the writer is writing about coincides with what he imagines he is writing about, then the text seems accurate, but so be it, pinpoint. If there is no such overlap, the text appears inaccurate. Well-done texts or passages of text that operate on visual stimuli are always seen as more accurate than well-done reasoning or well-done plot. I think that’s suspicious at the very least. Sorry, I’m getting hung up on the word precise, but I think that’s an important detail.

Just how many short stories end up in the bin? It varies, but it’s more like I can’t even finish it, which is bad. Oh yes, that reminds me, I’m not strict, I’m slow. If I wrote at least a little bit faster – because I write so slowly it’s more like reading – I might be able to rush through the crevices that open up, and by the time I’d notice them I’d be on the other side. I’m not sure it’s always good to be on that other shore, but sometimes I wish I could operate that way. A work written quickly has different vantage points for the writer.

In January, audiences can meet you live on stage at the Müpa Budapest. What can we expect? Your texts demand a slow, attentive, back-and-forth reading. Mysteries, gaps, startling words slow down the reading. However, I think that the Ohrwurm notes, for example, can all work well as audio texts, as their very title suggests something aural, absurd, funny,short. Has the director selected from his previous works or will there be new texts?

Yes, the Ohrwurm tend to work well in recitals, not only because of their ideal length. There will be three Ohrwurm, narrated by Orsolya Török-Illyés, and there will also be a new Ohrwurm that has not been published anywhere else.

You will be accompanied on stage by a harpist. Is this your instrument of choice? Is there any music, melody or instrument that inspires you in your writing?

I do love all chordal instruments, and none is more meaningful than the pieces that are being played on them. If I could play Purcell’s gamba fantasias on peppers filled with water, I would love peppers filled with water as much as the gamba. But I don’t use any external instruments for writing anyway. I want to see if my sentences say what they are supposed to say, if they say more or less, and it would not be good to confuse the structure of a temporal superstructure with characters, let alone external ones. It occurs to me now that if I watch a procession of garbage collectors at dawn with Mahler on my ear, I see a majestic and menacing procession, if I watch it with Satie, I see a languid packing, whereas the work of the garbage collector is essentially the same. The perception of the lyrics at work is distorted by the music to about the same extent; I, for one, like to see how much rubbish I’ve produced in a week, how many bins there are, how quickly they are emptied, and I don’t want to expose my lyrics to prefabricated moods. Not to mention that I can’t even pay attention when music is playing while I’m writing.

The new year has just recently started. Are there any events – whether public, personal or cultural – that you’re really looking forward to in 2023?

Well, the way things are going these days, my anticipation skills tend to take the form of anxiety…

Article: Anna Zöllner

Translation: Nóra Fehér