Sixty Poems, by Alexander Petöfi, translated by Eugénie Bayard Pierce and Emil Delm

Sándor Petöfi is Hungary’s most famous poet, yet I had not heard of him until my friend Jacob recommended him to me. It is unfortunate that the literary culture in the U.S. is so narrowly focused. I try to compensate by reading review periodicals from England and by attending Toronto’s International Festival of Authors as often as possible. Even though not being able to read the poems in the original language limits me to hearing them through the sensibility of the translator, I found this collection both interesting and moving.

Petöfi was born in 1823 in Kiskoros, a community on the Hungarian plains. His early life—his mother was a peasant and his father an innkeeper and butcher—gave him an identification with the common people that he never lost. His early lyrics and epic poems included elements of folklore, and many later became folk songs. He read widely in several languages (English, French and German) and translated Shakespeare's Coriolanus into Hungarian.

In 1847, he married Julia Szendry against the wishes of her father, a member of the landed gentry. Expressions of his love for her fill many of the poems in this collection:

You praise me, dearest one, for being good!

Perhaps I am, who knows, it may be true,

But thank me not . . . the source of every good

That’s in me rises from your heart and you.

. . . . . from "You Praise Me"

While some of his poems seem sentimental, I think they need to be read in the context of both his youth and the Romantic Movement which swept Europe from about 1770 through Petofi’s lifetime. Another common theme in Petöfi’s work is nature, not an Emersonian all-encompassing Nature, but specifically the plains where he grew up. His love for his homeland is tied up with his love for his mother—several of the poems here are addressed to her—and his concern for the common people.

How long will you sleep, my land?

Till your house is burning?

Even till the tocsin rings,

Are you never turning?

How long will you sleep, my land,

Lovely Magyar homeland?

Maybe in another world

You may wake, my own land!

. . . . . from "How Long Will You Sleep, My Land?"

Caught up in the revolutionary fervor of 1848, he became one of the leaders of the youth movement to free Hungary from Austria’s rule. He co-authored the Twelve Pont, which were the demands presented to the Hapsburg Governor-General, and wrote the Nemzeti Dal, the National Song. Anyone who has heard Les Miz will recognise the echoes of Petöfi’s song:

On your feet, Magyar, the homeland calls!

The time is here, now or never!

Shall we be slaves or free?

This is the question, choose your answer!

. . . . . from "The National Song"

In 1849, he joined General Bem’s army in Transylvania: "I drop my lute to take a sword in hand,/The poet is a warrior today;" (from "Farewell"). While the army had some successes against the Hapsburg troops, they were unable to match the strength of the Russian troops sent by the Tsar in support of Austria. Petöfi died in July of 1849. His body was never found, and rumors persisted, as with so many folk heroes, that he would return in Hungary’s hour of need. But he himself knew the likelihood that he would not survive and left several poems about how fleeting life may be.

So near the dawn and now the night has come.

So near the spring and wintertime is here.

So near the day, my Julia, when we met.

You are my wife . . . as long ago you were.

So near the hours we played at father’s knee,

So soon beside grandfathers we are lain . . .

No more is life than swiftly racing cloud’s

Shadow on the river, breath on windowpane.

. . . . . "So Near the Dawn . . ."

I wrote last week about the difficulty of coming home from war. My readings about World War I have brought home to me the futility of war. I stood once on a bridge in Belgium. At one end was a plaque marking the spot where the first shot of the war was fired. At the other end, a few yards away, was a plaque marking the spot where the last shot was fired. I cannot understand the folly of choosing to go to war, but when I read some of these poems of Petöfi’s, I catch an echo of the clarion thrill of youth when you think that it just might be possible to change the world.

Out Stealing Horses, by Per Petterson

Like last week’s In the Woods, this marvelous novel selected by one of my book clubs brings together past and present. At sixty-seven, Trond Sander has moved to a small cabin in the woods to create a new life for himself, a simple life of doing chores, restoring the cabin, chopping wood for the winter. Most of all, what he wants is a life alone, just him and the dog he has adopted from an animal shelter, a life where he is able to think. Since the death of his wife in a terrible car accident three years previously, Trond has felt increasingly unable to go on with his prosperous life in Oslo. He does not even tell his two daughters where he is going.

But once alone, what he finds himself thinking about is the summer of 1948, when he was fifteen, when he and his father went off to another cabin, in other woods, beside a loop of river that comes in from Sweden and returns to it. Petterson moves back and forth between the two stories, subtly mirroring events and experiences. He draws in, as well, the German occupation which ended in 1945, and the absences of Trond’s father during the war. Yet I was always certain of which time period we were in; a member of my book club pointed out that with each shift, Petterson grounds us right away with something unique to that time period, such as the dog in the present day.

The writing is just amazing: clear and simple sentences that resound with emotion. Petterson worked closely with the translator, Anne Born, so I assume the prose is close to the original. He claims not to plan his books, but just to start and see where the writing takes him. If that is true, then he is either a genius or does a thorough and excellent job of revising, because the way this book is structured is so delicate and yet completely sound. The mirroring of the two stories is reflected in other doublings: obvious ones like the two sets of twins, the two encounters with lorries on mountain roads, the two times Trond falls out of bed; and more subtle ones such as Trond’s children waiting for him to return from his business travels just as he waited for his father to return from his mysterious absences during the war. Yet it is so lightly done, or perhaps I was so caught up in the story, that I was not even aware of things clicking into place. I only saw them when I went back and reread the book, which I did immediately, something I do only with the rare book that leaves me gasping.

Rereading also helped me see the seemingly unimportant details that later coalesce around an event or image and take on layers of meaning. There is Sweden, for example, that other country where Trond is certain everything will look the same but feel entirely different. And while Petterson does paraphrase Hartley’s famous opening lines, we are there well before him. Sometimes we must examine the past before we recognise the small, almost imperceptible shifts that change everything: the moment of crossing into adulthood or the moment you know you must, as Rilke said, change your life.

I don’t want to give away the plot. This story needs to unfold in its own time. This is a story about what a son may learn from his father, about communicating in this so reticent culture, about what it means to be a man. It’s also a story about coming back, a theme that resonates with me. Trond’s father returns from the war, from the danger and excitement, where he risked everything for the greater good. He returns to his wife and two children, to their second-floor flat, just as Norway itself must find a way to return to itself after the long years of German occupation. How do you come back from war and pick up your life again? Or from a terrible loss, such as the death of Trond’s wife? Perhaps you run off to sea, or yell and sing like the boaters in Oslo on the night of liberation, or perhaps you go off to a cabin in the woods and sit by the river and think.

In the Woods, by Tana French

This debut novel has won many awards, and I can see why: it is beautifully written. The story is immediately interesting: two cases twenty years apart in the same small suburb of Knocknaree in Ireland. In the first, three children disappear while playing in the woods near their homes; only one is ever found, his shoes filled with blood and his memory gone. In the second, the found boy, now Detective Rob Ryan, investigates the murder of a young girl her body discovered by archeologists who are racing against the impending construction of a motorway to excavate a site in what was once the woods. Ryan, who has kept his past a secret, is joined by Cassie Maddox, his partner and the first woman to join the Murder squad, and Sam O’Neill, a cheerful, stocky young man whose uncle is a mid-level politician, which gives Sam an in for investigating the motorway contracts.

So there’s an interesting story, a variety of characters, and enough suspense to keep me reading late into the night. But what I loved about this book right from the start was the writing. In scraps of memory that come to Ryan, flashbacks, and conversation among the team, French brilliantly evokes childhood itself, what it is like to be ten years old, vaulting over the stone wall and running down the almost invisible paths that your feet know without your even thinking about it because you and your friends have been playing Indians and explorers and all kinds of other games in it all summer long. She reminds me of how foreign the world of adults seems, and of what those first unthinking friendships are like, deeper than blood. Most of all, she makes me feel again that sense of the magic of the world, that a tent of leaves could hide anything, a troll or unicorn. Things seem open-ended when you’re young, before you know how things work and what lies beyond the hill. Maybe beans can grow into the clouds; maybe a fish can grant three wishes; maybe the stories can actually come true.

These shreds of memory, while tantalising, are only a small part of the book, which is a police procedural, recounting the investigation of the girl’s murder. Here, too, French’s matter-of-fact story-telling is enriched by her description of the friendship between Ryan and Cassie, partners and pals, joking, teasing, taking the piss out of each other, backing each other up. During the investigation, their friendship expands to include (to a certain extent) Sam, but he is not part of the late-night swing dance classes on the roof or the desperate, early-morning calls for a ride home. French captures their easy camaraderie beautifully.

She also captures the give and take of the squad room. Like any office, the Murder squad has an efficient grapevine. There are alignments and alliances, mysterious shifts of power between Ryan and Superintendent O’Neill, as well as among the detectives themselves. There are the peculiar roles that some people take on in the culture of a particular office, like Quigley whose nose for weakness makes him hang like an albatross on new recruits, burnt-outs, and failures. There’s humor here, too, in the banter between Ryan and Cassie for example, to relieve, however briefly, the tension and boredom and frustration of the investigation.

Fundamentally, this is a book about telling the truth. Any investigation has to be about determining who is being open, who is hiding something, who is lying. Here, it is not only the suspects but the detectives themselves who wrestle with truth-telling and compromise: Cassie with her refusal to lie even in the interview room, Ryan with his lost childhood. Woods have long been a powerful metaphor for what is hidden, what is kept secret, what challenges and changes us. Think of the folktales documented by Grimm brothers, Robin Hood, John Fennimore Cooper’s stories, even 1986’s musical Into the Woods. In a smart move, French touches only lightly on these allusions, concentrating on this specific section of woods in Knocknaree and what they mean to one person, Rob Ryan, who lost his childhood there.

My problems with the book are minor. You always want the characters to grow and change in the course of a story, but some of Ryan’s transformations struck me as overly abrupt. Also, in a mystery, I want closure at the end, with all the puzzles unwound and the solutions laid bare. I don’t need retribution, necessarily, nor the kind of ending where every minor storyline ties neatly together. The answers don’t have to be spelled out for me, but I expect them to be there somewhere. Yet here some questions remain once the book is done.

However, in spite of this small frustration and Ryan’s sometimes incomprehensible behavior, this is an excellent mystery. I highly recommend it and have already gotten my hands on French’s next book.

Old Filth, by Jane Gardam

Although always scrupulously clean, Sir Edward Feathers, a retired judge, is called Filth by his colleagues (an acronym for “failed in London; try Hong Kong”) in tribute to his successful career as an advocate in the Far East. Old Filth is so colorless as to seem invisible, literally so in some scenes. Since the death of his wife, he has the chilliest of connections to the people around him, not even knowing the name of his housekeeper. Events conspire to make him reflect upon his life and reconnect with people from his past. Filth is a Raj Orphan, not a term I'd heard before though I knew that those who worked for the Raj, the British Empire in the Far East, usually sent their children back to England by the time they were five, both for schooling and to avoid disease.

The story moves back and forth across the events of Old Filth's life, with the occasional foray into the point of view of another character. While I am easily irritated by this kind of non-linear structure in the hands of less adept writers, with Gardam I was never in doubt as to the who, when and where. Writers hoping to accomplish such seamless transitions would do well to study how Gardam manages her jumps in person, time and space. Like Old Filth himself, the prose is deceptively simple, concealing gems of lovely description, sparks of satire, and deep emotions. Of his wife Betty, Gardam says, “Her passion for jewelery was Chinese and her strong Scottish fingers rattled the trays of jade in the street markets of Kowloon, stirring the stones like pebbles on a beach. ‘When you do that,' Old Filth would say—when they were young and he was still aware of her all the time—‘your eyes are almond-shaped.'”

I very much enjoyed this book, a selection for one of my book clubs, despite a couple of quibbles. I didn't much like the interpolation of a few scenes of dialogue formatted like a script. The first one in particular does not tell us anything that the prose scene afterwards does not cover. However, some members of my book club liked these scenes, pointing out that they reinforce the way Old Filth lives his life as though playing a part on the stage. I also thought the climactic revelation was unnecessary and not worth the build-up. Most of my book club agreed, though some thought we needed the revelation to truly understand him. Perhaps. But I wonder if the whole of the life, presented so brilliantly throughout the book, doesn't give us all the understanding we need.

What with the recent deaths of Ted Kennedy, Trevor Stone and Mike Seegar, as well as others in my more immediate circle, I have been thinking a lot lately about the shape of a life, the whole of a life, which we cannot see until it is finished. I recently finished a biography of Dylan Thomas by Andrew Lycett, an excellent book, well-researched and very readable. I like to read biographies, but sometimes find them depressing because of the way they condense a life. There is too short a time between the dreams and aspirations at the beginning to the disappointments and compromises at the end. In our own lives, in real time, we have the breathing room to come to terms with our limitations (self-imposed or not) or perhaps to forget our early visions, Wordsworth's splendour in the grass. Reading a biography, however long one lingers over it, one moves too quickly over the ground for such comfort, flips through the photographs too rapidly. And, of course, particularly so with Thomas's life, with its squandered promise and early death.

Making allowances for the difference between a real person and a fictional character, I had a different response to this account of Old Filth's life. Initially I found this cold, reticent man unattractive and even uninteresting. However, discovering the circumstances of his birth, the joys and trials he encounters during his life, and the way he responds to them made me understand and appreciate the man he becomes and reminds me to look more often for the complexity behind the sometimes simple masks of those around me.