November 30, 2010

Frigyes Karinthy

Frigyes Karinthy (Hungary)

Frigyes Karinthy was a prolific writers of short stories, poetry, plays, and essays. But he is best known as a humorist and satirist, the author of sequels to Swift's Gulliver's Travels — Utazás Feremidóba (1916, Journey to Faremído) and Capillaria (1921) — and the autobiographical Utazás a koponyám Körül (1937, Journey Around my Skull). His poetry — often a blend of Biblical-like diction and colloquial language or, as one critic has described it, "a mixture of carefully polished...classical language and broadly-rolling, Whitmanesque verse" — was collected in Nam mondhatom al senkinek (1930, I cannot tell it to anyone) and Üzenet a palaaaackban (1938, Message in a Bottle).

In Hungary he is also beloved as the author of a book of parodies, Így írtok to (This Is How YOU Write), many of whose lines have become proverbial. Like many of the New York Algonquin writers in the United States, Karinthy became known as a wit of almost legendary repute. With writer Dezsű Kosztolányi, he held literary court at the famed Budapest New York Café, as he and Kosztolányi played sophisticated verbal games and satirized the leading Hungarian poets such as Endre Ady, Mihály Babits, Gyula Illyés, Attila József and Lōrinc Szabó.

Karinthy's son, the noted novelist Ferenc Karinthy, contributed to the anecdotes of his father. His other son, Gabor, is a poet.


Nem mondhatom el senkinek (1930); Üzenet a palackban (1938)


Selections in In Quest of the Miracle Stag: The Poetry of Hungary, edited by Adam Makkai (Chicago: Atlantis Centaur/Budapest: Corvina, 1996).

The Message in the Bottle
(The Poet Is Asked Why He No Longer Writes Poems)

(a few illegible lines, then:) fingers
are frozen. This bottle's in my left hand. The right
holds the joystick. It has grown very stiff.
There's thick ice on the wings. I don't
know whether the engine can take it. It makes Queer
snoring noises in here. It's terribly cold.
I don't know how high up I am
(or how deep? or how far?)
Nearness and distance — all empty. And all
my instruments are frozen: the scales
of Lessing and the compressometer of the Academy;
the Martinetti altimeter, too. I think
I must be high enough because the penguins
no longer lift their heads as my propeller
drones above them, cutting across
the Northern Lights. They no longer hear me. Here are
no signs to see. Down there's some rocky land. New land?
Unknown? Ever explored before? By whom? Perhaps
by Scott? Strindberg? Byron? Leopardi?
I don't know. And I confess
I don't care. I'm cold, the taste
of this thin air is biter, horribly bitter...
It could be that my nose has started to bleed.
I'm hungry... I've eaten all my biscuits.
Some unknown star keeps blinking
at the point I gaze at. The pemmican
has gone maggoty... What star can that be?
Perhaps already... from the beyond...? And what's the date?
Wednesday? Thursday? Or New Year's Eve? Who could be
sitting around the homely hearth? Little brothers,
singing birds,
beside the anxiously guarded hearth
of petty feelings; bird brothers in the depths
of the human heart's jungle... Hallo! Hallo!
Is there no one to hear this exiled fellow-crow, myself?
A little while ago
something crackled through the rusty antenna of my radio...
I hear that Mr. D. has found a fine adjective
in Banality Harbor
while C. has discovered a new metaphor
between two rhymes in Love Canal.
The society's reporting it. Congratulations!
I'll...tell you all...that I...
when I get home...that I...
when I get
all that I...felt up here...only when
he escapes....can....the traveler....relate it....
But how does he every escape to return?
Now I put these few confused lines
into the empty wine bottle
and drop it through the hatch. Like rolling dice!
If an uncouth pearl-diver should find it, let him
throw it away, a broken oyster,
bt should a literate sailor find it,
I send this message through him:
"Here I am, at the Thirteenth Latitude of Desolation,
the Hundredth Longitude of Shame,
the utmost Altitude of teeth-gnashing Defiance,
somewhere far out, at the point of the Ultimate,
and still I wonder whether it is possible
to go any farther...

—Translated from the Hungarian by Paul Tabori


Towards your hand,
Towards your hand, your hair
Towards your hand, your hair, your eyes
Towards your hand, your hair, your eyes, your skirt
Why this snatching? — You ask me always,
Annoyed and loudly, or shaking your head in silence —

Why not soft and gentle caresses,
Yes, well behaved, like others would do it.
Why this snatching, and in my eyes a twinkle
And worse still, I am laughing — impudently!
It is so strident, rude and ear-splitting!
You'll leave me here at once, or smack my hand!
Flower, don't leave me, I rather tell you
I tell you — I breathe in your ear, wait,
Just smooth this curl away now.

Towards your hand,
Towards your hand, your hair
Towards your hand, your hair, your eyes
Towards your hand, your hair, your eyes, your skirt
What keeps snatching — you still cannot remember?
What keeps snatching — you still can't think of it? —
though you've this same expression
Always when, annoyed, you try to find it off
Holding your hair, your eyes, your skirt against it.

Towards your stem
Towards your stem stamen
Towards your stem stamen pistil
Towards your stem stamen pistil petals
What keeps snatching, flower? — The wind!
The wind, the wind, impudent, fickle wind
Chirping cheerfully, seeing you annoyed.

Flower, what next?
This was just a light breeze
This can only snatch and chirp away,
But now I have to speak to you about my family,
Listen, I say!
Proud, Trumpeting Tempest was my father —
The famous Typhoon of Arkansas my mother,
A whirling tornado married my sister —

Fair flowerfluff, have you ever wallowed exalted — exhausted
Hoisted on a heaven-piercing hurricane?
So don't smack me now on the hand, dear.

—Translated from the Hungarian by Peter Zollman

Struggle for Life

Brother, it seems, you have been beaten.
As Law decrees and Precept goes —
Your corpse is sniffed round by hyenas
And circled by the hungry crows.

It's not the pack who were the stronger,
Smaller beasts beat you to tatters —
And who fights now over your carcass:
Jackdaw? Jackal? Hardly matters.

Your fist when it was time to use it
Always stopped halfway in the air —
Was it Charity? Weakness? May be.
Fear? Pride? Modesty? I don't care.

Or mere disgust, perhaps. So be it.
Good. Amen, I accept the terms.
I prefer that worms should eat me
Rather than I should feed on worms.*

—Translated from the Hungarian by Peter Zollman

*These two lines have become proverbial in Hungarian.


"The Message in the Bottle," "Dandelion," and "Struggle for Life"
Reprinted from In Quest of the Miracle Stag: The Poetry of Hungary, edited by Adam Makkai (Chicago: Atlantis Centaur/Budapest: Covina, 1996). Copyright ©1996 by Atlantis-Centaur. Reprinted by permission of Adam Makkai, with thanks to Peter Zollman and Paul Tabori.

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