The Philosopher & the Poet | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, June 02, 2018 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, June 02, 2018

The Philosopher & the Poet

These stories were told to John Drew by the Hungarian poets Ádám Nádasdy, translator of Shakespeare and Dante, and Győző Ferencz, Keeper of the Radnóti Archive.

The Philosopher

In the 1970s, a publisher in Budapest decided to publish an edition of the best modern Hungarian translations of Plato's dialogues. A lively translation existed of Plato's great dialogue, the Symposium, where a group of Athenians enjoying a banquet together argue about the nature of love, but unaccountably it contained some elementary errors.

Young philosophy lecturer Gyorgy Bence was given the unenviable task of going to see the old and distinguished  professor, Zsigmond Telegdi, the classicist and orientalist who had done the translation, to ask him if he would agree to some changes being made.

In considerable trepidation, the young Bence approached Telegdi, rehearsing all sorts of excuses for his temerity in asking for such permission. To his surprise and relief, Professor Telegdi, on hearing of the reason for his mission, did not get angry or indignant as he feared he might. In fact, he readily conceded that the work included some silly mistakes.

But then the conversation took a new turn. The distinguished professor, instead of agreeing to the necessary emendations being made, confessed that, for entirely personal and emotional reasons, he didn't want any corrections to be made to his text. He would fully understand if the publisher commissioned somebody else to do a fresh, error-free translation of the Symposium.

Bence was equally unhappy at the disturbing new course the conversationwas taking and his face must have shown his bewilderment. Telegdi smiled and then gently told the young man the story of how his translation had been done.

During the Second World War, Professor Telegdi had been taken to a forced labour camp. He had with him in his pocket a copy of Plato's Symposium in the original Greek. This he read to keep himself sane and remind himself that human beings could experience happier, more civilized times.

The imprisoned Telegdi also managed to obtain some paper and a pencil.At the end of each day of hard labour, he would sit in front of his tent and, by the faint light of a failing torch, amuse himself by scribbling out a bit more of his translation of Plato's work. Of course, he had none of the secondary materials translators rely on: dictionaries, cribs and other reference works.

Telegdi's wartime story had a happy ending. His translation was smuggled out and published. He himself managed to escape from the third and last camp to which he was assigned and so he was not exterminated by the Nazis and their henchmen of the Arrow Cross (whose unquiet ghosts haunt contemporary Hungary).

When the old professor had finished his story, Bence was as convinced as he was that a translation so wonderfully done in such unpropitious circumstances should certainly never be altered. For the publisher, too, Telegdi's translation of the Symposium was, in its own way, as much a manifestation of the human spirit as Plato's original work. He published it in the new 4-volume Works of Plato, just as it was.

The Poet

The poet Miklós Radnóti was an exact contemporary of Telegdi's, both being born in 1909 and both made unemployable by racial prejudice in the 1930s. Like the philosopher, the poet was three times sent out to work in forced labour camps in the War and he too faced down the barbaric circumstances he found himself in by writing.

Sadly, Radnóti did not manage to escape from the last camp in which he was confined. He  missed by a few days its liberation by Yugoslav partisans backed by the advancing Russian army. The poet was in the last batch of prisoners to be force-marched across Hungary on their way to a Nazi extermination camp. 

Radnóti had been writing poems in a little black notebook and just before leaving on this fatal march, he gave copies of five of them to a fellow prisoner who, should he survive, would give them to his wife. This prisoner did survive, fulfilled his commission and Fanni Radnóti published them, among some earlier poems, as a posthumous tribute to her husband in 1946.

From his youth Radnóti's poems had been suffused by the subject of death, perhaps not surprisingly since as an adolescent, following hard on his father's death,  he learned that, at the time of his own birth, both his mother and twin brother had died.

Now, on his death march, Radnóti continued to scribble in his notebook, first in pen and then, when that ran out of ink, in pencil poems about his fellow stragglers who, as they fell out of line, were shot by the guards.

His final poem describes the way the man next to him, Miklós Lorsi, a café musician in happier days, stumbles and is shot. So close is this man to him that the description, scribbled in barely imaginable circumstances, seems as much to describe his own fate as his neighbour's.

Such it was to be. Radnóti and 21 others who were no longer able to walk were placed in a carriage, taken to a wood near the village of Abda, murdered and dumped in a mass grave. How on earth do we know the story of Radnóti's last days? Incredible as it is that this man should bother to write poems at all in such circumstances, what chance would they ever have of surviving and being read? None at all, except by a miracle.

The Miracle

Eighteen months later, after the War was over, the mass grave at Abda was exhumed on the information of some villagers and in the clothes of corpse #12 was discovered, among other effects including pictures of his wife, Radnóti's notebook containing ten poems, the five he had passed on to a friend earlier being almost illegible but the five new poems providing a record of his last days.

The notebook was prefaced with a polite request in five different languages to forward it, if found, to a particular university lecturer in Budapest, name and address supplied, with thanks in anticipation. It is difficult to think of a more salient example of the power of life over death.

Among Radnóti's final poems, reminding us, along with Plato, that love is the driving force that informs the way we live and die, is averse “letter”(here abridged) addressed to his wife:

When I will see you I don't know,

Where there was light is now shadow

And what was once an uplifting psalm

Has grown too faint to ward off harm.

Lost to my senses, not to my soul,

In my foreign fancies I see you whole.

And then I become that boy again

On whom there fell (like fine spring rain

Prefiguring storms) a passionate love.

Oh, how I prayed to the gods above

That you'd go with me through my life,

Stranger, intimate, mistress, wife.

And so it was. But now has been.

Hostile frontiers stretch between.

Autumn has found me and leaves me here

Stung by kisseson the empty air.


John Drew is a poet, scholar and cricket aficionado who has taught English literature and creative writing at universities in several countries. His books include India and the Romantic Imagination and the poetry collection Buddha at Kamakura.

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