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Commemoration by Edit Rőder member of the Board of Trustees, for the late Miklós Szabolcsi, hairman of the Board of Trustees, at the grant-awarding ceremony of the HAS Milán Füst Translation Foundation on 18 December 2000

Esteemed guests, dear friends,

The call for applications for the translation grant awards that occasion this ceremony was worded by the esteemed Chairman of the HAS Milán Füst Translation Foundation, Dr Miklós Szabolcsi, member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, and myself. Sadly, he cannot be with us at this present meeting, since he passed away on 2 September 2000. On that day, I opened Milán Füst’s Diary at random, as I do every evening. The book opened on page 627, with the entry on it dated 16 April 1921. I quote:

“Poor victim, he is placed here to pass away his life – though innocent, he has to suffer the punishment – that it slips away between his fingers – and he can do nothing about it. Life, like fading light, is elusive.”

When reading the entry at the time I felt, as I do today, that Milán Füst was sending me a message. He was a magician, he could do so…

It is not my task to give an appreciation of Miklós Szabolcsi’s career and scholarly achievements; others more qualified than I have done that. Yet it is a moral imperative for us to remember the twelve years we trustees of the Milán Füst Translation Foundation spent together with our Chairman.

We were not personally acquainted before 1988, although we knew about one another’s activity and had a common point of contact: all three of us had known Milán Füst and his wife, Erzsébet Helfer, personally and held them in high regard.

It is a commonplace, but true that life is the greatest dramaturge, and it was so destined that Mrs. Milán Füst, née Erzsébet Helfer placed in my hand the pen with which to take down her public covenant and last will and testament, in which she made provision for the establishment of the Milán Füst Translation Foundation, thus connecting our lives that had until then been following different paths, with Dr Miklós Szabolcsi and Dr György Boytha.  

Allow me to read out a few lines from the public covenant that hitherto have been unknown to the public:

“As the wife of Milán Füst, winner of the Kossuth Prize, poet, writer and essayist, my life was permeated with poetry and literature. I was privileged to be part of the birth of masterpieces and of the aftermath of their birth: incomprehension, silence and success alike. There is one thing of which I was never part: compromises and a lack of demand for high standards; these were absent from Milán Füst’s life.

“Hungarian poetry and fiction can take pride in great personalities who had and still have much to say not only to the Hungarian nation, but also to the whole world. These messages are now comprehensible and accessible for the Hungarian people, as poetry and literature have become public property of a special kind: the more we partake of them, the more they enrich us.

“But are our poetry and literature comprehensible and accessible for other European nations and for non-European nations?

“It is not my task to answer this question. But it is my task to contribute to their comprehension and accessibility by

o f f e r i n g

all my assets, in the event of my death, for the purposes of a translation foundation named after Milán Füst.”

Mrs Milán Füst designated the Hungarian Academy of Sciences as the trustee of her bequest.

The Hungarian Academy of Sciences, in accordance with Mrs Milán Füst’s public covenant and last will and testament, established in 1988 the Milán Füst Translation Foundation from her entire estate as it stood at her death, and commissioned Academician Miklós Szabolcsi to be its Chairman. He performed the duties of the Chairman until his death.

Following from the division of work that evolved within the Board of Trustees, Chairman Miklós Szabolcsi reviewed the growing number of biannual applications for translation grants. He knew who the internationally recognised translators were, he knew about their work and their qualities, and he submitted professionally well-grounded proposals to the Board of Trustees. Owing to Miklós Szabolcsi’s high-standard work, the Milán Füst Prize and the Milán Füst Translation Grant have raised the status of the recipients and at the same time have made the activity of the Milán Füst Translation Foundation well known and appreciated inside and outside Europe.

The aims of Mrs Milán Füst came to be accomplished. Due to the goodwill and renown of the Foundation, Domokos Kosáry, then President of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences [HAS], consented in his letter to Miklós Szabolcsi dated 15 April 1992 to the use of the term ‘HAS Milán Füst Translation Foundation’ as the Foundation’s name. We esteem Domokos Kosáry, former President of the HAS, for giving us this extended name, and thank Miklós Szabolcsi for the work with which he contributed to this recognition.

Our thanks go to Miklós Szabolcsi for his friendship, for our friendship, for creating, through appreciation of the other’s work and respect shown to the other’s personality, an atmosphere in which this friendship could emerge – a friendship, which is one of the noblest feelings of the heart and which even death cannot end, only sublimate into memory.

Miklós Szabolcsi was 75 years old in 1996. On his birthday we presented him with a fountain-pen with the inscription ‘Greetings from Milán Füst’ on it. He was pleased and moved by this token of appreciation.

Miklós Szabolcsi was a charismatic personality. Wherever he appeared he drew attention to himself by his mere presence. He exuded knowledge, understanding and erudition like light – even more so when he started speaking.

Hardly more than a year has passed since the day when, on the occasion of the 1999 Book Day, Miklós Szabolcsi introduced Milán Füst’s Teljes napló [Complete Diary] in this room. He spoke about the volume, about Milán Füst, his era, and his contemporaries in a way that defies one’s powers of description. He spoke about the Diary as a clue to Milán Füst’s oeuvre, a reference book for 20th-century Hungarian literature, a multi-layered, rich confession which is of source value, a kind of secret history of Hungarian literature.

“The greater part of the text in the Diary, Miklós Szabolcsi emphasised, is made up of the fights and struggles of his inner life, his manifold battles with his own self. This work is a mirror of an anxious struggle with life, with illness and, from early on, with death.”

I shall not go on because, as I have said, it is not for me to evaluate Miklós Szabolcsi’s work. His introduction at the book launch of Milán Füst’s Complete Diary was a freely delivered literary essay, which fascinated the audience. Their attentiveness further inspired the speaker to share with them even more of the rich store of his thoughts and knowledge.

When I was jotting down these lines I realised something that the speaker’s appeal, the artistic experience he had presented to us, obscured at the time: Miklós Szabolcsi’s presentation of the Complete Diary was nothing other than his own protest against death.

“Art is the finest and noblest result of our protest against death,” Milán Füst wrote in his work Vision and Emotion in Art.

We should believe him, as he was also a great thinker, a philosopher.

It is our wish that the actor György Kézdy, a friend of Miklós Szabolcsi, will recite two poems.

One is “Eszmélet” [Consciousness] by Attila József, which Miklós Szabolcsi was especially fond of and on which wrote a book. He attached great importance to emphasising that the Hungarian title also meant realisation, an outlook on the world. The form of attitude displayed in it – that of a witness to the age who observes and notes down everything – Szabolcsi especially felt to be his own:

         This how in eternal night

            the lit-up days speed by

            and I stand in the light of each compartment,

            leaning on my elbow, silent.

                  (Translated by John Bátki)

The other poem is “Öregség” [Old Age] by Milán Füst. I chose it because we listened to it together several times in Milán Füst’s unforgettable reading, as he “cast that Aeschylean curse on the one who gave old age to the living”. I also chose it because of the old Greek man in the poem who cast his futile curses

            And then of course he moved on, – silence at last took the territory

            But by then everything in his head was so silent, we should not

forget, and another still vaster attention […]

            And round his head the wan half daylight.

                   (Translated by Edwin Morgan)

Dear, very dear Miklós Szabolcsi, Farewell from Milán Füst!

Thomas Aquinas says in one of his logical deductions defining divine power that “not even God has the power to make the past not to have been.” Miklós Szabolcsi, beloved friend, in refutation of transience, we who are present at this commemoration will preserve your memory and thank you for your friendship, love and wisdom.

In the name of the Board of Trustees of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences Milán Füst Translation Foundation, I say goodbye to you.