This essay, written by the author on his 1988 novel, INLAND, is one of 16 essays from a forthcoming collection on each of his published works.
I wanted from an early age to be a poet, but this was not because I considered poetry superior to fiction. I read as much fiction as poetry and was equally affected by both, but my ignorant teachers and the ignorant authors of my textbooks had led me to suppose that an author of fiction is gifted with some sort of insight into human nature, and – more preposterous still – that the purpose of fiction is to create believable characters. I was in my twenties before I learned that I was admirably qualified to write fiction because I knew next to nothing about human nature and was incapable of creating any sort of characters, and I was in my forties before I learned that a certain sort of author may be able to write a work of fiction the meaning of which he himself cannot explicate.
No sound in the English language corresponds to the vowel sound in the magyar word kút. The vowel sound in such English words as moor or poor is vaguely similar, but only vaguely. The magyar sound is intense and consistent, making it eminently suitable for a singer to inflate and to prolong with feeling. I inflate and prolong the sound thus once at least daily.
Ten years ago, I composed a musical setting for two paragraphs comprising 156 words in the magyar language. The music is my own version of Gregorian chant. Knowing nothing of musical notation, I committed my composition, so to call it, to memory while I was devising it, which took no effort whatever. I likewise committed to memory the two paragraphs mentioned. The word kút occurs thrice in the paragraphs, but I prolong its vowel sound only when I chant it for the third and final time, near the end of the second of the two paragraphs.
The date is surely recorded in the relevant volume of some or another registry of deaths, but the author of the two paragraphs and of the volume of non-fiction surrounding them makes no mention of dates or of names. Given that he saw as a schoolboy what he later wrote about, the year must have been between 1908 and 1916. The season was obviously winter, since ice is mentioned several times in the two paragraphs. The place was a remote landed estate in Tolna County.
Of all the farm-servants on the estate the cowherds were the earliest to begin work, and their first task was to draw water for their animals from the sweep-arm well. On the morning under mention, the cowherds’ buckets dragged out a corpse, the remains of a person who would have been known to all those at the well. The magyar word denoting her has for its English equivalent either girl or young woman. I know little enough about her. In the second of the two paragraphs, her face is described as beautiful and her nose as having an upwards tilt, giving her a slightly haughty appearance. Certainly, she was of an age and an appearance to have attracted the notice of the man who was responsible, if only indirectly, for her death. This was one of the assistant farm managers, one of the several layers of men who supervised the estate on behalf of the absentee landlord. He was by no means unmoved by the death that he had caused. In the text following the two notable paragraphs, he is described as striding up and down near the corpse and beating his riding crop against his boots, white-faced and agitated.
The book in which these matters are reported has an autobiographical strand throughout but seems mostly to be considered a work of sociology or, perhaps, anthropology, although without the trappings of a scholarly text. The two notable paragraphs as I call them, are the first paragraphs of a lengthy chapter containing no further mention of the girl who drowned herself. Having described the appearance of the corpse, the author turns to the assistant farm manager and what might be called the larger social context. The man is described as stout and, by implication, of middle age. His agitation is attributed to the dead girl’s having gone against long-standing custom; she has dared to disrupt the general order of things. The English translation of the text, although not the original magyar, has a subtitle for each chapter. For the chapter beginning with the two notable paragraphs, the subtitle is ‘The defencelessness of the girls. The morals of the puszta. The conquerors.’
Who could begin to estimate the number of girls and young women, in Hungary alone, who might have endured what the drowned girl could not endure? Their stories were never told, and hers might never have been told except that one of the group of schoolchildren who paused to view her corpse on that freezing morning before they were sent on their way by the agitated wielder of the riding crop – one of that little band was Gyula Illyés. The family Illyés never quite sank to the level of poverty that kept the farm servants on the great estates of Hungary in virtual slavery, and when Gyula was in his teens they escaped to the next-lowest level of their society and the boy obtained a secondary education. But it was not only this that helped to save the drowned girl from oblivion. I once saw a family portrait in which the youngest sitter, a boy of perhaps seven years, looked towards the camera so intensely that I was likely for an instant to drop my own eyes. This was surely the gaze that took in the details on the freezing morning: the gaze under which the uptilted nose kept its haughtiness even after death.
Gyula Illyés wrote no fiction that I’m aware of. He was a prolific poet and the major poet in Hungary by the time of his death in 1983. Puszták Népe [People of the Puszta] is one of a handful of such works written in his early years when he was a political activist, and yet this is Illyés’s best-known work outside Hungary, and the English translation of 1971 is one of many such. I first read that translation in 1977. And no, I’m not about to report that I knew even then that the personage who had come to life in my mind would one day find her way into a work of fiction. I’ve tried to explain already in this work that a work of fiction is for me a pattern of meaning that might need many years for its formation. No, what strikes me now is the seeming incongruity of the third-previous sentence; I find it hard to accept that certain images and certain feelings were not always part of my awareness: that I was a thinking and feeling being for nearly forty years without the stark shadow of a sweep-arm well falling every day across my mental vision.
I can’t remember how or when I learned to read and write my native English, but I remember writing a euphonious sentence at about the time of my fifth birthday and long before I had started at school. My parents and my two brothers and I had moved recently from Melbourne to Bendigo, and our first home there was a suite of rented rooms at the rear of the house mentioned in the third essay of this collection – the house described as palatial-seeming and having a spacious front garden. The woman of the house was probably in her late thirties at the time. She had a mass of dark hair and a forceful personality. (She was also the mother of one of the girls who invited me to join the game mentioned in the third essay.) That woman was the first person to read the first sentence of mine that I can recall. I believe I wrote the sentence in order to impress her or, perhaps, to repay her for the attention that she directed to me. The sentence was The bull is full.
Thirty and more years after I had reached out to the dark-haired landlady, I resolved to compose several thousand sentences for the sake of a dark-haired female personage whose dwelling-place, so to call it, was a passage comprising 156 words in a language unknown to me. (None of those words, by the way, refers to the hair of the personage. So, why have I asserted that her hair is dark-coloured? In order to answer that question, I would have to leave off writing this essay on the meaning of Inland and to begin an essay that would finally explain, as much for my own benefit as for any reader’s, why the process of reading a certain sort of text is for me only partly concerned with the text itself: why I can hardly read a certain sort of text without writing simultaneously a text of my own – a profuse, diffuse but near-to-truthful text on some of the countless pages of what Proust’s Narrator calls the ‘book in one’s heart’.)
The mention of Proust’s Narrator just now has reminded me of several passages in which the same personage deplores the many excuses used by writers to avoid confronting their true subject matter, and the many false tasks undertaken to avoid meeting the demands of their true task. I knew for nearly ten years after reading People of the Puszta that I must write a work of fiction in order to understand the meaning for me of that experience. When the time came for me to write what I first thought of as Hinterland, I used no excuses, but I undertook at least one false task. The drawer labelled Inland in my literary archive contains perhaps ten thousand words of various drafts of an opening section set in the editorial office of a magazine titled Victorian Landscape. When I looked through these pages just now, I could hardly believe that I once spent many weeks on a task that proved so utterly irrelevant, but the same pages reminded me also that I sensed from the beginning how difficult it would be to uncover the true meaning of the subject matter of the book now known as Inland.
On a certain evening in the winter of 1985, I was walking along Cape Street, Heidelberg, towards the Austin Hospital in order to visit the younger of my brothers, who was seriously ill. I had spent much of the day struggling with the early pages of my book. Not for the first nor for the last time, I found what I had for long needed several hours after I had put away my latest pages and had ceased to think actively about my writing problems. Near the footbridge that crosses Burgundy Street towards the hospital, I heard myself reciting the words that now comprise the first sentence of Inland. I am still able to recall what I felt while I recited: the sensation of having arrived on the inner side of some sort of barrier or wall that had previously seemed impenetrable or insurmountable. The final draft took more than two years to complete, but only because I was fully employed as a teacher of fiction writing with more than eighty students and because my wife was ill for much of the time – after having passed beyond that barrier or wall, I wrote fluently and confidently. And yet I had to wait until I began to write these few pages about Inland before I began to understand fully my experience on that winter evening 35 years ago.
One of my correspondents during the 1990s, a person whose published literary criticism has shown much insight into my books, sent me in a letter an interpretation of Inland that I found mistaken and unjustified. I prepared to send in return a clear explanation of the meaning of a text so often misunderstood. I had not gone far when I found myself confused and struggling for words. When I came to explain how the text appeared to have several narrators but was in fact narrated by the one personage, I found myself defeated. I took resort in the sort of explanation that a child might have devised, a child such as could have composed his first sentence of prose fiction in order to work on the feelings of a handsome female with a mass of dark hair. I asked my correspondent to suppose that a certain sort of writer had tried by every conventional means to draw near to a personage who had first appeared to him while he was reading a book in which were reported her existence and several other matters relating to her. Having thus tried and failed, the writer did what an angry, baffled child or a character in a fairy-story might have done. The child might have daydreamed his way into the setting of the book in the hope of mingling with the characters; the fairy-tale hero might have stepped through a page of text as though through a door to a place where characters were persons after all; the writer used writerly means in his effort to achieve his end.
I’ve written elsewhere about my having learned the magyar language when I left the workforce at the age of 55. I was always aware that my explanations for having learned magyar were tempered to meet the expectations of my readers. Only while I prepared to write this essay, however, did I truly understand my own motives. Whatever I may have said or written about my wanting to read in the original the treasury of Hungarian literature, I truly wanted to read only one book. And no matter what I may have said or written about that admirable evocation of rural hardship, I truly wanted to read only two paragraphs in that book and, in fact, only the second of those two: the paragraph beginning, in English, ‘The cowherds pulled her out when they watered the cattle at dawn…’ and ending ‘…dashed straight as an arrow to the well.’
‘A csirások húzták ki hajnali itatáskor…’ Literally ‘The cowherds pulled-her out dawnish helping-to-drink time…’ ‘…és egy iramban, nyílegyensen a kúthoz rohant.’ Literally ‘and one direction-in, arrow-straightishly the well-towards she-dashed.’ As I wrote above, I chant at least once daily my own musical setting of these two passages and, of course, the sentences between them. (They are two only, and each is at least as long and complex as any sentence in this essay.) I chant also the short introductory paragraph that stands before the crucial paragraph. A nineteenth-century linguist, after counting the vowels and consonants in samples of every language known to him, declared that magyar was the most musical-sounding of all. Illyés himself once called his native language ‘our exquisite Ugric tongue’. I’ve told a few persons about my daily chanting. I’ve probably told them also about the richness of many magyar vowel-sounds and the denseness of the many compound words. Only when I prepared to write this essay, however, did I truly understand my own motives. Whatever I may have said about the chanted sounds, I value most the vowel sound in the word kút. I hear that sound, sustained by my own breath, when I chant the first sentence of the long paragraph; I hear the sound in the word húzták. I hear the sound also in mid-paragraph, when the word kút occurs for the first time. The long vowel sound reverberates thrice like a musical phrase in a symphonic movement. But what I hear is no sort of musical abstraction. What I truly hear persuades me that I’ve arrived at last at the end of my impossible journey: my delusional, literal-minded enterprise. I have penetrated not only a book and not only a paragraph. I have reached the heart of a word itself. What I hear is a hollow-sounding echo. I am inside the well.