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Miklós Radnóti (1909-1944)

 

Hungarian poet and translator, who is considered one of the most important 20th-century poets of his country. Radnóti was killed at the age of thirty-five during World War II on a forced march toward Germany. After the war Radnóti's last poems, written in a notebook during the march, were discovered from the mass grave in which he was buried.

Without commas, one line touching the other
I write poems the way I live, in darkness,
blind, crossing the paper like a worm.
Flashlights, books – the guards took everything.
There's no mail, only fog drifts over the barracks.

(from 'Eclogue VII,' translated by Steven Polgár)

Miklós Radnóti was born in Budapest into a Jewish family. Radnóti's mother, Ilona Grosz, died while giving birth to him and his twin brother, who was stillborn. When he was 12 Radnóti lost his father, Jakab Glatter (1874-1921), who had remarried – he died of brain thrombosis. Most of Radnóti's ancestors earned their living in occupations typical for Jews living in the countryside at that time– they were small shopkeepers, vendors, or itinerant peddlers. On his father's side, they also included two painters. Jakab worked a traveling salesman in his brother-in-law's textile firm. He taught Radnóti Jewish prayers and rituals.

Radnóti was not told about his mother's and twin brother's death until he was ten. Later in the autobiographical sketch, Ikrek hava (1939) he described the shock of finding himself an orphan. Also the prose piece 'Gemini' (1939) was an examination of this traumatic expence. Death, guilt, and sacrifice would become a frequent subject of Radnóti's prose and poetry.

Radnóti was brought up by relatives who provided him a good education, and his stepmother, Ilka Molnár, raised him with affection and dedication. In 1927 he graduated from a commercial school, after which his uncle, Dezso Grosz, wanted him to continue the family business. Although Radnóti had other thoughts, in 1928 he started to work as an accountant in his firm.

At the age of 21 Radnóti published his first collection of poems, Pogány köszönto (1930, Pagan Salute), which reflected influences from French expressionism and attacked social injustices. His penname Radnóti derived from his father's birthplace, Radnót. In 1934 he changed his name officially to Radnóti.

Újmódi pásztorok éneke (1931, Song of Modern Shepherds) was confiscated by the public prosecutor on grounds of indecency and Radnóti drew a light jail sentence. In 1931 he also spent two months in Paris, where he visited 'Exposition coloniale' and decided to translate African poems and folk tales into Hungarian.

When  Radnóti applied for admission to the Péter Pázmány University in Budapest, the Numerus Clausus Law of 1920, which made Jewish attendance at the institutes of higher learning difficult, barred him from admission. He was accepted in 1930 at the Ferenc József University at Szeged, where he studied Hungarian and French literature.

His dissertation from 1934 dealt with the artistic development of the Hungarian poet and novelist Margit Kaffka (1880-1918). During this period he associated with a group of young intellectuals involved in the populist movement "Szyedi Fiatalok." Radnóti's friends were attracted by his energy and intensity. Moreover, his deep, melodic voice added to his success in public debates and poetry readings. After graduating he tried to find work as a teacher of literature without much success. To support himself he worked as a translator, free-lance writer, and private tutor. Also his rich uncle helped him. Mihály Babits (1883-1941), a poet and critic who edited Nyugat, welcomed Radnóti's contributions to the influential literary review. 

In 1935 Radnóti married Fanni (Fifi) Gyarmati, the daughter of the head of the Office of Communication of the Hungarian Parliament, and settled with her in Budapest, where they had an apartment on 1 Pozsonyi Street. Radnóti had met her already in 1926 at the home of Károly Hilbert, a secondary school teacher, who tutored him in mathematics; Fanni was the pupil of Hilbert's wife. Several of Radnóti's love poems were inspired by his wife Fifi but also by Judit Beck, an aspiring painter, with whom he had a short affair. "You were what is real, returned to dream in essence, / and I, fallen back into the wall of adolescence, / jealously question you: whether you love me," he wrote in 'Levél a hitveshez' (Letter to my Wife). Radnóti always spoke of Fifi in terms of devotion, in spite of his romantic involvement with Judith. Her name first surfaced in the Diary in 1941, but he had met her years before. In 'The Third Eclogue' (June 1941) Radnóti wrote of his new muse: "Just as in spring the tiny cockeyed chirp of a bird can / waken the driedout tree, I believed, was lifted, to / soar in the ancient wilderness peaks of teenage desire." The relationship with Judith lasted until his draft into the labor service in July 1942.

With Járkálj csa, halálraítélt! (1936, Walk On, Condemned), which dealt with the theme of violent death, Radnóti won the Baumgarted Prize. In 1937 he made a journey with Fanni to France, where he had contacts with left-wing circles. In the early 1930s he had produced activist poems – 'John Love, testvérem,' 'Vasárnap,' 'Füttyel oszlik a béke' and others – and established ties with the illegal Hungarian Communist Party. The Spanish Civil war and the death of the poet Federico García Lorca preoccupied much of his thoughts. With the tightening of censorship, Radnóti started to turn his attention more and more to translation of literature.

During World War II Radnóti published Orpheus nyomában (1942), which contained his translations of poetry, new and old. He had translated Virgil's 'Eclogue IX' in 1938, and composed his own 'Eclogue I' in the same year. From the modern French writers he translated Rimbaud, Mallarmé, Eluard, Apollinare and Blaise Cendras. Radnóti used much classical poetic forms, which offered a firm cultural ground, ideals of eternal beauty, against the irrationalism, barbarism, and anti-Semitism of his own time. Several of his poems have also religious overtones, such as 'Ének a halálról' and 'Töredék.'

Years before Radnóti converted to Roman Catholicism, he had embraced Christianity. At the university he had studied with the Catholic poet and priest Sándor Sík (1889-1963). Formally he converted in 1943. In 1944 Radnóti was sent to a labor camp near Bor in Yugoslavia. As the Russian army was approaching, the concentration camps in Yugoslavia were evacuated and his unit was led on foot through Hungary. Radnóti was shot death by Hungarian guards in November near the village of Abda, with other 21 internees who were unable to walk. The mass grave was exhumed after the war and Radnóti's last poems, describing incidents on the march, were found in his trench coat pocket by his widow. Radnóti's posthumous collection, Tajtékos ég (1946, Sky With Clouds) contains odes to his wife, letters, and poetic fragments. His remains were later reburied in Budapest's Kerepesi Cemetery.

Radnóti's poems were often melancholic and introspective. The central theme in his later collections was death, the poets stand in the world "marked with a white cross." Radnóti's language was highly controlled, serene, and precise, and he did not abandon his cold objectivity even when he knew he would not survive the horrors of his last march: "I fell next to him. His body rolled over. / It was tight as a string before it snaps. / Shot in the back of the head – 'This is how / you'll end.' 'Just lie quietly,' I said to myself. / Patience flowers into death now. / 'Der springt noch auf' I heard above me. / Dark filthy blood was drying on my ear."

For further reading: Radnóti Miklós: 1909-1944 by Ortutay Gy (1959); Radnóti Miklós költészete by I. Bori (1965); Radnóti Miklós by B. Pomogáts (1977); Introduction to Miklós Radnóti: Forced March by G. Gömöri and C. Wilmer (1979); Introduction to Miklós Radnóti: The Complete Poetry by E. George (1980); 'Training for the Forced March' by I. Sanders, in Commonweal, 22 October (1982); Miklós Radnóti by M.D. Birnbaum (1983); A History of Hungarian Literature by István Nemeskürty et al. (1983); The Oxford History of Hungarian Literature by Lóránt Czigány (1984); The Poetry of Miklos Radnoti: A Comparative Study by Emery Edward George (1986); The Life and Poetry of Miklós Radnóti, ed. by George Gömöri, Clive Wilmer (1999); In the Footsteps of Orpheus: The Life and Times of Miklós Radnóti by Zsuzsanna Ozsvath (2001) - Suom.: Miklós Radnótin runoja on julkaistu antologiassa Unkarin lyyra, toim. Toivo Lyy (1970) ja valikoimassa Taivas irtosi maasta, toim. Anna-Maija Raittila (1986). Vuonna 2003 ilmestyi Hannu Launosen kääntämänä ja toimittamana valikoima runoja, Vaahtopää taivas.

Selected works:

  • Pogány köszönto, 1930 [Pagan Salute]
  • Újmódi pásztorok éneke, 1931 [Song of Modern Shepherds]
  • Lábadozó szél, 1933 [Convalescent Wind]
  • Járkálj csa, halálraítélt!, 1936 [Walk On, Condemned!]
  • Meredek út, 1938 [Steep Road]
  • Ikrek hava. Napló a gyerekkorról, 1939 - Under Gemini: A Prose Memoir and Selected Poetry (translated by Kenneth and Zita McRobbie, Jascha Kessler, 1985)
  • Válogatott versek, 1940
  • Guillaume Apollinaire válogatott versei, 1940 (translator, with István Vas)
  • Henry de Montherlant: Les jeunes filles, 1941 (translator)
  • Szerelmes versek, 1941 (translator, with Géza Képes, Ferenc Szemlér, István Vas)
  • La Fontaine meséi, 1942 (translator)
  • Orpheus nyomában, 1942 [In the Footsteps of Orpheus) (translator)
  • Naptár, 1942 - Calendar (translated by Emery George, in The Complete Poetry, 1980) - Kalenteri (suom. Hannu Launonen, teoksessa Vaahtopää taivas, 2003)
  • Johan Huizinga: Válogatott tanulmányok, 1943 (translator)
  • Tajtékos ég, 1946 - Clouded Sky (translated by Steven Polgar, Stephen Berg, and S. J. Marks, 1972) / Foamy Sky: The Major Poems of Miklos Radnoti (translated by Zsuzsanna Ozsváth, Frederick Turner, 1992) - Vaahtopää taivas (valikoima, suom. Hannu Launonen, teoksessa Vaahtopää taivas, 2003)
  • Radnóti Miklós versei, 1948 (edited by Imre Trencsényi-Waldapfel)
  • Tanulmányok, cikkek, 1956 (edited by Pál Réz)
  • Összes versei és mufordításai, 1959 (edited by Sándor Koczkás)  
  • Radnóti Miklós összes versei és müfordításai, 1963
  • Összes versei és mufordításai, 1966 (edited by Pál Réz)
  • Próza, 1971
  • Válogatott versek és mufordítások, 1976
  • Subway Stops: Fifty Poems, 1977 (edited by Emery E. George)
  • The Witness: Selected Poems by Miklós Radnóti, 1977 (translated by Thomas Országh-Land)
  • Radnóti Miklós müvei, 1978 (edited by Pál Réz)
  • Forced March: Selected Poems, 1979 (translated by Clive Wilmer, George Gömöri)
  • The Complete Poetry, 1980 (edited and translated by Emery E. George)
  • Napló, 1989 
  • 33 Poems=33 Vers, 1992 (translated by Thomas Ország Land)
  • Radnóti Miklós összegyujtött versei és versfordításai, 1999 (edited by Ferenc Gyozo)
  • Radnóti Miklós összegyujtött prózai írásai, 2007 (edited by Ferenc Gyozo)  

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