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Authors: Imre Kertész

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unoccupied free seats. It would be fruitless for me to muse now over why, how, and on what impulse I came to like music; it is a fact, however, that around that time, when I was still not yet able to call myself a journalist, when my perpetually problematic life was perhaps at its most problematic because that life was at the mercy of my family, a family that was already on the point of breaking up around that time, and subsequently, during the disaster era, broke up completely, to be dispersed into prisons, foreign countries, death, poverty, or even, in the rarer cases, prosperity, a life from which already then, as ever since, I was constantly obliged to flee; it is a fact, therefore, that even then, as little more than a child, I would have been unable to tolerate that life, my life, without music. I think it was that life which prepared me, or in truth I should say rather that life which
rehearsed
me, for the disaster-era life which ensued not long afterwards, palliated as it was by reading and music, a life comprising several separate lives that played into one another’s hands, each one able to annihilate the others at will, yet each holding the others in balance and constantly offering formulations. In this sole respect, purely in respect of this balancing, the balancing of small weights, my seeing and hearing
Die Walküre
,
being receptive to
Die Walküre
, being overwhelmed by
Die Walküre
, undoubtedly represented a threat in a certain sense: it cast too big a weight onto the scales. What is more, that event—Richard Wagner’s opera
Die Walküre
—had an impact like a street mugging, a sudden attack for which I was unprepared in every sense. Naturally, I was not so uninformed as to be unaware that Richard Wagner himself had written the librettos of his operas, making it advisable to read through the texts before listening to his operas. But I was unable to procure the libretto for
Die Walküre
, any more than Wagner’s other librettos, a state of affairs to which pessimism induced by my milieu, and lassitude induced by that pessimism—a lassitude that was always instantly ready for renunciation of any kind—no doubt also contributed, though to be completely fair I should add that in the disaster era, which happened to be the era in which Richard Wagner began to interest me, Richard Wagner was actually classified as an undesirable composer, and thus his opera librettos were not available for sale, his operas were generally not performed, so to this day I don’t understand and don’t know why
Die Walküre
, of all his operas, was being performed, and with a fair degree of regularity at that. I do recall that some sort of so-called programme
booklet was on sale, the sort of disaster-era programme booklet which, alongside (disastrous) synopses of other operas, ballets, plays, marionette shows and films, also provided a five- or six-line synopsis of the “content,” so to speak, of
Die Walküre
, out of which I understood nothing at all and which presumably—though this did not occur to me at the time—had been deliberately contrived in such a way that nobody should understand it; in truth, to hold nothing back, I was even unaware that
Die Walküre
was the second piece in an interlinked tetralogy. That was how I took my seat in the auditorium at the Opera House, which even in the disaster era was still an exceedingly agreeable, indeed splendid, place. What happened to me is what came next: “… the lights in the auditorium went down and below their box the orchestra broke into the wild pulsating notes of the prelude. Storm, storm … Night and tempest … Storm, a raging tempest, in the forest. The angry God’s command resounded, once, twice repeated in its wrath, obediently the thunder crashed. The curtains whisked open as though blown by the storm. There was the rude hall, dark save for a glow on the pagan hearth. In the centre towered up the trunk of the ash tree. Siegmund, a rosy-cheeked man with a straw-coloured beard, appeared in the timber-framed
doorway and, beaten and harried, he leaned against the door-post. His sturdy legs, wrapped round with hide and thongs, carried him forwards with tragically dragging steps. Beneath his blond brows and the blond forelocks of his wig his blue eyes fixed the conductor with an imploring gaze. At last the orchestra gave way to the tenor’s voice, which rang clear and true, though he tried to make it sound like a gasp … A minute passed, filled with the singing, eloquent flow of the music, rolling its waves at the feet of the events on the stage … Sieglinde entered from the left … They looked at each other with the beginning of enchantment, a first dim recognition, standing rapt while the orchestra interpreted in a melody of profound enchantment … Again their glances met and mingled, while below the melody voiced their yearning.” Yes, that is how it was. Try as I might to follow it, straining my ears and eyes to the utmost, I understood not a single word of the text. I had no idea who Siegmund and Sieglinde were, who Wotan and the Valkyrie were, or what motivated them. “His wrath roared itself out, by degrees grew gentle and dispersed into a mild melancholy, on which note it ended. A noble prospect opened out, the scene was pervaded with epic and religious splendour. Brünnhilde slept. The God mounted the rocks.” Yes, where-as
I stepped out of the Opera House onto Stalin Avenue, as it happened to be called at that time. I shall not attempt—naturally, it would be pointless to do so—to analyse right here and now the so-called
artistic impact
or
artistic experience
; in essence—to resort, against my better judgement, to a literary simile—I walked in much the same way as the main protagonists in
Tristan und Isolde
(another opera by the same composer, Richard Wagner, which at that time I knew about only by hearsay) go around after they have imbibed the magic potion: the poison had penetrated deep within me, permeated me through and through. From then onwards, whenever
Die Walküre
was performed, as far as possible I would always be seated there, in the auditorium, for the only other refuge that I found where I might occasionally shelter myself, if only with an all-too-fragile fugacity, during that period of general, which is to say both public and private, disaster, apart from the auditorium of the Opera House and the, sadly, all-too-sporadic performances of
Die Walküre
, being the Lukács Baths. In those two places, immersed in the pure sensuality of the then still green, hot-spring water of the Lukács Baths and in the both sensually
and
intellectually very different ambience of the ruddy gloom at the Opera, every now
and then, in lucky moments, I would become aware of a presentiment, unattainably remote of course, of the notion of a private life. Even if such a presentiment, as I have already mentioned, was fraught with a certain implicit danger, I could not help sensing its
irrevocability
, and I was able to place my trust in that solid sentiment as in a kind of
metaphysical solace
: put simply, even in the lowest depths of disaster, and in the lowest depths of consciousness of that disaster, I was never again able to carry on living as if I had not seen and heard Richard Wagner’s opera
Die Walküre
, as if Richard Wagner had not written his opera
Die Walküre
, as if that opera and the world of that opera did not subsist as a world in the disaster world. That was the world I loved; the other I had to endure. Wotan interested me; my editor-in-chief did not. The enigma of Siegmund and Sieglinde interested me; that of the world which was really around me—the real disaster world—did not. It goes without saying that I was unable to formulate all this for myself so simply at the time, since it was not, nor could it be, so simple. I suppose that I conceded too much to the terror of so-called reality, which thereafter appeared to be the inexorable reality of the disaster, the one and only, unappealable, real world; and although for
my own part, I was now—after
Die Walküre
, through
Die Walküre—unappealably
aware of the reality of the other world as well, knowing of it, as it were, only in secret, in some sense with an illicit and thus incontrovertible but nevertheless guilty knowledge. I suppose I did not yet know that this secret and guilty knowledge was in fact a
knowledge of myself
. I did not know that existence always sends word of itself in the form of secret and guilty knowledge, and that the world of the disaster was in fact a world of this secret and guilty knowledge raised to the point of self-denial, a world which rewards only the virtue of self-denial, which finds salvation solely in self-denial, and which is therefore—however we look at it—in some sense religious. Thus I saw no
connection
of any kind between the disaster world of
Die Walküre
and the real disaster world, even though, on the other hand, I had unappealable cognisances of the reality of both worlds. I simply did not know how to bridge the chasm, or rather, to be more accurate, schizophrenia, which separated these two worlds, just as I did not even know why I should feel it was my task—and a somewhat obscure, somewhat painful, yet also somewhat hopeful task at that—to bridge that chasm or rather, to be more accurate, schizophrenia. “… He looked down
into the orchestra pit. The sunken space stood out bright against the darkness of the auditorium and was a hive of industry: hands fingered, arms drew the bows, cheeks puffed out, humble—all these assiduous mortals laboured zealously to bring to utterance the work of a master who suffered and created; created the noble and simple visions enacted above on the stage above … Creation! How did one create? Pain gnawed and burned in his breast, a drawing anguish which was yet somehow sweet, a yearning—whither? for what? It was all so vague, so shamefully unclear. Two thoughts, two words he had: creation, passion. His temples glowed and throbbed, and it came to him as in a yearning vision that creation was born of passion and was reshaped anew as passion. He saw the pale, spent woman hanging on the breast of the fugitive man, he saw her love and distress, and he knew: so life must be to be creative”—I read those words like somebody who was reading for the first time in his life, like somebody who was encountering words for the first time in his life, secret words that spoke to him alone, interpretable by him alone, the same thing as had happened to me when I saw
Die Walküre
for the first time in my life. The book—Thomas Mann’s
The Blood of the Walsungs
—was about
Die Walküre
, as its very title divulged. I began reading it in the hope that I might learn something about
Die Walküre
from it, and I put the book down in a shock of amazement, as if I had learnt something about myself, as if I had read a prophecy. It all fitted:
Die Walküre
, the fugitive existence, the distraughtness—everything. I ought to note here that between first receiving
Die Walküre
, my first engulfment by
Die Walküre
, and my first engulfment by this little book, years—suffice to say, years full of vicissitudes—had passed; so, in order to clarify my assertion that “it all fitted,” I shall be obliged at this point to digress slightly, to give at least an outline of the circumstances in which I was living at the time, all the more so that I too may find a steady bearing in the weft of time and events and not find I have lost the thread of this story, the story of the Union Jack. This book—
The Blood of the Walsungs
—came into my hands after my wife-to-be and I, with the assistance of a good friend of ours, one fine summer morning traversed half the city, from the former Lónyay, then Szamuely and today once again Lónyay, Street with a four-wheeled tow cart on which were piled, to put it simply, the appurtenances of our rudimentary household. This happened in the nick of time, since the lodgings in Lónyay (or Szamuely)
Street that my wife-to-be and I had been inhabiting had by then started to become unbearable and uninhabitable. I had become acquainted with my wife-to-be in the late summer the year before, just after she had got out of the internment camp where she had been imprisoned for a year for the usual reasons—that is to say, no reason at all. At that time, my wife-to-be was living in the kitchen of a woman friend from earlier days, where the woman friend had taken her in—for the time being—because somebody else happened to be living in my wife-to-be’s apartment. That somebody else, a woman (Mrs Solymosi), had taken over the apartment under extremely suspicious—or if you prefer, extremely usual—circumstances immediately after my wife-to-be’s arrest, through the intervention of exactly the same authorities who—essentially without any verifiable reason, indeed on no pretext at all—had arrested my wife-to-be. Practically the moment she learned of my wife-to-be’s release, that somebody else (Mrs Solymosi) immediately requested my wife-to-be (by registered letter) to instantly have the furniture my wife-to-be had unlawfully stored in the apartment that rightfully belonged to
her
(Mrs Solymosi) removed to the place where they were currently lodged (which is to say, the
kitchen of the woman friend from earlier days who was taking her in for the time being). When later, thanks to a protracted legal action, but above all let us just say to unpredictable circumstances—let’s call it a stroke of luck—my wife-to-be got her own apartment back, we discovered, among some abandoned odds and ends, books, and other junk, pegged together with a paper clip, a bundle of paper slips covered with the pearly letters of a woman’s handwriting, from which I don’t mind quoting a few details here, under the title of, let’s say, “Notes for a denunciation” or “Fragments of a denunciation,” purely as a contribution to a legal case-study or even to an aesthetics of the disaster, as follows: “She has lodged various complaints against me at the Council and the police, that I illegally moved into the apartment and stole hers … She imagined she could scare me with her slanders and I would give up the apartment to her … The apartment has been allocated definitively; there is no space for her furniture in my apartment … 
Furniture
: 3 large wardrobes, 1 corner couch, 4 chairs … She should put them into storage, I am under no obligation to keep them after what is already 1½ years …” There follow a few items of data that would appear to be reminders: “17/10/1952 application, 29/10 allocation, 23/11 apartment opened up, inventory taken,

BOOK: The Union Jack
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