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Lorand Gaspar: The Autobiographical Introductory Essay

They tell me I was born in 1925 in a small town in eastern Transylvania, whose acquaintance I was able to make a few years later. My parents met there, following the war of 1914-18, though both hailed from the harsh villages of the high Carpathian plateaus; my father had come to find a job after his discharge. As the child of novice city dwellers and happy to be so, I eagerly waited for vacations when I could return “behind the back of God,” as they used to say. I had great affection for my maternal grandmother and for my uncle B., a bachelor, the only member of my family, it seemed to me as a child, who hadn’t betrayed our origins at the heart of the peasant-warrior tribe once stationed there to defend the countryside against the new waves of invaders from the East, which Asia continued to pour into Europe. I later learned that on my mother’s side I didn’t have a drop of the “Székely” blood (the specific name of those Magyars of the mountains). My maternal grandfather was Armenian, and in my grandmother’s family a German dialect was spoken. The only thing lacking from the mosaic was the Romanian element.

After earning a business degree in Germany, this uncle B. had returned “behind the back of God,” where, as my father said, he demonstrated without even trying that he didn’t have a head for business. I loved him deeply. He was a sort of Taoist philosopher, speaking little, laughing easily, meditating habitually behind the eternal cigarette, happy to be alive, drinking heavily. He died a few years ago, at the age of eighty-six, “behind the back of God,” stripped of everything except his good humor. To me, my grandmother seemed entirely transparent, small and thin, dressed in grey and black. I never heard her raise her voice, still less complain; she was all attention, all devotion. She died alone amid the final tide of the Second World War, which had taken faraway from her all of her ten children and their numerous offspring.

These two beings reigned over a small universe of animals, barns, granaries and cellars, carts, ploughs, and harrows, not to mention all the clutter of tools, nails, ropes, and cans that filled the workshop. Behind the stables ran a mountain stream where the village boys taught me to catch trout under the stones with my bare hands. The great forests of fir trees were several hours away on foot, and among the mountain shepherds there were those who knew how to tame bears and leave them at liberty.

Some twenty kilometers away, a handful of graves were left to speak for the ancestors on my father’s side. Widowed immediately after his birth, my grandmother had sold the little she possessed, in order to raise her two sons. By taking in the neighbors’ laundry, she had managed to educate the elder son, killed in the first battle of the First World War. She had placed my father in a little seminary, which he escaped at the first opportunity, to hire out as an apprentice mechanic. The only memory I have, concerning this paternal grandmother, is of an early morning, still very dark and cold—I must have been three or four—when my parents bundled me, half asleep, into a large black car, unlike any I’d ever seen before, telling me: “We’re going to Szarhegy to bury your grandmother.” My memory has retained only the black of the car, the cold of a night not yet dispersed, and the mysterious idea, encountered for the first time, of death.

My native town, of forty thousand at that time, is built on the banks of a river where we used to swim, summers, and ice skate, winters. One hour from our house, on foot, the slopes of the mountain were steep enough for skiing and sledding. Between the joys of snow and our wild races on the skating rink, which didn’t close till ten at night, I wonder when we found time for our homework, during the four winter months.

My father had come a distance since his escape from seminary. He had the virtues needed to succeed in business, starting from nothing. A continent away, in America, he would have been a self-made man like those I later came across, who recounted their exploits in countless books. He had their energy, their perseverance, their intuition. I think his not emigrating to the United States after the war was the only regret of his life. Since Transylvania was not America—most people can’t even place it; an American lady, who knew nothing more, informed me it was Dracula’s territory—my father thought the knowledge of several languages essential. He saw to it personally that I learnt the three languages spoken in our country, and he added a fourth when I began primary school: French. Apart from languages, I needed to know math and physics, all the rest being merely literature. Doubtless he was unaware that the man he’d put in charge of inculcating in me the foundations of this new language (we called him The Parisian because he’d studied music in Paris) talked to me only of literature. As soon as I was capable of understanding it, he read to me or had me read aloud Letters from My Windmill. As for my high school French teacher, several years later—in one of those miracles that happen in little towns at the end of the world whose monotony is unbroken, aside from a sporting event or a moral scandal—he invited two or three of his pupils to his home and there initiated us, this was the supreme recompense, into the mysteries of Rimbaud’s poetry. With equal enthusiasm, I followed the flights of oratory of our Hungarian literature professor, who found my sentimental attempts at stories not devoid of interest. As for my father, he considered with a mixture of indulgence and anxiety these first foolish efforts, published in some little magazine. As long as my grades in the hard sciences were good, it wasn’t too serious! The day when, at thirteen, I confided in him that I wanted to become a physicist and a writer both, he looked at me lengthily, the way you look at a species you have vaguely heard about but never before encountered, and then with a smile to mitigate my suffering (or his) he uttered the oracular: “What I have taken so much trouble to construct, you will destroy!” The prophecy came true without my even trying.

In 1943, I’d been admitted to Budapest Polytechnic; my father couldn’t have been happier. That didn’t last for long. The victorious Soviet army was approaching the frontier. After a few months of intensive training, I found myself behind a gun, which was supposed to help slow down the invasion of Russian tanks. Of this war, I have nothing to tell, beyond my astonishment at having made it out. Which occurred locked into a closed cattle car, transporting me toward some unknown destination in Germany. We’d been informed that, following an attempt to negotiate a separate peace in October of 1944, our government officials were seized by the SS of Skorzeny, who installed the Hungarian Nazi party in power.

It was my first trip across Germany. All I saw of it was a sky almost entirely filled with smoke, the interminable march of telegraph poles, the dirty walls of some railroad switching station, in which we were stranded for days, and wide open landscapes where we were strafed by Allied fighter planes. This somewhat peculiar form of tourism ended after a month in the barracks of Swabian Franconia. That I descended unhurt from the train was a new source of astonishment to me, soon followed by many others. When in the month of April, 1945, the Allied troops had crossed the Black Forest and were closing in on Stuttgart, the confusion became so great that it was possible to organize and effect an escape. After two weeks of playing hide and seek, we were able to emerge from our burrows: French troops controlled the region. The commander of the unit holding Pfullendorf had us provisioned and ordered us to present ourselves in Strasbourg. It was a magnificent walk through Wurtemberg and the Black Forest. I remember the German towns half in ruins and, all around them, the jubilation of nature. A year later, after many other tribulations, I arrived in Paris. It was once again spring, the chestnut trees in the Luxembourg Gardens were flowering, people were smiling in the streets, I told myself the word freedom had a meaning; it was the most beautiful day of my life.

There, I found a small group of young people from Central Europe who wanted, as I did, to remain in France. Devoted members of the Hungarian diaspora in Paris and their French friends helped us to find work. Cook, valet de chambre, longshoreman, door-to-door salesman, night watchman, and so many other makeshift jobs seemed somehow miraculous to my comrades and me, in comparison to the labyrinth from which we were emerging. When I think back to those early Parisian years, which, seen objectively, were hard, all I remember is a joyous ferment, a long feast of friendship and mutual support. How many new faces, how many new ways of seeing and living! What generosity of welcome, after so much hatred and aggression! Though working, in October I was able to enroll in P.C.B. [pre-med studies in physics, chemistry and biology], and then the years of medicine succeeded one another. Where did this altered course come from? The idea of medicine had arisen and then grown, little by little, developing deep within me along a hidden path. I saw in it, naively, a kind of synthesis between two poles that never ceased exerting an equally strong attraction on my mind: art and science. It wasn’t as simple as that.

You could feed yourself on very little money: a loaf of bread and some eggs, pasta and French fries. Once a week I went to reconstitute my reserves—caloric, proteinaceous and affective—in the home of a classmate’s parents, who filled me with good things. It was harder to find cheap housing; many students of modest means had nowhere to live. One day, an enthusiastic and determined group learned that the old brothels, permanently closed under the Marthe Richard law, were not in use. The students stormed the one in Blondel Street, and the government ended up giving them three: Communal Houses were born. A friend who was active in the group succeeded in getting me admitted. That was the way I became, in 1947, one of the tenants in the formerly celebrated Sphinx, on the Boulevard Edgar-Quinet. We formed a republic that was colorful from every point of view, and hard to govern. Just collecting the rent, even at unbeatable prices, was a drama. As for chores, they regularly fell to the same people: those with the lowest tolerance for disorder and filth. Other conflicts arose from the varying demands imposed on one group or another by the course of studies they were pursuing. Between those who really had to wear out the seats of their pants and the joyous band of party animals revolving around a few art students, civil wars flared up, followed by ceasefires celebrated in common. This was a most salubrious experiment in life in society.

When we came home every evening, the ladies whose house we had usurped were always there on the sidewalk, faithful to their posts. We knew them all. Our conversations were limited; our curiosity must have seemed incongruous to them.

At the outset, medical studies looked interminable to us. Very quickly we were forced to recognize they’d been too short. In 1954, a notice in the staff room attracted my attention: the post of surgeon in the French hospital in Bethlehem was vacant. Several months later, I set out with my wife and three children, of whom the oldest wasn’t yet three years old, in a DC 6 headed for Beirut. In space and time, a new phase was opening. I was impatient to know those cities, those sites, whose names alone were enough to animate fabulous scenes in my mind. Damascus, Aleppo, Antioch, Tyre, Sidon, Jerusalem, Jericho, Jordan, the Red Sea, the Sinai, and how many others! I was going toward an encounter with a prodigious past; I received—full in the face and in all its continuity—the living reality of a multiple and complicated present. The purity of the millenary landscapes’ song carried the violence of men’s passions with immutable serenity.

On that first stopover, the Lebanese capital gave away none of its secrets to me, nor did the country reveal its charm. I was stunned by the convoluted mobility of the crowds in Beirut, delineated against a timeless, occasionally dreamlike backdrop. The strength of its contrasts, the dynamics of its contradictions offered me the initial elements, superficial but meaningful, of an ambitious and fragile construction. In one hour’s time you passed from snow-covered summits to the sea, in a few minutes from sumptuous neighborhoods to slums, there were as many mosques as churches. Later, returning there often, I loved to stroll through the old market neighborhoods, lulled by the sounds and smells, observing all the scenarios offered so lavishly by life in the souks of the Middle East. I would think of the Phoenicians in The Odyssey who “carried heaps of charms in their black ship.” I would imagine the colorful turbulence of the ports, of the trading posts in the ancient Mediterranean world, besieged by those merchant-navigators, “famous sailors but rapacious men,” the Tyrenians and Sidonians. In Damascus, as in Jerusalem, Aleppo, Baghdad or Cairo, merchant traditions were very much alive, but Beirut in some sense encapsulated them all. You would enter a shop “just to take a look at something,” to purchase a trifle; a quarter of an hour later, over your most energetic protestations, you had all the treasures of Ali Baba’s cave displayed before your eyes, while, conquered but content, you sipped an Arab coffee scented with roses. And if in the midst of all these marvels you had the strength to find nothing to your taste, you could, after a bit of conversation, leave without getting yourself insulted.

It was a DC 3 that took us from Beirut to Jerusalem. We arrived from the east—that is, over the desert—after having gone around Israel. Full summer had moved into the Middle East, the airplane flew low over the bare hummocks, the rhythmic beige and brown of the great sensual undulations that were the mountains of Ammon and Moab, separated from the Judean range by the deep cleft of the Ghôr, where I caught glimpses of the slender sinuous vein of greenery that accompanies the Jordan to its outlet in the Dead Sea. Offspring of a country of forests, what was there in my make-up that resonated so immediately with the vibration of this desolate land? In the course of the years, each time I came back to it, after a longer or shorter absence, the perception of these meager colors, these curvatures, these mesas, these rhythmic faults, unfolding as would a fugue, flooded me, physically, with the same simple and unutterable joy…I was in love with this country.

The DC 3 landed on a miniscule airstrip in Old Jerusalem. Driven by a very modern young sister, a prehistoric jeep took us along, stopping on the upward slopes for the engine to get its breath, toward Bethlehem. Cut off from Jerusalem’s southern exit by the “partition,” the Bethlehem of that time was a graceful town of some nineteen thousand inhabitants, surrounded by a swarm of little villages, hills planted with olive groves, vineyards and orchards. As we arrived, I was shown, on the right, the tomb of the exquisite Rachel, the favorite wife, who died somewhere along the road of return (from Mesopotamia or Transjordan), while giving birth to Benjamin, Jacob’s last son. One example among a thousand others of those sites whose possession is contested by the regionalism of traditions. The book of Samuel (10, 2) situates this same tomb near Bethel, on the territory of the righthand son.

The hospital was located in the modern extension of the city, to the northeast. From our house, between pine trees violently contorted by the prevailing winds, I could see the houses of the village Beit-Jala, embracing the summit of a hill planted with apricot trees.

Occupying three sides of a rectangle planted with gardens and bordered by a colonnade, the hospital buildings had been constructed in the 19th century. The church and the sisters’ residence formed the fourth side. The charms of this conventual architecture are scarcely a match for the demands of a modern hospital. Still, with a little bit of organization, good work could be done there. Two times a week I reported to the French hospital in Jerusalem, taking a twisty little road that followed, from above, the Valley of Kidron; at its highest point, near the village of Sour-Bahr, in clear weather, I glimpsed at the very bottom of the vast frothy slope formed by the mountains of the Judean desert the mirror of the Dead Sea. When the city [of Jerusalem] was partitioned in 1948, the French hospital had ended up on the Israeli side, of no particular use on the margins of a hospital system that lacked for nothing. With enormous pluck, the sisters of Saint Joseph who directed the establishment had reestablished themselves on the Jordanian side, in a somewhat dilapidated old hotel to the south of the hill of Ophel, where archeologists place the site of the city of David.

The hotel-hospital was situated in the hamlet of Saint Peter in Galicantu, overlooking the village of Shiloh. The church of the same name had been built above a cave dug deeply into the rock. One of numerous pious traditions claims this was the prison where Jesus spent the night after having been interrogated by the High Priest and the Sanhedrins. An improbable hypothesis, but there is a staircase there that descends toward the piscina of Shiloh and that must have existed at the time of Christ.

The location was difficult to get to, the premises hardly appropriate and the sick numerous. Funds were obtained that permitted the construction of a new hospital. Scarcely a year later, thanks to the incomparable energy of the sisters, the project was realized. Light and spacious buildings, a modern set-up, welcomed patients henceforth on the heights of Sheik Jarrah, in a new neighborhood situated to the north of the old city. We moved from Bethlehem to Jerusalem, where most of the surgical work would be concentrated. The current reversed itself: apart from emergencies, I went two times a week to Bethlehem.

What to say in a few lines of those fifteen years lived in Jerusalem? Everything there enthralled me: my work at the hospital, archeological expeditions, the swarming life of the old city, of the people, the history of this earth.

From time to time, to escape the hospital’s presence, grown too obsessive, I left for a desert. That of Judea began at the bottom of our garden. You needed only to go around Mount Scopus toward the north, to cross the line of crests in the Judean chain near the village of Isaouyia, and to let the Bedouin horse find his way, habituated as he was to pebbles and rocks, toward the Ghôr. In the winter, the oasis of Jericho offered a haven of sweetness to anyone descending from the heights of Jerusalem, which was lacerated by cold winds. The descent of 1200 meters, which took twenty minutes by car, landed you in another world. There, only gardens and paths, the sound of water and golden dust. At Elisha’s Spring, today called Ein el-Sultan, at the foot of the site of ancient Jericho, I would look at the procession of women coming to get water: a ritual dance renewing itself every day for nine thousand years. And all around, the desert kept watch…  

This is the 2nd part of our 2 part look at the work of Lorand Gaspar. For more and his bibliography please see the April 2015 issue of the Brooklyn Rail.


Nancy Kline

Nancy Kline’s translation (with Mary Ann Caws) of Lorand Gaspar’s Earth Absolute and Other Texts, forthcoming from Contramundum Press, is her ninth book. Earlier books include a novel, a critical study of René Char’s poetry, a biography of Elizabeth Blackwell, and translations of Char, Paul Eluard, Jules Supervielle and other modern French poets. Kline’s short stories, essays, memoirs and flash nonfictions have appeared widely, most recently in Hawaii Pacific Review and The Prose Poem Project. She reviews for the New York Times Sunday Book Review and has received a National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Grant. Shewas Founding Director of the Barnard Writing Program for many years and has taught writing at Harvard and UCLA and French language and literature at the University of Massachusetts-Boston and Wellesley. She currently teaches for Poets & Writers and the Bard Prison Initiative, and is an Associate of the Bard Institute for Writing & Thinking.  She is at work on a book of creative nonfiction entitled Other Geographies and a memoir entitled Hunger and Return.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2015

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