As You Can

Bartis – Kemény: Amiről lehet

I came across the newly published conversation book by Attila Bartis and István Kemény on a sunny afternoon in autumn. The first thing I felt was disappointment because it seemed that two of the three conversations in the book have already been published on I cursed the publisher for being so mercenary, publishing texts that are already available on the web, selling it for seroius cash. However, this practice is self-evident and looking back, I think my indignation was unintelligible. I only realised that these two conversations are not exactly the same as the ones on when, upon receiving my copy to review, I thought I should reread them for the article.

This book is another stage in the line of interviews and conversations written in high literary standards. Some examples are Ádám Bodor's The Smell of Prison (original title A börtön szaga) (2001), or Lard Poet (A költő disznózsírból) (2004) by Lajos Parti Nagy and Ottó Tolnai, published by Kalligram. You could also mention László Bérczes' book on Tamás Cseh published not long before Tamás Cseh's passing, although it doesn't really fit since it is a musician interview. Bartis evokes the interviews with Pilinszky: "Cedenka read me parts of the interviews with Pilinszky which made me lose all my interest in this conversation, the way you lose your interest in writing a novel when you think about Joseph and His Brothers."


This conversation book is a strange hybrid because on one hand it's an exigent piece of work but it still stays somewhere between literature and publicism, closer to the latter. It was written like this because neither Bartis nor Kemény write publicism but they somehow want to express their thoughts on these topics they had to talk about 'in any case'. The writers are explaining themselves. The topics chose this informal style which of course is formed in the same kind of meticulous detail like a poem or a novel. They talk about an urge for writing "as far as writnig is an urge" (Bartis) that makes them form a poem or a story from the notes they move around so much.

The book is made up of three units. In the first part, Bartis asks Kemény, then, Kemény asks Bartis as an author and the last one is about Bartis as a photographer. These aren't tense interviews but real conversations, branching in many directions, and sometimes the roles get reversed. The thematic criteria are only excuses for the division. The best example is the third part where they seem reluctant for a long time before starting to talk about photography.

Rereading it, I was surprised at how much it is about politics. At certain points, they seem to look for the right tone for politics a bit embarrassed. "Today (in 2010), influenced by the euphoria of the latest political change, I don't want to utter sentences I would be ashamed of in four years the way many were ashamed of their being party-members forty years ago." (Bartis) But this attitude does not define the whole piece. Growing up during the last days of the Kádár-era, this generation is characterised by political sensitivity. But you can't talk or read about politics like that, with some incomprehensible passion for normality. Bartis is angrier while Kemény is more collected, but not licking wounds, not biased like you usually see in the papers. This political storyline is in a way a continuation of the political articles prevoiusly published by the authors, namely Kemény's piece on Ady in the periodical Holmi and Bartis' "Advent Hate Speech" ("Adventi gyűlöletbeszéd") and "Miskolc Speech" ("Miskolci beszéd"). It is refreshing to read thoughts like "Words such as 'fascist' and 'traitor', they don't matter because the others use them. Oh yes they do matter because you can kill with these words. Being a coward in a healthy way, I'm mostly familiar with the weight of words. In this case, I think the solution is not daintily distancing myself from both sides but that using my own absolutely humble tools, I try to introduce the parties to each other, so they see that there are examples of the species Homo sapiens on both sides." (Kemény) I really miss voices like this, that show that there are humans in all fields of politics, and that it's not a battle between good and evil where the evil is always on the opposing side (be it fascists, communists, it doesn't matter).

Parts of the texts (political topics or short, fable-like stories) are closely related to publicism. You'll find novel-like inserts, like the part where you get to know how one of István Kemény's ancestors assisted the Treaty of Trianon with a shoe. Bartis' essay-like discussion in which he places photography outside of art's boundaries, also belongs here. "Photography is not able to create a masterpiece. ... You can take beautiful or striking photos but the deep sensation caused by a poem by Ady, a piece by Bach or a painting, a movie, a folk song, whatever, it cannot be achieved with a photo." Based on their elaborateness, you could call these pieces mini-publicisms, short essays or one-minute-stories. Still, they don't break away from the conversation, which shows the text's strong coherence.

The dynamic and realism of the conversation is maintained by dramatic elements. One of these is the articulating effect of the presence or absence of pálinka which creates the air of a friendly conversation in a pub. These elements strengthen the realism, genuinity, privateness of the dialogue, but the authors still can't break away from using intellectial common talk and the presence of the imaginary audience. Especially in Bartis' case, you can feel a difference to the tone he uses in interviews with strangers. One example is his interview on, where he answers the questions by the seemingly unprepared interviewer much more patiently than how he expresses himself in his conversations with Kemény. On the other hand, they constantly reflect on the text's intricateness. The two writers wonderfully balance between elaborateness and the freshness of a real dialogue. You seldom feel that orality and writtenness hurt each other.

Related to these elements is the connection between different planes of time. A number of paragraphs became part of the book as notes during the editing process in 2010, after the original interviews took place in 2007 and 2008. With this, the authors double themselves and a new conversation starts about the conversation and the times that passed since. While reading, you can feel some doubt as to when a particular sentence was written. Unfortunately, these additions do not always integrate, causing breaks in the text here and there.

I feel I need to point out that characteristically, the wittgensteinian blurb is one of the weakest parts of the book. Sadly, there are very few good blurbs in Hungarian publishing. One exception is István Kemény's writing on the back cover of Walk (Séta), a novel by Attila Bartis. For this reason, I think it would've been fitting for this book to have a blurb that is up to the authors' standards. As for Bartis, who (according to the interview on barkaonline at least) gave the title to the book, you'd expect him to avoid the same mistake he made with The Blue Haze (A kéklő pára). Here again, the title is a Wittgenstein paraphrase which is also referred to in the blurb: "Contrary to what you'd think, this isn't a collection of interviews. Two authors are talking. [...] About almost everything, whatever you can talk about. And what you can not talk about – they have to keep quiet about that." The problem with this is that they do actually talk about things that in a wittgensteinian sense you can't, you mustn't talk about. It is not pure logic that defines the limits of language here, as was the case with the 20th century philosopher. It is much more the weight of humanity or the passion for normality, or the publicity and urbanity of the conversations. The wittgensteinian quotes in The Blue Haze caused a similar problem, which Bartis took out of the second edition (as a result of Gergely Angyalosi's review in Alföld). He does mention this in the conversations, without naming the author of the review out of shyness. The work offers other curiosities of reception history, for instance they note the effects of Kemény's book, The Art of the Enemy (Az ellenség művészete) on Walk. Elsewhere, instead of his premade answers, Bartis reveals that he quit poetry because of Kemény's verses.

This conversation book is an exciting read for those interested in the works of these two contemporary authors. It's not only for the experts of literary history but also for those who are interested in how two writers and friends cope with their own weight and the age they live in. These are two men, telling us how they see the world we all live in. As you can. As they can.

Attila Bartis – István Kemény, Amiről lehet, Budapest, Magvető Kiadó, 2010.