Prelude and The Raft
In the Circus Ring
The Pedlar's Prediction
Jealousy is Dead
A Steam Engine for a Piano
Hungarian Rhapsody: a failure
All or Nothing
war had been over for more than a year yet my demobilization order,
supposedly on its way, still had not arrived. So I went on with my tasks,
fully absorbed in the ‘sideral sublimation of a ludic concept, transcended
by the visualization of daily virtuality.’ This splendid euphemism designating
military service fell from the lips of a witty colleague whose dream
it was to become a psychiatrist.
my part, not having attained such heights, I resolved to convince my
superiors that I was not worthy of their paradise and should be demobbed.
Things were not so simple. After all, does a soldier not exist in order
to be killed, as Diderot said? I began half-heartedly filling in an
incredible number of forms, which were returned several weeks later
duly stamped, signed and countersigned by the whole hierarchy of a multitude
of boards responsible for administering a country in utter political
chaos, with a new manifesto ready and waiting.
took three months of this little game until I at last won the day. In
September 1946 my dear Camp Commander, in the presence of his entourage,
solemnly handed me the official document attesting in Russian and Hungarian
that I was demobilized. "Your duties to your fatherland are at
an end," he boomed pompously, "until such time as we begin
our crusade against the imperialist vermin of capitalism alongside the
invincible Red Army."
trembled somewhat at the thought of shortly being required for overtime
but, warming to his subject, he was off again: "Thanks to the new
proletarian army, the holy cause of the people will triumph in the firmament
of equality." "If there are any proletariats left," I
said to myself, thinking of the siege of Leningrad and the Hiroshima
bomb. I wondered as I listened to his farewell spiel with all
the outward signs of utter bliss whether his Sermon on the Mount was
the quintessence of his new doctrine, destined for his underlings, or
whether it was provoked by the fear of finding himself out of a job.
handing me the precious document, he tried one more time to convince
me of the enormity of my error in quitting the army just as it had been
restructured, thus losing the chance of a fine future with the almost
certain promise of promotion. I listened in respectful silence and thanked
him deeply for the board and lodging, assuring him of the great sorrow
I felt at having to live henceforth without his benevolent protection,
whereupon I was allowed to take my leave. I could not afford any civilian
gear and the old trunk containing my things must have gone astray somewhere
between Russia and Czechoslovakia. I decided to return home in uniform.
daydreamed as the old train jolted along the rickety track towards Budapest.
"Half-price for children and soldiers," mumbled a ticket-collector
as venerable as the rolling-stock, pocketing my last banknote. "The
only way of getting a free train ride is to help yourself to one,"
I thought, remembering my escapade two years earlier. "It’s half
fare today but from now on it’ll be full price everywhere. How am I
going to pay?"
arrived at the terminus. I went out into the street and stood there
leaning against a lamppost. I watched in amazement the flow of traffic,
the excited crowd, the mass of people flooding the tree-lined avenues
and boulevards. The dense, cheeky foliage seemed to be mocking the warm
sun on that mild autumn day. The whole city was coming alive again as
its buildings and monuments, mutilated by missiles, were restored. Though
still bandaging its wounds, Budapest exhaled a gentle welcome. The pavements
were littered as far as the eye could see with scattered heaps of rubble
so that the dense, motley crowd wove its way along the roadways among
every type of vehicle imaginable, from ox carts to trams. Cafés
and restaurants swarmed with customers, despite their dilapidated state.
Inflation had been halted. There was no doubt about it: despite the
devastation left behind by various armies, here the war was no more
than an unpleasant memory.
series of imprudent draughts wafted down the station corridors the smell
of sausages being fried for hungry passengers at stalls on the platforms.
I was starving after the six-hour journey and, my nostrils a-quiver
at the smell of black pudding and chitterlings cooking, searched my
uniform pockets. I did not even have the price of a bus ticket for the
fifteen-mile journey home.
a brave face on things, I started off on my final march. My legs bore
me along faster and faster, as though drawn by a strong magnet, like
a boat pitching and tossing on its way back to harbour. I had written
to tell my family of my arrival some time before. Had they got my letter?
It was unlikely. How I would have loved to be welcomed by the tender
touch of arms expressing their joy at our reunion and to have felt the
looks of love and affection on my face. It was not to be.
came down to earth when, to my disappointment, a neighbour told me that
my wife and her mother (with whom she was lodging) were employed in
a steelworks loading wagons with railway sleepers and roof frame parts.
They left home early each morning and came home in the late evening,
leaving my son in the care of a distant cousin – in exchange for payment.
"That’s how it is now. Everyone scrapes a living as best he can,"
concluded the neighbour. I would soon be learning that to my cost.
did not know where my son was being kept so in the meantime went off
and picked a huge bunch of wildflowers for my wife in a meadow by the
roadside before coming back to our neglected little garden, where I
walked up and down the paths. Time passed desperately slowly. I was
tired out and my stomach complained more and more bitterly at having
been laid off for nearly two days. I stretched out in the long grass,
watching the great clouds dozing up above. Soon I was doing as much
warm liquid flowing over my face awoke me: my wife was kneeling beside
me, softly weeping for joy as she watched me sleep. She had waited,
prayed, hoped for this moment for so long that she gave free rein to
her emotion for herself alone before waking me gently from my unending
first days at home were spent discovering each other again. Even the
dear old upright piano, a reminder and eternal companion of my childhood,
seemed pleased t being touched once more. I did not recognize my boy:
he was already a young gentleman, getting on for four. The first time
he saw me, he ran and hid behind his granny. He had a horror of uniforms,
not without reason. For at least ten days, we did not leave each other
for a second. Our joy at being together was inexpressible. Our admirable
granny spent days on end in the kitchen, scraping the barrel in order
to make royal dishes imbued with her generosity and affection. The peaceful,
happy days we had waited for so long flowed by.
a fortnight of this life of luxury, I decided to go back on the warpath
and try to find some sort of job amongst the many more or less attractive
ones available and ‘earn a living by pacifying the sovereign people’.
There was no opening for me in classical music. I did not know anyone
who could help and anyway the country was far from being in a position
to afford the luxury of a regular, independent musical life. This was
the period when Stalin was reported to have said in a committee meeting
that concerts of great music were a way of passing the time while the
ink on newly signed treaties was drying. While he was waiting to sign
the Warsaw pact the radio broadcast popular music. Luckily, this so-called
light music was not sectarian. A good musician, inventive and knowledgeable,
was a godsend to a night club. With this in mind, and following in my
father’s footsteps, I walked across Budapest, making for the notorious
secret place known as ‘Moonlighters’ Market’ which, from time immemorial,
had been a meeting point for every kind of unemployed musician. I knew
the place well, having spent some time there after leaving the Academy,
for reasons very similar to the present ones. It was in a little square
dotted with clumps of stunted trees. Groups of unemployed musicians
stood about chatting. Night and day there were enough of them to form
a whole symphony orchestra. The owners of fashionable cafés,
procurers from bas of ill-repute and strong-arm types from dens of various
kinds of vice came to bargain and pick up in all possible haste a drummer,
double-bass player, violinist or even on occasion a whole gypsy band.
The most sought after species was, naturally, the pianist.
goodness I had not taken up the tuba! I mingled with the groups standing
in a great circle, chatting and waiting for some Prince Charming to
turn up and make a miraculous offer. I strolled up and down, wondering
if the luck which had enabled me to overcome all sorts of hazards during
my childhood and had prevented me from returning from the Festival of
Heroism with a missing arm, a wooden leg or a glass eye would also get
me a job. Before I could finish imploring my protector, I saw moving
in the middle of the circle a sort of well-dressed Ahasuerus with a
pock-marked face. To my delight, he wanted a pianist. Five of us raised
our hands at his appeal. Beginning at the other end of the circle, he
whispered something in my first colleague’s ear. He apparently thought
it over, looked at his hands and shook his head. "That’s bad luck,"
I thought, annoyed. "Of the remaining three, there’s bound to be
one who’ll accept, whatever the conditions. I was wrong: the others
raised their arms in a gesture of helplessness. There was hope yet:
it would soon be my turn. I wondered what hitch had made the others
refuse. There must have been one because it was unusual for a musician
to turn down a job – indeed, they would normally have acted like the
one who said he was quite prepared to sail across the Danube on his
double bass to find work.
he got to me, the strange fellow asked me in a sot, slightly sceptical
voice: "Can you improvise on absolutely anything?" I nodded.
"Even in the dark?" he went on, lowering his voice. "What
dark?" I asked, astonished. "Pitch dark, my dear fellow,"
he whispered mysteriously. "A very intimate cabaret frequented
by regulars and important persons who wish to remain anonymous. It has
just re-opened in the city centre." As he observed my reactions,
he started using jargon: "We need a pianist who can cope with anything.
He must do psychedelic improvisations to create an…shall we say ‘aphrodisiac’
tension to provoke passion in hypersensitive people, not to speak of
special types of friendship."
odd creature recited his proposition like a small ad. I shook my head
as I contemplated my worn shoes. So I would have to sit in the dark
because the honourable customers wanted to redouble their pleasure by
picking a partner of either sex in a darkness such as would have made
it difficult for Oedipus to recognize his mum. In short, my colleagues
had not turned down the work, which was almost certainly well-paid,
for moral reasons but because none of them felt up to playing, much
less improvising, without the slightest visibility. In such conditions,
though the risk of wrong notes, not to speak of real blunders, was far
greater, I felt I could overcome the handicap. What was more, this was
not the moment for displays of temperament or being difficult. Taking
my silence for indignation, the fellow imagined I was examining my conscience,
somewhat shaken by talk of such morally reprehensible debauchery. Sensing
that here was a rare bird ready to overlook his orgiastic black mass
in return for a few coins, he said jokingly, "There’s no need to
stand on ceremony. After all, Absolon slept with his father’s wives,
Judah with his daughter-in-law Ammon with his sister and Lot with his
daughters." "Well done," I muttered. "You seem to
be well-informed about your ancestors." "Splendid, then,"
said the learned sodomite, holding out his hand, which I rather hesitantly
shook. "I’m counting on you."
in thought, I started to walk back home again since there was no public
transport in our isolated area. I was still in uniform and wondered
where I could borrow a dark suit to look respectable for the job. As
I walked along with the crowd, I smiled at my needless concern about
my apparel. After all, it was not of the slightest importance since
the operative words were ‘total darkness’. I could in fact have fulfilled
my task dressed in a monk’s habit or a kilt. The thought of the job
hardly filled me with enthusiasm but I preferred that to my wife having
to carry heavy railway sleepers. Suddenly, I felt a hand on my shoulder.
I hadn’t yet learnt to control the reflexes of an underground fighter
constantly on the alert and leapt to one side, spinning round ready
to pounce on a possible aggressor. The distinguished pimp of a few minutes
earlier stared at my display in astonishment. "How nice to be young,"
he murmured admiringly. Why had he come running after me?
forgot to tell you. Evening dress is obligatory." "What use
is that in the dark?" "Dark or not," he insisted, "you
must be correctly dressed. If you’ve only got a dinner jacket I’ll turn
a blind eye." "I’m very sorry. I’m just back from a short
military expedition and have no change of clothes. Nor do I know anyone
to borrow so much as a lounge suit from for this evening." He gazed
incredulously at my somewhat worn uniform. "Do you mean, young
man, that those are your best clothes?" my employer smirked like
a gluttonous she-cat. "Indeed they are," I said gloomily.
"Come back to my place. I’m sure we can reach an understanding
with a little give-and-take on your part," the old beau
cooed in his syrupy voice.
took a step backwards to escape the giddying scent of musk. "Listen
here, my dear man," I answered sharply, "I don’t like charity
and especially not yours. I had a good tailor once until the Germans
turned him into a lampshade. Naturally, if they had chosen you instead
I’d be better dressed. Since you’re afraid my appearance might disturb
your seminarists in their search for the Absolute, I suggest you look
for a more suitable fop to liven up your saturnalia." I left him
standing rooted to the spot and went off home. And that was the end
of my first attempt to return to the paramusical world.
next day I wore out a bit more shoe leather on the road into town. Rather
than return to ‘Moonlighters’ Market’, I wandered about the seedy districts
where a bargain pianist’s apparel was the last thing to worry an innkeeper
more mindful of the profits of his watering-trough than his wife’s First
Communion certificate. After a week of constant refusals, I was at last
engaged in an establishment known as ‘The Danaids’ Barrel’. Its name
was well merited for certain customers were so assiduous that when they
did finally leave it was to return home for their daily attack of delirium
tremens. The shrewder among them made sure it coincided with the
bar’s closing day. The owner, less interested in my uniform than in
the smooth running of his bar, took me on as a pianist on the express
condition that if need be I would lend him a hand between tunes in throwing
out such trouble-makers as were more mindful of their flick knives than
their beer mugs. Thus I was enthroned as official bodyguard and minstrel.
a few days I knew most of the Balkan drinking songs by heart. From nine
at night till five in the morning, the drink flowed ceaselessly. Enveloped
in a cloud of smoke, cavernous voices called for their favourite songs
until I joined in on the piano or outside, as stipulated in my contract.
The job was pretty hard-going for they wanted me to drink with them
at least once in the course of an evening. There were at least fifty
of them and I tried to refuse but my employer did not see things in
the same light and summoned me to put an end to my anti-drink campaign
as it was rather out of place in ‘The Danaids’ Barrel’. The job was
a good one and if I wanted to keep it I would have to drink, so I did.
We all drank: we toasted those who had died on the Front, those who
had got away alive, the immortal genius of Berlioz and his celebrated
Hungarian March and then drank simply to forget the days were
passing, each different from the last.
had been working for about a month, earning a living in that hellish
vapour and indifferent to what went on. This worried me all the more
as I was getting accustomed to it. Things could not go on like this.
The proprietor, his body shapeless with drinking, was the fortunate
knight of a splendid creature whose company he much appreciated. He
hardly ever saw her as the charmer lived in a flat nearby, locked in
by her lover, who was not prepared to share this prize specimen with
anyone else. Naturally, not even such close surveillance could stop
the perfidious Messalina from having a well-filled love life. The inevitable
night on the stroke of eleven, a brigade of police burst in, pushing
aside the good honest drunks lining the bar, hiccupping contentedly
as they savoured their umpteenth drink. My employer had been irritable
and morose for some time. When he saw the armed police making for him
he panicked, leapt over the bar, knocking over clusters of unsteady
customers, and made for the rear exit. He was caught in a trice and
beaten and handcuffed before being pushed into the police van. As he
was going out, the last policeman turned to me where I was standing
by the piano and, noticing my uniform, spoke as if to all and sundry:
"Get yourself another impresario to play for: that one will soon
be smoking his last cigarette!"
turned the gas tap on to send his mistress and her lover to sleep then
hacked them to pieces with an axe." I said nothing. I silently
shut the piano lid and slipped away from the joyous, bewildered dimwits.
It had been no wish of mine to find myself back on the streets. I had
been able to save enough money in a month to get myself some evening
attire and so set off job hunting once more, as soon as I had my new
ten days I finally came across a small tearoom which was ready to take
me on trial. The place was undoubtedly more civilized and my duties
were as light as the little cakes served there. The proprietress, a
charming little old lady with a doll-like face topped by a bun entwined
with silver threads, trotted back and forth with armfuls of cream cakes
and cafés liégeois. In her long dress, of an indefinable
colour which shimmered like watered silk, she resembled a fairy straight
out of Hans Christian Andersen. She brought down from the attic a pile
of ancient melodies tied together with blue and pink silk ribbon. These
I sight-read, sipping the China tea which was my reward.
transcendental improvisations made my name among the gourmets who came
virtually every day to feast on chocolate éclairs or rum babas.
They lingered delightedly over them to the accompaniment of a drop of
Mozart, a spot of Chopin and a good dose of Cziffra-style Viennese music
played, as was my habit, without the least preparation on my part.
day as I left the tearoom (where I only had to put in an appearance
from three to seven p.m.) I decided to do a little prospecting before
going back home as a means of hearing the sort of music being played
in the big cabaret dance halls where orchestras of up to forty foreign
musicians were all the rage in Budapest High Society. There was a real
vogue for American jazz at that time, in Hungary as elsewhere, and the
great stars in this field reigned over the nightclubs where they performed.
I tiptoed in and found the orchestra rehearsing a real hell-for-leather
arrangement full of sudden surprises and silences, filled in by a dazzling
drummer and a double bass player, who had just the right flair to set
off the solos which other groups of black instrumentalists of even more
astounding virtuosity played. It was a truly top-level group which could,
or so it seemed to me, rival the bands of Paul Whiteman or Duke Ellington,
reputed even in Budapest. Standing a little back from the platform,
on a level with the podium of the conductor (who was probably the composer
of the stunning piece he was rehearsing) a superb grand piano stood
shining in the shadows. Greatly intrigued, I crept up to it and sat
down to listen and watch the players at work, which was quite as fascinating.
They were blinded by spotlights so did not know I was there. I was thinking
I would soon have to be leaving as discreetly as possible when the conductor
suddenly stopped and a glaring light filled the room, illuminating the
tiniest nook. I braced myself to be thrown out with all the honours
due to a gatecrasher, instead of which the conductor turned to me smiling
broadly and said in English, "Do you like this music?" I nodded.
you a jazzman?" "Perhaps a little," I replied, desperately
trying to remember the fragments of English I had picked up from the
Tarzan films I had seen as a child in their original versions, without
subtitles, in suburban cinemas. "Do you want to join in a little
jam session with my orchestra?" "I hope so. With pleasure,"
I replied, my eyes shining with delight. "But if you want, before
I play you something alone for you and your friends." "Please
do," he said invitingly.
he was perfectly agreeable, there was something slightly condescending
about his manner, which made me want to show him that the Yankees did
not necessarily have the monopoly of good jazz. I wanted to show him
a little of what I was capable of so that he would know that we descendants
of Attila knew more than how to tenderize steaks by putting them under
our saddles. In fifteen minutes I whizzed through all the latest hits
such as Tiger Rag, immortalized by Louis Armstrong, or the moving
Summertime from Porgy and Bess, adapting them all to the
spicy rhythms then in vogue – ragtime, bebop, boogie-woogie – all at
the gallop and with foxtrots besides. Just as I was coming to the end
of my display, the percussionist, who must have had a metronome for
a heart, caught me in full flight and then the whole orchestra came
in with a bang, like a firecracker going off, replaying the arrangement
just rehearsed then giving way to let me do my improvisations as in
a game of ping-pong. We had a great time for at least half an hour.
Then we finished our schoolboy escapade once and for all, ending in
a wild stretto. One by one the musicians stopped rather like
in Haydn’s Farewell Symphony and, on my own again, I ended our
improvised divertissement, after a few pyrotechnics, on a querying
conductor came up to me, his arms open wide in a gesture of friendship
and admiration, followed by his beaming musicians. He spoke to me in
American as he was not sure whether we spoke German or Russian in Hungary.
As he covered the last few yards separating us, he made a sign to an
ebony-black soloist, who understood me remarkably well since he had
lived with a Hungarian family in Texas when he was a boy. He acted as
interpreter and we were able to chat in a more relaxed manner. "It’s
only the second time in twenty-five years as a musician that I’ve heard
anything so fantastic," he said. "I know of only one pianist
in the States who can improvise like you: Art Tatum. And if his playing
is prodigious, yours is miraculous. Wherever did you learn to play like
did not want to tell the same old story about my studies so just answered
vaguely, "Oh, self-made man…" "How do you make out with
those?" he said, looking at my hands with a trace of compassion,
like someone who has just found the Golden Calf in a field in Outer
Mongolia. "The best of a bad job," I answered with a bitter
laugh. "OK," he said, obviously used to making rapid decisions.
"We’re in Budapest for another two months. The proprietor certainly
wouldn’t hire you because we’re already costing him more than he can
afford. I’d rather employ you myself as co-star during our stay at,
say, twenty-five dollars an evening as a start. If you can manage to
get across the Demarkation Line," he went on, lowering his voice,
"you’ll get more wherever you go. Will that suit you?"
it suit me? I would be earning as much in a week as I had in a month
up till then, thanks to this unhoped-for opportunity. Only the true
jazz aficionado knows what it means to stretch himself to the limit,
and thanks to this chance meeting I would be drinking at the same spring
as my new friends at the people’s university. The transcendental association
of imagination and constrained reflexes would enrich my technique. From
then on it would be possible for my fingers and inspiration to enter
into communion at the drop of a hat. Such first-class training would
stretch me to the full and broaden my horizons.
two months went by like a dream. Then the band had to leave for other
engagements in Vienna, Paris and Milan. As a way of thanking them for
admitting me to their group, we stayed together after their final concert
and at their request I played classical works interspersed with paraphrases,
reminiscences and improvisations until dawn. They were so enthralled
that, like the German officers on the Front, they forgot to drink. They
gave me an armful of cartons of American cigarettes and bars of chocolate,
then the leader shook hands and said by way of a farewell: "Dear
George, you’re the leading pianist now and if you ever manage to escape
to the West, others will say the same. You’ve nothing to fear from Horowitz
or the likes of him. Good luck, old boy!"
challenge was flattering but an impossible one to take up. The only
and certainly greatest Hungarian pianist to become a legend in his own
lifetime was Franz Liszt. To achieve that, he had given recitals till
he was thirty-five and only then was he universally acclaimed in all
the European capitals from London to Moscow via the Balkans. I knew
my place was up there with the greatest of my generation but they were
travelling freely all over the world, striving to attain the fame of
my great compatriot, which has remained unequalled. Everything was in
their favour: talent, influential contacts, social graces and the freedom
to go where they wished. I had nothing apart from my reputation as a
circus performer and the meagre consolation that I might, with luck,
have been born in Paris. True, for both my music hall and classical
colleagues, who found the grapes a little sour, my playing had more
to do with my social origins than with artistry. Only the rich can borrow.
Even so, such nonsense worked in my favour in more ways than One. Everyone
in Budapest knew of my staggering improvisations, which went from jazz,
the fandango and the czardas to the passodoble. Small violin ensembles
wanted me because the way I filled out a Strauss waltz gave the impression
there were ten of them rather than two. So did jazz bands because my
playing had such swing and punch, gypsy bands because of my uniquely
exciting way with Hungarian dances and the most unlikely establishments
because I only had to sit at the piano for the place to fill to overflowing.
Audiences were ecstatic: they had a versatile jukebox to dance to, an
acrobat and conjuror to mystify it and a soloist who was a whole band
in himself. My keyboard mastery was the result of constant use of a
whole range of techniques and systematic improvising increased this
mastery tenfold. With time, the unorthodox schooling Fate had imposed
on me radically affected my playing until it became unique. Professionals
and amateurs spent whole evenings watching me, unable to fathom how
I achieved such results as it was not possible to class me with such
leading virtuosi as Busoni and Rachmaninov since I used three-quarters
of the keyboard much of the time. The richness of the sound I produced
reflected my inner vitality. Muscle and feeling worked in harmony without
getting trapped in the minutiae of a highly developed technique.
thus became the most sought-after pianist in the city: bars, nightclubs
and cabarets all wanted me. People formed queues before the places where
I was to play. Sometimes I began the day with some ‘cold meat’ – a term
used by hastily recruited moonlighting musicians for important funerals
– then between midday and three o’clock I would do a high-class wedding
or a restaurant of standing. I ended up dividing the nights between
several lucrative places, spending two hours or so at each – running
with the hare and hunting with the hounds, so to speak. One such, called
‘The Quaver’, was as its name implies just opposite the Liszt Academy,
whose main entrance gave access to the large adjoining concert hall.
A large proportion of the audience, with only the street to cross, slipped
in for a quick drink and more than once forgot to go back for the rest
of the concert. Most of them were budding pianists or on the point of
finishing their studies. They began to wonder as they listened whether
I did not have supernatural dealings with the founder of the establishment
opposite. As always, music lovers of every kind were carried away by
my transcriptions which, in their structure as much as in their style,
gave the impression of several pianos in action at once. The proprietor,
who had every reason to be pleased, put up a poster on the door which
read (approximately) as follows: "Why be swindled elsewhere? Come
to my place: the pianists over the road have only ten fingers like Cziffra,
but he plays for three."
of the nightly tournaments I fought against myself, I was able to perfect
my tricks constantly and they were far from arousing "respectful
piety with no scholastic solecisms or mystic jargon", as Renan
put it. Undoubtedly, I still had plenty to learn about the timeless,
sacrosanct traditions governing the ideal interpretation of the great
piano works. I often rushed through them blindly, feeling hampered by
them. So as not to let my newly acquired mastery slip – and even my
detractors called it panoramic – I was virtually obliged to make up
arrangements to lubricate the mechanism properly, a mechanism of which
it could be said that my brain was the engineer and my hands the test
pilots. This extra power was only required for my own tailor-made improvisations
and was based on my particular form of dexterity. For a long time, it
was the surest means of making a living. Whereas the majority of other
pianists wore their fingers to the bone on exercises, hoping to overcome
the problems which prevented them playing the thornier pieces in the
repertory, my problem was that I had to oblige myself to play the very
passages they were unable to. By playing the great virtuoso pieces of
the Romantic repertory in my own manner, I divided the profession. I
became its Antichrist due to my improvisations, which multiplied the
difficulties ten times over.
the same time, news of my outstanding skill had spread to all the nightspots
in the capital, to such an extent that I could play whatever I wanted.
My evenings became vast non-stop marathons, beginning with the classical-romantic
repertory in a programme of Chopin’s Etudes and Liszt’s Transcendental
Studies, while in the early hours of the morning I played my own
improvisations. The places where I performed were packed out and those
who knew my itinerary followed me form nightclub to bar not caring where
they drank so long as they could sit dreamily round the piano, sighing
to the surge of a Wagner paraphrase or the evocation of the flight of
a bumble bee.
strange life continued for weeks, then months, then years. My reputation
for being everywhere at once confounded the experts. Famous musicians
on tour in Budapest spent the night drinking champagne in the cabaret
where I was playing, encouraging me to have a drink in the hope of squeezing
a few secrets out of me. They left well and truly drunk, convinced the
piano had been tampered with. Once these birds of passage had gone,
I continued like a nightingale to encourage insomniac moths to enjoy
their wine, women and song.
the way to catch the early morning train back home, I sometimes stopped
before a Morris column where the programmes of subscription concerts
were displayed, appearances by rising foreign pianists, for instance.
As I tried in the half light to make out the names of the soloists,
now famous for the most part, I would just for a second shut my eyes,
smarting from lack of sleep, and imagine my own name on the list. I
had not yet given up all hope of playing on a concert platform some
day. ‘The sun shines on everyone’, as the saying goes. There were at
this time frequent exchanges of artists between the Soviet Union and
Hungary in the name of their new friendship and they appeared in the
concert halls of various Socialist countries. Such artistic comings
and goings were, needless to say, duly regulated and supervised by central
government bureaucracy. It was better than sitting at home twiddling
one’s thumbs or having to resort to such expedients as I did. The carrot
dangling on the end of the string was, of course, the same for all state-employed
musicians: a concert in a Western capital one day – perhaps. Back home,
I sat sipping my large bowl of strong coffee to clear my mind of the
night’s vapours, thinking of the remote possibility of my name appearing
on the list of the chosen few if ever someone in high office should
chance to remember it.
always did four hours’ practice before going to bed, learning new works
and making plans in case some member of the State Council Bureau in
a state of grace should phone to ask me to give a recital, even in the
provinces. I really was so fed up with living like an outsider swimming
against the tide that I would have been grateful for an engagement in
a ‘kolkhoz’ village hall. Alas, I had every reason to believe I was
not on that list which, for an artist living under the iron rule of
the new regime, boiled down to being purely and simply banned. It was
most unlikely that the new academic high-ups had heard of me. Aside
from financiers and foreigners, no-one else could have afforded the
sort of places I played in ‘to sooth the savage breast’. It neither
surprised nor made me jealous to learn that Soviet pianists had monopolized
the major concert halls of Hungary. They were superior in numbers and
often in quality. They could travel from Berlin to Moscow, whereas I
could have been content with far less. Sad to say, I knew of only two
instruments in those countries: the whip and the knout.
I went back on night shift as my only hope of salvation and continued
my wanderings from bar to nightclubs. I returned with great reluctance
to liven up ‘The Quaver’. Sometimes a celebrated artist from one of
the Socialist countries would come along with some friends at the end
of his concert to down a bottle of vodka in homage to music. One evening,
at the request of one of their number, I improvised a sort of symphonic
poem based on the most popular themes of the Russian ‘Mighty Handful’.
He, like the others, was too staggered to drink. When it was over, he
came over to me and said in very basic Hungarian: "Whatever are
you doing in this out-of-the-way bazaar? Now, if you were in our country…"
worry," I replied, raising my glass to him. "To tell the truth,
a Nazi general and an American capitalist have already asked the same
rather awkward question and I must say I didn’t know how to answer.
It’s no use looking under the piano: it hasn’t been tampered with, though
my horoscope probably has."
encounter came as something of a shock and as I returned home somewhat
the worse for drink I walked through the narrow streets in the old part
of the town, their time-worn cobblestones shining in the dawn. It had
taken my colleague less than two minutes to get from the concert hall
to ‘The Quaver’, with only the street to cross, while I in twenty years
had not once managed to make the journey in the opposite direction.
What was the reason behind it all? As I searched among the confused
mass of memories filling my mind, I wondered what law I had transgressed
to be thus condemned to mark time. I remember that before leaving to
face the disaster dear Adolf had been preparing for us, I had been to
see my teacher who was lying in bed seriously ill. On his bedside table,
next to a signed portrait of Franz Liszt, the radio happened to be playing
an extract from Les Préludes, chosen by German HQ as its
signature tune before each victory was announced. "They’ve even
managed to defile that," he said, by way of a greeting. "I
know you’ve stayed behind to be with your family but you shouldn’t have.
You shouldn’t be playing in bars in this country," he added, quietly
closing the volume of Corneille he kept beside him.
was the first time anyone had actually advised me to leave the country.
Others had done well to get out while the going was good. The second
time was when an SS general said much the same thing somewhere out in
the wilds of Russia. Then it was an imperialist businessman and finally,
one great man driving out another, a high-up Russian statesman, who
told me I had been born in the wrong place. It was as if word had got
round to the four men, entangled in their convictions and separated
by the barriers of opposing ideologies, that they were to appear in
my life with the regularity of railway signals just to remind me of
this. They were right. All I got out of leaving ‘Angel Court’ for the
Academy was a diploma for ‘Moonlighters’ Market’, a qualification which,
besides according me the right to be killed driving a tank and to receive
a posthumous Military Cross, prepared me for strumming in the country’s
taverns to help the sovereign people forget it was the eve of New Socialism.
That was the sum total of my artistic past. I was overcome with an immense,
irrepressible feeling of lassitude. Lost on thought, I suddenly realized
it was daylight and all that I was doing was marinating in a so-called
temporary situation which had lasted from birth, aside from a few short-lived
moments of hope.
a good-natured plough horse plodding blindly back to its stable, I had
covered three quarters of the fifteen-odd miles between my place of
work and home on foot. Faceless people were hurrying out of shabby dilapidated
little houses decorated with patches of plaster. Most of them worked
like my wife at the steelworks an hour’s walk away. As I reached the
alley leading to our house, I thought I recognized her light, almost
dancing walk fading away in the distance. I ran after the silhouette
and it was indeed her. With a bundle under one arm containing her meagre
lunch and dressed in an old raincoat, she was off to load the wagons.
As I drew level, I took her by the hand and we went part of the way
together. Suddenly, she stopped and we stood looking at one another,
reading each other’s thoughts like a book. My throat tightened with
emotion: there was so much I wanted to say I did not know where to begin.
There was no need to: she had already understood. Taking my hand in
hers, she simply said, "There’s nothing for you here. Why don’t
we go there?"
the beginning of 1950, we decided to flee the ceaseless flow of setbacks.
As everyone knows, after the war the frontiers of numerous countries
were altered by the vanquishers, especially in the East. Hungary had
been part of the Socialist block for nearly five years and was surrounded
by friendly new People’s Democracies, thanks to the USSR. In conformity
with orders received, the frontier with Austria was closed since it
had had the cheek to choose to remain independent. Though freed from
Nazi tyranny by the Soviet forces, they had left soon after the Yalta
conference, thus becoming the first bastion of the West in our part
differences between Uncle Sam’s view of life and the Father of the People’s
had by then reached stalemate. The builders of the New Socialism had
to be protected from the mirages of Capitalism otherwise a great many
might have been tempted to put into practice their newly acquired knowledge
of Das Kapital. There was no question of trying to obtain a passport
to leave the country legally. At that time, the simple fact of stating
that one wished to visit one of those detested countries revealed the
ordinary mortal as an enemy of the regime and the ever-vigilant authorities
made it a point of honour to set such persons’ brains back on the straight
aware of this, we resolved to try and cross the frontier in the most
anonymous manner possible. Our plans were utopian. The frontier had
been closed long ago and control of the demarcation line was even tighter
and more sophisticated.
fact was that our chances of getting to the other side of no-man’s-land
alive were virtually nil. Apart from zombies and flying saucers, few
could boast of having found their way through this labyrinth. The chosen
one who had by some miracle managed to avoid the high tension wires
hidden under the dead leaves could, at best, step on a sunken alarm
plate, setting off sirens and bells, which were the signal for a horde
of guard dogs to charge on their prey, which they had been specially
trained to do without barking. He might also fall into a trap concealed
by moss with some fifty steel spikes at the bottom or step on one of
the mines skilfully set at random especially for any diehards. Most
of no-man’s-land had been cleared of trees so the guards, perched in
towers hidden by such trees as remained, could shoot with maximum efficiency.
From dusk till dawn, powerful spotlights surmounted by machine guns
swept the terrain ceaselessly even to the depths of the rabbit burrows,
whose inhabitants, along with the birds, had fled long ago.
demarcation line was our aim. We avoided being torn apart by one or
other of the booby traps thanks to the sly neighbour of the peasants
with whom we stayed the night before the three of us were to take the
great plunge. He suddenly remembered after spotting us that the police
paid a god price for denouncing a runaway. This was something we had
not reckoned on.
gentlemen were waiting for us as soon as we got up the next morning.
It was useless trying to explain that we had come to place a wreath
on the tomb of a distant cousin: we were caught like rats in a trap.
We were not dealing with the city police but with the faithful servants
of State Security. We were straightway accused of being spies in the
pay of the Imperialists. Not even my son, not yet eight, was spared.
We were separated and taken in handcuffs to and old building which with
its numerous cellars and basements must have been used by the Gestapo,
judging by the Gothic script of the still visible notices. To encourage
us to speak freely under interrogation, we were all beaten up by several
brutes while, in a nearby cell, a down-at-heel clerk typed out a full
confession which it only remained for us to sign and add ‘read and freely
lost no time over our case. It is incredible how a few kicks and well-aimed
rifle butt blows can tame even the most rebellious. The arrogant club-swingers
were puffed up with a sense of impunity. There was nothing surprising
about that: just like their predecessors within the same walls, they
were invested with supreme power, the symbol of a state within the State.
At the time, not even the first generation Communists were spared by
this clique, despite their unswerving loyalty.
half-stunned, I did not realize that my wife and son had been taken
away, each to a separate, unknown destination. After the torturers had
gone I tried to stand up. Despite the pain I was in, I managed it by
holding onto the edge of a desk by the wall at the other end of the
room. Standing up at last, handcuffed, my face swollen and covered in
spit, I waited for events to take their course. Full of shame and remorse
that my loved ones should have got caught up in all this, I knew my
defiance of the guards would cost me dear so that I was ready for anything
except the encounter which was to lead to my downfall.
door opposite opened and an incredibly gaunt officer approached, devouring
me with his squinting eyes as if trying to hypnotize me. He was accompanied
by a sentinel, armed from head to foot, who took up position by the
door, vaguely pointing his machine gun at me in case it should take
my fancy to play at being Spartacus. The officer, very self-assured,
came closer and, almost pressing his body against mine, stared hard
at me, examining my features. After a short silence he said, smiling
slyly, "You remember me, don’t you? It looks as though I’m going
to have to refresh your feeble memory a little," he went on, with
a grimace that revealed the yellow fangs at the back of his almost lipless
mouth, hissing out the final syllables. Still fixing his eyes on me,
he gestured to his guardian angel. His flippancy increased as did his
mocking questions. "Are you sure you haven’t seen me somewhere
before, little György?" he insisted, delighting in his banter.
wearying of his game, he sat down casually on a corner of the desk and
without warning began to whistle softly between his teeth – a strange,
piercing tune which was vaguely familiar. Perhaps I had already seen
that oddly sunken face somewhere before. All at once, to my astonishment,
I recognized the wretched pedlar who had haunted my dreams at ‘Angel
Court’ – the notorious deacon reeking of sulphur – the man who had brought
about my admission to the Liszt Academy in such odd circumstances and
who had predicted an extraordinary career for me. And now here I was
standing hand=cuffed before my judge, overcome with shame and fatigue.
He saw from my crestfallen look that I recognized him. He stopped whistling
and stood up: "Do you recognize me now, ‘maître’ ?"
he asked again, this tie without the least trace of sarcasm. "I
told you we’d meet again. Do you remember how I helped you because of
your priceless gift? And now, look at you! You came from the lowest
depths, got everything you wanted and yet you preferred to betray and
abandon our country. You wanted to desert and join the enemy so that
others could profit from what is ours by right. You’re no more than
a deserter, a traitor, a turncoat."
tone changed without warning and he became delirious, foaming at the
mouth with rage. He yelled in my face: "You’ll see! We’ll break
you till you crawl in the dust!" He was quite out of breath and
pressed the bell button beside him on the desk. The guard was back in
the doorway in a flash. The oracle of ill-omen blinked and with a small
downward gesture of his thumb signalled to him to take me away.
was led down an endless succession of spiral staircases to a huge cellar
at least twenty yards below ground level, where water trickled down
the walls. There in the dim light were pallid people of all ages hunched
on a cracked concrete slab through which seeped water from an underground
stream. They were all there for the same reason and in the same state.
Bleeding, all hope gone, they stared vacantly ahead, brooding on the
consequences of their rashness.
* * * * * * * * * *
a year in jail, my wife went to slave in a saw mill – as a special favour
since no-one else would employ her, knowing as they did the reason for
her imprisonment. After two years of medical treatment, my son, who
had been at death’s door, was returned to his family. He needed every
drop of their devotion to recover.
was set free a year and a half after my wife. Probably it was considered
I had had enough time to make amends. In my last year of detention I
was admitted to a disciplinary camp where I worked transporting blocks
of stone. For ten hours, day after day, I lugged ready-prepared sixty-kilo
blocks between the ground floor and the sixth floor of a university
under construction, of which those blocks were to become the staircase.
This new task so strained the muscles of my wrists that I had to wear
leather wristbands to prevent my overworked joints from swelling. Despite
these problems, I became such a worthy worker that on my release I was
handed a certificate attesting to my qualities as a transporter of stone
blocks and as a first-class builder. The building firm immediately offered
to re-employ me as foreman with, as a bonus, a brand-new bicycle for
Christmas and the opportunity to spend forty-eight hours at home each
month – the ultimate reward. I turned it down.
soon as I was freed I went back home. A new diploma and an eight-stone
walking skeleton were all I took with me as an apology for our escapade.
was drawing to a close. We had not seen each other for about three years
and I had not so much as touched a piano for even longer.