Background Knowledge

Cover of Background Knowledge

Written by Miklós Vámos

Translated by Ági Bori


For a long time I imagined that a medical degree would provide the most beneficial background knowledge for my writing. After all, a doctor knows a lot about my main subjects, humans, that I don’t. Every so often I’d ask for advice from physicians, but they didn’t do me a lot of good. I even knew a colleague who had a medical degree, but there was little evidence in his writings of what he’d learned at university or, for that matter, while practicing his profession. 

When I entered my third decade, another idea struck me. Perhaps instead of the secrets of the body it is the mysteries of the soul that matter, so it must be the field of psychology that could provide me with new answers. What if I applied to a master’s program in psychology at the prestigious Eötvös Loránd University? Of course, it was always possible to be an autodidact. I had spent a lot of time reading, in random order, Freud, Jung, Ferenczy, Mérei, along with textbooks and collections of various texts. All that reading eventually did benefit me in the long run, but in the beginning it only increased the uncertainty and the chaos within me. 

In due time I made my way to social psychology, which made me completely feverish. The Social Animal and other works by Elliot Aronson shined a spotlight on the causes and misdirections of human behavior. It was a Hungarian author and filmmaker, András Kepes, who introduced the doyen of social psychology to the mise-en-scène of Budapest, where he came for a conference, and András did an interview with him. A year or two later I spent some time at Yale School of Drama. I taught writing to drama students, with varying degrees of success. My subjects were theater and playwriting—these two are my weak points, despite having had lots of experience in this field. But this was the class I was asked to teach. The advantage in a disadvantageous situation is that you yourself get a chance to practice the very thing that’s an area of weakness for you. There is a commonly used saying stateside: Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach; and those who can’t teach, are university professors. This suited me well.

One of Aronson’s sons was studying his father’s area of expertise in the corresponding program at Yale, and therefore his father had visited a few times from the West Coast. We occasionally met up. It was thanks to this relationship that after my return to Hungary, I was the one who translated into Hungarian The Age of Propaganda, a book Aronson co-wrote with Pratkanis. I might have learned more from it than from his other book, The Social Animal. It became clear that my writing had a social-psychological element woven into it, since I have always been keenly interested in observing how humans behave in groups, how they act, love, hate, deal with disappointments, and what the moments of their births or deaths are. I thoroughly studied the following groups: lovers, friends, married couples, families, classes, colleagues, neighbors, and various nationalities.

I secretly daydreamed that as a side job I would invent, organize, and lead social-psychological experiments and write something based on the results. This idea was later filed in my head under “Unfulfilled Fantasies.”

From time to time, I remembered that the desired background knowledge obscured the very thing that I did have in my possession, namely my Ph.D. in Law. I benefited a lot from it in my youth, when my colleagues regularly turned to me for help regarding author rights, the topic I wrote my dissertation on. These same people later also asked for help with their taxes. Imagine a time when there was no income tax or sales tax, and when these taxes did become part of our lives, few writers understood the complexity they entailed.

Around the age of fifty another obsession had taken hold of me: I wondered if it was possible to write music in prose in such a way that paragraphs could be choreographed as if they were following or imitating keynotes, grand cadences, and symphonic structures. Perhaps what I needed after all was the expertise musicians had. And lo, here was another profession from which I could benefit. I conceded that I had completely missed the boat when I didn’t attend  the Conservatory of Music or the Hungarian Music Academy. But there was always the possibility of becoming a private student. Back in the day I did play the guitar so, once again, I went out and bought a delicate instrument. I began to look for a music teacher. I asked Tamás Berki, the other young man in our sixties band, Gerilla, if he’d give me voice lessons, and he did. He has since become a famous jazz musician, well-known all over Hungary. Our band was a popular protest song band in the style of Peter, Paul and Mary that enjoyed enormous popularity in its heyday.

My next endeavor involved the purchase of an electric keyboard. I found a piano teacher who, in addition to familiarizing me with the keyboard, also expanded my inadequate knowledge of harmony. By then, Tibor Bornai (the keyboard player in the Hungarian band KFT) and I had formed a vocal and guitar duo for the sake of entertaining ourselves. However, after we had performed at one of my book launches, people got wind of us and invitations began to pour in. We wrote songs, and I translated many Beatles songs and other famous rock songs into Hungarian, fiercely applying more than the usual freedom of a translator, so that they could be sung in my native language. I ensured that the newly translated lyrics adhered to their original musical notes. These lyrics were later published by my then-publisher, Európa, in a pretty little book titled The Beatles and I. And in no time I became bold, and started to hold musical performances with yet another musician, János Karácsony, from the famed Hungarian band LGT.

Furthermore, I launched a weekly radio show on Klubrádió. Will this radio station, with the sword of Damocles hanging over its very existence, still be on the airwaves by the time this essay goes to print? During this one-hour program I talked to musicians, and we also performed a few songs that we’d previously practiced together to some extent before we went on the air. It may sound like a boast, but I can proudly say that I had played with each member of LGT, one quarter of them at a time. Other well-known Hungarians on the list were Tibor Kiss, Péter Sárik, Bea Palya, Zsuzsa Koncz, Zorán, and even Levente Szörényi. Sometimes I also invited classical musicians, including the world-famous Kata Kokas and Barna Kelemen, who played the violin and viola, respectively, as they accompanied McCartney’s Eleanor Rigby; for the sake of comparison, the original song had been accompanied by two string quartets.

I hitched countless musicians to my bandwagon for five years, and by the end of the fifth year I had reached the limit of my musical abilities. From that point on I could have only gotten better with many hours of daily practice. The last time I played the guitar was during a literary event in the Festival Theater of the Palace of Arts in Budapest. It’s best to quit while one is ahead. Since then I have been playing music only at home.

Dance had sprung into my life just as unexpectedly as reading musical notes did. I spotted an ad for a beginner salsa dance class, and I signed up. I recalled how much I enjoyed dancing when I was a teenager. To be exact, I loved dancing to the rhythm of rock music, which I felt and loved with every nerve in my body. Salsa dancing made me happy for a while, though it bothered me that my fellow dance partners kept staring at me, partially because of my age, but mainly because of my face, which is well-recognized nationwide. Before long, it was tango, the art of trust, that took the place of salsa dancing, but in a different venue. I immediately fell head over heels for it. From the intertwined moves of men and women on the dance floor, where the man is the leader and the woman is the follower, and the essence of the relationship is the conveying of thoughts, I learned new details about the delicate network of human relationships. I went to four dance teachers in a row for private and group lessons but, for the time being, all this came to a halt due to Covid-19. 

I wrote three short stories about tango, and my next novel’s main female character ended up being a professional tango dancer. But my biggest gain came from studying music, because I wrote the aforementioned novel based on the structure, tones, motifs, and modes of Beethoven’s nine symphonies. All nine chapters are made up of movements, and where Beethoven’s music was fast, I also sped up my words, and in other places where the music felt heavier, I tried to mimic that as well, and so on. It was comforting to continuously listen to and be engulfed by a particular movement as I formed and arranged words to match them to the music. Sadly, as far as I can tell, only a fraction of the readers sensed my composer-like feat, even though recognizing it didn’t require familiarity with the symphonies. I had to accept that prose cannot morph into music, no matter how hard I exerted myself with every stroke of my pen, utilizing all sorts of tricks to implement my music-language idea.

An even more serious kick in the pants is that I only have partial achievements with respect to the redemption of the world, if I can claim any achievements at all. I expected a lot more from myself. It is conceivable that an author’s competency is narrower than I could have hoped.

It never occurred to me to add fine art to my tool box. Not yet. Many renowned colleagues of mine draw or paint. However, I have not heard of an author who also is a sculptor. In the seventies, the late Erzsi Berkes (a critic and an editor) had been in charge of the literature column of the prominent newspaper Magyar Nemzet. On her office wall above her desk majuscules projected the following statement: WE DO NOT PUBLISH STATUES! I can safely assume that nobody ever submitted music—or musical notes—to her. 


About the translator 

Ági Bori originally hails from Hungary, and she has lived in the United States for more than thirty years. A decade ago, she decided to try her hand at translating and discovered she loved it. She is a fierce advocate for bringing more translated books to American readers. In addition to translating between Hungarian and English, her favorite avocation is reading Russian short stories in their native language. Her translations and writings are available or forthcoming in 3:AM, Apofenie, Asymptote, B O D Y, the Forward, Hopscotch Translation, Hungarian Literature Online, the Los Angeles Review, Litro Magazine, MAYDAY, Northwest Review, Points in Case, The Rumpus, Tablet, Trafika Europe, and elsewhere. She is a translation editor at the Los Angeles Review.

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