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Miklós VAJDA
( 1931 )


Mother’s Picture, In an American Frame

Which is more surprising, more unexpected? That someone should write his first work of literature at the age of seventy-eight? Or that the individual concerned—and this is no exaggeration—debuts with a masterpiece? In Mother’s Picture, In an American Frame, Miklós Vajda—the literary translator who for decades also served as the editor of The New Hungarian Quarterly (today The Hungarian Quarterly)—presents an autobiographical novel that simultaneously stirs the emotions and calms the soul. Perhaps this is where his greatest secret lies. Every one of the book’s sentences reflects the author’s decades of inner articulation, of a silent obituary whose waves of memory have polished this work into such a smooth and brilliant gem. Vajda was born to a family of the upper bourgeoisie—his father an older, Jewish lawyer and his mother a lady of aristocratic stock. His godmother was none other than a celebrated actress of the era, Gizi Bajor. Perhaps even these two sentences are enough to indicate that Vajda’s personal story intersects on many points with his nation’s twentieth-century history. The family pulls through the fascist’s reign of terror late in World War II with Bajor’s help. One of the novel’s most memorable episodes relates how Vajda, in his early teens, learns that through his father he, too, is a Jew; but by the same token how he instinctively greets the cassock- and revolver equipped, former Jesuit and now bloodthirsty Nazi, “Father” Kun, according to Catholic liturgy, as compulsory for a dutiful schoolboy attending a school run by the Cistercian Order. Vajda’s father, Ödön Vajda, a member of the short-lived liberal Civil Democratic Party, dies soon after World War II, before his career could have been scuttled by the Communists. But his mother doesn’t escape so easily, and indeed in the years to follow she is continually terrorized by Hungary’s Stalinist regime. Once again it is Gizi Bajor who helps, now by writing entreaties to the dictator Mátyás Rákosi. (“Dear, Good Mátyás Rákosi …” they begin. The letters can in fact be read, word for word, in the novel’s appendix.) After Bajor’s tragic and mysterious death, Vajda’s mother finally decides, in 1956, to “defect” to America. Her son, by now a young editor, opts to stay put. Not that their story has been at all customary to begin with, but in its next stage, mother and son embark on a most unusual correspondence, and some years after the revolution, during the consolidation effected under the reign of János Kádár, they are also able to meet again in person. Vajda’s mother dies in the United States in the 1980s. Perhaps the above summary is enough to suggest just how vivid and intense Vajda’s story is. The novel’s greatest virtue is that its author manages not only to portray with restrained elegance the intimacy between a son and his mother while the son is still a child, but that Vajda pulls off the same feat when it comes to that bizarre, mother-son relationship that endures into his adulthood; when, despite the distance, the two of them grow close—if you discount the fact that there is an incomprehensible, disquieting rift in between them, one that the mother’s only son, Miklós Vajda, is compelled to manage with great care but also at an utter loss. And now, having translated several dozen plays and novels into Hungarian, he has translated his own life, and not in any old way at that. Since the novel’s publication, Vajda has published yet more, equally compelling sequences from his stream of memory, and so the reader of Mother’s Picture, in an American Frame can await the newest pictures and frames with eager anticipation.

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