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Radnóti Miklós

Hungarian Poet, Translator

Born Glatter Miklós
May 5, 1909
Budapest, Hungary
Died November 10, 1944
Abda, Hungary

Radnóti Miklós Hungarian Poet, Translator, one of the most important 20th-century poets of Hungary

Hungarian poet and translator, who is considered one of the most important 20th-century poets of his country. Radnóti was killed at the age of thirty-five during World War II on a forced march toward Germany. After the war Radnóti's last poems, written in a notebook during the march, were discovered from the mass grave in which he was buried.

Miklós Radnóti was born in Budapest into a Jewish family. Radnóti's mother, Ilona Grósz, died while giving birth to him and his twin brother, who was stillborn. When he was 12 Radnóti lost his father, Jakab Glatter, who had remarried - he died of brain thrombosis. Radnóti was not told about his mother's and twin brother's death until he was ten. Later in the autobiographical sketch, Ikrek hava (1939) he described the shock of finding himself an orphan. Death, guilt and sacrifice would become a frequent subject of his prose and poetry.

Radnóti was brought up by relatives who provided him a good education. In 1927 he graduated from a commercial school. His uncle, Dezső Grósz, wanted him to continue the family business. Radnóti had other thoughts, but in 1928 he started to work as an accountant in his firm. At the age of 21 Radnóti published his first collection of poems, Pogány köszöntő (1930, Pagan Salute), which reflected influences from French expressionism and attacked social injustices. His next book, Újmódi pásztorok éneke (1931, Song of Modern Shepherds) was confiscated by the public prosecutor on grounds of indecency and Radnóti drew a light jail sentence. In 1931 he also spent two months in Paris, where he visited 'Exposition coloniale' and decided to translate African poems and folk tales into Hungarian.

In 1930 Radnóti started to study Hungarian and French literature at the University of Szeged. His dissertation from 1934 dealt with the artistic development of the Hungarian poet and novelist Margit Kaffka (1880-1918). During this period he associated with a group of young intellectuals involved in the populist movement "Szegedi Fiatalok". After graduating he tried to find work as a teacher of literature without much success. To support himself he worked as a translator, free-lance writer, and private tutor. Also his rich uncle helped him. Mihály Babits (1883-1941), a poet and critic who edited Nyugat, welcomed Radnóti's contributions to the influential literary review. His penname Radnóti derived from his father's birthplace, Radnóti.

In 1935 Radnóti married Fanni (Fifi) Gyarmati, whom he had met already in 1926, and settled with her in Budapest. Several of Radnóti's love poems were inspired by his wife but also by Judit Beck with whom he had a short affair. "You were what is real, returned to dream in essence, / and I, fallen back into the wall of adolescence, / jealously question you: whether you love me," he wrote in 'Levél a hitveshez' (Letter to my wife). With Járkálj csak, halálraítélt! (1936, Walk On, Condemned), which dealt with the theme of violent death, Radnóti won the Baumgarted Prize. In 1937 he made a journey with Fanni to France, where he had contacts with left-wing circles. In the early 1930s he had produced activist poems - 'John Love, testvérem,' 'Vasárnap,' 'Füttyel oszlik a béke' and others - and established ties with the illegal Hungarian Communist Party. The Spanish Civil war and the death of the poet Federico García Lorca preoccupied much of his thoughts. With the tightening of censorship, Radnóti started to turn his attention more and more to translation of literature.

During World War II Radnóti published Orpheus nyomában (1942), which contained his translations of poetry, new and old. He had translated Virgil's 'Eclogue IX' in 1938, and composed his own 'Eclogue I' in the same year. From the modern French writers he translated Rimbaud, Mallarmé, Eluard, Apollinare and Blaise Cendras. Radnóti used much classical poetic forms, which offered a firm cultural ground, ideals of eternal beauty, against the irrationalism, barbarism, and anti-Semitism of his own time. Several of his poems have also religious overtones, such as 'Ének a halálról' and 'Töredék'.

Years before Radnóti converted to Roman Catholicism, he had embraced Christianity. At the university he had studied with the Catholic poet and priest Sándor Sík (1889-1963). Formally he converted in 1943. In 1944 Radnóti was sent to a labor camp near Bor in Yugoslavia. As the Russian army was approaching, the concentration camps in Yugoslavia were evacuated and his unit was led on foot through Hungary. Radnóti was shot death by Hungarian guards in November near the village of Abda, with other 21 internees who were unable to walk. The mass grave was exhumed after the war and Radnóti's last poems, describing incidents on the march, were found in his trench coat pocket. Radnóti's posthumous collection, Tajtékos ég (1946, Sky With Clouds) contains odes to his wife, letters, and poetic fragments.

Radnóti's poems were often melancholic and introspective. The central theme in his later collections was death, the poets stand in the world "marked with a white cross." Radnóti's language was highly controlled, serene and precise, and he did not abandon his cold objectivity even when he knew he would not survive the horrors of his last march:

"I fell next to him.
His body rolled over.
It was tight as a string before it snaps.
Shot in the back of the head
'This is how you'll end.'
'Just lie quietly,' I said to myself.
Patience flowers into death now.
'Der springt noch auf' I heard above me.
Dark filthy blood was drying on my ear."

Selected works:
- Pogány köszöntő, 1930 (Pagan Salute)
- Újmódi pásztorok éneke, 1931 (Song of Modern Shepherds)
- Lábadozó szél, 1933 (Convalescent Wind)
- Járkálj csak, halálraítélt!, 1936 (Walk On, Condemned)
- Meredek út, 1938 (Steep Road)
- Ikrek hava, 1939 (The Month Of Gemini)
- Translator: Orpheus nyomában, 1942
- Tajtékos ég, 1946 (Sky With Clouds)
- Radnóti Miklós összes versei és műfordításai, 1970
- Próza, 1971
- Subway Stops: Fifty Poems, 1977
- The Witness: Selected Poems by Miklós Radnóti, 1977
- Radnóti Miklós művei, 1978
- Forced March, 1979
- The Complete Poetry, 1980
- Under Gemini: A Prose Memoir and Selected Poetry, 1985
- Foamy Sky: The Major Poems of Miklós Radnóti, 1992


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