The page of Somlyó György, English biography
BiographyHungarian poet with a European voice
The Hungarian poet Gyorgy Somlyo, who has died aged 85, always wanted to do better than his father, Zoltan, a minor versifier who was published in Nyugat, the leading literary magazine of his day, but never admitted into its inner circle. Already as a young man, his son achieved more: though barred from university during the war because of his Jewish background, he studied Hungarian and French literature at Budapest University from 1945 to 1946, and at the Sorbonne for two years from 1947.
In some ways Somlyo can be called a poeta doctus, a poet who learned his craft extremely well, but whose work was not focused on a single stylistic innovation or obsession. His debut in 1939, at the age of 19, was perhaps too early to raise much interest, and although he was influenced by French surrealism, and later by the Chilean Pablo Neruda, it was not until the 1960s that he found his voice.
His earlier predicament can be illustrated by the gap between his poetic and translating activities - while, in 1945, he published a selection of the bourgeois Paul Valéry's poems in Hungarian, he also tried to fulfil the socialist realist expectations of the communist regime with two collections of peace-loving poetry (A beke erdeje, 1952; Vallomas a bekerol, 1953). Between 1948 and 1955 he held various cultural posts in the theatre, film studio, radio and book publishing; his longest stint was probably on the literary weekly Irodalmi ujsag (Literary Gazette) from 1951 to 1953.
The consolidation of Janos Kadar's more liberal regime, and the general amnesty of 1963, ushered in a period in Hungary with formal experimentation and politically neutral poetry tolerated, if not officially promoted. This was Somlyo's moment: in 1963 he brought out a collection Szemfenyveszto fugefa (The Prestidigitating Fig-Tree), which showed both his talent and erudition, and in 1966 launched the almanac Arion, which continued until 1987. Arion published Hungarian poets in western languages and original work by foreign poets, including Edwin Morgan, Charles Tomlinson, Jean Rousselot and Neruda. It became a cultural bridge between western Europe and the communist world.
Somlyo was a strong Francophile, who translated many modern French poets, including Paul Eluard and Saint-John Perse into Hungarian, and at one point published a small book of poems in French, Parisiens (1987). Several of his books were translated into French.
He was active in Hungarian PEN, at one point serving as its vice-president; he was also vice-president of the Hungarian-French Society. From 1976 a member of the editorial board of the French literary magazine Póesie, a year later he was elected to the Mallarmé Academy of Paris. His collected poems were published in 1978 under the title Arion eneke (The Song of Arion).
Somlyo published numerous essays on such defining 20th-century poets as TS Eliot and Ezra Pound. As well as a book on Milan Fust, a great Hungarian poet of the Nyugat generation (1969), he also wrote Philoktetesz sebe (The Wound of Philoctetes, 1980), an introduction to modern poetry and several collections of essays on modern poets and the art of translation. His own translations were collected in three volumes under the title Szelrozsa (Compass Dial, 1993, 1995, 1998).
It was only in the 1970s that he ventured into prose, with Arnyjatek (Shadow Play) relating the illness and death of his friend, Gabor Devecseri. This was followed by Rampa (Ramp, 1984) a story of wartime concentration camps. His last novel, Parizsi kettos (A Double Story of Paris), appeared in 1990. Somlyo won many literary awards.
Daniel Hoffman and other translators made his poems available in English in the second volume of In Search of the Miracle Stag: The Poetry of Hungary (2003). In his best work Somlyo gives voice to the joie de vivre and existential fears of modern European man.
Gyorgy Somlyo, poet and editor, born November 28 1920; died May 8 2006
Gyorgy Gomori Thursday June 8, 2006 The Guardian