Preface with Portraits
All images of work by Robert Zend are copyright © Janine Zend, all rights reserved, reproduced with permission from Janine Zend. Family photographs are reproduced with permission from Janine Zend, Natalie Zend, and Ibi Gabori.
Welcome to Robert Zend: Poet without Borders, my illustrated exploration of the life and work of the Hungarian-Canadian avant-garde writer and artist. The slide show above consists of photographs from Zend’s family and creative life as well as artistic portraits and self-portraits.
This project is the result of several months of research, interviews, and writing. It has become very dear to me, and I hope that you will enjoy the results. Over the next few weeks, I’m going to post installments, including biographical sections about Zend’s life in Hungary and Canada, and sections about his Hungarian literary roots, Canadian cross-pollination, and international affinities and influences.
I’ve had the pleasure and honour of speaking with members of the Zend family (Janine Zend, Natalie Zend, and Ibi Gabori) and of viewing texts, artworks, and other artifacts and memorabilia in the private collection of Janine Zend, for which I offer my deepest gratitude. I’ve also had the opportunity to research the extensive Zend fonds at the University of Toronto Library’s Media Commons. I’d like to thank curators Rachel Beattie and Brock Silversides, who had to put up with many a yelp of joy as I found such priceless artifacts as a photograph of Zend playing chess with the great French mime artist Marcel Marceau — on a chess set of Zend’s own design. These conversations and experiences have greatly enriched my understanding of the life, mind, and work of Robert Zend, for which I am very grateful.
As I worked on this project, I became acutely aware of my limitation of not knowing the Hungarian language. There are works by Zend in Hungarian that are as yet untranslated into English, and many documents in the Zend fonds that are written only in Hungarian. Nonetheless, I am fortunate that so much was either written by Zend in English or translated into English by him, often with the assistance of John Robert Colombo and others. I sincerely apologize in advance for any errors or omissions in what follows, and encourage correspondence from anyone with greater knowledge on the subject than I. If what I have written stimulates interest in Zend’s life and work, then I will consider my primary goal to have been accomplished.
I am grateful for the kind assistance and generosity of the following:
The family of Robert Zend: Janine Zend, Natalie Zend, and Ibi Gabori
Rachel Beattie and Brock Silverside, curators of the Zend fonds at Media Commons, University of Toronto Library
Edric Mesmer, Librarian at the University at Buffalo’s Poetry Collection and Curator of The Center for Marginalia, and the other wonderful librarians of The Poetry Collection for their research assistance
Brent Cehan of the Language and Literature division of the Toronto Reference Library
The Librarians in the Special Arts Room Stacks at the Toronto Reference Library
The Librarians at Reference and Research Services and at the Petro Jacyk Central and East European Resource Centre, Robarts Library, University of Toronto Libraries
Susanne Marshall (former Literary Editor for The Canadian Encyclopedia)
Part 1. Linelife:
Premiere of a Rediscovered Treasure
I begin my series on the life and work of Robert Zend with the presentation of a previously unpublished short visual work entitled Linelife (1983), a flip-book animation sequence of dots and lines (fig. 1) that Zend dedicated to his daughter Natalie. I was excited to find Linelife in the Zend fonds at the University of Toronto.
Fortunately, Zend left instructions for its production. Although he had drawn the images in black ink on white paper, he preferred that the colors be reversed to white-on-black. So I digitalized the images and, according to his wishes, converted them into negatives. I thought that the digital medium would enhance the animated sequence of frames, so using film editing software I gave them a time-lapse animation to imitate the effect of flipping pages. Natalie made some excellent suggestions for the most effective presentation of the work. I hope that her father would have liked Linelife in this digital incarnation.
Fig. 1. Robert Zend, LineLife, ink drawing on paper, 1983, Box 10, Robert Zend fonds, Media Commons, University of Toronto Libraries. Adapted for digital medium by Camille Martin. Copyright © Janine Zend, 1983, all rights reserved, reproduced with permission from Janine Zend.
Although the narrative of Linelife unfolds in a geometrically abstract sequence of creation and disintegration, it also suggests an anthropomorphic trajectory of a life. And in fact, there exists a longer unpublished work entitled The Tense Present (fig. 2), which consists of the sequence of images in Linelife and interpellates text and other images to explore the arc of human life from conception to death.
In the Linelife sequence above, which does not include that programmatic narrative, the gradual creation of a complex pattern of lines and dots could also suggest human creativity at work, and the deflation and ultimate disappearance of that triumphant pattern implies that in the cosmic order of things, art as well as life is short. Yet its very abstraction points to a more universal signification: the drama of development and decline, on microcosmic as well as macrocosmic scales. As well, the mirroring of the opening and closing suggests a cyclical pattern as things arise and fall apart in a continual succession of order and entropy.
I thought it appropriate to begin with this little gem because, although I know of no other flip-book in Zend’s oeuvre, its theme emblematizes his recurring concern with cycles of creation and destruction.
Part 2. Dissolving Labels and Boundaries
Being a poet does not depend on the geographical location of the poet’s body, or on the political system under which the publisher functions, but on the linguistic and literary value of the poems.1 —Robert Zend
Robert Zend (1929–1985) was a Hungarian-Canadian avant-garde writer and artist. As a young man of twenty-seven, he escaped his native Budapest during the 1956 failed Hungarian Uprising against Soviet rule and immigrated to Canada as a political refugee. He settled in Toronto, where he lived until his death in 1985. So nationality-wise, his life was divided into two parts: childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood in Hungary; and the rest of his life in Canada.
According to the convention of hyphenating nationality, Zend was indeed Hungarian-Canadian. However, considering his profound distrust of labels, the classification might have seemed an attempt to delimit him as a poet and human being. Because of his cosmopolitan outlook, I’ve come to think of him as a citizen of a realm expanded and enriched by his own generous sense of a borderless community of kindred poetic minds. And it is this generosity in his international affinities and aesthetic vision that I hope to develop in this essay.
It could be said that Zend had a somewhat conflicted relationship with nationality. Arriving in Canada as a political refugee, he celebrated the freedoms that had not been available to him in Soviet-controlled Hungary. And as an exile, he explored themes of alienation, loneliness, loss, and nostalgia for his native country — not unusual for immigrant writers.
On the other hand, having survived war-torn Europe, where totalitarianism and zealous nationalism had fostered a culture of xenophobia, racism, and hatred, and having seen the cruelties inflicted by the Nazi and then Soviet rule in Hungary, he understood all too well the catastrophic consequences of labeling people. He developed a distrust of boundaries, be they political, social, or aesthetic.
During World War II, more than 500,000 Hungarian Jews died as a result of the Nazi regime.2 And the Soviet Union, for all its propaganda of unity and egalitarianism, often used xenophobic fears to control the population, and under Stalin promoted an antisemitic campaign of murder and persecution.3 As well, many thousands of Hungarians labeled as “imperialist enemies” of the state were imprisoned, deported to forced labour camps, tortured, and executed, to say nothing of the more than 2,500 Hungarians killed during the 1956 Hungarian Uprising.4 Zend’s experiences of these brutal regimes provided cautionary models of zealous nationalism and racial paranoia and hatred.
One of Zend’s most poignant statements about labelling is in a speech for a panel on exile at the 1981 International Writer’s Congress. He speaks of totalitarian governments coming to power in Europe during the 1930s, which “began simplifying and polarizing the labelling of people”:
All labels — whether they were dignifying or humiliating — were meted out to certain groups, not because they did something good or evil, not because they deserved a reward or a punishment . . . but merely for circumstances beyond their control . . . like having been born into a rich or a poor family, into an Aryan or a Jewish family.5
From his experience of that catastrophic era in European history, Zend had developed a strong conviction of
the complete senselessness of labelling people according to nationality, place of birth, date of birth, religion, class, origin, sex, age, the colour of skin, the number of pimples, or whatever.6
So it’s not surprising that his life’s work dissolves boundaries, and in this essay I will explore three ways in which he did so.
First, his outlook was international, starting with his high school and university studies of Italian literature and readings of world literature in Hungary. And after Zend’s arrival in Toronto, Zend sought not only Canadian affinities but also artistic and literary friendships and inspiration around the world, perhaps most significantly with Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges but extending to writers, artists, and traditions in other countries such as France, Italy, Belgium, and Japan. Zend, no respecter of cultural boundaries, enthusiastically sought out the literature and art of other nations.
Indeed, Zend’s first poetry collection, From Zero to One, reveals something of his cosmopolitan openness. He shows his indebtedness to Canadian influences with poems dedicated to Raymond Souster, Marshall McLuhan, Norman McLaren, Glenn Gould, John Robert Colombo, and professors of Italian studies J. A. Molinaro and Beatrice Corrigan. The dedications of other poems demonstrate Zend’s affinities with cultural figures from the United States (Saul Steinberg, Isaac Asimov, and Arthur C. Clarke), France (Marcel Marceau), Belgium (René Magritte), Hungary (science writer Steven Rado, actor Miklós Gábor, and artist Julius Marosán), and ancient Greece (Plato). The title of the book comes from a poetic essay by Frigyes Karinthy, who, as I will explore in greater detail in an upcoming installment, was an important Hungarian literary influence. And the dust jacket bears an exquisite portrait of Zend by French mime artist Marcel Marceau.
His tributes to writers and artists sometimes takes the form of collaboration, strikingly in the case of Borges and Marceau, and ekphrastic poems, as in his response to the paintings of Belgian artist René Magritte, Hungarian-Canadian artist Marosán, and Spanish-Canadian artist Jerónimo.
Secondly, his writing thematically dissolves geographical, political, and social boundaries to explore humanity’s place within the cosmos as well as fantastical realms that often involve dreams and time travel. He writes more traditionally about such subjects as romantic relationships and the dilemmas that he faced as an immigrant, but many other works develop philosophical concepts about the connectedness of all persons to one another and to the universe.
Thirdly, Zend was a polymath, and he used whatever materials were at hand to create works that are multi-genre and multi-media. During his twenty-nine years in Canada he wrote poetry, essays, fiction, and plays; created collages and concrete poetry; used found objects such as cardboard tubes for creating three-dimensional visual poetry; and researched, wrote, directed, and produced over a hundred cultural documentaries for the Canadian Broadcasting Company (CBC). He was also a musician, filmmaker, and self-described “inveterate doodler.”7 A multi-media artist and chess player, he designed a chess set to be presented by the CBC to Marceau during his 1970 visit to Canada.8 And some of his works defy classification, such as the two-volume multi-genre Oāb (1983, 1985).
Zend’s cosmopolitan attitude is rooted in childhood and early adulthood experiences that nurtured in him an openness to cultural influences regardless of national boundaries. For Zend, love of city, region, or homeland, or of the culture associated with those places, is accompanied not so much by feelings of pride as by the desire to seek out affinities with writers and artists without regard (as he puts it) to “nationality, place of birth, date of birth, religion, class, origin, sex, age, the colour of skin, the number of pimples, or whatever.”
Coming Up . . .
The next two installments of my essay will highlight some major events in Zend’s life, giving biographical context to what follows, as well as offer an overview of his published works.
The last installments will be devoted to the heart of my endeavour, in which I trace some of Zend’s literary affinities and influences, with special emphasis on his roots in Hungary, his transplanted roots in Canada, and his alliances with writers, artists, and cultural traditions worldwide, with particular emphasis on Argentina, France, Italy, Japan, and Belgium. And in some of the samples from his writing, you’ll see some of his cosmic and fantastical concerns. As well, I’ll reveal ways in which his visual work crosses boundaries of genre and discipline.
A Note about Cosmopolitanism
My use of the term “cosmopolitanism” refers to a historically situated discussion in Canadian culture that came to the fore during the 1940s. The debate between the proponents of a national, nativist literature and the advocates for a more cosmopolitan view intensified when A. J. M. Smith threw down the gauntlet in favour of the latter in his 1943 anthology, The Book of Canadian Poetry. Post-World War II, this debate defined two overarching trends in Canadian poetry criticism: the desire for a national literature rooted in autochthonous themes and imagery, versus a more cosmopolitan spirit of poetry aware of currents of thought in international modernism and embracing their influence. While it is not my purpose to enter into a detailed theoretical and historical explanation of these trends, I wish to set the stage for the strong view of nationalism that gained steam with the aftermath of the Massey Commission since the 1950s, as this is the historical period that Robert Zend entered when he immigrated to Canada in 1956. My use of the term “cosmopolitan” to describe Zend’s cultural outlook does not in any way denigrate regionalism or nativism in content or aesthetic approach (or imply that Zend did so); neither does it suggest that Zend, as a political refugee from Hungary, did not admire and absorb lessons from the literature and art produced within Canadian borders. I hope to demonstrate in my analysis quite the contrary.
Part 3. Hungary: Childhood and Early Adulthood
Little has been publicly known about Robert Zend’s early years in Hungary, prior to the 1956 Uprising and his subsequent immigration to Canada. I’d like to begin the process of fleshing out this period of his life. Some of the biographical material from this period will help us to understand the shaping of his cosmopolitan outlook. In addition, some background on his life in both Hungary and Canada will help to contextualize my subsequent discussion of his international affinities and influences.
Robert Zend was born in Budapest, the only child of Henrik and Stephanie. Most sources indicate that he was born on December 2, 1929. However, there is some uncertainty about the date. Henrik, the youngest among many brothers and sisters, married late in life, so that Robert’s cousins were ten to twenty years older than he.1 Thus during his early years, Robert was often in the midst of adults.
Zend points out the irony of his given name. Henrik had wanted to call him James after his own father. But his brother-in-law Dori argued against it because it sounded so old-fashioned. Henrik didn’t like Dori’s suggestion of a common name for his son, who would surely be distinguished. Finally,
Dori proposed to him the name Robert which in those times and in Hungary was a modern, but very rare, almost exotic name. My father readily agreed because his favourite composer was Robert Schumann. Had he known that I would spend most of my life in North America where every second male is called Robert (or even Bob!), he wouldn’t have compromised so easily.2
Zend wryly observes that had his father favoured a different composer, his name might have been “Johann Sebastian Zend.”
Henrik, fluent in five languages, worked as a foreign correspondence clerk for a rice mill, and Stephanie was a homemaker.3 They were not well off, and after the birth of Robert, one month after the New York Stock Market crash of 1929, they faced economic difficulties and uncertainty. The ensuing global depression devastated the Hungarian economy: by 1933, Budapest had a poverty rate of 18% and an unemployment rate of 36%.4 Following a failed pregnancy, Henrik and Stephanie decided not to have additional children.5
Zend wrote about the sibling that he never had in a poignant story entitled “My Baby Brother”: he dreams that his parents have come back to life, and even at their advanced age they bear a son, who he imagines “will be a better man than me, a second, corrected edition of me.”6 Other works develop the theme of existence foiled, as in “The Rock,” a story about a dreamed Jesus who has missed his chance to be born:
Time was pregnant.
It was predetermined that he was to be born. The day and the hour and the minute and the second had been decided. The land and the city and the house assigned. The father and the mother chosen.
But something somewhere, something went wrong. His dreamer — in a higher consciousness — woke up with a start before dreaming his birth, and by the time he succeeded in sinking back into the dream again, the point was passed.7
And in “The Most Beautiful Things,” he ponders all of the art and life that remain in a limbo of unfulfilled potentiality:
My most beautiful poems are never written down
I am afraid to commit them to a prison of twenty-six letters
In the same way
the most beautiful statues on earth hide
in uncarved rock
The most beautiful paintings
are all crammed together in tiny tubes of paint
The most beautiful people will never be born8
In such works, it is as though a parallel universe contained all the possibilities that never came to fruition. Yearning for the unborn baby brother was not the only experience to which one could ascribe Zend’s sense of what he elsewhere calls “historical unhappenings.”9 As we will see, it was one of other events to come that would mark him with an indelible awareness of thwarted possibilities.
Robert’s early years held much promise. The foundation for his love of Italian culture and literature was laid in childhood. Henrik brought him to Italy at the ages of ten and twelve to stimulate the boy’s interest in learning the Italian language.10
Zend describes himself during childhood as a social misfit as he wasn’t interested in playing sports with other boys. As a result of his introversion, Henrik and Stephanie suspected that their son was socially stunted as well as intellectually slow, and planned to take him out of school after the fourth grade to apprentice with a carpenter. However, Robert began to display talent in languages and to demonstrate more than a superficial interest in literature. When he was seven, he impressed his teacher and classmates with his language skills. At the age of eight, the precocious boy recited from memory a 140-line poem by nineteenth-century Hungarian poet Sándor Petőfi.11
After Robert finished the fourth grade, Henrik and Stephanie reconsidered the plan to withdraw him from school to learn a trade. Having observed his talents and listened to the entreaties of his teacher, they were convinced to cultivate the boy’s intellectual gifts rather than apprentice him to a carpenter.
Robert began to play the piano by ear at the age of ten. Although he never learned to read scores, he excelled at imitating pieces he heard, such as Mozart’s “Turkish March,” and composing songs. Family and friends thought that Robert was destined to become a concert pianist, but even in early adolescence, Robert knew that he would be a writer.12
When Robert was fourteen, his father placed him in Regia Scuola Italiana, the Italian high school in Budapest, so that he could become fluent in a second language; there Zend also studied Latin and German. One of his professors was Joseph Füsi, a prominent translator of plays by Luigi Pirandello. Zend describes Füsi as a personal friend who encouraged him to write and translate.13
Childhood travels to Italy and studies at the Italian high school fostered in Robert an enduring love of languages. He went on to study literature in several other languages and twenty years later earned a graduate degree in Italian literature at the University of Toronto. His high school studies with Füsi likely influenced his decision to write about Pirandello for his master’s thesis.
Robert seems to have had a happy childhood, nurtured by caring parents who assiduously looked after his health, well-being, and education. Although they could scarcely afford it, they sent him at ages one-and-a-half and six to the beach towns of Grado, Italy, and Laurana, Yugoslavia, respectively, to recover from rickets (a bone disease caused by a deficiency in vitamin D). His father took him on two more trips to Italy to expose him to a different language and culture. And when Robert was in the seventh grade, they hired a private tutor to help him with Latin when his grades in that subject flagged.14
He remembers fondly that his mother spoiled him. However, she also tended to be over-protective, even accompanying him when he was fourteen to summer camp, where his father had sent him to gain a sense of independence. Teased about his hovering mother, Robert resourcefully wrote to her older brother, Dori, for help. His uncle understood the situation and quickly persuaded his sister to leave her son in peace. After her departure, Robert was able to bond with the other boys.15
Reminiscences of his parents and childhood surface in some of his stories and poems. In “A Memory,” he tells of a humorous (in retrospect) coming-of-age incident involving his father:
Once, at fifteen,
I made my poor
old dad so mad at me
that he chased me
around the table
till I caught him, finally16
And in “Madeleine,” he experiences a self-referential Proustian moment eating a madeleine and remembering himself at fifteen reading Proust in his parents’ “old apartment” in a “yellow house [on a] curvy little street.” He recalls the magic of his youth in Budapest, and “my mother, my father, my friends and my loves.” He decides to write his memoirs, to be entitled (in typical Zend brain-teaser fashion) In Search of In Search of Time Lost Lost.17
However, the peace of those years was shattered with Hungary’s turbulent entrance into World War II. The years from 1944 to 1945 saw not only the Nazi takeover of Hungary and the deportation and murder of hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews and others deemed undesirable by the regime, but also the Soviet invasion of Hungary (between October 1944 and February 1945) and its aftermath of rape, murder, and pillage. The Siege of Budapest by the Soviet military was one of the longest and bloodiest urban battles of World War II in Europe (fig. 4). The extraordinarily violent and chaotic transition from Nazi to Soviet control lasted about one hundred days and resulted in extremely degraded living conditions amid destruction, terror, disease, and starvation. Atrocities against civilians were committed by both Hungarian and Soviet forces. During the Siege, about 38,000 Hungarian civilians were killed. Thousands were executed outright by members of the Arrow Cross, the pro-Nazi Hungarian party.18
Tragically, Robert’s parents were among those killed during that brutal period.19 The shock and grief of his loss left a deep impression on him for the rest of his life.
In the semi-autobiographical story “My Baby Brother,” Zend directly addresses his parents’ death, interweaving with that event an account of his brother who died before birth. As mentioned previously, the story tells of dreamer who learns that his long-dead parents have returned to life and immediately become pregnant with a boy. Although he is excited at the thought of having a baby brother, he also realizes that this sibling will replace him and accomplish all the things he was unable to, such as becoming a “great composer” because “internal and external forces prevented me from doing so.” Like a Twilight Zone episode, the dream keeps returning to the beginning, and the details of his parents’ demise shift: they died in a camp, they were shot, their apartment was bombed. And he learns of their last words: hopes for their son’s survival. And since their deaths, he says,
they’ve been my guardian spirits, floating around me, saving me from death on ten or so occasions.20
The dreamer is trapped inside a tape loop, an endless rehearsal of variations on tragedy, not unlike the history of Hungary in the twentieth century. Finally, the dream ends with a scene of a tombstone whose inscription keeps changing. He’s not sure whose tombstone it represents: the baby brother he never had? Or perhaps the dead avenues of a life of foiled plans? The former emblematizes the latter, and from Zend’s multiple losses emerges the recurring theme in his writing of the “unborn child” who “knocks at the gates of existence,” “struggl[ing] to become,” but who ends up “freezing on the snow-fields of white non-existence.”21
The end of the Nazi’s brief but barbaric chapter in Hungary’s history was following by a protracted Communist totalitarian regime with its own institutionalized system of cruelty and deception. And although life was not easy during Budapest’s long recovery from the destruction and devastation of the war, Zend was able to continue his education. In 1949, he was admitted to Péter Pázmány Science University, where he completed three years of study in Hungarian and Italian literature, and four years of study in Russian literature. In addition, he studied German, Finnish, and classical languages.22
Soon after he began his university studies, he married Ibi Keil in 1950. Ibi and Robert had been drawn together by their love of classical music and literature. When they met, Robert was entertaining friends by playing a Mozart piano sonata. Ibi recalls that Robert was impressed by her ability to sing melodies from all of Beethoven’s symphonies. On one of their first dates, they attended a performance of The Tragedy of Man by Imre Madách, the famous nineteenth-century Hungarian poet whose long dramatic poem, as we will see later, deeply influenced Zend’s writing and art. And they also shared feelings of empathy for the tragic events of their youth: Robert had lost his parents to the war, and Ibi had lost her parents, younger brother, and other family members to the Holocaust. In 1944, at the age of fifteen, Ibi had been transported along with her parents and brother to Auschwitz. She managed to live through the horrors of Auschwitz and two other camps, but unfortunately her parents and brother did not survive.23
Although apartments were hard to come by, the young couple, assisted by an uncle of Robert’s, managed to procure a small place. They settled into their new life together as Robert continued his studies and Ibi worked at a factory while pursuing her own education to become a librarian.24
In 1953, Zend received a Bachelor of Arts degree as well as the official title of Literary Translator. One of his university professors was Tibor Kardos, who edited the literary magazine where from 1953 to 1956 Zend worked as a translator of Italian literature.25
For four years, from 1948 to 1951 (between the ages of 19 and 22), he worked for the Press and Publicity Department of the Hungarian National Filmmaking Company, the state-controlled cinema during the Stalin regime, where he edited films, designed and produced dozens of movie posters, and wrote film reviews.26 Although many of these films appearing from the state monopoly were vehicles for political messages, for a brief time early into the Communist regime, a variety of more sophisticated films was allowed, as the poster produced by Zend of Hamlet (1948, starring Lawrence Olivier and Jean Simmons) attests (fig. 6). In the same year, he also produced a poster for Talpalatnyi föld (Treasured Earth), the first film realized by the newly nationalized film industry in Hungary (fig. 7).
But working conditions were far from ideal, as many of the films approved by the state were monotonously devoted to praise of Communism and condemnation of its enemies. Moreover, Zend had to deal with narrow-minded and incompetent administrators at the Hungarian National Filmmaking Company. For Zend, the position was neither a creative nor a worker’s paradise. He made his job tolerable by entertaining friends with satirical reviews of the films with the most hackneyed ideological plots, and joking about the “waterhead” administration, so-called because “the department bosses seemed to have heads made of water.”27
Someone as outspoken as Zend was bound to come into conflict with officials, and before long he was blacklisted by the Communist administration, which meant that he was effectively barred from securing full-time employment. The event that triggered the blacklisting might seem innocent enough. The government had set up a wall on which the public was invited to write constructive criticism of government services and other socialist functions. Zend had written a bitingly satirical criticism of food that was served at a political event. The officials were not amused, and Zend was fired and prevented from pursuing any kind of meaningful career.28
To earn sufficient income to help support himself, his wife, and in 1956 their newborn baby, he had to patch together a variety of short-term and part-time jobs. For four years, he worked as a free-lance journalist. In addition, he did writing and editorial work for children’s and youth magazines, edited books for the Young People’s Book Publisher, wrote reports and essays for a teacher’s magazine, wrote for the Hungarian Radio, translated poetry and essays from German, Italian, and Russian sources into Hungarian, and worked with illustrators, artists, and printing shops.29 One of his editing jobs, for example, was a 1955 guide book for the Pioneers, a socialist youth group (fig. 8).
He loved writing for children, and a friend who edited the chilren’s magazine Pajtás (Pal) helped him to get paid for writing articles.30 Zend reports that his pen name, “Peeper,” was “extremely popular,” and he received fan mail from children all over Hungary.31 He also travelled regularly to visit schools around the country.32
Zend was also developing as a poet. He wrote his first poems at the age of nine and thirteen and began writing poetry in earnest when he was fifteen,33. A meeting with his literary idol, Hungarian writer Frigyes Karinthy, made a lasting impression on him.34. During the 1950s, he continued to write poetry, in these earlier years verse of a lyric nature.35
In 1956, Ibi fulfilled two dreams. After the loss of so many of her relatives to the Holocaust, she longed to start a family. After years of despairing that it might not be possible for her to have children due to the damage her body had sustained in Nazi labour camps, she finally became pregnant with a girl. In the same year that Aniko was born, Ibi fulfilled her long-time dream of becoming a librarian after passing her exams.36
For the Zends, the years leading up to the 1956 Hungarian Revolution were not easy. Money was so tight that Robert wasn’t even able to afford a typewriter, which would have cost the couple three months’ wages. Something as basic to a poet as a typewriter was a “lifetime ambition.”37 In February 1956, Aniko was born premature, and Ibi describes her during the first eight months as “very thin, very pale, and undernourished,” as the baby didn’t have the proper food and vitamins to thrive.
Discontent with Soviet rule was rampant, and during the summer and fall of 1956 it grew increasingly bold and vocal. Leafing through children’s books that she was placing back on the shelves, Ibi noticed that even the children were scribbling protests about the government’s hypocrisy:
Wherever there was anything praising Communism, the Russian army or the Kremlin’s might, the little children had written in, “It’s not true . . . All lies . . . We don’t want Russia.”38
In 1956, Robert was on the brink of publishing his first book, a collection of one hundred poems, with a dissident publishing company, when a landmark event in Hungarian history suddenly halted his plans.39 His and Ibi’s lives were forever and drastically changed as a result of the Hungarian Uprising against Soviet rule. Journalists and university students, encouraged by the June uprising in Poland against the Soviets, began openly to question and debate the future of Hungary. On October 23, students marched to the Parliament Building to voice their protest and list their demands for the sovereignty of Hungary, free elections, freedom of the press, and various individual freedoms severely eroded by Soviet rule (fig. 9). The demonstration ended in a massacre when government snipers and Soviet tanks opened fire on the crowd, leaving about one hundred students dead.
As a result of the massacre, widespread and violent protests erupted as outraged Hungarians witnessed the extent to which the Soviets were determined to maintain their grip on the satellite country.40 During the revolt, which lasted from October 23 to 28, 1956, Hungarians engaged in fierce battle with Soviet tanks and soldiers. Victorious citizens clambered onto captured Soviet tanks and waved the Hungarian flag with the detested hammer and sickle cut from its center (fig. 10).
By October 28, Hungarian fighters had suffered heavy losses but appeared to have been successful: the tanks withdrew from Budapest and the citizens enjoyed a few days of freedom from Soviet aggression. Ibi remembers the kettles that people placed on street corners to collect money for the widows and children of those killed in battle (fig. 11), and that there was a euphoric feeling of solidarity and mutual trust.41 As the Soviet government officially admitted mistakes in handling the uprising and announced its intention to negotiate with Hungarian officials regarding Soviet military presence, the prospect of a sovereign and independent Hungary, free from Soviet interference, was openly celebrated.42
However, unbeknownst to Hungarian civilians, on November 3 Khrushchev approved Operation Whirlwind, a Soviet military invasion of Hungary involving sixty thousand soldiers. Early in the morning on Sunday, November 4, without warning, hundreds of tanks rolled into Budapest in a swift and brutal crackdown on the Hungarian Revolution (fig. 12), assisted by the AVO (Hungarian secret police). Many Hungarians actively resisted with guns and Molotov cocktails. It was an extremely perilous time: thousands of Hungarians were killed by superior Soviet power, and the dreaded AVO ruthlessly tortured their own compatriots whom they deemed to be enemies of the socialist state. The Soviet Minister of the Defense estimated that within three days the soldiers would have the city under control; in fact, the Hungarian insurgents kept fighting until November 11.43
It was also a perilous time for Zend, who had been producing and distributing leaflets encouraging Hungarians to revolt.44 If he were discovered and arrested, he could have been severely punished as a traitor.
Furthermore, Ibi recalls her feelings of anxiety when accompanying the Soviet invasion came a renewed wave of antisemitism with ominous slogans appearing on walls such as “Icig, Icig,45 most nem viszünk Auschwitzig!” (“Jews, this time you won’t even have to go to Auschwitz!”), intimating the possibility of a return to the days of the Arrow Cross terror of 1944—1945.46 Such threats, as well as serious antisemitic incidents, which were occurring in small Hungarian towns as well as in Budapest, sent a chill of fear through the surviving Jewish population in Hungary. In some cases, mobs roamed the streets of small towns attacking Jews and their homes and businesses.47 This danger as well as the Soviet invasion were factors in the Zends’ decision to leave Hungary.48
Escape was possible if risky: if people walked all or part of the way, they faced the risk of hypothermia and exhaustion as it was the onset of winter; they were also in peril of being captured or shot by AVO border patrols. Hungary was bordered to the north by Czechoslovakia, and to the east by the Soviet Union and Romania. The main directions toward freedom were to the west, toward Austria, or to the south, toward Yugoslavia. The vast majority of the 200,000 Hungarian refugees fled to Austria.49
Zend could envision the bleak and undignified future for writers and other intellectuals in Hungary. Indeed, after the Soviets regained control of Hungary, many writers were arrested and sentenced to many years in prison, and in January 1957, the Writers’ Association and Journalists’ Union were disbanded by the Soviet-controlled government.50 Zend did not want to live under a regime in which his every word would be scrutinized and subject to state censorship. As he writes in Beyond Labels, the refugee Hungarians crossed the Atlantic
to get away from the land
where there wasn’t enough room for us
in the houses and on the streets —
where armies every decade changed their shirt colours
and massacred us again and again —
where even the trees eavesdropped on us
whispering behind our backs —
where at night what was left of our souls
kept on trembling in fear —51
As to his own decision to go into exile, he states,
I chose to leave my country rather than publish party-line poetry or publish dissident poetry and be jailed, or deported, or silenced afterwards.52
For a brief window of opportunity, he and his wife and eight-month-old baby had the chance to escape westward into Austria. A close friend, István Radó, had created fake identification papers for the escape of twenty to thirty persons, and invited Robert and his family to join the group. Fig. 13 shows the card he forged for the Zends, certifying that their apartment had been destroyed, rendering them homeless, and authorizing travel.
Ibi still vividly recalls the events of their escape.53 She and Robert joined István’s group in a covered truck and hired driver. The mood was somber as she watched the cobblestones retreating through the fog as the truck drove the group of friends away from Budapest and toward Austrian border. They proceeded along back roads, taking advice along the way from fellow Hungarians about which routes were blocked by the Soviets.
In the event they were stopped by Soviet soldiers, Robert and István had written a letter in Russian addressed to the soldiers (fig. 14), pleading with them to let them go on their way: “Dear Soviet Soldier, We are all ordinary Hungarian workers. Fathers, mothers, children, families, who lost everything—shelter and furniture, earned with hard labour. None of us fought against you. We are not fascists or partisans. We love you as you are also workers—providers for your families. We don’t like capitalists or imperialists. Our only wish is working in peace another twenty-thirty years. Our lives now are in your hands. If your hearts are opened up to love and you also love your family, you will help us and get our gratitude. We call on you, dear Soviet Soldier, help us! In the name of our children!!! Ordinary Hungarians”54
Fortunately, they didn’t have to use the letter, as they made their way toward the border unchallenged. However, the driver, after having promised to convey them to the border, stopped a few miles short of it and refused to go any farther. Despite feeling betrayed, the group paid him the agreed-upon fee and were compelled to walk for a few hours the rest of the way through rain and mud.
They had to face one last danger when, just before arriving at the Austrian border, they were halted by a guard, a young Hungarian who had been conscripted into service to prevent his fellow countrymen from escaping. Fortunately, one of their group managed to talk (and bribe) the young man into allowing them to go peacefully on their way, persuading him that their homes had been destroyed and reassuring him that when the situation in Budapest had calmed down, they would return to Hungary — after all, he reasoned with the guard, they were patriotic Hungarians and would not desert their country forever. The bluff and bribe together softened the guard, who allowed them to continue. Finally the group crossed the border, where Austrians approached them with words of welcome and led them to American and Canadian Red Cross shelters and warm food. Such was Ibi’s relief at their safe passage that she fell to her knees and began laughing uncontrollably.
Canadian and American immigration officials were stationed at the refugee camp, conducting preliminary interviews. Although the Zends had a choice of immigrating to either country, their decision to go to Canada was determined during their interview with the Americans. In 1956, McCarthyism was still casting strong suspicion on any American deemed to be associated with the Communist Party, and thus the American interviewers wanted to know the Zends’ affiliation with and allegiance to the Communist Party of Hungary and the Soviet Union. Ibi, who had been raised in a poor family, was able to get a college education and become a librarian due to the assistance and subsidy of the Hungarian Communist government. If she were to lie, denying that Communism had helped her to achieve her dream, the Americans would accept her as a political refugee.
But the flip side of life under Communism was a web of lies, a suppression of truth in order to maintain a façade of harmony and prosperity. Ibi, weary of such deception, refused to conceal from the Americans her gratitude for the benefits she had derived from the Communist educational program in order to satisfy them that she would be an acceptable immigrant. Thus Ibi’s sense of integrity sealed the Zends’ decision to go to Canada.
From the border Red Cross camp they traveled by train to Vienna, along with other refugees, where they stayed until their immigration paperwork was processed and they were ready to travel to their destination (fig. 15).
In Vienna, many voluntary agencies had quickly organized to provide relief for the refugees, such as the National Catholic Welfare Conference, the Lutheran World Federation, the Hebrew Sheltering and Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), the World Council of Churches, and the International Rescue Committee.55 Individuals also took the initiative to collect donations on the street to help the refugees (fig. 16).
At the Canadian Embassy, the Zends obtained visas to enter Canada (fig. 17). Before moving on, they stayed in Vienna for a few days, spending time with friends whom they knew they would not see for a long time, such as Skutai Ibolya, with whom Zend had worked at the children’s magazine Pajtás (Pal) in Budapest, and István Radó, who had organized the Zends’ escape and who was headed for the United States with his family (fig. 18). Zend would remain friends with Radó for the rest of his life, often flying from Toronto to visit him at his home in Los Angeles.
Taking the next step on their journey to a new country and home, the Zends gathered their few belongings in a cardboard box, took a taxi to the Vienna train station (fig. 19), and made their way to Liverpool. There, they boarded a Cunard Line ship, travelling towards a freer but uncertain future in Canada.
Part 4. Canada: “Freedom, Everybody’s Homeland”
Robert Zend and his wife, Ibi, and eight-month-old baby, Aniko, escaped Hungary in mid-November 1956 when the Soviets crushed the Hungarian Revolution. After receiving Canadian visas in Vienna, they traveled by train to Liverpool, where they boarded an ocean liner headed for Halifax (fig. 1). In Canada they could start a new life free from government repression and terror. They had fled along with a huge exodus of other Hungarians also eager to leave before the Hungarian borders were completely locked down. By 1957, about 200,000 Hungarians had escaped, among which 37,000 immigrated to Canada as political refugees.1
The official Canadian response to the humanitarian emergency was slow at first, and there was even a decision in the early days of the refugee intake to admit into Canada only those who could pay for their own transportation. Public pressure from Canadians to respond to the crisis with generosity gathered impetus and had its intended effect on immigration officials. By the end of November, Canadian Minister for Citizenship and Immigration J. W. Pickersgill was persuaded to ease restrictions. He traveled to Vienna to announce the cutting of bureaucratic red tape and to offer free transportation to the refugees. Even so, old prejudices resurfaced when the director of immigration issued a caution that “those of the Hebrew race . . . in possession of a considerable amount of funds” might attempt to take advantage of the Canadian resettlement program. In spite of the initially conservative official response, the bureaucratic wheels gained momentum, and by mid-December about one hundred Hungarian refugees were arriving in Toronto every day.2
The Zends, who had been living at subsistence level in Budapest and in fleeing lost whatever meagre possessions they owned, benefited from the new, more lenient and generous refugee policies. On December 11 in Liverpool, along with 106 other Hungarian refugees and hundreds of regular passengers,3 they boarded the newly-built luxury liner Carinthia of the legendary Cunard Lines, courtesy of the Canadian government (fig. 2). Their journey to Halifax took twice the normal time due to stormy weather and rough seas, causing Ibi to suffer from seasickness. But the amenities of the Carinthia must have helped somewhat to ease the discomforts of the ship’s heave and sway (fig. 3).
The Zends also befriended some of their fellow Hungarian passengers seeking asylum in Canada and the United States, documented by some poignant photographs on the ship by Zend (fig. 4).
Finally they arrived in Halifax on December 22. On their landing cards (fig. 5), Zend indicates his profession as reporter-journalist, and Ibi as librarian. Their religion is noted as Presbyterian. Considering the Nazi terror that Hungarians had experienced, it’s not difficult to understand the concealing of Ibi’s Jewish background, also keeping in mind that antisemitism was not limited to its long history in Europe but was also present and indeed institutionalized in Canada during the 1950s, as we have seen from the prejudice of the Canadian director of immigration. In addition, Jewish quotas and stricter admission standards were in place for universities such as McGill and the University of Toronto.
In Halifax, they boarded a train for Toronto. From the photographs Zend took from the train, his fascination with the vast stretches of snow, punctuated by a cluster of houses every few hours, is apparent (fig. 6). He and Ibi joked wryly that the landscape might well be Siberian — except of course for the occasional church steeple rising above a village.4 It was not an idle observation but one with ominous overtones, since after 1945 the Soviets had transported up to half a million Hungarians — among them poet György Faludy and writer György Gábori, survivors of the Gulag — to forced labour camps. Many of those camps were in Siberia, where a high percentage of inmates perished.5
The Toronto population mobilized to provide housing and jobs for the new refugees to help them get started. From January to March 1957, a couple in the Toronto suburb of Etobicoke gave the Zends a place to live in exchange for Ibi’s labour as a live-in domestic (fig. 7). Meanwhile, Robert put his experience in the Hungarian film industry to use when he found work at Chatwynd Studios editing film and doing odd jobs while he learned English. Soon thereafter, Ibi was able to find a job in her field as a librarian at the Toronto Public Library. Robert and Ibi were pleased to find that even on their low income during the first few years in Canada, they were able to afford things that were out of their reach in Hungary because either supplies were short or they couldn’t afford them. Aniko, who was born premature and who was sickly and undernourished the first eight months of her life , received the special nutrition she needed to flourish.6
And for the first time in his life, Robert was able to afford a typewriter. In Hungary, it would have cost three months’ wages, but in Toronto he only needed to put a dollar down and pay affordable installments.7 He couldn’t know it then, but years later the typewriter was to become the instrument of an important body of his work in the categories of concrete poetry and typewriter art.
Zend describes the move to Canada as a “rebirth” and the new country like “a different planet” (fig. 8).8 And in important ways, life for the Zends had indeed improved. However, although remaining in Hungary would have placed Robert at great risk from the harsh reprisals of the Communist government, uprooting himself and his wife and baby from their native Hungary came with its own set of dilemmas and emotional trauma. He relates that his first five years in Toronto were “wretched,” and that for the next twenty he “felt like a man without a home” and a “misfit.”9
Zend’s unforeseen and precipitate departure from Hungary meant relinquishing his material possessions as well as his beloved Budapest and his friends and mentors. As he later quipped, “I lost everything except my accent.”10 As well, he had left behind all of his writing and personal mementos, which he had entrusted to a friend who stayed in Hungary. He later found out that his papers had disappeared or been destroyed when their apartment was ransacked in the chaos following the failed Uprising. He had been on the brink of publishing a one-hundred-page poetry book with a dissident publisher. The crushing loss haunted him for the rest of his life. 11
He revisited his family’s escape in “Chapter Fifty-Six,” a thinly-veiled autobiographical short story that posits an alternative history, a recounting of the rebellion of Maletrian citizens and its quashing by Romarmian forces. The protagonist tries unsuccessfully to escape with his family, but they are stopped at the border and are compelled to return to their home. He discovers the cause of the robotically compliant behavior of the citizenry following the brutal invasion: the Romarmian military had installed a “dream broadcasting centre” in the Ministry of Cultural Affairs to brainwash the people. Unlike actual history, the outcome is positive as he blows up the Ministry and the people are able to think freely again.12
More often, however, the sorrow of exile from his homeland echoes throughout his writings during these early years in Canada. Loneliness and alienation are common themes, as he tells of feeling like a person with no country, acutely aware of his “solitude among a thousand people”:
This is the real solitude bearing the whole world within
Consuming colours and sounds and growing big with them and
choking with them
Strangers have locked all the doors around me
Ghosts are stalking the desolate corridors
the walls are tense and about to explode13
In addition to writing of feelings of alienation, Zend, profoundly affected by the sudden and unexpected immigration, wrote “about the change, the culture shock, the homesickness, about the schizoid emotions of an exile between two worlds.”14Much later, during a trip to Budapest in the 1980s, he drew a sketch, “Split Zend,” showing his divided self — perhaps in reaction to experiencing once more the shift within himself that started in 1956 (fig. 9). He succinctly expresses the ambivalence of being mentally split between Budapest and Toronto in his poem “In Transit”:
Budapest is my homeland
Toronto is my home
In Toronto I am nostalgic for Budapest
In Budapest I am nostalgic for Toronto
Everywhere else I am nostalgic for my nostalgia15
As late as 1981, in a prose poem entitled “Fused Personality,” he writes that “[t]he deepest regions of my soul don’t seem to accept that I split myself and my life in two, in 1956.” He recounts a dream of living in a city at once Toronto and Budapest, sitting in a café having a stimulating conversation with Canadians Margaret Atwood, Glenn Gould, and Northrop Frye, as well as Hungarians Frigyes Karinthy, Béla Bartók, and Zoltán Kodály. He then leaves to find a table to write alone:
I write a poem for the excellent literary magazine called Search for Identity. I write down the title in Hungarian, but I realize that my English readership won’t understand it, so I cross it out and write it down again in English, but now I think about my oldest childhood friends who won’t be able to read it. My right hand holding the pen freezes in mid-air while I ponder the problem . . .16
At his idealized café table in a blended city, Zend assembles a dream coterie of Hungarian and Canadian cultural icons, who reach across anachronisms and language barriers to engage in brilliant conversation. But paralysis sets in when he must choose to write in one language or the other. The symbolism seems quite clear, yet it poignantly brings home the depth of the impression made by the culture shock of 1956 and the ongoing dilemma of identity, not only for Zend but for many thousands of refugees.
The title of the magazine, Search for Identity, is perhaps also a reference to the Canadian quest for cultural identity and cohesiveness. In Zend’s humorous piece entitled “An Interview with a Newborn Baby,” an interpreter translates the babytalk response to the question, “How do you like Canada?”:
Canada is a country that is engaged in an unrelinquished search for its “Identity,” and — due to this fact — it is quite impossible to determine whether one likes it or not. How can one like or dislike a territorial unit which doesn’t even know whether it exists or not and if not, why, and if yes, why not?
Zend riffs on the pop culture question pointing to the ongoing identity complex of a country perennially striving to distinguish its culture, especially from that of the United States. Zend, who explores in his writing and concrete poetry his own troubled and ambivalent feelings about cultural identity, settled in a country having an identity dilemma of its own. He felt the irony of that situation, which in “Interview” he resolves by pointing out (via the babbling baby) a basic fact of human universality:
Canada as such is not very different from any other country in the world. After all, they all have newborn babies who are starved and need instant breast-feeding.17
And in a short poem ending his speech on the evils of labeling people, he comments, tongue firmly in cheek:
In a country
is searching for
for I’m already
The play on “identity” and “identical” creates a paradox because of the ambiguity of the latter. Again, Zend’s solution is to embrace the commonality of basic human needs. As he wryly notes in a journal, pointing out the inherent contradiction in the quest for Canadian identity:
Why search for Canadian identity? We found it. Anybody who searches for Canadian identity is a Canadian. Consequently: He who has found his Canadian identity is not a true Canadian.19
Some of Zend’s concrete poetry such as “BUDAPESTORONTO” (fig. 10) graphically epitomizes his complex and conflicted feelings about the two cities: Budapest, cosmopolitan and cultured yet also a place where intellectuals were censored and oppressed, and sometimes in danger for their lives; versus relatively “prosaic” Toronto, as Zend puts it in “Return Tickets” — “huge, clean, and functional.”20
He also faced an uncertain future as a writer in a country whose language he had not previously studied. Arriving in Canada with his wife and baby, he quips that the first English word he learned was “diaper.”21 Magyar does not have Indo-European roots; neither does it share with English the etymological origins and grammatical structures (he describes Magyar as “extremely condensed” compared to English)22 that make it relatively easy to gain fluency within the closely-related Romance languages, for example.
In a short fantastical prose piece entitled “The World’s Greatest Poet,” Zend writes of Granduloyf, a poet who moves from Uangia to Obobistan and has difficulty learning the new language, which underscores for him not only grammatical but also cultural differences. His inability to reconcile the cultural with the linguistic occasions the poem:
While his people had no words for human character, but only for changing moods, the Obobs could not recognize changes in individuals. They thought of themselves as impenetrable iron bricks. . . . Like migrating birds, guided by ancient instinct, circling aimlessly over the ocean waves searching for Atlantis, the sunken destination of their migration, his pen circled aimlessly over the white paper and could not descend.23
Here Zend uses an image of paralysis similar to that in the dreamed café poem. The pen, like a migrating bird searching for a lost civilization, is unable to land words on paper. The poet as well as his language are exiled. Zend creates an artificial alphabet in a concrete poem to represent his perception of the differences between the two languages (fig. 11).
The poet’s initial awkwardness with the new language appears in the angularity of its alphabet as opposed to the graceful curves of his mastered native tongue. Zend’s own language barriers on arriving in Canada show through the veneer of fiction as he expresses the poet’s frustration of not being able to “ask for a packet of cigarettes without making himself look ridiculous.”
In addition to the challenges of learning a new language, Zend felt himself to be linguistically and psychologically “in limbo because I wasn’t a Canadian citizen yet, but I was no longer a Hungarian either.” He felt torn between writing and publishing in English or in his native language. He couldn’t yet write in English for Canadian publications, but neither could he write for Hungarian journals or presses because, “having illegally left the country, [he] was considered an enemy.”24
And his decision of whether to publish in Canada or Hungary was fraught with catch-22’s. At that time, there were no Hungarian ethnic literary publications in Canada. So for about a year in 1961, he published his own Hungarian literary monthly, The Toronto Mirror (fig. 12). However, his advertisers, “unable to think but in labels,” wanted to know whether his publication was for “leftists or rightists, for Catholics or Protestants, for Jews or Gendarmes, for junior or senior citizens.”25 Zend had felt himself to be a “misfit” in Hungary, and that had not changed in Canada. Canadian publishers also were in a quandary about how to categorize him, wanting to know whether he was famous in Hungary.
In the 1960s, Hungarian exiles were allowed to return to Hungary as tourists (once the government, needing “hard currency . . . changed our labels from ‘Counter-Revolutionary Hooligans’ to ‘Our Beloved Fellow-Country-Men Living Abroad’”). Zend seized the opportunity to fly to Budapest and meet with Hungarian publishers, only to be asked whether he was famous in Canada. Once again, Zend was faced with a lack of sympathy due to nationalistic labels. They asked, “If you are a Hungarian poet, why do you live in Canada? If you are a Canadian poet, why do you want to publish in Hungary?” One Hungarian publisher suggested labeling him as a Canadian poet whose poems had been translated into Hungarian, telling him that he had “never published the original Hungarian poetry of Hungarian poets living in exile, in Hungarian, in Hungary! We just cannot start a new trend!” Zend’s assertion “that being a poet does not depend on the geographical location of the poet’s body, or on the political system under which the publisher functions, but on the linguistic and literary value of the poems” did not convince any Hungarian publisher.26
Realizing the need to publish in English in order to establish himself as a writer in Canada, he decided to learn the language to the point that he could write poetry independently in it. His linguistic talents and his mastery of Italian and study of Latin and German no doubt helped him as he gained fluency in the new language. By 1964 he was writing poems in both Hungarian and English. He also worked closely with John Robert Colombo, a literary scholar and poet in Toronto, on translating the poems originally written in Hungarian and published in his first two poetry collections: From Zero to One (1973) and Beyond Labels (1982).
Determined to write his poems effectively in English, Zend took pains to transfer his musical feeling for his native language into his adopted one. Revisions of poems written in English during the 1960s shows him trying multiple versions, taking care that the language be musical and that the rhythm mesh with the content. In “No,” for example, he writes of honing the rhythm to achieve a percussive beat to reflect the knocking on a door of an unborn being, and towards the end of the poem creating a rhythm that “widens and calms down to annihilate” as the being becomes “lost / in the snowy fields of non-existence.”27 It’s not surprising that Glenn Gould calls Zend “unquestionably Canada’s most musical poet,” high praise from one of Canada’s greatest musicians.28
Finding employment in Toronto proved to be a huge setback for Zend. He worked at a series of menial jobs in order to support his family. In From Zero to One, he expresses frustration at having to restart his career with such labour “at the dreadful place where the supervisors / imagine themselves prison guards,”
where we have to put on cards
our comings and goings
and every moment of lateness or early leaving
has to be accounted for
but if during the eight hours we redeem the world
or just twiddle our thumbs
no one cares —29
In addition to such frustrations, Zend relates that his experience with labels did not end upon escaping Communist Hungary and immigrating to Canada: “the free world didn’t deliver me from evil labels.”30 In a story published in the Toronto Star in 1992, Ibi relates an encounter with antisemitism soon after the move to Canada, when they were living with the couple in Etobicoke:
Until one night the couple noticed the Auschwitz identification mark on [Ibi’s] arm. “You mean you are Jews!” said the husband. Next day they were sent packing.31
Also, Zend relates being subject to denigration due to his country of origin: a supervisor at work called him a “bloody Hungarian.” With typical good humour, Zend responded by telling him that he should call him a “bloody Canadian” since he had just become a citizen.32
On the positive side, life in Toronto was relatively peaceful and stable, and provided a safe haven for Zend to continue his development as a writer (fig. 13). In a 1959 letter to Pierre Berton, he professes that with some reservations, he “likes Canada very much. Not because I am living here and this has become my second homeland,” but because it represents freedom, which is his “first homeland” for which he was “homesick . . . already in Hungary.” As much as he loved the land and language of his birth, it was also a country scarred by history and suffering under an oppressive regime intolerant of free expression. In a letter to the editor soon after his arrival, he writes that in the Soviet Union and its satellite countries,
It’s not allowed to notice the low standard of living. It’s dangerous to joke about party-leaders. It’s inevitable to adore the altars of their living Gods or applaud rhythmically at meetings and to smile happily while applauding. Also for listening to the radio of free countries you’ll get punished. What’s more: it’s quite risky to follow faithfully the party-line – if it is changed, you’ll be punished. That is: deported, jailed, exiled or tortured to death. No one is allowed to think of the enemy’s victory. To think means to hope. To hope means to wish. To wish means that you are a spy.
And although he realized that Canada was not without its historical baggage of discrimination and that he would face difficulties adjusting to profound changes in his life, he also understood that “life is not much without freedom,” that
freedom is everybody’s homeland — only secondarily the house, the city and the country where we were born.”33
To ease his feelings of isolation during his early years in Toronto, he held weekly house parties.34 And since he was a chess aficionado, he created a circle of friends when he joined a chess club. An anecdote related by Toronto chess champion Lawrence Day, in which Zend is jailed for unpaid parking tickets, shows his sense of humour in putting relatively minor inconveniences into perspective, considering his experience with totalitarian regimes in Hungary. Zend and others in the chess coterie had devised a system for serving the least possible amount of time in jail for parking tickets:
In those days serving three days in jail wiped out all parking tickets so the game was to get as many as possible and then turn yourself in at 11:30 Friday night and get out at 12:30 AM Saturday which added up to three days since Sunday was free.35
When officers caught on to this game and arrived at dawn to haul Zend away to jail to serve his sentence, he took it cheerfully. His friends asked whether he didn’t feel “paranoid with the cops after him.” He responded,
[I] survived Budapest under the Nazis and the Commies — then was tragedy, this was comedy.36
Employment conditions for Zend soon improved. He began working for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in 1958, advancing from shipper to film librarian, film editor, and ultimately radio producer of close to a hundred literary and and other cultural documentary programs for the series Ideas.37 Over the years, his work for the CBC gave him the invaluable opportunity to meet with many leading figures in world culture, including Northrop Frye, Glenn Gould, A. Y. Jackson, Norman McLaren, Marshall McLuhan, Harold Town, Isaac Asimov, Robert Easton, Richard P. Feynman, Andrei Voznesensky, Jorge Luis Borges, and the Dalai Lama, some of whom became long-term friends.38
Two of these friendships proved especially conducive to creative collaboration. In 1971, Zend contributed to a CBC Ideas program featuring Marceau on the concept of the mask. Zend’s creative exchange with Marceau began with his designing a metal chess set to be presented by the CBC to the mime artist, and culminated in a correspondence of art and poetry between the two. And in 1974, Zend spend two weeks with Borges in Buenos Aires, providing himself with an important mentor for his fiction and leading to a collaboration on a postmodern narrative entitled “The Key,” on the subject of the search for the key to a labyrinth, written as a series of footnotes. Both collaborations will be explored in future installments.
In 1967, Zend decided to continue his studies in Italian literature by pursuing a Master of Arts degree at the University of Toronto. First, however, he needed to give evidence that he had earned a bachelor’s degree in Hungary. Returning for the first time to Hungary since 1956, he was able to retrieve his university diploma. While he was studying toward his degree, he continued working at the CBC in Original Film Editing, again making use of the skills he had learned in Hungary. After passing his oral examinations In Medieval Italian Literature, Italian Lyric Poetry from Petrarch to Marino, nineteenth-century Italian Poetry, and Luigi Pirandello, he graduated in spring 1969 (fig. 14).39
That summer, he was accepted into a Ph.D. program within the Department of Italian and Hispanic Studies.40. His program of study was international trends in twentieth-century Italian poetry with special emphasis on Palazzeschi, Ungaretti, Montale, Quasimodo, and Pasolini.41 A few months into his program, he decided to write his dissertation on the poetry of Piero Bigongiari.42 One of his minor areas of study was the Italian language, and the other was fine art, which he later changed to Marxist philosophy.43 His intensive study of Italian literature was an important influence on his work, and will be documented in an upcoming installment on Zend’s Italian affinities. During his graduate studies, he continued to write and publish his own poetry as well as translations of Italian poets.
In fact, the 1970s was a decade of creative flourishing for Zend, as he hit his stride with several important publications, including poems and stories in a number of anthologies and magazines. In 1970, his poems were included in New Poems of the Seventies: An Anthology of Canadian Poetry edited by Douglas Lochhead and Raymond Souster. And in 1971, twenty-one pages of his poetry appeared in Volvox: Poetry from the Unofficial Languages of Canada . . . in English Translation. In addition, Exile Magazine published 136 pages of several longer works, including “A Bouquet to Bip” (his collaborative correspondence with Marceau), “The Key” (his collaboration with Borges), “Type Scapes: A Mystery Story” (his creative essay illustrating the evolution of his typewriter art), and excerpts from Oāb (his two-volume multi-genre work published in 1983 and 1985).
Seventeen years after his first poetry collection was to have been published in Hungary but instead tragically perished in the aftermath of the Soviet invasion of 1956, Zend’s first collection of poems in English, From Zero to One, was published in 1973 by The Sono Nis Press in British Columbia (fig. 15). These poems were written between 1960 and 1969, and as he was still making the transition to writing poetry in English during that time, they were written in Hungarian and translated into English in collaboration with Colombo. In his first major statement as a poet we can already sense his cosmopolitan openness evidenced by the international influences in the poems and by his dedications to writers and artists from several countries (I’ll document these influences in greater detail starting with the next installment). Zend explores most of the major themes that would preoccupy him for the rest of his life: exile, science-fiction and fantasy, the metapoetic idea of the writer as creator, romantic love, and the cycle of birth and death. Evident throughout is his philosophical bent and his sense of irony and playfulness.
By 1972, Zend had finished his coursework for the Ph.D. but stopped short of completing his dissertation. His personal life was in a period of transition around this time with the dissolultion of his marriage with Ibi and his starting a new family with Janine Devoize, who had immigrated from France to Canada in 1964 and whom he married in 1970 (fig. 16). For her part, after the divorce, Ibi married writer George Gabori, a fellow Hungarian survivor of a Nazi concentration camp, whom Zend had introduced to her. Gabori was also a survivor of Soviet labour camps and wrote a remarkable autobiographical account of his experiences, When Evils Were Most Free (1981). A friend relates that on the occasion of their marriage, Zend thought it “wonderful that his and Ibi’s daughter, Aniko, now had two fathers.”44
In 1972, a daughter, Natalie, was born to Robert and Janine (fig. 17). Natalie remembers her father as devoted, and one of her happiest memories is of the bedtime stories he would tell her from the time she was two years old. She recalls being delighted with tales that he gradually unfurled in series that lasted months, including a fantasy novel about Atlantis, Bible stories, world history, and stories from his childhood.45
Feeling the pressure of working for the CBC while at the same time preparing his dissertation, Zend decided not to continue in the PhD program. He also took early retirement from the CBC in order to work as an independent radio producer for the CBC Ideas program. Among the programs to which he contributed are Perception and Prejudice in Science, The Magic World of Borges, The Five Faces of Norman McLaren, Inscape and Landscape (on ecology), The Lost Continent of Atlantis, The Mask, Humour, Man and Cosmos, Ideas on Evil, and Japan. He continued working for the CBC until 1977,46 thereafter contributing to programs as a freelancer. Because of the scores of cultural documentaries that he researched, wrote, directed, and produced, his contributions to intellectual life in Canada are immeasurable.
Zend, having long ago shed the introversion of childhood, was very much a social animal, and in the home he shared with Janine in the Hillcrest neighbourhood of Toronto, the couple entertained many poets, artists, scientists, chess champions, and CBC colleagues. They also collected works by artists whom Zend had befriended socially or through his position at the CBC.
In 1973, the same year that his first book came out, he suffered a heart attack. It was only the first episode in a prolonged period of ill health involving heart troubles and strokes, and culminating in his early death in 1985. He had been making arrangements to embark on a major CBC project on the myth of Atlantis. However, his plans were put on hold while he recovered. When he was well enough, the project offered him over the next few months occasion to travel to England, Morocco, Spain, the United States and France, where he taped forty-eight hours of interviews with scholars of world mythology such as Robert Graves and Immanuel Velikovsky.
Although the research and writing was a source of excitement and satisfaction to him, it was ultimately also the source of tremendous stress due to the CBC’s decision to air only one week of a planned three-week program. He believes that the disappointment of this decision, along with what he felt to be “deterioriating working conditions,” contributed to his decline in health.47 He also knew that his long-term smoking habit was not helping matters but was unable or unwilling to quit. On October 31, he had a stroke and was hospitalized for three weeks. Shortly thereafter, he had another traumatic cardiac event, which was diagnosed as inflammation between the heart and the heart sac.48 And in 1976, he suffered his second heart attack. During his recovery, the program on Atlantis aired from January 3 to 7, 1977; he was gratified to receive hundreds of enthusiastic responses from listeners.49 His decision to stop freelancing as a radio producer for the CBC that year allowed him to devote himself more fully to his writing and art as well as to avoid the stressful conditions that had exacerbated his health issues.
In spite of continuing episodes of serious illness, including two additional strokes and chronic arthritis, the period from 1978 until his death in 1985 was one of extraordinary productivity in his collaborative work as well as in his poetry, fiction, essays, and visual art. One of the most remarkable stretches of intensely concentrated inspiration occurred in 1978, when, during a span of two and a half months, he developed a unique process for making typewriter art, from relatively straightforward beginnings to a complex and sophisticated art form (fig. 18).
He created these self-described “typescapes” by superimposing characters on a typewriter to form shapes and textures. The meticulous execution, often involving overalpping forms and figures, achieves an effect of delicate intricacy. At the areas of intersection of these shapes, the effect is far from being muddied or heavy. Instead, they retain the delicacy that is characteristic of the whole.
In the beginning, the process was not easy:
I had to tame the typewriter . . . patiently, very patiently . . . one careless movement, and I had to start all over again. Several times, the typewriter forced me to alter my original plans and finish the picture as I was able. It wasn’t the same as typing a letter or a poem. I had to re-learn typing.50
The beauty of these concrete poems is that out of a slow and painstaking process of planning and creation using paper inserted into a clunky manual machine emerge visions of airy lightness and subtle movement.
Although Zend didn’t invent typewriter art, he did seem to have created it without knowledge of forebears in that genre, in the days before computer graphics software. He relates the evolution of the typescapes in a fifty-page account, the aforementioned “Type Scape: A Mystery Story” in Exile Magazine. This brief “period of fever, or inspiration, or obsession” produced a variety of interconnected works, including an amazing volume of typewriter art as well as work in other genres, all of which he describes as interrelated associations stirring in his subconscious mind:
I typed 27 Type Scapes, drew 58 plans for new Type Scapes, new concrete poems, 10 normal (?) poems, 2 short stories, and drew about 60 new self-illustrating word-drawings. All of them were connected, parts of the chain reaction.51
He describes his obsession with his newly-discovered art form: every morning,
after getting up, instead of taking a shower, I staggered to my typewriter promising myself that I would just finish this one, and then . . . there was no way. One thing led to another, one type scape led to a cartoon, one word led to a new title for which a drawing was needed, and so on. I was walking through wife, child, people, friends, business affairs, as a ghost walks through walls: I wasn’t really there or they didn’t really touch me, there was only one reality: the typewriter—there was only one happiness: to go home and play on it.52
Toward the end of this brief, intense time, he complains to a friend,
“You don’t know what a curse it is for me to live with my brain. It doesn’t leave me alone, it never lets me rest. I would like to sleep like others, work from 9-5 like others, be a quiet man, play with my daughter, go to movies, read books, but I can’t. I am constantly whipped by the scourge of this non-stop brain. I am the prisoner of Zend! How could I escape?”53
Eventually, the obsession subsided, and the typewriter wasn’t “a musical instrument any longer: it was a boring grey piece of metal mainly for correspondence. . . . I was fed up with paper and scotch tape, with scissors and shapes, with typing and patterns. I was fed up with my aching back and my strained eyes.” But during this brief period he had mastered his techniques and produced an astonishing number and variety of typescapes that are so beautifully executed as to leave the viewer surprised that such work was possible before the digital age. Zend collected and published some of the most polished of these works in Arbormundi (Tree of the World) (1982), a portfolio of sixteen typescapes (fig. 19).
Another satisfying and fruitful project grew out of Zend’s friendship with two other Toronto poets during the early 1980s. He began collaborating with poets Robert Priest and Robert Sward, forming a group they eponymously dubbed The Three Roberts. Together they gave poetry readings (in Toronto at the fortuitously-named Major Robert’s Restaurant) and in 1984 published three thematically-inspired poetry chapbooks based on their readings: Premiere Performance, On Love, and On Childhood (fig. 20).
In addition to his readings and publications with Priest and Sward, Zend collaborated with artists such as Jerónimo, a Spanish-Canadian with whom he published a collection of silkscreens and poems entitled My friend, Jerónimo (fig. 21).
He also paid tribute to artists in ekphrastic poems, notably in response to oil paintings and ink drawings of Hungarian-Canadian artist Julius Marosan54 as well as to paintings by the Belgian surrealist René Magritte. And he generously assisted fellow poets such as Peter Singer (Ariel and Caliban, 1980) and Mary Melfi (A Queen Is Holding a Mummified Cat, 1982) by editing and introducing their work.
In 1981, he attended the International Writer’s Congress, which that year was centered around the topic of “The Writer and Human Rights” in aid of Amnesty International. At a panel discussion on exile, he gave a talk entitled “Labels,” a moving and eloquent statement about the potentially catastrophic consequences of labelling people.55 He included the text of his speech in full as a preface to his second collection of poetry, Beyond Labels.
Zend was also active on the reading circuit in Canada. Among other events, in 1981 and 1982 he was a resident poet at the Great Canadian Poetry Festival in Collingwood, Ontario, a scenic town on Georgian Bay, and in 1983, he gave a reading tour including stops in Saskatoon, Regina, and Edmonton.56
The years 1982 to 1985 were especially fruitful for publications: during that span three important collections appeared: Beyond Labels (Hounslow Press) and Arbormundi (blewointment press) in 1982, and the two volumes of Oāb (Exile Editions) in 1983 and 1985.
Zend wrote the poems in Beyond Labels (fig. 22) over a twenty-year span between 1962 and 1982; most were originally written in Hungarian and translated into English with the assistance of Colombo. They extend the theme of displacement, and in addition to including poems of a personal nature, he continues philosophical and cosmic concerns with poems about the universe, time, and dreams — as in one about an hourglass with infinite top and bottom. He also branches out formally with some early experiments in concrete poetry that he called “ditto” and “drop” poems. In dedications and influences, as well as the Magritte-inspired cover by John Lloyd, Beyond Labels continues the cosmopolitan flavour of his first collection.
Zend’s magnum opus is generally recognized to be the two-volume Oāb, published in 1983 and 1985 (fig. 23). Oāb is a multi-genre fantasy about authorship and creation, involving autobiography, metafiction, concrete poetry, drawings, and doodlings. “Ze̊nd,” a character in Zend’s own creation myth, writes a being named Oāb into existence and gives his progeny the “Alphoābet” to play with. And Oāb proceeds to do just that, in comic-book frames that show his growing knowledge and abilities. Oāb in turn creates a being named Ïrdu. Together they romp across the pages like children on a playground, creating a compendium of games and puzzles using the letters in their names to create shapes and explore their universe. The effect of this alphabetic creation is encyclopedic.
Although the two volumes were published in the mid-80s, Zend relates that he wrote the bulk of it during a rush of inspiration during two weeks in May 1970. The long saga of his attempts to have it published is partly a story of the bewilderment of publishers who had never seen a manuscript like it and who were at a loss as to how to categorize it. One publisher wanted to “transform Oāb into an electronic sound-play,” which Zend turned down. Another told him that he would publish it if the 180 pages were “reduced to 48” and the “doodles, drawings, concrete poems [were] left out.” And another deemed “the text superfluous and want[ed] to keep only the doodles drawings and concrete poems.”
In 1972, Barry Callaghan published about thirty pages of the manuscript in Exile Magazine. Northrop Frye responded that “it is a piece of experimental writing to which I know nothing comparable in Canada, and its impact, if published, would be quite considerable.” Canadian experimental filmmaker Norman McLaren also saw it and wrote to Zend about “the affinity between Zend’s poem and his films.” Avant-garde poet Richard Kostelanetz was “‘floored’ by Zend’s ‘extended visual poem’ and stated that ‘nothing comparable to it was ever published in U.S. literary quarterlies.’” It was also praised by Isaac Asimov, John Updike, and Jorge Luis Borges. The latter told him, “Actually, I should have written Oāb.” Such was the buzz surrounding the manuscript that Robert Fulford for the Toronto Star called it “Canada’s Perhaps Best Unpublished Book.”
In 1979 Callaghan founded Exile Editions and told Zend that he wanted to publish the entire manuscript. After many delays and revisions, the two volumes were finally published in 1983 and 1985.57
After years of declining health, Zend succumbed to a heart condition on June 27, 1985, just two weeks before the publication of the second volume of Oāb. A few weeks later, he was to have read at the Toronto Harbourfront with fellow immigrant writers Josef Skvorecky and Robert Gurik. The event became a memorial reading for Zend, hosted by Northrup Frye. Rampike Magazine, which had published some of Zend’s works during the early 1980s, paid tribute to Zend in their next issue with excerpts and photographs from the memorial reading, which was also a posthumous launch of Oāb, and a poem that Zend had submitted shortly before his death.
Thanks to the efforts of Zend’s widow, Janine, several of his books were published posthumously: two in English (Daymares and Nicolette) and three in Hungarian.58
Daymares (1991), a collection of mostly short stories but also a few poems and concrete poems, selected by Janine, reveals Zend’s most extended and sophisticated expression of the fantastical, especially dream-worlds (fig. 24). Shape-shifting characters, dreams within dreams, anachronisms, and paradoxes keep the reader adrift in a fantastical realm whose often dark irrationality probes mysteries of humanity: uncharted cognitive depths, the burdens of history, and the continuities between self and other. These stories are akin to the mind-bending labyrinths and dreamscapes of Jorge Luis Borges.
Nicolette: A Novel Novel (1993) is an erotic avant-garde novel that Zend wrote in Hungarian in 1976 and translated into English (fig. 25). The temporally zigzagging narrative tells of a Toronto poet’s passionate and obsessive love affair with Nicolette, a woman half his age and the wife of a close friend, during visits to Paris and Florence. Not only is the chronology fractured, like a shifting, multi-layered dream, but also the chapters exploit a spectrum of forms and genres, playfully manifesting pieces of the story as haiku, Morse code, concrete poetry, a footnote, a play, epistolary narrative, Greek mythology, lyric poetry, censored text, and so forth. The novel also metafictively relates its own composition and birth: Nicolette from Nicolette.
A Wider Homeland
A large part of Zend’s identity as a human being and as a writer arises from the dual geographical and political frames of reference that became a reality for him in 1956. His writing after his immigration to Canada reveals a process of attempting to understand the psychological rift and ambivalent emotions of being a writer in exile.
Life in Hungary had not been easy. The losses from the Nazi era were devastating, and living under the Stalinist regime was stifling and potentially dangerous. Poverty was a reality, and travel was severely restricted. On the other hand, Hungary represented continuity of language, culture, and the community of friends and relatives. For Zend, life in Canada reflected a mirror image of his ambivalence toward Hungary. Free from the climate of intellectual oppression and duplicity, and now able to travel freely (though not yet to his native Hungary), new possibilities opened up for expression and experience. But that newly-claimed freedom was tempered by intense feelings of nostalgia. In that nether-world of exile, of not being able to completely embrace one world or the other, difference was everywhere, and identity was nowhere.
The dynamic tension in Zend’s work often consists in the split between, on the one hand, his existence in the no-man’s land that characterizes exile and that leaves its mark of dividedness on the psyche, and on the other, his equally strong consciousness of a larger, universal humanity in which identity is defined not so much by national borders but instead by the erasing of boundaries separating self from other, tribe from tribe. Zend’s literary writing provides a space where historical and personal trauma, rather than being resolved or healed, opens a fertile arena for the drama of division and unity, of the impossibility of return and the possibility of embracing of a wider homeland.
Part 5. Hungarian Literary Roots:
The Budapest Joke and Other Influences
If we look at Zend’s oeuvre only in a Canadian context, we miss out on the rich cultural heritage in Hungary that shaped him as a writer. For although his writing came to maturity in Canada, the roots of his literary sensibility and philosophical outlook can be traced to Hungary.
I’d like to discuss two of Zend’s literary characteristics that developed from models in Hungary. First, his themes tend to be cosmic and allegorical rather than realistic. His stories in Daymares and many of his poems and artworks draw on world mytholology and explore fantastical realms of infinity, dreams, the place of humans in the larger universe, and the cycle of creation and destruction.
Secondly, at the heart of many of his works are humour and satire: a bio for a 1970 anthology states that
in one of his previous lives — as he faintly recalls — he was a jester.1
These traits of Zend’s writing and art were shaped by Hungarian forebears such as nineteenth-century poet Imre Madách and early twentieth-century writer Frigyes Karinthy.
Imre Madách (1823—1864):
Lucifer’s Time Machine
Our universe is a tree
on the leaf of existence
and then there is the forest . . .
——Robert Zend, “Zoom-Out”2
Imre Madách is the Milton of Hungary. Just as the English-speaking literary world is well acquainted with Paradise Lost, almost every Hungarian is familiar with Madách’s The Tragedy of Man (1861), a long dramatic poem that takes as its starting point the story of creation and the Garden of Eden in Genesis (fig. 2).
But the resemblance of The Tragedy of Man to Milton’s poem ends at the point that Lucifer, cast out from God’s realm, successfully tempts Adam and Eve to eat the forbidden fruit of knowledge. Post-Fall, the narrative reads like Paradise Lost meets H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine meets the Faustian legend.
The rest of the plot goes something like this. Lucifer brings Adam on a time-travel flight into humanity’s future. In the course of their increasingly pessimistic journey through destiny, Adam and Eve play various characters and explore the nature of free will, good and evil, and individuality versus collectivism. In ancient Egypt, Adam is a pharaoh and Eve is the wife of a slave; in ancient Greece, Adam is a tyrant and Eve his wife; during the Enlightenment Adam becomes Johannes Kepler; during the French Revolution, Adam plays Georges Danton to Lucifer’s executioner.
Near the end of the time-travel, Lucifer transports Adam to the Phalanstery, a futuristic dystopia of soulless conformity and machines. Madách’s utilitarian nightmare anticipates such dystopias as Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. The inhabitants of the Phalanstery regulate life mathematically, rendering families (and familial affection) obsolete. Childhood stories have been replaced with “higher equations / and geometry.”3 Any activity or object without functional value has been banished. I’d like to give some samples from this dystopic scene in order to give a taste of this Hungarian canonical work that is too little known in the rest of the world, as well as to show its influence on Zend.
After Lucifer’s time travel takes him and Adam to the Phalanstery founded on cold science, Lucifer changes their appearance so that they can mingle inconspicuously among the residents, who might otherwise become suspicious and “lock [them] in a test-tube.”4 He then fabricates a story to a passing scientist that he and Adam are “student-scientists / from a thousand phalansteries away,” drawn by his renown to study with him.5 In a scene that predates that of the Ancient House in Zamyatin’s We by sixty years, the scientist takes Lucifer and Adam on a tour of a museum showcasing the “extinct species of antiquity / . . . the original specimens, / well stuffed and preserved”6:
Here you see the very last rose that bloomed
on the surface of the earth. A useless flower.
Together with its hundred thousand siblings,
it took away space from the cereals;
it was a charming toy for grown-up children.
A peculiar phenomenon, indeed,
how people, long ago, enjoyed these toys.
Even the intellect brought forth such flowers:
the fantasies of poetry and faith.
While rocking in the arms of these delusions
and squandering his finest energies,
Man neglected the purpose of his life.
We are still keeping here as rarities
two such works. The first of these is a poem
whose author, living in a selfish age
when individuals wished recognition,
called himself Homer. In it, he describes
a world of fantasy, calling it Hades.
We disproved each line of it, long ago.7
Madách implies, of course, that in the dystopia of the Phalanstery, not only Homer’s epic but his own dramatic poem about a fantastic world would be censored.
The second work is Agricola by the Roman historian Tacitus, which the scientist dismisses as “the laughable, yet / sordid concepts of a barbarous age.”8
Of such sterile existence, in which material goods are created by machines and human life reproduces in test tubes, Adam observes that “there is no life, / no character which will survive its maker”, for how could a test tube baby
inherit human features,
detached from the environment, from pain,
raised to consciousness in this tiny flask?
. . .
So, science too has disappointed me:
where I expected to find happiness,
I found only a boring kindergarten.9
Among the inmates of this place are Roman senator Cassius, Plato, and Michelangelo. Each, called by a number, is reprimanded for his rebelliousness against the Phalastery’s scientific and utilitarian ideals. Michelangelo, known as “Number Seventy-Two,” is scolded because he left his workplace in a mess, to which he responds:
Yes, because I was always making chair-legs,
and even those in a most simple form.
I begged for permission to modify them,
to let me carve on them some ornaments:
it was refused. So then I asked permission
to make the chair-backs, still to no avail.
It almost drove me to insanity,
so I left my torment, I left the workshop.10
As punishment for “breaking the rules,” Michelangelo is ordered back to his room. Adam, objecting strenuously to the “sanity” of the Philanstery and embracing the “madness” of humanity, suggests that “every great / and noble thing on Earth was such a madness, / unrestrained by cool rationality.”11
Although the Phalanstery was loosely modeled after plans for utopian communities by French socialist Charles Fourier (1772—1837), contemporary readers might sense in Madách’s dystopia an eerily prescient indictment of life under Soviet rule. Thus it is not surprising that publication and performance of this classic of Hungarian literature and theatre were banned in 1950 by official censors, despite protests from Hungarian writers and other intellectuals. Zend was fortunate to experience it as a staged performance prior to the ban, and copies of the text, like many other censored works, were in circulation.12
Perhaps Zend had not only the Soviet dictatorship in mind but also Madách’s Phalanstery when he wrote his dystopic short story “Chapter Fifty-Six,” which I briefly discussed in the previous installment. In that story, the totalitarian Romarmian forces use a form of mind-control to brainwash the citizens of Maletria into believing that they are living in a utopia. In reality, they have become conformist automatons doing the bidding of the dictatorship while living in squalor, their children taught by bureaucrats “with no imagination whatsoever.”13
And Zend’s “The King of Rubik,” a dream-like tale with shifting layers of time and identity, may have also been roughly patterned after the similar premise of The Tragedy of Man. In this partly autobiographical story, Robert, who lived through the “raving, cataclysmic human mass-madness” that was World War II, is overwhelmed by Holocaust survivor guilt because his close friend, Peter, “starved to death in a Nazi concentration camp thirty-eight years earlier.” Like Madách’s Adam, Robert travels between past and future, and also changes identity. Within the shape-shifting nightmare, he discovers that he is Robert, father of Natalie; then Robert, friend of Peter thirty-eight years earlier; then Robert after Peter’s death, confronted by Peter’s mother, who resents that Robert survived and not her son. He later discovers that he has become the King of Rubik, in which the puzzle-cube determines destiny, but wonders whether he is actually “Haroun al Rashid, the ancient Persian Caliph who assum[ed] a different disguise every night,” or perhaps King Solomon or Oedipus. He is uncertain whether he is fifty-one, twenty, or seventeen, or whether he is in Budapest, Toronto, Tonto, Ronto, or Rubicropolis.14
Both narratives are suffused with a deep sense of melancholy and pessimism, and whereas in Madách’s poem it is Lucifer who directs the journey through time and identity, in Zend’s story it is the Rubik’s Cube that seems to be manipulating the lives of Robert and his friends. Like Adam, Robert feels less and less in control of his life, identity, and destiny, and is powerless to counteract the evil forces that have destroyed the lives of so many. Both Zend’s and Madách’s narratives use history and identity to grapple with the nature of good and evil forces.
The impact of The Tragedy of Man on Zend’s literary approach and themes becomes more evident when we consider Madách’s images of deep time and space, which offer a sense of the impermanence and ultimate insignificance of life, and an understanding of the earth as a tiny microcosm within the larger macrocosmic universe.
One such striking scene occurs when Lucifer takes Adam on a flight into outer space, offering him a bird’s-eye view of Creation. They soar high above the earth, watching as the planet dwindles to an insignificant point in the vastness of the universe. Adam, marveling at the sight, exclaims to Lucifer,
Just look back at our Earth:
at first the flowers vanished from our sight,
and then the forests with their trembling leaves;
the familiar landscape with all its cozy
corners turned into a featureless plain.
Even the mountains are reduced to pebbles;
the clouds, pregnant with thunder, harbingers of
divine wrath for the frightened sons of Earth,
are thinned into a miserable mist.
The infinity of the roaring oceans—
Where has it gone? It has become a great spot
upon the globe which mingles with the swirling
cluster of stars. This was once our whole world.15
Earth tries to lure Adam back home, but he ambitiously presses on to the outer reaches of space, only to feel himself perishing as he believes he has gone beyond the point of no return. Lucifer scornfully pushes Adam away from him and sarcastically rejoices:
This puppet-diety can now rotate
in space, as a new planet on which life
will develop, but now, perhaps, for me.16
Adam revives, only to feel keenly the insignificance of his earthly goals, battles, and struggles, in the face of the vastness of the universe.
Such scenes of time travel and of micro- and macrocosmic worlds fed Zend’s imagination, and images recur in his writing and art that echo Madách’s fantastical vision of zooming out to reveal the larger cosmos. In “Growth,” for example, a tiny dot expands until it becomes a huge sphere, which in turn becomes a mere snack for a giant:
at first I was a dot but I
walked and walked and walked
then I became a line but I
grew and grew and grew
then I became a curve but I
rose and rose and rose
then I became a spiral but I
circled and circled and circled
then I became a sphere but I
swelled and swelled and swelled
then a giant came upon me
and held me in his hand
what a lovely little dot he said
I do hope you understand17
In the zooming-out effect, a microcosm grows into a macrocosm, but is in reality just a microcosm for a larger predator.
“Madness,” a poem that explores a relationship that has failed to develop because one partner cannot shake the past, ends with a vision reminiscent of the outer space flight of Adam:
Rushing into the future,
time takes us with it in two tiny coffins.18
In another scene that evokes Adam’s space travel, a runaway elevator crashes through the building’s roof and
continues all the faster —
speeding through the dark sky on toward the moon —
on toward the moon and the planets and the suns —
beyond all the galaxies like a speeding
bullet . . . 19
And in “Before Ascending,” a poem that would have been at home in Daymares, a person at the brink of death looks back on visions of fruitless existence before everything dissolves:
Looking back he still sees
their little offices, where they scribble with important frowns,
their workshops, where they labour mightily on tiny things,
scar-faced gangsters, industriously rattling away at their
soldiers heaving hand grenades with religious fervor,
priests directing the traffic up and down with formidable faces,
heads of families slaving to get what they weren’t given,
nudists trying to take pleasure in what no longer gave pleasure,
film producers inventing things and then believing in them,
capitalists piling up their money while they live in misery,
Communists acting as midwives to the future while murdering
statesmen embracing the people in order to pick their pockets
. . .
and he remembers
that a second ago — it now seems a thousand years ago —
he himself was one among them —
. . .
the whole thing starts to drift apart, pull away,
the way colours on a palette run together20
Although Zend uses such images to different effect in different works, at their heart is an understanding of impermanence and relative insignificance in the larger scheme of the cosmos.
In addition to such correspondences, Lucifer’s parable on dust in The Tragedy of Man seems to have had a lasting impact on Zend. In ancient Egypt, Adam as a pleasure-seeking Pharoh asks Lucifer,
Let me cast a brave glance into the future,
several millennia from today,
what will become of my fame?
Lucifer responds with a time-lapse vision of the inevitable ravages of time, with echoes of Shelley’s “Ozymandias”:
Do you not feel the mild breeze which caresses
your face and sails away, leaving behind
a thin layer of dust where it passed by?
In one year, this dust will be a few streaks;
in a hundred, a few feet; one or two
millenia will cloak our pyramids,
bury your name under a mound of sand;
your pleasure-gardens will become a desert
where jackals howl and tribes of beggars stray.21
Lucifer telescopes time to reveal to Adam the layers of dust and sand that accumulate across deep time and bury the fame and supposedly permanent works of even the most powerful and wealthy. In his poem “Meeting,” Zend offers a similar vision of ephemerality:
He tried to live each day as it came
and it came and he lived
and he died and became
dust in interstellar space and in the streets
no more than dirty dust22
Zend’s collages and typescapes also reflect the influence of Madách’s dramatic poem based on Genesis, such as the collage entitled Eden (fig. 3), and the typescape with the punning title Sexerpentormentor (fig. 4).
In other visual works, Zend depicts iconic images of trees and snakes from world mythology, imbuing them with a broader symbolic meaning. In Vivarbor (Tree of Life), for example, the complexly overlapping shapes in the pentagonal structures create a stylized representation of the primordial and widespread symbol for the interconnectedness of life and the common source of vital force (figs. 5 and 6).
The text below the image reads, “The god-rooted tree of life, with its lightning-shaped pointing fingers transmits spirit into the brains of human faces each of which is part of the mirror within the sphere of existence.” The overlaid shapes and spaces suggest Gestalt principles of organization. The tree of life echoes the idea of the “sphere of existence” as well as the shape of a mirror on a stand. The human faces within the petal-like spaces look toward the central starburst directing life-force outward toward humanity. The dialogue among the overlapping shapes contributes to the layered meanings of the work.
And the typescape Uriburus (fig. 7) intertwines three images of the ancient serpent of world mythology in various stages of a cyclical process of beginnings and endings: “The first uriburu is hungry, the second is fulfilled, the third is eating its own tail.” Zend notes that the serpents symbolize “the universe — which constantly renews itself by destroying itself.”
The overall effect of these concrete poems drawing on world mythologies harmonizes with Zend’s recurrent themes of commonality and universality: the Other within the I, and the endless cycle of creation and destruction.
Such was Zend’s admiration for Madách’s The Tragedy of Man that after he immigrated to Canada and became fluent in English, he wrote a translation of it, which he later edited with Peter Singer and illustrated with works by an unidentified artist (fig. 8). He wanted to create an English version with more contemporary language, as opposed to the British translations in somewhat outdated English that were available at the time.23 Although never published, Zend’s translation of The Tragedy of Man is one of his most remarkable accomplishments; the passages quoted in this essay are from his version.
Unfortunately, Zend did not live to see his translation put to use, but during the fall of 2000, Q Art Theatre in Montreal produced the dramatic poem featuring translations by Zend and George Szirtes (fig. 9).
Frigyes Karinthy (1887—1938)
and the Budapest Joke
If Madách is Hungary’s Milton, then Karinthy is its Jonathan Swift (fig. 10). His sketches, stories, and novels are known for their satirical qualities, and he was an important science fiction/fantasy writer under the sign of Swift.
Karinthy isn’t terribly well known outside Hungary, though Journey Round My Skull, his autobiographical account of being operated on for a brain tumor (with an introduction by Oliver Sacks), has consistently received excellent reviews and sold quite well. However, within Hungary he is regarded as one of the most influential and prolific writers of the twentieth century.
Karinthy belongs to the generation known as “Nyugat” (West), named after the Budapest literary journal in which they were frequently published. Fig. 11 shows the Karinthy memorial issue of Nyugat, published shortly after Karinthy’s death in 1938. This issue also includes poems in a series entitled Postcards by Miklós Radnóti, a Hungarian poet and victim of the Holocaust, whose work Zend also greatly admired.24
In the installment on Zend’s early life in Hungary, I related the story about his meeting with Karinthy. During their conversation, Karinthy encouraged him and called him his “spiritual son.” Many years later, Zend acknowledged his literary and personal indebtedness to his early mentor by naming him his “spiritual father.”25 He also paid homage to him in the title of his first book, From Zero to One, which is a phrase from one of Karinthy’s stories, which I quote here to give a flavour of Karinthy’s writing:
Between one and two there is a series of road-signs like “Be Bright” or “Take Care” or “Look Ahead” or “Live and Learn” or “Stretch Your Legs According To Your Coverlet” or “Work as Long as Your Work Wick Burns” or “Be Prepared to Fight” . . . whoever follows them will safely reach the next station, and arrive from One to Two, from Two to Three, from Three to a Millon. . . .
But between Zero and One, there are no such signs, and even if there were, they wouldn’t do any good. For instance, how could you stretch your legs according to your coverlet if you have no coverlet? And how could you work as long as your wick burns if you have no wick? On the road from Zero to One there aren’t even milestones, only millstones, here and there, standing here, fallen there. For between Zero and One is the “Well, there’s nothing I can do about it” and the “I’m sorry, I’m too busy now” and the “Unfortunately, the President won’t be able to see you,” for between Zero and One there lie murder and madness and impossibility.
Between Zero and One is Horror and Desperation. Between Zero and One is Instinct and Religion, Evil and Salvation. Between Zero and One is the Discovery of the World.
Yes, the mathematicians are wrong: the way from Zero to One is longer than from One to a hundred-thousand-million . . . it is about as long as the way from life to death.26
Between one and two lies reason, the Apollonian principle of deliberate conscious planning and the comforting bromides that nudge us to achieve goals and give us the illusion of conscious order and control.
Between zero and one, however, there are no yardsticks by which to measure or analyze, no logical progression of a life, for there is no progress, no goals. That infinite stretch between zero and one — which could be considered as subconsciousness, the vast chaos of unnoticed processes — can seem a nightmarish realm of “Horror,” “Desperation,” and “Evil.” On the other hand, it is also the source of creation, of “the Discovery of the World.”
Karinthy’s passage must have appealed to Zend’s feeling for the fertility of subconscious processes, as the following excerpt from the introduction to Daymares suggests:
There is a mysterious world stretching somewhere below the surface of the Earth (or below the upper layer of the cortex) that constantly whispers images, plots, and words to us; as many worlds as heads sitting on human shoulders — heads which during the day function according to the radiant commands of the golden god, Sun. But as soon as He sinks below the circular line of the horizon, another ruler takes over, Darkness, through whose empire the spiraling-straight lines hurled by the fiery sphere cannot penetrate. Darkness, floating and amorphous, vast and expanding. Her law is entirely different from that of the temporarily dethroned king: falling-apartness instead of coherent concentration; obscurity instead of distinctness; spaciousness instead of linearity; dispersion instead of fusion; overlapping instead of separateness; indefinity instead of explicitness; womb-like roundness instead of erect angularity.27
Karinthy’s writing, famously philosophical, fantastical, and humorous, inspired Zend to share in that legacy.
Those who have not heard of Karinthy will more likely be familiar with the movie Six Degrees of Separation, whose premise is based on a short story by Karinthy, “Chain-Links.” In Karinthy’s story there are only five degrees of separation, perhaps owing to the smaller world population during his time. The concept behind Karinthy’s story is a kind of parlor game demonstrating the shrinking of the globe through modern transportation and the resulting interconnectedness of people around the world. The idea is to select a close acquaintance and any other
person from the 1.5 billion inhabitants of the Earth. . . . [U]sing no more than five individuals . . . [one] could contact the selected individual using nothing except the network of personal acquaintances.28
The first sentence of that story opens with a philosophical question about whether the universe is progressing toward a teleological end or endlessly cycling back upon itself:
We were arguing energetically about whether the world is actually evolving, headed in a particular direction, or whether the entire universe is just a returning rhythm’s game, a renewal of eternity.29
The “energetic arguing” reveals something of Karinthy’s intellectual milieu in Budapest: the gathering of literati and their acolytes in cafés to debate, exchange stories, and hone their wit with verbal play. Douglas Messerli likens this café culture to that of the New York Algonquin writers, and states that Karinthy and other writers “held literary court at the famed Budapest New York Café” (fig. 12), where they “played sophisticated verbal games and satirized the leading Hungarian poets.”30 And László Cs. Szabó observes that Karinthy’s work “reflects the rich folklore of the city of Budapest, replete with puns [and] nonsense words.”31
“Chain-Links” exemplifies the play of intellect and humour practiced by these Hungarian writers of the Nyugat generation. It also reveals another important characteristic of Karinthy’s writing that Zend inherited: the influence of the so-called “Budapest joke,” raised to an art form by Karinthy.32
The urban joke that developed in nineteenth-century Budapest (then Pest) was a more “concise and abstract” version of the more detailed rural anecdote. This popular expression of urban humour was “born in East and Central Europe’s Jewish communities,” whose distinctive brand of entertaining wordplay was integral to their culture.33 Karinthy, a Hungarian of Jewish origin,34 gravitated to the witty verbal play of the “Pest joke” and developed its characteristics, including the essential punch line, into a sophisticated literary form.35
The end of “Chain-Links” is a case in point. The speaker, sitting alone in a café, lost in a reverie about the “chain of connections between . . . random things,” is interrupted by a man who walks up to his table with “some trifling, insignificant problem.” The speaker then begins to develop a chain of associations with that interruption until he arrives at the fourth link, the destruction of the world:
Well, then let a New World Order appear! Let the new Messiah of the world come! Let the God of the universe show himself once more through the burning bush! Let there be peace, let there be war, let there be revolutions, so that — and here is the fifth link — it cannot happen again that someone should dare disturb me when I am at play, when I set free the phantoms of my imagination, when I think!36
The paradox of the joke is, of course, that war, destruction, and revolutions might pose more extreme interruptions to his chain of thought than the trivial disturbance of a casual encounter in a café.
Another characteristic of Karinthy’s writing that had a major influence on Zend is his exploration of alien, unfamiliar worlds, which blossomed into the fantastical fiction of two novels written under the sign of Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels: Voyage to Faremído (Utazás Feremidóba, 1916) and Capillaria (1921).37 Voyage to Faremido describes Gulliver’s voyage to an alien planet of beings who communicate using a musical language. And Capillaria recounts Gulliver’s sojourn in an undersea realm where women rule over and cannibalize the diminutive male population.
Karinthy’s interest in science fiction and fantasy, shared by many Nyugat writers, follows Hungary’s lineage of utopian and allegorical writing since the mid-eighteenth century, including, as we have seen, Imre Madách’s The Tragedy of Man. Significantly, Karinthy was also a prolific translator who introduced to Hungarian readers such writers of fantasy and science fiction as H. G. Wells and Jonathan Swift.38
For all of the above reasons, Zend found in Karinthy a kindred spirit and mentor for the philosophical, fantastical, and humorous bent of his own writing. To begin with the ludic sensibility that the two writers shared, we have seen how Karinthy, one of the foremost humorist writers of his time, drew from the Budapest joke of popular culture. Zend had been reading Karinthy’s work since childhood, and through that influence and a natural proclivity for humour, developed his writing in a humorous vein. Like Karinthy, Zend absorbed the tradition of the Budapest joke in such works as “The Legend of the Axe”:
Once upon a time, when Iron was formed, the Forest began to worry, and its cries finally reached the heavens.
“Oh, Lord, how can you be so cruel and underhanded? With your right hand you give life, with your left hand you sharpen a knife!”
God shook his head sadly and said: “Your fear is groundless, Forest. Tell me, if you can, how could Iron harm you?”
The Forest fumed: “Me, tell you! Do you mock me while putting me in chains? As the creator of everything, you must know the reason. I’m worried because that Iron will turn into an Axe, and with it man will lop me off!”
God answered: “Only if you supply the handle.”39
Zend’s joke-like poem also has the feel of a fable or allegory, highlighted by the capitalization of “Iron” and “Forest,” by the anthropomorphized trees, and by God’s pithy axiom, which arrives like a punch line.
Here’s another example, this time in a lineated poem, “Monday”:
It took me decades
the basic principles
This is this
Now is now
Here is here
I am I
Nothing else is true
there are no harps in heaven
there are no turtles holding up the world
the best investment is a T-bone steak.40
The rationalist world view (a trait shared by Karinthy) is carried through to the absurdly comical punch line.
In addition to humour, Zend’s love of fantastical dream worlds and paradoxes also clearly shows the influence of Karinthy and other writers of the Nyugat generation who wrote in the genres of science fiction and fantasy, rather than following the literary tradition of descriptive and psychological realism. It is likely that Zend was also exposed in his youth to the works of Wells, Swift, and other non-Hungarian writers of the fantastical through the translations by Karinthy and others. (It should be remembered that although Hungary’s authors wrote under the watchful eyes of censors, readers in Hungary had ready access to translations of a variety of world literature.)
Starting with his first collection of poems, From Zero to One, Zend shows his penchant for creating fantastical worlds, as in “Variation” (which is, not incidentally, dedicated to American science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke):
Somewhere in the empty reaches of space
there is a place where
dentists play pianos in caves
children with wrinkles on their faces
throw snowballs deep in tropical jungles
in garrets escaped convicts pen their poems in blood
mayors panhandle at streetcorners
butchers with green hair stand on their hands
At the end of this otherworldly description, we see god-the-accountant sitting at his desk:
wearing his spectacles and well-worn corduroy jacket
god bends over his accounts
and when he balances it he sighs and mumbles:
“It could have been different,
but what difference would it make?”41
Zend’s creation of wildly absurd worlds illustrates the philosophical paradox of change versus permanence. The saying “the more things change, the more they stay the same” might succinctly capture the dilemma faced by the deity, figured here as a bureaucrat “bending over his accounts” and wondering whether, if creation had been different, anything would have really changed. God seems to lean towards that resigned view of change as static: despite the bizarre worlds he might have created, a feeling of ennui envelopes him as he comprehends that change will not really change anything at all.
“Variations” succinctly encapsulates several aspects of Zend’s indebtedness to Hungarian literature: his interest in the story of creation, inspired at least in part by Madách’s dramatic poem, the creation of fantastical worlds and the humourous tone, revealing the influence of Karinthy.
The most developed and eloquent expression of Zend’s fantastical works is in the stories and poems collected in Daymares. These works continually involute expectations about identity, time, and the distinction between reality and illusion. Some of the stories offer twists on religious mythology, including “The End of the World,” a comical revision of the Apocalypse in which the narrator scoffs, “Mankind, shmankind!” and boffs his neighbour’s wife as the four horsemen gallop toward the annihilation of the earth into smithereens — sort of.42 Others, such as “A Dream about the Centre,” explore the vastness of human cognition in the blink of a waking dream.43 One of the most moving stories, “My Baby Brother,” confounds time and identity in exploring issues of Holocaust death, survival, and the continuity of life.44
The following is an excerpt from the Introduction to Daymares in which Zend’s mythical dream world merges ideas of creation, illusion, imagination, and the connectedness of life, reminiscent of the dream-worlds of Jorge Luis Borges as well as the fantastical fiction of Karinthy:
Although the Sun declared it a false doctrine, we still secretly accept the creed of Darkness, which teaches us that the land of dreams is common for everybody: it is not three-billion individually enclosed lands, but one. It obeys not three-billion personal laws, but one. It is a common land where we all meet each other, and these meetings will be unremembered during the linear Sun-time, by the vertically erected individuals who intermingle on the curved, collective male-plane. We all believe — though we know it isn’t true — that the land into which we submerge (while our horizontal bodies rest, tossing and turning about) is real, as real, if not more, than that from which we sank down. Originally, we were all the sons and daughters of Darkness: that was our prenatal land, the Atlantis-womb before the ejaculating rays of the aroused Sun-lord fertilized it, generating us who grow and pop out into the light. We never lose our nostalgia for the cool, dank, soily shadow-shapes of the womb.45
Zend echoes Nietzsche’s Dionysian/Apollonian dichotomy of darkness and light, in which the Dionysian dream-world represents freedom from the imposition of order, and the Apollonian represents
. . . the measured restraint, the freedom
from the wilder emotions, that calm of
the sculptor god [whose] eye must be
“sunlike” . . . 46
For Zend, the wordlessness of dreams is the ur-language, and translating dreams “with Sun-lit words gives rise to impenetrable jungles of misunderstanding in which sameness means difference; nearness, distance; flux, solidity; consecutiveness, simultaneity and repetition, comparison.” The language of dreams “informs us of the bankruptcy of words: its emotions provoke events and its abstract objects are expressions of solid symbols.” Zend acknowledges the need for “sun-lit words,” though his heart is with the “creed of Darkness,” the realm that permits creation with no constraints. However, true to the humour that informs his work as a descendent of Karinthy, Zend situates a winking laughter between the poles of this duality:
[I]n the stripe-shaped no-man’s land between the two borderlines, another, a third god rises to existence, He who is an alien in both the land of Light and that of Darkness. His name is Humour. . . . This is the zone — His domain — in which I, pushed-around wanderer of depths and heights, decided to settle. . . . Thus, when I am approached with inquiries from either kingdom about the other, or about my true identity and idiosyncrasies, or about my loyalties and allegiances, or about my views of the universal nature of things, I can reply to all with just one, single, identifcal, common answer: laughter. I hope to be respected as a citizen of this no-man’s land . . . 47
In such writing of a philosophical, other-worldly, and humourous nature, Zend shows himself to be a true literary descendant of Karinthy.
In some of Zend’s visual works as well, the originary influence of Karinthy is apparent, as in the collage below entitled Science Fiction.
In both his humorous, satirical approach and his fantastical bent, Karinthy’s influence on Zend is obvious. And although he was later influenced by many writers of science fiction and the fantastical (notably Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke), the origins of this interest are in Hungarian sources such as Karinthy as well as translations of English-language and other foreign literary works available in Hungary. Moreover, Zend’s Hungarian influence is not limited to such writers, but also extends back into traditions of Jewish and Hungarian forms of popular expression such as the Budapest joke.
Zend’s literary roots were in Hungary, but it’s also true that in Hungary he encountered the works of writers of many nationalities. Budapest, historically a sophisticated and cosmopolitan urban centre, was home to publishing houses with a strong tradition of translating world literature. As we will see in the next installment, it was a similarly diverse situation with Zend’s literary “cross-pollination” after his move to Canada. He was influenced by many Canadian writers and artists, some of whom were born elsewhere.
Zend’s literary exploration of illusions, the unreal, and the imagination would have been antithetical to the Communist Hungary’s demands for socialist realism during the years of Zend’s early adulthood. Stalin’s violent regime saw show trials, purges, and executions in Hungary, and during Khrushchev’s tenure the Hungarian Uprising of 1956 was brutally crushed. If Zend had stayed in Hungary and survived, it’s likely that such works would have been censored.
Part 6. Canadian Literary Cross-Pollination: Marshall McLuhan (1911—1980)
Multiculturalism before Multiculturalism
In the last installment, “Hungarian Literary Roots,” I traced some of Zend’s foundational influences in his native Hungary. In this section, I’d like to investigate the corresponding Canadian “cross-pollination”: writers and artists who inspired in Zend new aesthetic explorations. The 1960s saw an explosion of experimentation in the arts as well as paradigm-shifting ideas (to use Thomas Kuhn’s term) in cultural theory. Many of these would likely have been banned in Communist Hungary as decadent or counter-revolutionary. In his adopted country of Canada, Zend was free to delve into these new trends, to which he responded with a spirit of generosity and enthusiasm.
I’m describing the influence of Canadian cultural figures on Zend as cross-pollination, for although his inalienable roots were in Hungarian traditions, his poetry and art that emerged since the 1960s blended aspects of both. His penchant for humour, mythology, and the fantastical, inherited from his Hungarian lineage, merged with ground-breaking Canadian ideas such as Marshall McLuhan’s theories on media culture and bpNichol’s avant-garde mixed-genre poetics. Knowing Zend’s delight in creating hybrid words like “peapoteacock,” I like to think he might have called such a hybrid of Magyar and Canadian influences something like “Magyanadian.”
As this essay took shape, I’ve been continually reminded of the illusory nature of unified national culture in my description of literary lineage. Zend’s Hungarian influences included traditions from populations that immigrated to Hungary (as we’ve seen from the Budapest joke, which also provided a creative wellspring for Zend’s “spiritual father,” Karinthy), as well as poetry and novels from around the world, thanks to translations of world literature into Hungarian (including Zend’s own translations of Italian poetry). Similarly, Zend’s Canadian associates were often writers and artists who, like him, immigrated to Canada from other countries, such as poet Mary Melfi (Italy) and artist Jiri Ladocha (Czechoslovakia).
In this respect, Zend’s work in Canada embodies a multicultural spirit — not only by virtue of his country of origin. His was among the crescendo of immigrant voices that eventually led to Canada’s official embracing of multiculturalism as a defining national feature in 1988 with the Canadian Multiculturalism Act.
Although lineage can be documented, in reality the entangled network of influences is much more mysterious. Impossible complexity notwithstanding, what follows is an attempt to point out some Canadian cultural figures who had a transformative effect on Zend’s development as a writer and artist.
And the most striking transformation of his work is due to the influence of the Canadian avant-garde. Although all of Zend’s early poems written in Hungary were lost to the chaos of the Hungarian Revolution, his earlier poems written in Canada in Hungarian, some of them unpublished, are likely a continuation of poems in a humorous and fantastical vein, sometimes with logical twists. Others are impressionistic, sometimes exploring dream states, more in the vein of Miklós Radnóti’s lyricism than Frigyes Karinthy’s modernist satire and science fiction.
It is possible that Zend was influenced in Hungary by avant-garde culture, which most likely would have come from his knowledge of 1920s Russian constructivism. Janine Zend astutely points out that some of the concrete poetry in Oāb is reminiscent of such visual art. Certainly the work to which he gravitated in Hungary was influenced by European international modernism as opposed to traditional lyricism and narrative. However, I think it’s fair to say that his exposure to the Canadian avant-garde was transformative to his work, in ways that can be traced to specific influences.
Among Canadian writers, Zend’s work is most closely related to the formally innovative writers of the 1960s and onward, such as the TISH poets of UBC Vancouver, including Lionel Kearns; other experimental poets such as bpNichol and Steve McCaffery; his fellow poets named “Robert” in a performing and publishing group called The Three Roberts (Priest, Sward, and Zend), and media theorist Marshall McLuhan.
The following correspondences do not, of course, fully explore the breadth of Zend’s Canadian aesthetic affinities, and I’m no doubt omitting some important ones. Perhaps someone will take this topic as an opportunity to write a more developed analysis.
Marshall McLuhan, Lionel Kearns,
and Norman T. White’s Hearsay Project
Marshall McLuhan, a Canadian media theorist who wrote about the effects of media and electronic communications on society, was a frequent guest speaker at the CBC, where Zend worked as a producer. Zend was obviously fascinated by his ideas; some of his works were written under the sign of McLuhan, such as the following short one in a series entitled “Tissues:”
The time will come
when there will be no time
only electronic circuits
and I will remember
what the dead have forgotten
what the unborn have planned1
In a futuristic world in which brains are replaced by electronic circuits, time, memory, and desire will have collapsed into a static omniscience in which every thought — past, present, and future — is always already immortalized. In such a world, total knowledge paradoxically becomes oblivion, a vacuous nothing (in human terms), since it is no longer parsed by the meaning-producing processes of remembering, forgetting, and planning. Birth, growth, change, and death would be equally meaningless. In a few linguistic strokes, Zend captures the essence of the age of electronic information, and we don’t have to exchange brain cells for circuitry to experience the effects of a culture increasingly reliant on electronic information storage.
A closely related work is “The Message,” which Zend dedicates to McLuhan:
The messenger arrived out of breath. The dancers stopped their pirouettes, the torches lighting the palace walls flickered for a moment, the hubbub at the banquet table died down, a roasted pig’s knuckle froze in mid-air in a nobleman’s fingers, a general behind the pillar stopped fingering the bosom of the maid of honour.
“Well, what is it, man?” asked the King, rising regally from his chair. “Where did you come from? Who sent you? What is the news?” Then, after a moment, “Are you waiting for a reply? Speak up, man!”
Still short of breath, the messenger pulled himself together. He looked the King in the eye and gasped: “Your Majesty, I am not waiting for a reply because there is no message because no one sent me. I just like running.”2
“The Message” is reminiscent of Franz Kafka’s “An Imperial Message,” in which the dying emperor’s words, whispered to a messenger, never reaches its intended receiver, who nonetheless daydreams about the message’s content.3
Zend’s parable tells the reverse tale of a messenger approaching the king, whose expectations are thwarted by the runner’s denial of the role of messenger and thus the very existence of a message. The messenger-who-is-not-a-messenger is himself the message—which is simply the fact of his enjoyment of running. The king, like a good consumer of messages, has failed to comprehend the significance of the medium of that message.
In 1985, electronic media experimenter Norman T. White honored Zend several months after his death by using “The Message” for The Hearsay Project (fig. 1), a conceptual electronic art happening that took place in a span of twenty-four hours from November 11 to 12.
The story, minus the title, dedication, and author, was sent in succession to various countries around the world, in which each translator passed their rendition on to the next translator, in the manner of the children’s game of telephone, also known as hearsay. White reports that Zend’s “widow, Janine, was on hand to hit the ‘return’ key which sent the message on its way around the world,” from Toronto to Des Moines, Sydney, Tokyo, Vienna, Newport, Pittsburgh, Chicago, and back to Toronto. En route, “The Message” was translated into Spanish, Japanese, German, Welsh, Hungarian, and finally back into English. Not only was the text of the story transformed by the successive translations, but also the process “preserve[d] . . . the text distortions generated by typographical errors and by telephone-line ‘noise.’”4
The following is a comparison of the messenger’s last words in Zend’s story and the end result of The Hearsay Project:
Your Majesty, I am not waiting for a reply because there is no message because no one sent me. I just like running.
YOUR MAJESTY, THERE IS NO NEED FOR AN ANSWER. AFTER ALL, NOTHING HAS HAPPENED. NO ONE SENT ME. I RISE ABOVE EVERYTHING.
If the media of language and electronic transmission are the message, then the vaguaries and fallibility of those media are rendered transparent in this conceptual game. And the final words, “I RISE ABOVE EVERYTHING,” seem oddly apropos and fortuitous, for to rise above all is perhaps also to become less visible as a medium to consumers of messages.
Such theoretical concerns were emerging themes among TISH poets such as Lionel Kearns, who shares Zend’s fascination with the ideas of McLuhan: Kearns’ book of poetry By the Light of the Silvery McLune: Media Parables, Poems, Signs, Gestures, and Other Assaults on the Interface (1969) explores the ironies and paradoxes arising from mass media fallout on society.5 A prime example of Kearns’ preoccupation with media is “A Collage Education,” which “exposes television’s ironic juxtaposition of African-American poverty and pharmaceutical painkillers. . . . Kearns’ engagement with media culture also infuses poems of postcolonial irony, as in ‘Bleeding,’ in which Mexican Day of the Dead ceremonies are marred by arrogantly voyeuristic tourists and the intrusion of travelogue filmmakers.”7
In other poems, such as “Medium,” Kearns more directly pays tribute to McLuhan:
Once I’d be filling up poems
with outrageous images
and impossible ideas
just to keep track of them
and let you know I’m here
Now I give you only
silence and blank paper
but this too
is a kind of message7
One of the most striking (and most widely anthologized) works from By the Light of the Silvery McLune is the concrete poem “The Birth of God” (fig. 2), which Kearns calls “a mathematical mandela embodying the perfect creative/destructive principle of the mutual interpenetration and balanced interdependence of opposites.” In its creation of an image of the binary from characters that denote the binary system, it might well also be an homage to McLuhan.
An interesting counterpart to Kearns’ depiction of binaries is Zend’s Espanto (fig. 3), which creates the yin and yang symbol in Daoism using the Spanish words “no” and “si.” While I would not say that this work was directly influenced by McLuhan, it’s possible that the spirit of Kearns’ “Birth of God” was in the back of his mind when he created Espanto, which was, by the way, Zend’s first venturing into the kind of typewriter art exemplified in his collection Arbormundi.
Kearns, White, and Zend responded creatively to McLuhan’s theories of media communications. And in this section I have confined myself to poems that effectively transpose McLuhan’s theories into descriptive, allegorical, or concrete-poetic form. But McLuhan famously upheld modernist and avant-garde poetry as an exemplary manifestation of changes in the nature of communication through their juxtaposition of seemingly unrelated images, disruption of syntax, and disjunctive narrative, as he relates in a 1969 interview:
I began to realize that the greatest artists of the 20th Century — Yeats, Pound, Joyce, Eliot — had discovered a totally different approach, based on the identity of processes of cognition and creation.7
It’s beyond the scope of my present project even to begin to document such vast and complex territory, which is being explored by such communications scholars as Darren Wershler and Richard Cavell. So I will close by simply pointing out that in a similar way that bpNichol, Zend, and many other poets of their time were drawing attention to the medium and materiality of language through disjunctiveness and fragmentation, poets and New Media artists such as Kearns, White, and Zend were exploring ways to make visible the media and effects of mass communication, which despite (or because of) its pervasiveness tend to fade into background noise.
Part 7. Canadian Literary Cross-Pollination:
bpNichol, The Four Horsemen,
and Jiri Ladocha
In the last installment, I began my exploration of Robert Zend’s affinities with Canadian cultural figures, starting with Marshall McLuhan. The next two installments will discuss ways in which Zend’s work was transformed through exposure to Canada’s poets and artists. Here I’ll focus on his kinship with avant-garde poets such as bpNichol and the sound poetry group The Four Horsemen, and artist Jiri Ladocha.
Robert Zend and bpNichol
Among Canadian poets, bpNichol produced a body of work that is most closely akin to that of Zend. Most obviously, both expand their range to include concrete poetry, typewriter art, sound poetry, and multi-genre works. In addition, both weave an intensely social poetic fabric; embrace a processual aesthetic; incorporate metapoetic gestures; exhibit playful, free-spirited qualities; and explore cosmic themes. There are fundamental differences in their work, of course, some of which I will try to address as well.
The Process Is the Message
Ample evidence points to Zend and Nichol as writers and concrete poets concerned as much with the processual paths leading to thoughts and decisions — both conscious and subconscious — that become a part of the reader’s experience, as they are with the published product. Fortunately, neither was averse to discussing the process and evolution of their work. In Nichol’s case, we have Meanwhile, a generous selection of essays and interviews edited by Roy Miki. And of course the multi-volume The Martyrology itself, which Nichol describes as a “poetic journal,” is a testament to his interest in exploring process. In Zend’s case, works like “The Key” (a story told in footnotes, arising from a collaboration with Borges) and “Type Scapes: A Mystery Story” (a multi-genre essay recounting the evolution of Zend’s typewriter art) demonstrate such an approach. As well, an examination of the documents in the myriad boxes of the Zend fonds allows the researcher to traces interconnecting strands among works and to understand Zend as a writer and artist fascinated with journey as much as destination.
In an interview with Pierre Coupey and others, Nichol addresses what writers sometimes call “writing on the mind,” or as Nichol explains it, writing that “reflect[s] accurately the processes of the way the mind works”:
I keep going back to this, of how consciousness works. Like in The Martyrology, I would bring in names very briefly, or characters very briefly or faces very briefly. Because it felt to me like that was the way you encountered people in real life. You’re walking down the street, you’re feeling things all the time, you see somebody you meet very casually, you know their name. You might never meet them again, but for that moment they’re there, and that’s all you know about them. Whang — they’re gone. So I let all that stuff into the poem, I let in a bunch of maudlin things because it felt to me that it was all part of the process of moving through something. All those things actually collide with your consciousness, so I left them in. But it makes for a very strange poem.1
In the following example of such “strangeness” from The Martyrology, Nichol writes of spending an evening with poet friends:
an evening spent with friends —
bissett, Arlene Lampert, Janine & Robert Zend
— that list enters the writing again
like a leaf picked up on the shoe & tracked in
the details of my life dragged into the poem
in part at least
immaterial as the leaf
as any life
as the fleeting impressions of this cold October night
Nichol moves freely and conversationally between naming friends and more metaphysical musings (“immaterial as the leaf / as any life”). He then jolts the reader into consciousness of the materiality of both life and writing with the auditory reality of a “car slam.” This passage also displays Nichol’s famous self-reflexivity, bringing into the writing the act of writing itself (“that list enters the writing again . . . the details of my life dragged into the poem”). The result is a linguistic texture of a life lived, suffused with an awareness of being in the moment, observing details as they happen and jotting them down for later reflecting and shaping (he was not at all averse to revision).
Zend also embraced a processual aesthetic, and tells of enjoying drafts and sketches as well as the completed work:
Picasso . . . published a huge book containing his sketches for Guernica. For me, turning the pages of this book is [as] interesting and enjoyable as looking at the finished mural itself.3
He was also acutely aware of the ever more reticulated network of cognitive associations over time that lead his work in different directions. His description of the evolution of his typescapes demonstrates that although his brief but remarkably intense period of creation of this typewriter art may seem to have been “spur of the moment,”
the moment on the spur was, in fact, the final eruption of hidden forces boiling and whirling for years under the surface.4
For Zend, eastern spiritual traditions wisely de-emphasize originary creation:
Artistic creation is often compared to divine creation, but the mystery of the beginning (the tale that God created everything out of nothing and will annihilate everything at the end) is a special note in our Judeo-Christian tradition. According to other — more Eastern, or more ancient, and, perhaps more sensible — traditions, the thing called Nothing doesn’t really exist except in the human mind as a concept; consequently they speak about world ages separated by global catastrophes in which the death of a past age coincides with the birth of a coming age. Thus the concept of creation in the beginning and the end of the world is replaced by that of eternal change.5
In his customary highly visual style, Zend observes the continual fluctuation between process and product in the evolution of his typescapes, in which
I had succeeded not only in expressing my entangled subconscious
in “finished” type scapes
but I also had kept a clear account of the mysterious “process” of creation
so that one day I could write it down with the most acute clarity, so that it would be just another finished product.
The triumph of that account, however, is tempered when he describes an inscrutable encounter with his six-year-old daughter and understands that the product is never finished but continues to produce still more threads in the “entangled subconscious”:
Thus Zend believes that there is never true poetic or artistic completion, but instead an ongoing process of associations between creation and quotidian existence, an attitude shared by Nichol, especially, as we’ve already seen, in The Martyrology.
While Nichol usually references postmodern linguistic and critical theory to make his point, Zend more typically refers to ideas from world religion and mythology. Although their theoretical approaches diverge, nonetheless they are both swimming in the same avant-garde waters, radically questioning habits and traditions of thought and writing.
Another difference is that whereas Nichol found in the poetic journal “a logical model upon which to build formally” in The Martyrology, Zend found in dreams the ideal cognitive model for his fractured and shape-shifting narratives of Daymares and some of his poems. For Nichol,
the journal is almost always present as an element in the continuous poem. Its partialness, incompleteness, serialness and, yes, processualness, make it a logical model upon which to build formally. Certainly, in my own work, its use of intimate detail, of private reference & temporally tied specificity, has worked as a formal framework for The Martyrology and for part of what The Martyrology attempts—the building of a life work in which the building of a life is also reflected.8
On the other hand, dreams-worlds and the journeys and digressions of the conscious (and subconscious) mind provided Zend with a model for exploring the strange world in which a mysterious darkness reigns, whose law is
falling-apartness instead of coherent concentration; obscurity instead of distinctness; spaciousness instead of linearity; dispersion, instead of fusion; overlapping, instead of separateness; indefinity, instead of expictness; womb-like roundness, instead of erect angularity.9
Each chose a different paradigm — Nichol the journal and Zend the dream — but their explorations of the mysterious movements of consciousness as multi-layered and meandering are on parallel (if non-linear) tracks.
Parties and Gossip
Another point of convergence between the poetry of Zend and Nichol is that it is often intensely social, as the above passage by Nichol remembering a party with friends demonstrates. For Nichol, such naming was part of bringing lived experience into the process of writing, as in a journal. He also stresses that “one of my intents in naming, on a first name basis, people encountered in the course of the text [is] to recreate that . . . parallel emotional experience . . . as part of the reading experience.” Mentioning proper names is “part of the gesture of story-telling,” to “locate the narrative in a moment of reality. That was their entire function.” Using proper names is also
a deliberate confrontational device, an attack, if you like, on naïve notions of biographical and psychological criticism, since “David” is many Davids and the “I” is more than a biographical gesture.10
In a similar way, Zend’s poetry is often laced with social interactions — autobiographical or semi-autobiographical — as in a poem in which he and twenty-five co-workers (“at the dreadful place where the supervisors / imagine themselves prison guards”) construct a fantasy room complete with carpet, bookshelves, flowers, and a record player, where partying and love-making help them to escape the soul-numbing workday.11
One of his most striking “naming” poems is “Prelude and Fugue,” which involves a complex web of gossip surrounding a poem of Zend’s. Here are the first two stanzas:
I wrote a poem to A(mbrosios),
I read it to B(elinda),
Then gave it to A(mbrosios)
Who showed it to C(ameleon)
Who mentioned it to D(olores).
I didn’t really like what I’d written about A(mbrosios),
But B(elinda) wept when I read it aloud),
That’s why I gave it to A(mbrosios) because B(elinda) wept.
C(ameleon) liked the content but didn’t like the form
and told this to D(olores) who didn’t read my poem at all. 12
Despite the alphabetic naming, which tends to generalize persons almost to the point of anonymity (or at least fictiveness), I view such instances in Zend more as an apparatus of story-telling than a postmodern attack on notions of individual biography. Nonetheless, it’s clear that both he and Nichol share, along with many other poets of their time such as New York poets Frank O’Hara and Ted Berrigan, a desire to incorporate interactions with their network of friends into their poetry, bringing elements of the personal, narrative, and lived experience into the texture of the poems.
Zend brought a social dimension to his concrete poetry as well, especially in a series of “portraits” in hand-written Hungarian, as in “Vera” (fig. 1). I can’t comment on the Hungarian but only admire the ingenuity of the shapes and guess as to the kinds of characteristics they suggest.
The excerpt from Nichol’s Martyrology above includes a metapoetic gesture in his incorporation of the process of writing into the poem:
— that list enters the writing again
like a leaf picked up on the shoe & tracked in
the details of my life dragged into the poem
in part at least13
Another example from The Martyrology shows Nichol addressing writing to a different effect, that is, not self-reflexively to announce the incorporation of lived details into the poem, but to meditate on such non-transparent use of language:
this is a voice speaking
reflecting in reflection
metaphorically the page is a window
i try writing on the glass &
the ink won’t hold
the mind won’t hold
writing i try in the dream &
this is a pen moving on paper
metaphorically this is a pen moving on paper
place to place &
a poem because of it
part of poem this time
not always the case14
Nichol’s metapoetic “reflecting in reflection” arises from the desire to critique assumptions about the transparency of signification: the transparency of glass, the window-on-the-world that is text assuming its role in transparently conveying meaning. Such transparency will not absorb ink, will not draw attention to itself as a writing surface to bring into awareness its own material presence; nor will it allow language to reveal its own incompleteness and semantic slipperiness. As Nichol says in ABC: The Aleph Beth Book,
WE HAVE PLACED THE POEM BEYOND OURSELVES BY PUTTING ARTIFICIAL BOUNDARIES BETWEEN OURSELVES & THE POEM. WE MUST PUT THE POEM IN OUR LIVES BY FREEING IT FROM THE NECESSITY TO BE. . . . THE POEM WILL LIVE AGAIN WHEN WE ACCEPT FINALLY THE FACT OF THE POEM’S DEATH.15
For Nichol, the autonomous poem, oblivious to itself as created artifact, constitutes an artificial separation of poem and poet, whereas the “artifice” of self-reflection liberates and breathes life into the poem.
Zend’s poems also often describe the act of writing, as in the following short poem, which opens his first book, From Zero to One:
Someone writes with me
his fingers clutch my waist
he holds me tight leads me on
holds me tight again
The poem done he drops me
I feel diminished
and with surprise I read
the part of me he wore away16
Here, Zend’s metapoetry functions differently from Nichol’s. Whereas Nichol critiques language as a transparent conveyor of signification and incorporates the act of writing into the poetry, Zend dramatizes the illusion of the writing subject as autonomous, intentional author, by imagining the poet taking the role of the writing implement, and some other force wielding him to write the poem. In this respect, Zend’s metapoetics seems more related to Spicer’s notion of the poet not as a consciously created self with an autonomous voice, but instead a conduit for language channeled from some other source.
Zend’s most significant metapoetic exploration, of course, is Oāb, in which each character in turn writes into existence his own two-dimensional child, who then attempts to stretch beyond the limitations of his world of ink on paper. We can see a similar kind of metanarrative at work as in the short poem above: the otherness of the writing subject, unaware (at least in the beginning) that he may be being written by another.
In the excerpt below from Oāb, Zėnd (a semi-autobiographical character in Zend’s creation myth — note the diacritical mark on the name — contemplates the constraints of the world of his son, Oāb, compared to his own more expansive perspective:
His cosmos is one of my galaxies
his galaxy is one of my planets
his planet is one of my poems
he lives alone on it17
But Oāb, the filial creation of Zėnd, wonders what lies outside those limits:
What is beyond the four
edges of this paper?
Another paper? And beyond that?
Another and another and another?
How many sheets of paper
lie beside each other?
How many sheets of paper
are contained in what?
And what lies after
the last one, on the other edge?18
If on one level Oāb is Zėnd’s textual progeny, then the perceived limitation of the paper’s range signals the circumscription of authorial perspective as well as that of the signification of the created text. Oāb’s yearning to expand his world and become more autonomous alarms Zėnd (again, the character), who in his hubris would like to think he possesses and controls his writing.
Oāb and The Martyrology both contain so many metapoetic passages that one can practically point on a random page and find such reflexive gestures — indeed, self-reflexivity is part of the fabric of each work: writing that self-consciously creates worlds as it proceeds, commenting along the way on that act of creation.
bpNichol’s self-referentiality in The Martyrology occurs within the personal and meditative framework of journal writing, traditionally a genre in which the writer meditates on events, but not usually the event of writing itself. Nichol continually shatters the mimetic illusion in a convergence of writing and life, and a blending of poetry and critical theory.
Zend’s fundamentally metanarrative premise in Oāb, on the other hand, arises more from his dramatic playing out of authorial creation and intention. The multi-layered drama of Oāb also alludes to other contexts of creation: biblical and generational. Although the name “Zėnd” suggests a semi-autobiographical character (as do many of Zend’s poems and stories), the work as a whole has a mythic or allegorical quality, and the reflexivity of Oāb serves to explore questions of authorial desire and illusion within that framework.
Of course, metapoetry and metanarrative were very common during that period of concentrated experimentation in poetry and fiction (not to menton their occurences throughout the history of literature). Nonetheless, I find it instructive to compare the self-reflexivity of these major multi-genre works by Zend and Nichol — contemporaries who lived in the same city and who were certainly aware of each other’s work, even if they were not close friends — for their differences in approach as much as for their similarities.
During the 1960s, Nichol began experimenting with typewriter art and concrete poetry. In the end, he produced more handwritten concrete poetry than typewriter art. Zend, on the other hand, produced about as much concrete poetry as typewriter art, the latter during an extremely concentrated period of feverish creation. It’s interesting to recount Nichol’s and Zend’s stories of coming to their visual work without much influence from predecessors, as well as to note the many points of similarity in their work in each genre.
Nichol relates that he came to concrete poetry and typewriter art with few examples and no clear idea of the history of such work. In the early 60s, he was studying the Dadaists and the visual poetry of Kenneth Patchen. Addressing this relative isolation, he states that
There were hardly any examples; I had nothing that I could actually look at. The whole problem with what is known as “avant-garde” literature in the 20th century . . . is that it’s like we’re dealing with amnesia; we’ve got this repressed tradition so that . . . when you start writing this way, you end up regurgitating a lot of what’s already been done because you can’t get your hands on the stuff. So you literally have to make your own way. In a way I made my own way, so that when I look at some stuff I can say, as some reviewers have said, “Hey that was done in Berlin in 1921”; I look at it and say “Yeah, well I guess it was done in Berlin in 1921, but this was done in Canada in 1965 without knowing what was done in Berlin in 1921.”19
Similarly, Zend tells that he came to typewriter art with no knowledge of precedents. By 1978, he had already produced a body of work in the category of concrete poetry, and was approached by John Jessop to contribute to the International Anthology of Concrete Poetry he was editing. Jessop selected forty, some of which needed to be re-typed or translated from the Hungarian original.
Zend, famously a procrastinator, didn’t complete the work on time but instead began to create new concrete poetry. At first, he typed lines of repeated words onto paper, cut them into shapes, and glued them onto paper on which he had typed another word repeated in lines — see fig. 2 for this kind of early experiment with the yin and yand symbols. Then he had an idea:
I could get rid of the glue by using a sheet of paper as a “negative” and placing it on another sheet, the “positive.” I typed across the holes of the negative onto the positive.20
He found that this method “gave a much more 3-dimensional look . . . than the former glued version.”
He then discovered the range of textures he could create by superimposing various typed characters. Through a series of trial and error, he finally succeeded in creating polished and complex works. Fig. 3 shows the process from sketch to finished typescape, which looks rather abstract but is actually a “stylized representation of the almost invisible fine lines on the silvery crust of a sea shell”:
My low-resolution reproduction does not convey a faithful sense of the delicacy of the textures, so I’ve cropped a portion of the finished typescape to show a detail (fig. 4):
The differing weights of the question marks forming the overlaid shape suggest that he varied the pressure applied to certain typed characters to give the effect of shading.
Nichol relates that his typewriter art evolved from visual and verbal puns, such as the following minimalist poem:
Nichol dubbed “warbled” and other more visually complex poems such as “ASEA” (fig. 5) his “ideo-pomes.”
At a certain point, Nichol decided not to continue with typewriter art, preferring to draw his concrete poetry by hand, citing the
more direct connection with the body—I’m actually shaping the individual letters with my hand . . . . The form is moving into my body—it’s moving into my own musculature—it’s like an intimate involvement with the architecture of the single letter.22
However, some of the work that he did produce in this genre shows him and Zend thinking in a similar vein about overlapping forms, as a comparison of Nichol’s “precarious poem” and Zend’s Peapoteacock reveals (figs. 6 and 7).
A key difference in their typewriter art is that while Nichol brings linguistic and conceptual play to the fore, Zend emphasizes the aesthetic and symbolic, using typed characters to create varied and delicate textures that form emblematic images, as in Uriburus; or that create visual or verbal puns, as in Peapoteacock, a typescape that superimposes images of a teapot and a peacock; and Sexerpentormentor, an image of the serpent in the Garden of Eden. Nichol’s typewriter poems most often must be read to be appreciated; their typed shapes add to the plurality of meanings that arise from the fragmentation and recombination of letters and words.
As early as 1963, Zend was beginning to experiment with spacial configuration in his poetry, adding visual movement complementing the meaning, as in “Dragonfly” (fig. 8). bpNichol also produced a number of such poems that take the shape (or suggest the movement) of an object or experience, as in “sunthrutreespassing” (fig. 9).
Nichol created a number of such concrete poems in which the letters and words more or less mimetically reproduce some feature of the object they spell out. Zend created (quite literally) hundreds of them to illustrate the play-learning of Oāb and Ïrdu in Oāb.
As we have seen above, Zend also created a series of portraits as concrete poems, sometimes drawing the small letters to form lines and shapes, as in “Erzsi” (fig. 10), and sometimes typing them, as in “Judith” (fig. 11) (see also “Vera,” fig. 1).
In most of these concrete poems, the words and letters are as important as the shapes in contributing to the effectiveness of the portrayal.
In such portraits, Zend’s concrete poetry has a social component, whereas most of Nichol’s work in this genre tends to be (as far as I can tell) almost exclusively metapoetic, conceptual or representational. Zend’s concrete poetry that he created as a result of his friendship with mime artist Marcel Marceau, as well as that which created under the influence of Japanese traditions, will be explored in later installations on international influences and affinities.
Zend’s most prolific and sustained contribution to concrete poetry is contained within the two volumes of Oāb. Until this work, most of his concrete poetry is mimetic on some level — imitative of a person or thing, or else creating textures for a more or less representational work. In Oāb, however, the concrete poetry is interwoven with the dramatic metanarrative.
Both Zend and Nichol delighted in alphabet games, including the creation of artificial alphabets and strange fonts. Zend’s playful use of the alphabet in the visual poetry of Oāb is related to Nichol’s concrete poetry experimentations using the letters of the alphabet, giving sculptural materiality and playful drama to the irreducible components of language. Fig. 12 is an example of Nichol using comic-book-like frames, riffing on the letter “A.” Fig. 13 shows images from three pages in Oāb, in which names and letters personify the characters they represent, playing out various dramas in Zend’s myth of authorial creation—sometimes also using comic-book frames for the parade of Oāb and Ïrdu’s games.
Zend also shared bp Nichol’s interest in the calendar, specifically with the naming of months, in his concrete poem “The Months of the Super Year” (fig. 14), which is part of a “super-calendar” for humans to track time if we ever populate a “super-universe”:
A comparison of this work with Nichol’s “Calendar” (fig. 15) shows a similar structure but a different kind of fragmentation in the names of months:
While there is no evidence of mutual influence in Zend’s and Nichol’s rendering of the calendar months, it is worth noting that both were experimenting with language in related ways, taking apart the names of the months and arranging them in such a way as to reveal something about the nature of mutability and expanded temporality. Where Nichol’s approach to the months is fragmentary, Zend’s is recombinatoric.
Another dimension to Zend’s multi-genre explorations is his sound poetry. In addition to composing and performing his own, sometimes in collaboration with others, Zend also performed on at least one occasion, according to Janine Zend, with The Four Horsemen, the sound poetry group to which bpNichol belonged along with Steve McCaffery, Rafael Barreto-Rivera, and Paul Dutton.23
Zend was no doubt influenced by the explosion of Canadian sound poetry during the 1960s and 1970s in his unfinished manuscript of sound poems from 1979, Zendocha-land (fig. 16), which was to be collaborative effort with Czech-Canadian artist Jiri Ladocha. He proposed to Ladocha twelve to sixteen “poem-paintings” to be presented in a dynamic relationship with the art. Fig. 16 shows a draft for the sound poem in that collection about “the creation of the world,” which arises “from nothing: H / from breath / H / ether becomes air becomes water becomes solid ever denser / new vowels are born / new consonants are born” and new “combinations develop.” The trajectory of the sound poem follows that of creation and destruction: “Life appears on the back of cold rock planets . . . but when the creation reaches its peak / the end begins / the machine runs down” and all is once more nothing, “where it started / long ago.”
Nichol and Zend are kindred poets in their linguistic playfulness; both delighted in creating puns and fragmenting words into phonemes and letters. Nichol shares his love of wordplay with Zend, whose puns extend to his typescapes. For example, Zend’s Peapoteacock (see fig. 7 above), a typescape that superimposes images of a teapot and a peacock to form a visual and verbal pun, shows a playful punning that is similar to the Nichol’s delight in verbal inventiveness, as in his most well-known minimalist poem, “Catching Frogs”:
The following is a more extended example of word fragmentation, from Nichol’s The Martyrology Book 5:
each street branches in the mind
words fall apart
sure as hell’s
when i let the letters shift sur face
is just a place on which images drift25
Compare this with an excerpt from Zend’s “Ars Poetica”:
There are poets who insist
that poems can only be written
in the style of iuiu
I think everything
eve and ryth and ing
also yreve and gniht
evth and ryng and tyrev too
can be poetry26
Steve McCaffery points out in an interview with Nichol that
In your playful destruction and reassemblage of words, the subject and its relation to meaning become a prime issue. If a reader can get beyond a distanced appreciation of (or irritation at) the display of wit in these pun productions, then a radically different subject emerges and one not predicated upon the orthodox logic of the sign. A subject deprived of unity and circulating as a textual effect among the verbal fission and the shattered syntax of the language.27
McCaffery’s observations about fracturing in relation to both poem and reader also relates to Zend. In their word-splitting, both poets are expanding the possibilities of language, and the string of fragmented words and recombined letters seems to unmoor words from their meanings so that when “the letters shift,” “sur face / is just a place on which im ages drift.” Depth of meaning (and thus the mimetic effect of language in which poems must be “about”) is transformed to a surface of drifting images, and this “too / can be poetry.” A different kind of reading is involved, one in which expectations of linearity and completion must be relinquished to appreciate the text. Such language does not merely fade into the background while a more or less straightforward signification plays out on a stage, but comes to the fore, compelling the reader to contemplate the materiality of language and to reflect on the slipperiness of its signification.
Northrop Frye wrote that “Robert Zend never forgot that every creative act was first and foremost an act of free play.”28 Both Nichol and Zend have been described as taking a childlike delight in their manipulations of language and visual poetry. In a poem from about 1979, Zend writes admiringly of his seven-year-old daughter Natalie at play, and expresses the desire to “change the Earth into a gigantic playground / instead of the battlefield that it was made into / by our common enemies, the grownups.”29 Zend, who as a young man had written and published for children in Hungary, must have felt an affinity for the playful spirit of experimentation in the work of avant-garde Canadian poets such as Nichol, and in his adopted language he was constantly experimenting with wordplay and puns, as in a series entitled “Silly Rhymes,” perhaps created to amuse his daughter Natalie:
When you come to Winnipeg,
I’ll show you my guinea-pig.
I will catch you!
Perhaps some day Zend’s early and popular publications for children written in Hungary under his pen name, “Peeker,” will come to light. Such verses above likely came naturally to him as he explored and delighted in the possibilities of English. Nichol also wrote for children, including the beautifully illustrated On the Merry-Go-Round; an excerpt from the title poem is reproduced below (fig. 17):
Lastly, Nichol’s and Zend’s poetry shares a preoccupation with cosmic themes and images, which often play out dramas of infinity and cyclical processes of life and death. Zend’s concrete poem “Scope” (fig. 18) is a thought experiment illustrating the interplay between micro- and macrocosmic scales, in which the the pupil of the human eye serves as an image of both the tiny and the vast:
In a similar way, the following poem by Nichol from The Martyrology imagines a dizzying and continually broadening span of time and space in relation to human lives, which “flare briefly” and vanish:
here on the galaxy’s edge we live out our lives in ignorance
the distance to the dawn bridge grows infinitesimally longer
our lifetimes flare briefly and are gone
highways stretch from the big bang outward
cycle back to our beginning31
Comparing Nichol’s excerpt with the one below by Zend, from a poem entitled from “More and More,” it’s clear that they were both fascinated by space and time on a cosmic scale:
Hasn’t the universe been exploding long enough?
No, not long enough. More.
Death. And what can follow death? More.
Should we buy a second house? More.
After our world tour, should we travel again? More.
When this poem is finished, should I write another? More.
The sun orders us: More. From the core of the galaxy of galaxies
a telegram comes to ours
which is forwarded down to earth
and when we read it, it says: More.32
The excerpt by Nichol relates cyclical processes on a grand scale to those on a human scale, whereas the excerpt by Zend relates the two to offer a compelling vision of infinity to the point of ennui, accompanied by the relentless refrain “More.”
In the Air
A case could be made for Zend’s kinship with other contemporaneous Canadian poets who were experimenting linguistically and visually with the aesthetic approaches mentioned above. After all, bpNichol was not the only Canadian poet exploring typewriter and other concrete poetry and performing sound poetry; as Janine Zend points out, such things were “in the air” during the sixties and seventies. Zend befriended many Canadian poets, attended their readings, collected their books, and dedicated poems to them. Focusing the above comparison on bpNichol shows many points of convergence, and extrapolated to a wider community within Canada would reveal a matrix of themes and processes that Zend was aware of and drew upon for inspiration in his own work.
Part 8. Canadian Literary Cross-Pollination:
The Three Roberts, Norman McLaren,
and Glenn Gould
Robert Zend the Nomad
gazing in like an acrobat
at the window in the sky.
This installment will conclude the sections on Zend’s Canadian affinities. The next ones will look at some significant international collaborations, notably with Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges and French mime artist Marcel Marceau. I’ll also show some Italian connections, such as his interest in experimental playwright Luigi Pirandello and cynical poet Giacomo Leopardi. And I’ll demonstrate the influence on Zend of Belgian artist René Magritte as well as Japanese traditions such as haiku and origami.
But first . . .
The Three Knights of a Roberthood:
Priest, Sward, Zend
During the 1980s, Zend participated in a remarkable collaboration with two Canadian poets who were also fellow immigrants: Robert Sward, an American poet from Chicago who lived in Canada from 1969 to 1985, and Robert Priest, a British poet who moved to Canada. Picking up on their admiration for one another’s poetry and the fact of their identical first names, they began performing together in poetry reading tours, calling themselves “The Three Roberts.” They also published a series of poetry anthologies of their work in themed collections: Premiere Performance, On Love, and On Childhood (fig. 1).
Sward and Priest performed their poetry together at CBC radio, where they met Zend. Sward recalls that Zend’s cosmopolitan outlook drew them together and inspired them. He relates that the sense of humour and playfulness of their personalities and poetry allowed them to play off one another during their performances and to serve as muses to each other.1
Each of the Roberts has a recognizable voice: Sward often writes from a personal and familial perspective steeped in his Jewish heritage; Priest’s poetry exhibits a zany sense of humour and the influence of popular British music such as the Beatles; and Zend explores the personal and fantastical with a cosmic vision. There is a warm accessibility to the work of the three that creates a coherence in their anthologies that, as Sward observed, placed them a bit outside the mainstream of Canadian poetry during that time.
Below (figs. 2 and 3) are a photograph of the three looking rather like a jolly barbership trip, and a set of silhouettes created by Zend to commemorate their friendship.
One of Robert Sward’s poems in Premiere Performance captures the spirit of good humour, rapport, and mutual inspiration of the “Roberts . . . / Robertness . . . / Three Knights of a Roberthood.” The following is an excerpt:
Robert Zend phones Robert
Sward. Ring, ring.
“Robert, this is Robert.”
“Is this Robert?” “This
is Robert, Robert.” “Yes,
Robert?” I say, “This
“is Robert, too.” “Ah,
excuse me, I need
to find a match,”
says Robert Zend putting
down the telephone
and rummaging for matches . . .
. . .
Zend translates serious things
into funny things
and funny things
into serious things.
He also translates himself
into other people, and
other people into himself —
and where does one of us end
and the other begin?
And where does Zend begin
and where do I zend?
I mean, end?
And what about Robert Priest?
Is he a visible man?
An invisible man?
Or the man who broke out of the letter X?
Is he a spaceman in disguise?
A blue pyramid? A golden trumpet?
A chocolate lawnmower?
An inexhaustible flower?
Or a reader who escaped
from some interstellar library?
Rock Musician in residence
at the University of the Moon?
And meanwhile Robert Zend
looks into his mirror
and sees not Zend
But Chicago-born Uncle Dog;
Half a Life’s History;
Mr. Amnesia; Mr. Movies; Left to Right;
Mr. Transmigration of the Soul;
The poet as wanderer;
A forty-nine-year-old human violin . . .
Robert Zend the Nomad
gazing in like an acrobat
at the window in the sky.2
Their first performance, at Grossman’s Tavern in Toronto in January 1984, was reviewed by Sheila Wawanash of Shades Magazine, a punk rock magazine:
[Their] poetry reading . . . was especially fine (by which I mean fun). . . . Three voices — and quite different kinds of approaches — broke up hieratic monotonies in “poetry” “readings,” while their (rough) conjugation of themes circled round and took off. Of course, it helps that they are all worthy poets and readers and much else besides; in their concluding, separate sections/performances, Priest sang some of his songs (which survived a solo acoustic rendition) and Zend showed the slides illustrating his long and abiding obsession with “action word” doodles, some of which were remarkably funny and beautiful.3
Although their collaboration was cut short by Zend’s untimely death in 1985, while they were together they formed a vibrant part of the Canadian poetry scene. And the sympathetic vibrations among the three during their performances and in their three anthologies is testament to their creative rapport and close friendship.
Norman McLaren: Musical Geometry
I cannot end the installment on Canadian influences and affinities without at least a mention of Zend’s admiration for the experimental films of Norman McLaren. Zend, who had worked in film in both Hungary and Canada, was fascinated by McLaren’s artistic and sometimes abstractly geometric animated films. Zend’s Linelife, a work that I featured in Part 1, most obviously shows Zend’s interest in McLaren’s avant-garde animations. As well, Zend dedicated to McLaren “The Three Sons (a fable of geometry),” involving the progeny of “Father Circle and Mother Circle.” The admiration was mutual: McLaren called Zend “a sorcerer par excellence.”
Zend’s experimentation with geometrical animation was brief and not sustained. However, the little gem of Linelife is one piece in the overall picture that I wish to build of Robert Zend’s openness to many different influences. Indeed, this little piece of animation bears an affinity not only with Norman McLaren, but also (as I will show in a later installment) with Marcel Marceau.
In addition, McLaren played a role as a kind of tutelary spirit in Zend’s development of his typescapes. In his creative essay “Type Scapes: A Mystery Story,” he imagines McLaren as a guiding force, encouraging him to overcome difficulties in his struggles to “tame” the typewriter. After some trial and error, Zend becomes frustrated:
I remember taking a coffee break. While sipping coffee and smoking my cigarette, I sulked: “Why do I have to make mistake after mistake?” Then suddenly Norman McLaren’s face leapt into my mind’s eye. I saw him bending over a “mistake” on a piece of film, with a loving smile on his face. What was this? I’d never seen Norman working with film, where did this memory come from? Then I knew. Last summer, I made a radio series consisting of 5 programs in which Norman not only spoke about his life, but every night a guest speaker talked about Norman’s art. The last of these speakers was NFB executive producer Tom Daly who gave a beautiful talk about the various worlds Norman had created in each of his animated shorts. Among other things, he said that whenever Norman made a mistake, he wasn’t angry, as people usually are, but that he contemplated the mistake and tried to take advantage of it so that many times a small mistake became the source of a great innovation.4
Zend had the epiphany that like McLaren, he could use his mistake to his advantage. He experimented by superimposing characters to create an almost infinite variety of textures, each with “a different soul” (fig. 4):
With this revelation, inspired by McLaren’s process, he went on to produce, in a feverish and concentrated period of creative energy, scores of typescapes whose hallmark is their subtle and overlapping textures with delicate shadings.
A Glenn Gould Scherzo:
Where to Put the Zend?
An admirer of Canadian pianist Glenn Gould, Zend dedicated his poem “Symphonie Fantastique” to him; one of his doodles below (fig. 5) also pays tribute to Gould. His esteem was reciprocated: Gould called Zend “unquestionably Canada’s most musical poet.”5
And to conclude my installment on Zend’s Canadian lineage, I’d like to quote Gould’s homage to Zend in the following humorous quandary about the resistance of Zend’s work to categorization. Zend was not quintessentially Hungarian or Canadian or any other nationality. As Gould suggests, Zend is akin to many, yet he also “stands alone.”
If I were a gallery curator, Robert Zend would pose a problem.
“Where do you want the stuff to hang, boss,” my assistant would ask, “in with the Mondrians, maybe?”
“No, I don’t think so—the sense of line is similar, but there’s more sense of humour in Zend—so try wedging them between the Miros and the Klees, and better set up an exhibit of Saul Steinberg in the foyer as a teaser.”
If I were a symphony manager, the problem would be similar.
“Out of ze question,” Maestro von Zuyderhoffer would declare. “I conduct no Zend before Bruckner, not even mit Webern to raise curtains.”
“But, maestro, Zend takes the cosmos for a plaything, as does Bruckner, and wrings out of it an epigram, like Webern. However, I suppose we could try him on a chamber concert with early Hindemith, maybe . . .”
“. . . and then, perhaps, Kurt Weill . . .”
“. . . and finish off with Satie.”
“Nein, kein Satie. Zat vun is not knowing secondary dominants, und ze vork of Zend is full of modulation.”
But if I were a book publisher, no such problem would exist.
Robert Zend could stand alone—his cynically witty, abrasively hedonistic, hesitantly compassionate, furtively God-seeking poems could mingle with each other, find their own program-order, and settle among themselves the question of what goes where and how much wall-space will be needed.
Gee, what an easy life book publishers must have!6
Part 9. International Affinities:
Belonging Nowhere but Humanity
In the previous sections, I traced some of Robert Zend’s Hungarian literary roots as well as Canadian cross-pollinations. In this section, I’ll explore his affinities with artists, writers, and cultural traditions around the world, focusing on some of the more significant ones from Argentina, France, Italy, Belgium, and Japan.
Zend openly expressed his admiration for writers and artists in many countries — one only has to look at the numerous dedications in his first two books of poetry. But on a deeper level, Zend’s tributes often took the form of collaborations of various types. He wrote ekphrastic poems (based on works by Norman McLaren, René Magritte, Julius Marosan, and Jerónimo, for example), absorbed lessons from the stories of Jorge Luis Borges, engaged in poetic correspondence with Marcel Marceau (for whom he also designed a chess set), and incorporated elements of Japanese traditions such as haiku and origami into his poetry and visual work. There’s a spirit of generosity in such collaborations, which are at once quintessentially Zend-ish and overtly otherly. Zend’s title of a draft for a collaboration with Czech-Canadian artist Jiri Ladocha captures something of that spirit: Zendocha-land.
Zend wished to model his creative life after his Hungarian mentor, Frigyes Karinthy, in that
[Karinthy] wasn’t willing to accept any label, either for himself or for others. . . . He didn’t identify with any group; he belonged nowhere, but this non-belonging meant for him an extremely strong belonging to Man, to Mankind, to Humanity.1
Many factors shaped Zend’s cosmopolitan outlook: the historically international culture of Budapest and its tradition of literary translation, his early exposure to Italian culture, his admiration of Karinthy, and his opportunities as a CBC producer to travel around the world interviewing writers and other cultural figures. Zend’s cosmopolitanism is part of his legacy to Canadian culture, and thus it is also part of Canadian cultural history.
As I mentioned in a previous installment, certain literary tropes and approaches were part of the widespread influence of international modernism and postmodernism — for example, the proliferation of forms with which to question epistemological certainty, and the avant-garde experimentation with typewriter art and concrete poetry. In Zend’s case, however, the relationships and influences are more often than not revealed through collaborations or by specific allusions and acknowledgements. Thus it’s possible to draw meaningful literary and artistic connections between Zend and some of those world-wide others.
Argentina — Jorge Luis Borges
Now I know why you came here
from the other end of the world.
Actually, I should have written Oāb . . .
— Borges to Zend2
The reader of Zend’s short stories in Daymares is likely to notice that they are on a similar wavelength as the fantastical fiction of Borges. Using surreal, mythical, or dream-like settings, both explore philosophical and metafictive concepts, toy with notions of infinity, expand the limits of human cognition, and posit labyrinthine or paradoxical quandaries, leaving the reader with a feeling that there is a mystery at the heart of existence and the universe that will not yield to rational analysis. Zend was already writing in a fantastical vein when in the early 1970s he began reading Borges and working on a CBC Ideas program entitled “The Magic World of Borges.” Lawrence Day, a member of the chess club that Zend frequented, describes how the idea came about:
As a chess player he was about 1600 but as a thinker he was easily a Grandmaster. Borges came up in a conversation. He got interested. A month later he was in Buenos Aires interviewing him for the Ideas program. Nice job eh, fly around the world interviewing people with ideas and get paid to do it!3
Zend indeed took full advantage of the opportunities afforded him by his role as producer at CBC by traveling around the world interviewing persons who made important contributions to culture and science. And by doing so he made a lasting contribution to Canadian intellectual life. In Hungary, his travel opportunities had been limited and closely monitored for signs of the intention to defect. After he finally escaped and immigrated to Canada in 1956, it was as though his pent-up desire to travel the world and meet other writers were suddenly given the freedom and means to be fulfilled.
Spending two weeks with Borges in Buenos Aires in 1974 not only benefited the CBC’s Ideas program, but it also proved a tremendous encouragement to Zend as a writer. After his visit, he began to write more stories exploring the fantastical, inspired by what he had learned from Borges to translate his own experienced, dreamed, and imagined worlds into the complex, multi-layered, and sometimes self-reflexive forms congenial to their narrative content. His visit was documented with some remarkable photographs, which I’ve uploaded to this installment, including one of Zend strolling with Borges through the latter’s family mausoleum, and another sitting in a Buenos Aires café with Borges and his secretary (figs. 1, 2, 6). His conversations with Borges are also commemorated in a remarkable collaboration between the two, “The Key,” published in Exile Magazine in 1974.
The Key to the Labyrinth:
A Zend-Borges Collaboration
“It should be written by the Table!” I said.
“It is written by the Table,” Borges said and laughed.4
Zend’s meetings with Borges offered him the opportunity to cultivate in the older writer an important mentor for his narrative work. In him, Zend found a master of precisely the kind of writing that appealed to him and that he had been exploring in some of the earlier stories posthumously collected in Daymares. During their conversations, Borges talked about his fascination with keys. Zend suggested writing a story combining the idea of the key with Borges’ long-standing interest in labyrinths. Borges was delighted with the idea, but offered it back to Zend, who had originally proposed it, to develop into a narrative. Zend accepted the offer and began to take notes for what he expected to be a more or less linear story about a person’s search for the key to a labyrinth in which to become lost. However, on his return to Toronto, the papers he mailed back were delayed. Moreover, the editor at Exile Magazine, interested in publishing Zend’s work arising from his visit to Borges, proposed, in place of the linear narrative, a metanarrative take on the origin and evolution of the story’s premise.
The idea appealed to Zend, who set about writing the narrative even before his notes arrived from Argentina. “The Key” ended up being composed of five footnotes appended to the (absent) linear story originally conceived. In these footnotes, Zend recounts a labyrinth of decisions and thwarted goals, at the heart of which is the absence of the actual intended story originally discussed with Borges:
What I wanted to write is not the story entitled “The Key,” it isn’t even the story of the conception of the story entitled “The Key,” but it is the story of the conception of the story of the conception of the story, entitled “The Key.”5
In other words, to write the story of the conception of the story would be (on one metanarrative level) to relate his conversations with Borges and with the editor of Exile Magazine. The layers of the metanarrative further removed (in the footnotes) consist of Zend tracing labyrinthine mental associations with his decisions regarding “the story of the conception of the story.”
In one such associative footnote, Zend tells of his involuntary habit since youth of distilling “abstract ideas into structures.” He illustrates some of the visual narrative patterns suggested to him by the fiction of various authors or works. The three patterns in fig. 3 below display the idiosyncratic patterns he visualizes for Dante, Shakespeare, and Borges:
This type of visualization of a narrative line or pattern is reminiscent of Laurence Sterne’s illustrations of meandering lines in Tristram Shandy to render visible the novel’s digressive texture (fig. 4). Interestingly, in both works, the visually reflexive gestures serve both as digressions within a digressive story and as further deferrals of the novel’s professed autobiographical subject. Shandy early in the novel sets his metanarrative cards on the table: “digressions are the sunshine; — they are the life, the soul of reading!”6
Such laying bare of narrative process is echoed in Zend’s explanation of the evolution of his typewriter art in “Type Scapes: A Mystery Story”:
For the honest artist, no borderline lies between the finished product and the process. The essays of Poe, Dante, Wagner, Pirandello, and Kosinsky are “finished products” which describe the “process” . . . and vice versa: the Cantos of Ezra Pound, some short stories by Borges, the Sweetheart-book by Emmett Williams, etc., reflect a continuous “process” although they appear to be “finished products.”
For me, the division makes no sense. How can an artist — being an unfinished, imperfect product himself — create anything finished or perfect? Or rather: how can he sincerely believe that he did so? Maybe that’s why Goethe never felt Faust was finished, or Leonardo that the Mona Lisa was finished smiling . . . For me (as my wife said, taking a Marshall McLuhan tone), “the process is the product.”7
As part of his exploration of the process of “The Key,” Zend displays his visualization of the story’s metafictive pattern as an Escher-like paradox (fig. 5). Any two angles of the triangular sculpture constitute a logically possible shape; the addition of the third angle makes the form impossible as a three-dimensional object. Although Zend does not explain the corresponding irrational concept of the meta-meta-narrative of “The Key,” he is clearly, in works such as Oāb, fascinated by other such topological conundrums as the Klein bottle and the Möbius strip, which don’t lead anywhere but their own infinitely repeating surface. Somewhat similarly, the irrational triangle creates an endlessly iterable and labyrinthine path, corresponding to the journey of the story that never reaches its supposed destination (the planned narrative about a key to a labyrinth), but instead becomes the labyrinth itself for which the reader must search for a key within her- or himself.
In addition, the image of the labyrinth symbolizes for Zend the network of influences by which writers and their works come to be, referring to the joint authorship (triple if we include the editor of Exile Magazine), but also questioning the very notion of literary originality. In a pivotal passage (itself a footnote), Zend explains the lineage of the foregrounded footnote:
Writing footnotes as organic parts of a fiction is not my innovation, I am merely imitating Jorge Luis Borges who imitates DeQuincey who probably also . . . Borges openly imitates innumerable writers innumerable times since he doesn’t believe in originality — everything was said and done before, he thinks. This is quite an original philosophy of writing, at least nowadays: in the Middle Ages it wouldn’t have been. Thus, although writing footnotes on footnotes had been done, yet writing footnotes following a blank page had not been done, and I consider this to be my innovation in this present piece of writing: however, it is possible that I do so only due my lack of cultural awareness.8
Although Zend is the one who actually wrote the story, not Borges (or the table, for that matter), the gesture of acknowledging Borges as collaborator emphasizes Zend’s indebtedness to his mentor, which, as we have seen, is characteristic of Zend’s customary expression of gratitude to his “spiritual fathers and mothers.”9 It also recognizes the phenomenon that authorship is never original but is dependent on a myriad of influences.
Parallel Dream-Sons: “Circular Ruins” and Oāb
Borges himself also recognized his literary kinship with Zend in their respective explorations of dream-worlds and golem-like creations:
You created your dream-son the way my magician in “Circular Ruins” created his dream-son. You consider me one of your masters, yet you were my pupil even before reading my work.10
Borges is referring to the relationship of “Circular Ruins” to Zend’s two-volume graphic poem, Oāb, most of which Zend wrote during two weeks in May 1970. Borges’ words to Zend seems to confirm that the latter created Oāb prior to being exposed to Borges’ writing. As Borges observes,
Both you and I are inspired by the same themes. Now I know why you came here from the other end of the world. Actually, I should have written Oāb . . . 11
A comparison of the works reveals that the two writers, despite stylistic differences, were indeed tapping into mysterious realms of dreams and the subconscious, ideal matter for shaping mythical tales that leave the impression of mirrored infinity.
“Circular Ruins” is such a story with its “dream-within-a-dream” premise. Borges tells of a magician with a mission:
He wanted to dream a man: he wanted to dream him with minute integrity and insert him into reality.12
The magician travels by boat downstream to the ruins of a temple. Within a succession of dreams, little by little he creates a living being and teaches his dream-child “the arcana of the universe and of the fire cult,” in order to prepare him for his priestly role “in a temple further downstream.” The magician believes that his son would “not exist if [he] did not go to him” in his dreams. Sometimes the magician is troubled by feelings of déjà vu, as if “all this had happened before.” But he forges ahead fashioning his dream-son, who is finally ready to be born. His newly-minted priest travels to the temple downstream to practice rituals “and give glory to the god.” Only fire and the magician will know of his existence as an illusion and not flesh and bone.
Later, the magician hears that his dreamed “magic man . . . could walk upon fire and not be burned.” He fears that his son will thus realize that he is “a mere image” and will feel the “humiliation” of being only “the projection of another man’s dream.” The aging magician prepares himself for death as fire mysteriously arrives to engulf him, but he is startled to find that like his dream-son, he too is unharmed by the flames. In an epiphany he understands that his déjà vu experience was actually a glimpse into the cycle of creation, in which he was not only creator to his dream-son, but also himself “a mere appearance, dreamt by another.”13
In outward form, Borges’ six-page short story could not be more different from Zend’s two-volume, 237-page graphic poem with its scores of concrete poems, photographs, and drawings. Borges’ story has the quality of a myth whose rather ornate descriptive language is akin to magic realism. By contrast, Zend’s language in Oāb is plain and conversational. Oliver Botar, a Canadian art historian who has translated some of Zend’s poetry into English, observes that Zend’s poetry is “written with an almost sparse economy” and “directness of language,”14 chracteristics that lend themselves well to paradoxes and twists of logic. In Oāb, this rather porous linguistic quality is appropriate to the multi-dimensional story whose theme of creation plays out on biblical, generational, and authorial levels. The playful and childlike dialogue between the creators and their naive beings gradually transforms into language reflecting deeper levels of experience and the painful knowledge of their own diminished role in the cycle of creation — while still retaining the work’s hallmark simplicity of language. Despite the differences between the narratives of Borges and Zend, both spring from similar concerns with illusion and reality, dreams within dreams, and beings who create other beings only to learn that they in turn are being fashioned by a being in a higher dimension.
Similar to Borges’s magician in “The Circular Ruins, in Oāb a character named Zėnd writes a son, Oāb, into existence as a blank slate; thus his “written doll”15 is all potential, and like Borges’ magician-teacher, Zėnd tutors his written son in human knowledge and three-dimensional existence.
he lives in my verse / it’s his universe.16
But Oāb begins to take on a life of his own, first through his own dreams and later by creating a being of his own, Ïrdu.
Zėnd plays tutor to Oāb, all the while keeping him subservient to his own wishes and dependent on him for existence, as we wields his pen-nib above the “while soil” of Oāb’s paper world and observes him with the “blue suns” of his eyes.”17 Oāb, aware of the power dynamics but determined to cultivate his own world, in turn teaches Ïrdu everything he learns from Zėnd. Zėnd believes that he is at the top of this chain of creation and that a being named Ardô is his friend on equal footing with him. But (similar to the magician’s realization of his own illusory existence) in reality Ardô is a higher-level being who created Zėnd.
Each generation is convinced of its own god-like superiority in relation to its “written doll.” For example, Zėnd believes that he is the only “real” being and that Ardô, who thinks that Zėnd is “merely a figment / of his imagination,” is only a “braggart.”18
Like jealous gods, each generation is in turn suspicious and of the growing independence of his created being and resentful of the time he spends on his own offspring. Zėnd inculcates in Oāb that Oāb cannot become independent like him because “you are a part of me. / I contain you.” But Oāb rebels and becomes his own god, in effect. Like the biblical God who says “I am that I am,” Oāb boasts, “I am myself . . . self-contained . . . independent.”19 And when Ïrdu, Oāb’s son, in his turn rebelliously asserts his independence, Oāb balks. And Zėnd, conceding that there are things in Ardô’s four-dimensional world that he cannot comprehend, ultimately comes to realize that, far from being his friend on an equal footing, Ardô is actually his creator.
Each over-possessive creator in turn becomes vengeful, threatening to destroy his dream-son. However, once Oāb and later, Ïrdu, are out of the bag, they cannot be “unborn” or destroyed, for like ghosts floating in the infinite memory of the universe they would haunt their creators until reborn. And each creator is helpless to stop his creature from taking on a life and identity of his own. Agency is further denied the creators when Oāb, now a fully-fledged being in his own right, explains that it was not Zėnd who willfully created him, but the reverse: it was Oāb who had to be born:
“I had to come to life. I was an absolute must. Time was ripe for me.”20
It was Oāb who found and chose Zėnd, led him around, and in fact authored Oāb: “I led his hand, don’t ever doubt it!” he says to Ïrdu.21
In the end, the four generations come full circle. Ardô create Zėnd who created Oāb who created Ïrdu. Finally, in a repetition of the scene of Oāb’s creation, Ïrdu hears Ardô’s “name calling from the darkness,” and thus “the middle-aged Ïrdu gave (re)birth to Ardô.”22
Zend’s story is more overtly a metapoetic exploration of authorial creation than Borges’ story of the dreaming magician. Moreover, while Borges’ magician learns in an instant’s epiphany the truth of his own origin in dream, Zend’s characters (Zėnd, Oāb, Ïrdu, and Ardô) come to this realization gradually and communicate their discovery amongst themselves in subtle psychological detail. However, both Zend’s and Borges’ narratives share the sense that creation is an endless cycle in which one’s works, and perhaps also one’s self, are never totally knowable or controllable. In Oāb, each generation of creator experiences the humiliation of discovering that he is not in control of his creation. It is in reality the creations who tutor their creators and claim agency over their formerly god-like beings who dispense life and destiny, pen in hand. And in “Circular Ruins,” the magician’s paternal feelings of love and protectiveness for his dream-son cause him to worry that the son will discover that he is not as real as his magician father, when in fact the magician himself is a figment of another being’s dream.
In other stories, Zend uses the Borgesian dream-world to poignantly explore pain and loss in Hungary during two brutal regimes: the Nazis and the Communists. During Nazi Germany’s two-year occupation of Hungary, more than 500,000 Jews lost their lives to the Holocaust. And Stalin’s regime exacted a high price in human life in Hungary as well: of the hundreds of thousands of Hungarians sent to forced labour camps in the Soviet Union during the late 1940s, an estimated 200,000 died due to poor living conditions or were murdered outright.23
In “The King of Rubik,” one such story exploring a Holocaust theme, the speaker is
sitting here again, in Peter’s room, talking to him just as if he hadn’t starved to death in a Nazi labour-camp, thirty-eight years ago.23
Throughout the story, a magic Rubik’s Cube creates dream-like shape-shifting identities and time-frames, and orchestrates remembrance and forgetfulness in a tale of guilt, regret, and loss.
Borges’ “The God’s Script” contains a succinct statement of the idea of the “tireless labyrinth of dreams” epitomized in “The King of Rubik” and Oāb:
You have not awakened to wakefulness, but to a previous dream. This dream is enclosed within another, and so on to infinity, which is the number of grains of sand. The path you must retrace is interminable and you will die before you ever really awake.24
Borges’ image of life as an infinite cycle of dreams, suggesting that humans live in a labyrinth of illusions and that unknowability is the inevitable nature of existence, is also explored in a poem by Zend entitled “The Dream-Cycle,” a dizzying zoom-in view of Creation that begins in nothingness and ends in awakening:
Nothing dreams Something
but Something is mostly Void
Void dreams Matter
but Matter is mostly Vacuum
Vacuum dreams a Universe
but the Universe is mostly Ether
Ether dreams Galaxies
but a Galaxy is mostly Space
Space dreams Solar Systems
but a Solar system is mostly Sky
Sky dreams Celestial Bodies
but a Celestial Body is mostly Hollow
Hollowness dreams Beings
but a Being is mostly Empty
Emptiness dreams Consciousness
but Consciousness is mostly Sleep
Sleep dreams Wakefulness
but Wakefulness is mostly Irrational
Irrationality dreams Knowledge
but Knowledge is mostly Chaos
Chaos dreams Existence
but Existence is mostly Nothing
Nothing dreams Everything
before it is ready to awake25
Considering the literary kinship of Borges and Zend, their friendship and mutual esteem is not surprising. Zend didn’t hesitate to fly thousands of miles to meet a writer whose work resonated with his own. He realized that Borges’ fiction could serve as inspiration, and indeed, the spirit of Borges’ can be seen in Zend’s fantastical work that blossomed in the stories, poems, and artworks of Daymares, a good portion of which were written following his meeting with Borges.
To conclude this section, Zend’s typescape Awakening seems apropos as a cul-de-lampe (fig. 7).
Part 11. International Affinities:
Italy (Leopardi and Pirandello)
Melancholy and Masks
Zend’s father laid the foundation for his son’s cosmopolitan outlook by traveling with the boy in Italy during his childhood and sending him to an Italian high school in Budapest. Thus early on, Zend was reading Italian literature and studying with professors such as Joseph Füsi, a specialist in the works of playwright Luigi Pirandello. After Zend immigrated to Canada, he continued his formal studies of Italian literature by earning a Master of Arts degree in 1969 in the Department of Italian and Hispanic Studies at the University of Toronto, where he studied a wide variety of Italian authors and wrote his thesis on Pirandello.
Two very contrasting Italian writers held a particular fascination for Zend: Leopardi, a lugubrious and cynical Romantic poet, and Pirandello, an experimental playwright who revolutionized international modernist theatre.
Giacomo Leopardi (1798—1837):
An Atom in My Ear-lobe
Zend describes Leopardi as “one of the greatest Italian poets; also one of the most pessimistic poets of world literature.”1 Leopardi (fig. 1), a poet associated with the Romantic era, lived much of his short life in a small town near the Adriatic sea. He’s best known for Canti, a collection of poems, and Zibaldone, diaristic prose writings on various topics. The voice that emerges from Leopardi’s oeuvre is a relentlessly melancholic outpouring from an alienated misfit contemplating humanity’s delusions and the absurdity of existence.
Typical for Leopardi’s pessimism is his view that in the end, mankind, old and burdened, arrives
where his way
and all his effort led him:
terrible, immense abyss
into which he falls, forgetting everything.
This, O virgin moon,
is human life.
Man is born by labour,
and birth itself means risking death.
The first thing that he feels
is pain and torment, and from the start
mother and father
seek to comfort him for being born.
As he grows,
they nurture him,
and constantly by word and deed
seek to instill courage,
consoling him for being human.
Parents can do no more loving
thing for their children.
But why bring to light,
someone we’ll console for living later?
If life is misery, why do we endure it?2
Zend shares with Leopardi the mindset of a misfit and skeptic contemplating the absurdity of life and death, albeit often with a more playful tone. The following minimalist poem, for example, compresses Leopardi’s outlook into two words:
World’s Shortest Pessimistic Poem
And in Zend’s tongue-in-cheek “An Epistle to Leopardi,” addressed to “my dear dead friend, / Italian count, poet, philosopher and misfit,” the epistoler tries unsuccessfully to assume the bleak mood appropriate to the dread of death and (quoting Leopardi) its “dark tunnel,” “steep abyss,” and “annihilation.” Although everything dies, from “Universe [to] Quark,” he imagines an afterlife in which one of Leopardi’s “former atoms now resides somewhere / in one of my ear-lobes,” or conversely, “one of the molecules in my brain / was part of the white of [Leopardi’s] big toenail.”
However, try as he might, he finds himself unable to experience the emotions that Leopardi associates with mortality: relief, remorse, unhappiness, and anxiety. As an antidote to Leopardi’s austere melancholia without the promise of paradise, he deploys an absurdly tautological argumentat to prove Leopardi’s obsessive theme to be meaningless: his problem is “not death, but existence,” “against which we have but one weapon: Life,” which, coming full circle, is in turn “solved by death.”4 In their own ways, Zend and Leopardi were religious skeptics or agnostics preoccupied with death, though Zend often takes a more ludic and absurdist tack in his version of existential pessimism. In the epistle Zend cannot help parodizing Leopardi’s gloomy thoughts. However, sometimes he explores the theme more poignantly, as in the following excerpt from “After I Die”:
After I die
Time will be Space
and I will move back and forth in it
every step a generation
and I will watch
the child I was
the man I was —
After I die
“I” will be “he”
After I die
Now will be Then
and I will remember all who lived
Napoleon and Socrates
and Columbus and Leonardo
and Moses and Gilgamesh
and all the nameless ones
will be like days in a long life —
After I die
“I” will be “they”
After I die
Here will be There
and I will expand or shrink at will
the soul of atoms and their particles
of suns and their planets
of galaxies and their solar systems
of universes and their galaxies
will be my soul and they will rotate in me —
After I die
“I” will be “it”5
Even in his poems that are most focused on death, Zend transforms the almost solipcistic Leopardian mortal into a being who posthumously merges with others who have gone before him and with the cosmos.
Luigi Pirandello (1867—1936):
A meaning his author never dreamed of giving him . . .
Luigi Pirandello (fig. 2) is an Italian playwright whose writing is perhaps closer in spirit to Zend’s work than the despairing Leopardi.6 Keeping in mind that in high school Zend studied with a prominent translator of Pirandello, and that Zend wrote his master’s thesis on Pirandello, it is not surprising that his work shares significant themes with the avant-garde Italian dramatist.
Pirandello’s plays revolutionized contemporary theatre. Sometimes framed as metadramas, they create layers of illusion and reality that ultimately sabotage any attempt at epistemological certainty or truth. They usually contain elements of traditional realism, but the audience is soon entangled in a different sort of drama in which narrative fixtures of character, identity, conflict, development, discovery, and resolution are subverted, and nothing is certain.
The plot of an early play, Right You Are, If You Think You Are, consists of the detective work of townspeople attempting to decipher the puzzling behaviour of a family living in their midst. However, that plot quickly spirals into a comedy of errors as the hubris of the busybodies leads them to make incorrect assumptions again and again regarding acts and motives. Each layer of supposed certainty is shown to be deceptive. Peeling back the mistaken reality reveals not ultimate truth but yet another layer of illusion.
One character, Laudisi, serves as a kind of Greek chorus, a foil to the bourgeois characters steeped in a comfortable set of certainties regarding their perceptions. He points out the fundamental error of the amateur sleuths’ presumptuous conclusions:
What can we really know about other people? who they are, what they are, what they do, why they do it?7
As Signora Ponza (one of the inscrutable family members) points out:
I am . . . nobody. . . . I am whoever I’m thought to be.8
Signora Ponza is a “Pirandellian character” in the sense that she seems to have no fixed identity; instead, she is like a mirror reflecting the mask that others want to see in her, and which allows no assumption about her past history or motivations to stick.
Zend wrote about such illusions of the self’s doubleness in his thesis on Pirandello’s characters:
I am two – that is how Pirandello’s human being reveals himself . . . . the one who I am and the one who I think I am. I am two: the one who I think I am and the one who the others think me to be. . . . The mask, my second face, is for society because we are two: the individual alone and the individual in society. My mask can be so strongly attached that it will become my face and my face can be weakened under it so that it will be like a mask. Sometimes I have to wear it for a life-time, sometimes for one occasion. It is possible that my real self will break out for a minute and will be forced to retreat. . . . This is Pirandello’s man. It is like a tree which divides itself into two branches, each branch divides itself again into two smaller branches, and again and again.9
Zend, who had the unusual ability to visualize texts as diagrams or glyphs (as we saw in the installment on Borges), offers in his thesis diagrams showing the complex network of doubling among Pirandello’s characters, such as those in a short story in the collection Novelle per un anno (fig. 3).
Less technical (befitting a thesis) and more playful (befitting a doodle) is Zend’s tribute to Pirandello in one of his sketches, capturing the sense of Pirandellian doubleness, of multiple characters within characters (fig. 4):
In Six Characters Searching for an Author, Pirandello takes uncertainty and illusory masks a giant leap into the abyss and wreaks havoc with any pretense at the normalcy of a self-enclosed drama. Six characters, abandoned by their author, wander onto a stage being prepared for rehearsal. They are seeking a venue in which to flesh out their drama, using the director as author to “complete” their destined roles. The play-within-a-play device assumes a meta-narrative dimension fraught with questions of authorial control, of the knowability of identity, and of the separation of reality from staged illusion.
Zend observes that “Pirandello’s art consists mostly of showing this frame within a frame in many ways”: as flashback, or forecast, or both: “the flashback for one who experienced it in the past might become a forecast for the other who will experience it in the future. . . . Pirandello plays a very strange game in these plays,” using “the big frame within the small frame” so that it becomes difficult to distinguish “which one is the mirror and which one is the mirrored.”10 In the end,
the audience leaving the theatre will feel that their life is watched by an invisible audience somewhere and [that] they live on a stage, infinitely huge.11
Six Characters in Search of an Author creates just such a hall-of-mirrors illusion. It also explores the theme of humanity’s inability to communicate with one another. The characters reject early twentieth-century bourgeois society’s “complacent self-assurance [and] claim to superior knowledge and wisdom.” They are “beset by doubts about their identity, about the possibility of ever being able to communicate it to others, to establish a normal relationship with their society.”12
One of the six, the father of a dysfunctional family, serves a dual role as both character and Greek chorus, interpreting the various layers of illusions to the director and the “real” actors. Here he explains the barrier between self and other:
We all have a world of things inside of us, each a world of his own! And how can we understand each other, sir, if in the words I use I put the meaning and value of things as they are within me; while those who listen inevitably invest my words with their own meaning and value from the world within themselves? We think we understand each other, but we never do!13
Not only are other people like black boxes whose motives and identities can never be known with certainty, but subjectivity itself is illusive and indecipherable, due in part to the multiplicity of identities within the self, as the father points out:
While every one of us believes he is “one,” he is instead “many” . . . in accord with all the possibilities of being that are within us: “one” with this person, “another” with that, all very different! And we have the illusion, meanwhile, that we’re always being the same for everyone, and always that same “one” that we believe ourselves to be, in each of our acts. While it is not true, it is not true!14
The father, who is himself a character at large, separated from his author, observes the phenomenon of characters (and, by extension, literary works) taking on a life of their own:
When a character is born, he immediately acquires such independence even from his own author that he can be imagined by everybody in situations in which his author never thought of putting him, and takes on a meaning, at times, that his author never dreamed of giving him!15
All of these illusions, including Pirandello’s meta-narrative framework in Six Characters in Search of an Author, are at the heart of Zend’s two-volume multi-genre Oāb.
The primary illusion in Oāb is that of the creator’s hubris, his blindness to the growing independence of the creation he gave birth to. Zėnd (a character in Zend’s creation myth — note the diacritical mark above the “e”) writes into existence a two-dimensional being made of ink and paper, Oāb. Zėnd believes that Oāb can never be more than him, that Oāb is entirely knowable because Zėnd has taught him everything, that Oāb is dependent upon Zėnd for existence, and that Zend is at the center of Oāb’s universe.
Zėnd as god-like creator of Oāb believes that he can control his “written doll”:
Look, I can force you to obey:
(since I am writing what you say . . .)16
Like a Pirandellian character unmoored from his creator and “tak[ing] on a meaning . . . that his author never dreamed of giving him,” Oāb assumes a life of his own. His bid for independence becomes painfully clear in his rebellious response to Zėnd’s questions:
“Oāb, what are you doing?”
His voice was full of dignity, almost (isn’t it strange?) “Human dignity”: “It isn’t your business. Do you mind?”
“Not my business? What do you mean? Are you not mine? Didn’t I create you?”
“So what? Now I am. Whether or not you created me, I am I. I live my own life. And you cannot destroy me. Not even if you wanted to.”17
Like the complacent, self-assured amateur detectives in Pirandello’s Right You Are, If You Think You Are, Zėnd is blind to Oāb’s need for independence. Laudisi could have been speaking of Zėnd when he says of the busybodies:
See these crazy people? Instead of paying attention to the phantom they carry around with them, inside themselves, they’re running, bursting with curiosity, after someone else’s phantom! And they think it’s a different thing.18
One of the biggest illusions of all in Oāb is that of Zėnd’s belief in his authorship, not only of Oāb the creature, but of Oāb the books. In reality, as Oāb points out, it is the reverse: it was Oāb who chose his creator, who manipulated his author (tricking him at times into getting what he wants), and who is the literary creator of his eponymous books:
[Ïrdu:] But didn’t he write it, type it,
draw, design, and lay it out?
[Oāb:] Yes, but I led his hand, don’t ever doubt it!19
Similarly, in Six Characters in Search of an Author it’s not so much the author who writes the characters, but the characters who choose and create their authors.
Unlike many of Pirandello’s “blind” characters, Zėnd does come to understand some of the illusions that have blinded him to his flaws. When Ardô, the creator of Zėnd, dies, Zėnd writes a eulogy that acknowledges Ardô’s many faces — in Pirandellian terms, the many masks making up “all the possibilities of being”:
I see a firework of faces, each different,
yet all only variations of one face, yours,
a noble, still familiar, a proud, still tender face:
my oldest memory.
Your head daydreaming high above the clouds,
your feet firmly rooted in the ground,
your heart filled with forgiveness—
an inconceivable tangle of complex contradictions20
Such is the confusion of identity and authorship in Oāb, that Zend could have been referring to his own work and not Pirandello’s when he wrote of the narrative
games . . . of mirrors and parallel and shadows and portraits and alteregos. And their plots usually end with a new start, making a spiral out of a circle:
Oāb also ends with the genesis of book, authorship, and character cycling back on itself and starting creation anew with the perpetual cycle of death and birth (fig. 5):
A Universe Disturbed
Zend was drawn to the works of both Leopardi and Pirandello because of similarities with their philosophical and literary approaches. Yet his own work retains his own outlook that reveals to the reader a Zendian frame of reference.
Not so thoroughly pessimistic as Leopardi, Zend saw in death not the bitter conclusion to a pointless existence. Instead, he found comfort in humour and in the view of death as part of a much larger narrative of matter and energy in the universe.
And not so immersed in postmodern uncertainty and unknowability as Pirandello, Zend sees not a pessimistic prison of mirrors but a cosmic metanarrative in which creature creates his creator. In a reversal of time, the created being comes “from the petrified future into the fog of the past” and now carries the dead father to his own origins, “to the domain where there are no uncertainties, / where there are no words to be found, no decisions to be made, / no struggles, no doubts, no threats and no hopes.”22 In Pirandello, authorial hubris often ends in a stalemate of thwarted attempts to get the narrative on track; in Zend, authorial hubris becomes a generational tale of creation in which death may spell material dissolution, yet the energy of existence is conserved and perpetuated, and the universe is never the same for it.
Part 12. International Affinities:
Belgium (Magritte) and Japan
Robert Zend’s international openness was remarkable, especially during a time when a broad tendency in Canadian culture was to look within Canada’s borders for inspiration in order to foster a national cultural identity. As a cosmopolitan Canadian writer and artist, Zend found affinities and friendships not only in his home countries of Hungary and Canada, but also among a writers, artists, and cultural traditions around the world.
In the last few installments, I’ve discussed his aesthetic kinship with cultural figures in Hungary (Imre Madách, Frigyes Karinthy, and the Budapest Joke of Eastern European Jewish tradition), Canada (Marshall McLuhan, bpNichol, Robert Sward, Robert Priest, The Four Horsemen, Glenn Gould, and Norman McLaren), France (Marcel Marceau), Argentina (Jorge Luis Borges), and Italy (Giacomo Leopardi and Luigi Pirandello). In addition, after his move to Canada, Zend connected with immigrant writers and artists from Italy, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Japan, and Spain, sometimes engaging in creative collaborations with them.
The current installment, which focuses on Belgium (Magritte) and Japanese traditions (haiku and origami), will end my exploration of Zend’s international affinities.
In the next installment, the last substantive one in this series, I’ll show Zend as a multi-media artist who not only worked in more traditional paper collages but also used such unusual materials as thumbtacks, string, toilet paper rolls, and automotive gaskets, and exploited technologies such as the typewriter and the computer to create his visual art. In addition, Zend was a self-described “inveterate doodler,” the truth of which I learned from sifting through the extensive Zend archives at the University of Toronto. From this research, I’ve culled a variety of these sketches, from casual to intricate, poignant to humorous, as well as selected a few examples from his unpublished manuscript entitled How Do Yoo Doodle?.
An Eight-Ball for Magritte
Zend developed his own unique spin on surrealism, informed by an early interest in the fantastical in Hungary and nourished by his study of surrealism in artists such as René Magritte. Of the influence of the latter, most obvious is the portrait of Zend on the cover of Beyond Labels, designed by John Lloyd. The face of the formally-attired Zend is obscured by a large eight-ball; another eight-ball floats in the cloudy sky. The image bears a striking resemblance to Magritte’s 1964 self-portrait with signature bowler hat, Le fils de l’homme, face similarly obscured by an apple (figs. 1 and 2):
Magritte’s own words bespeak the themes of concealment and unknowability in his art:
Everything we see hides another thing, we always want to see what is hidden by what we see. There is an interest in that which is hidden and which the visible does not show us. This interest can take the form of a quite intense feeling, a sort of conflict, one might say, between the visible that is hidden and the visible that is present.1
In Magritte’s statement can be heard an echo of Marcel Marceau’s concern with masks and with illusion and reality, and the passage also strikes a chord with Zend’s own literary and artistic themes.
“Climate,” for example, Zend’s prose poem dedicated to Magritte, is likely an ekphrastic poem based on any of several paintings by Magritte in which the separation between interior and exterior is either confounded or based on an illusion:
In the room in which I work it often rains. Sometimes the sun shines, but usually it’s twilight. Bright in one corner, dark in another, the weather can’t seem to make up its mind.
When I can’t take much more of it, I wander outdoors. The hills are gentle, the brooks are bubbling, the trees are whispering. Then I switch on the overhead light, turn up the heat, draw up a chair, sit down in front of my desk, and begin to work — until the clock tells me it’s time to quit.2
Weather incongruously occupies the writer’s room. And this weather is personified as fickle: it “can’t seem to make up its mind.” The writer seeks relief from the vagaries of the room’s elements and light by wandering outdoors through a soothing scene that is as clichéd — babbling brooks and rolling hills — as it is illusory, instantly morphing into an ordinary interior with overhead light, desk, and clock. In going outside and then inside, the writer has crossed no literal threshold, a clue that the divisions between indoors and outdoors, fickle and pleasant weather, and fantastical and quotidian are not literal either.
Instead, Zend renders a metapoetic image of the act of writing. The writer, disturbed by indecisive climate (perhaps a symptom of writer’s block), mentally steps outdoors into a calming, postcard-like scene, which seems just as unreal as the capricious indoors climate. The artificial banality of the landscape creates the degree of calm distraction that facilitates creative flow. But the results of that flow are not revealed, and the fashioned scenes of room and outdoors, of interior and exterior, themselves become the artifacts of writing, including the oddly mundane yet somehow apt ending: “until the clock tells me it’s time to quit.” Paradoxically, the poem’s subject (the writing of the poem) is both concealed and revealed in the act of writing.
Magritte’s Les Valeurs personelles (Personal Values) (fig. 3) is possibly the work that inspired Zend’s “Climate.” Like Zend’s poem, Magritte’s still life discombobulates the viewer’s sense of indoors and outdoors, and it subverts the normal utility of objects, as in the giant comb and wine glass. Magritte’s surrealism disturbs the normal context of objects (indoors becomes outdoors; small becomes gigantic), a feature of his work that informs Zend’s self-referential poem.
Lastly, in 1971, Zend wrote in Hungarian ten brief poems each entitled “Magritte,” which Janine Zend published in the posthumous collection Versek, Kepversek (1988). As far as I know, no English translation exists of these poems.
And this may be as good a place as any to point out that many other poems by Zend remain untranslated into English, which poses a problem for a more complete discussion of his work. A review in the Ottawa Journal of Zend’s first book of poetry, From Zero to One, praises efforts to translate and publish his poetry:
The poetry of Hungarian-born Robert Zend is surreal, brilliant, and witty. Zend’s fantasies operate between the twin poles of profundity and humour. John Robert Colombo believes (and with reason) that were Zend writing in English or French, he would be recognized as one of Canada’s leading poets: “But because he writes his witty, inventive, resourceful and extremely imaginative poems in his native language, he is known only to a handful of Canadians.”3
Since that time, a good deal more of his work has been translated, and some Zend wrote in English himself. However, much still remains untranslated, including three collections that Janine Zend published after Robert’s death: Versek, képversek (1988), Hazám törve kettővel (1991), and Fából vaskarikatúrák (1993). It would be a gift to Canadian and world culture if more of his works were made available to a wider audience. The republication of out-of-print editions would be a most worthwhile project, as would a collected or selected works edition.
Japan: “The Great Spirit of a Small Nation”
Some of Zend’s poems and visual works were influenced by Japanese poetic forms and cultural traditions, namely, haiku and origami. Among Zend’s unpublished manuscripts is a collection of haiku from the mid- to late-1960s entitled The Fourth Line. Zend states that although he is a “true admirer” of Japanese culture, he makes no claim to approaching anything “faintly similar to the perfection of the original Japanese haiku”:
Besides a lot of other faults, my biggest “westernism” is that I could not eliminate my ego-centrism from my transcendental approach to existence, although I would not give up keeping on trying. . . . Consider [these poems] only as efforts to understand and appreciate through experience the great spirit of a small nation, among the big ones.4
What the haiku in The Fourth Line might lack in formal orthodoxy, Zend makes makes up for in inventiveness, including the following variations:
- Riddles, puzzles which challenge the validity of the mind’s judgment of reality;
- moods, impressions, feelings which are lyrical expressions of my personal life;
- intellectual ponderings on the controversies of our space-age and social problems;
- Western three-liners which have nothing to do with the original concept of haiku;
- jokes, games, drawings, concrete experiments;
- philosophical statements;
- miscellaneous and unidentified.5
Below is a brief sample of poems from The Fourth Line:
Like a severed arm
left on the battlefield
you still give me pain
A cat was meowing
I gave him milk in a plate
Now I am happy
SUNDAY AFTERNOON MOOD:
A POEM IN WHICH THE POET TRIES TO EXPRESS
THE EFFECT OF THE WEATHER
ON HIS MOOD
Among Zend’s Japanese-influenced concrete experiments are works inspired by origami, including a vanishing origami sequence and a page of concrete poems that “folds” the word “origami” in various two-dimensional configurations (figs. 4 and 5):
In his variations on haiku and renderings of origami Zend approaches Japanese traditions with humility and admiration, yet also infuses them with a spirit of playful inventiveness that shows a range of approaches from lyrical to conceptual, and from linguistic to visual.
Part 13. Gaskets, Thumbtacks,
Toilet Paper Rolls . . .
Robert Zend dissolved boundaries, or perhaps more accurately, ignored them. The preceding eight installments demonstrated two ways in which he did so: his international outlook and his exploration of humanity’s place within the cosmos.
In this last substantive installment, I’d like to show a third way. To create his visual art, Zend used technologies that were available to him, including the typewriter and computer. He also used whatever materials were at hand, including automotive gaskets, thumbtacks, and toilet paper rolls. Zend was also a prolific doodler, drawing his casual sketches (some quite intricate) on everything from Post-It notes to cocktail napkins.
I hope that you enjoy this visual feast of works by an extraordinary Canadian writer and artist. I think it’s fair to say that many of these have not been seen publicly for a very long time, possibly not since his death almost thirty years ago. The time is overdue for these visual works to reach a broader audience.
The display of works here is made possible by the kind permission of Janine Zend, who generously allowed me to view, photograph, and (in the case of the toiletters) video them.
The first time I was invited to the Zend home, in October 2013, Janine led me to the dining room table, where there was a box full of cardboard toilet paper rolls on which Robert Zend had drawn poems and designs. In his usual punning humour, he called these found objects “toiletters.” He created scores of these, also drawing on tape rolls, paper towel rolls, and mailing tubes. If it was cardboard and tubular, he drew on it. I knew that he was aesthetically versatile, but these took the notion to a new level. I immediately loved them.
After the arrival that afternoon of Janine and Robert’s daughter, Natalie, the two showed me upstairs, where they searched around for more such objets trouvés. In a closet they found a long mailing tube on which Zend had written a poem spiraling from bottom to top.
Spontaneously, Natalie began reading the poem while she and I slowly rotated the tube. It was a poignant moment, and I was mesmerized. I can only describe the poem as a spiritual crescendo, and as Natalie reached the top of the tube, it seemed all but inevitable that the poem would end on the word “god” or some such epiphany. Suddenly her voice halted, for the cardboard where the last word should have been had been roughly torn off. It looked as though the word had been gnawed off by a rodent. Then it hit me that the tear wasn’t caused by a mouse; it was classic Zend humour, building up anticipation and then thwarting it, in this case with silence at the height of an expected revelation.
His choice of found object, the humble cardboard tube, rings true in the context of his writing and other visual works. The toiletters bespeak an absurdist (and scatalogical) sense of humour and a love of doodling. And he was drawn to the circularity of the tubes as he was drawn to themes involving cyclical processes of creation and destruction as well as images of the uroboros. On reflection, the ultimate household throwaway seems a natural canvas for Zend.
I selected a few toiletters to give an idea of their variety and filmed them on a turntable (Fig. 1).
In a series of collages, Zend traced shapes with automotive gaskets, or “gasquettes” as he dubbed them in tongue-in-cheek eloquent French. More mundanely, he describes the objects as “automatic transmission valve-body separator gaskets . . . courtesy of Gabriel Nagy of Low Cost Automatic Transmissions, Ltd., Toronto.”1 Using these little machine parts as templates, he created highly stylized works such as the following two works in the Gasquette series (figs. 2 and 3):
The Humble Thumbtack
Zend found inspiration in quotidian objects like thumbtacks, pushpins, and string to create multi-media works such as Windmill (fig. 4), which manages to be simultaneously playful and haunting:
The three paper collages below (figs. 5, 6, and 7) show a range of Zend’s stylistic approaches in this medium. The lively motion and rhythm in these works have a musical effect, perhaps owing something to his background as a pianist:
Typewriter and Computer Art:
Typescapes and the Polinear Series
Scattered throughout this essay you’ve seen examples of Zend’s remarkable “typescapes,” such as “Stormelancholix” from Arbormundi (fig. 8):
In this installment I’d also like to present examples of different approaches he took to typewriter art. Oāb is full of playful experimentation with typed characters to illustrate the two-dimensional characters Oāb and Ïrdu exploring the possibilities of their world of paper and ink, as in “ÏRDU IMITATES THE SNAKE, OĀB THE PREY” (fig. 9):
and the following representation of the four creature-creators of Zend’s generational fantasy:
Zend was fortunate to live at a time when computer programs were being developed that allowed artists to take advantage of the possibilities of digital technology. Using such software, he created delicate works of parallel lines and concentric patterns, as in Polinear No. 3 (fig. 11):
An overview of Zend’s visual works would not be complete without a gallery of his doodles. I knew that Zend was a compulsive and prolific doodler, but it was not until I began researching his fonds that I began to understand the sheer number and scope of these off-the-cuff scribblings. His restless creative energy spilled over onto any paper product in sight, be it party napkin, doctor’s tablet, Post-It note, manila folder, or toilet paper roll — all were an invitation to play. If he ran out of paper, he would doodle on the back of a drawing he just made. Thirty-five years later, I was finding these little drawings scattered throughout the scores of boxes in the Zend fonds. Who says research has to be dull?
The doodles are by turns humorous, beautiful, erotic, abstract, and punning, and often a hybrid such as comic-erotic. He took especial delight in caricatures and intricate monograms. Sometimes his sketches turned into ideas for typescapes or other works, and sometimes they seem to be outlines for longer visual sequences. In the punning category, he created a collection of visual/verbal puns entitled How Do Yoo Doodle?, which he produced as coloured slides.
Zend was a paper hoarder – the wastebasket was his enemy. Janine points out that this may have been a reaction to having lost everything, including all of his poetry, during his escape from Hungary in 1956. How fortunate that after that loss he saved every scrap, and that after his death Janine took great care in archiving all of his papers, from the gorgeous and labour-intensive typescapes to the humblest scratchings on an envelope.
The following gallery contains a sampling that I gleaned from the Zend fonds as well as a selection from How Do Yoo Doodle?
Behold Zend’s doodles, like sparks flying from a creative mind that never seemed to rest.
You can hover your cursor over the image for pause, reverse, and forward buttons.
Afterword: Citizen of the Macrocosm
Robert Zend admired Hungarian writer Frigyes Karinthy for his unwillingness “to accept any label, either for himself or for others”:
He didn’t identify with any group; he belonged nowhere, but this non-belonging meant for him an extremely strong belonging to Man, to Mankind, to Humanity.1
Zend similarly disregarded boundaries in seeking out like-minded writers and artists around the world, in shaping themes exploring the connectedness of all humanity and a cosmic sense of place, and in creating art using the most humble and mundane objects.
National culture is a fuzzy proposition, and this is true for the countries where Zend found kindred artists and writers. At a certain point, the idea of nation becomes merely a convenient rubric to demonstrate his cosmopolitanism. For example, within Canadian culture are the cultures of many nations. In turn, the cultures of those nations cannot be thought of as pure but are often congeries of contributions from many peoples across history. As Zend resisted the notion of labels and boundaries, my use of them here might seem to contradict his convictions.
But nations, perhaps especially one such as Hungary, whose language and culture evoke in many Hungarians fierce sentiments of belonging, are of course not totally artificial cultural constructs. And although Canada’s historical quest for a cohesive national culture has been eroded over the decades by the crosscurrent trend toward a national policy of multiculturalism, Canadian cultural protectionism has cast an enduring shadow on any debate on national identity.
Zend had Hungarian cultural roots, and part of his cosmopolitan Budapest heritage was also the thirst to look beyond borders to find literary and artistic kin worldwide. This desire was integral to the freedom that he so valued. In Canada, he had close ties to immigrant as well as Canadian-born artists and writers. Thus his Canadian heritage and legacy are based not so much on national identity as on multicultural affinities.
In the afterword to Oāb, he lists his “spiritual fathers and mothers” as well as “chosen brothers and sisters.” They include poets, artists, sculptors, short story writers, novelists, philosophers, literary theorists, actors, and filmmakers from Argentina, Canada, the United States, France, Austria, Germany, Ancient Greece and Rome, Romania, Flanders, Holland, Ireland, Italy, Russia, Hungary, Great Britain, and Belgium. In short, his tally of creative family is a model of interdisciplinary and cosmopolitan openness.
Zend was a Canadian original: born in Hungary and adopted by Canada, he wrote about both places. He was also a citizen of a broader community of writers and artists and wrote about realms of cosmic dimension. His cosmopolitan outlook is a part of Canadian cultural history. It is a remarkable achievement and an homage to what he most admired in other writers, artists, and cultures without regard to borders.
Thank you for reading my series on the life and work of Robert Zend — I hope you enjoyed it. It has been a great pleasure to work on this project.
A Special Announcement —
The Robert Zend Website
One important matter remains: in a few days, I’ll announce the completion of a significant project recently undertaken by Zend’s daughter Natalie Zend: The Robert Zend Website. This valuable resource provides information on acquiring his books and art and offers information to anyone interested in learning more about his remarkable life and work. Stay tuned . . .
Acknowledgements and Bibliography
Below is a list of heartfelt acknowledgements to the many people who have kindly assisted my research. Particular gratitude goes to Janine Zend, Natalie Zend, and Ibi Gabori, who so generously contributed to this project. Please do not hesitate to let me know if I have overlooked any person or institution.
And for anyone interested in the sources I used during my research, I include a Bibliography at the end of this post.
I am grateful for the kind assistance and generosity of the following:
The family of Robert Zend: Janine Zend, Natalie Zend, and Ibi Gabori
Rachel Beattie and Brock Silverside, curators of the Zend fonds at Media Commons, University of Toronto Library
Edric Mesmer, librarian at the University at Buffalo’s Poetry Collection and curator of The Center for Marginalia, and the other wonderful librarians of The Poetry Collection for their research assistance
Brent Cehan and other librarians of the Language and Literature division of the Toronto Reference Library
The librarians in the Special Arts Room Stacks at the Toronto Reference Library
The librarians at Reference and Research Services and at the Petro Jacyk Central and East European Resource Centre, Robarts Library, University of Toronto Libraries
Susanne Marshall (former Literary Editor for The Canadian Encyclopedia)
“Administrative history / biographical sketch.” Robert Zend fonds. Media Commons, University of Toronto Libraries, Toronto, Canada. http://mediacommons.library.utoronto.ca/sites/mediacommons.library.utoronto.ca/files/finding-aids/zend.pdf
Bangarth, Stephanie, and Andrew S. Thompson. “Transnational Christian Charity: the Canadian Council of Churches, the World Council of Churches, and the Hungarian Refugee Crisis, 1956–1957.” American Review of Canadian Studies 38, no. 3 (2008): 295–316. General OneFile. Web.
The Book of Canadian Poetry. Edited by A. J. M. Smith. Toronto: Gage, 1943.
Borges, Jorge Luis. Comments on back cover of Daymares: Selected Fiction on Dreams and Time by Robert Zend. Vancouver: CACANADADADA Press, 1991.
———. Labyrinths: Selected Stories and Other Writings. Edited by Donald A. Yates and James E. Irby. New York: New Directions, 1964.
Botar, Oliver, to Janine Zend. Email. 9 April 2001.
Buzinkay, Géza. “The Budapest Joke and Comic Weeklies as Mirrors of Cultural Assimilation.” In Budapest and New York: Studies in Metropolitan Transformation, 1870–1930, edited by Thomas Bender and Carl E. Schorske, 224–247. New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1994.
Catalogue. Országos Széchényi Könyvtár (National Széchényi Library) in Budapest, Hungary.
Cavell, Richard. McLuhan in Space: A Cultural Geography. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2003.
Clarity, James F., and Eric Pace. “Marcel Marceau, Renowned Mime, Dies at 84.” New York Times. 24 September 2007.
Colombo, John Robert. Ottawa Journal. 11 May 1974. 40.
Day, Lawrence. “Re: Handbook 386(b) – Ken Field.” Chess Talk. 27 August 2008. http://www.chesstalk.info/forum/printthread.php?s=bea6d4e5851d02610f6670258010f473&t=375
———. IMlday. 23 September 2004. http://www.chessgames.com.
Donaghy, Greg. “An Unselfish Interest? Canada and the Hungarian Revolution, 1954-1957.” In The 1956 Hungarian Revolution: Hungarian and Canadian Perspectives, edited by Christopher Adam, Tibor Egervari, Leslie Laczko, and Judy Young, 256—74. Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 2010.
Federal Research Division, Library of Congress. “Hungary: The Great Depression.” Library of Congress Country Studies. 1989. http://lcweb2.loc.gov/frd/cs/cshome.html.
Ferrazzi, A. Portrait of Giacomo Leopardi. C. 1820. Oil on canvas. Casa Leopardi, Recanati, Italy.
“Fiftieth Anniversary of the Hungarian uprising and refugee crisis.” United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. 23 October 2006. http://www.unhcr.org/453c7adb2.html.
Fifield, William. “The Mime Speaks: Marcel Marceau.” The Kenyon Review 30, no.2 (1968): 155-65.
Fleeing the Hungarian Revolution, Settling in Canada: Photos and documents of Robert, Ibi and Aniko Zend’s voyage November 1956 – April 1957. 1956 Memorial Oral History Project: Materials accompanying Eve (Ibi) Gabori’s interview, 31 March 2007. Prepared by Natalie Zend, 24 June 2007.
Fosler-Lussier, Danielle. Music Divided: Bartók’s Legacy in Cold War Culture. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2007.
Frye, Northrop. Afterword to Daymares: Selected Fictions on Dreams and Time, by Robert Zend. Vancouver: Cacanadada Press, 1991.
Gabori, George. When Evils Were Most Free. Deneau, 1981.
Gabori, Ibi. Interview 01544-2. Visual History Archive. USC Shoah Foundation Institute. Accessed online at the University of Toronto Library.
Gould, Glenn. “If I were a gallery curator . . .” Dust jacket of From Zero to One by Robert Zend. Translated by Robert Zend and John Robert Colombo. Mission, BC: The Sono Nis Press, 1973.
Hahn, Lionel / McClatchy Newspapers. Photograph of Marcel Marceau performing in Westwood, California, in 2002. Available from: The Seattle Times. http://seattletimes.com/html/nationworld/2003899052_marceau24.html.
Hamlet. Directed by Lawrence Olivier. London: Two Cities Films, 1948.
Hidas, Peter. “Arrival and Reception: Hungarian Refugees, 1956—1957.” In The 1956 Hungarian Revolution: Hungarian and Canadian Perspectives, edited by Christopher Adam, Tibor Egervari, Leslie Laczko, and Judy Young, 223—55. Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 2010.
History of the Literary Cultures of East-Central Europe: Junctures and Disjunctures in the 19th and 20th Centuries, Volume 1. Edited by Marcel Cornis-Pope and John Neubauer. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing, 2004.
Hungarian American Federation. “The 1956 Hungarian Revolution in Photos.“ The 1956 Hungarian Revolution Portal. http://www.americanhungarianfederation.org/1956/photos.htm.
Jones, Frank. “The first time I met Ibi Gabori.” Toronto Star. 29 February 1992. K2. ProQuest. Web.
Józsa, Judit, and Tamás Pelles. La Storia della Scuola Italiana di Budapest alla Luce dei Documenti D’Archivio [The History of the Italan School of Budapest, in Light of Archival Documents]. http://web.t-online.hu/pellestamas/Tamas/bpoliskol.htm#_Toc189916144.
Kafka, Franz. “An Imperial Message.” Translated by Willa and Edwin Muir. The Complete Stories. New York: Schocken Books, 1971. 4–5.
Karinthy, Frigyes. “Chain-Links.” Translated by Adam Makkai, edited by Enikö Jankó. http://djjr-courses.wdfiles.com/local–files/soc180:karinthy-chain-links/Karinthy-Chain-Links_1929.pdf.
———. A Journey Round My Skull. New York: New York Review Books Classics, 2008.
———. Tanár úr kérem [Please Sir!]. Budapest: Dick Manó, 1916.
———. Voyage to Faremido: Gulliver’s Fifth Voyageand Capillaria: Gulliver’s Sixth Voyage. Translated by Paul Tabori. London: New English Library, 1978.
Kearns, Lionel. By the Light of the Silvery McLune: Media Parables, Poems, Signs, Gestures, and Other Assaults on the Interface. Vancouver: Daylight Press, 1969.
Kieval, Hillel J. “Tiszaeszlár Blood Libel.” The Yivo Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe. 2010. http://www.yivoencyclopedia.org/article.aspx/Tiszaeszlar_Blood_Libel.
Koehler, Robert. “Pantomimist Marcel Marceau in Performance at Segerstrom Hall.” Los Angeles Times, 11 February 1988. http://articles.latimes.com/1988-02-11/entertainment/ca-41839_1_marcel-marceau.
Kossar, Leon. “Canada Heaven for Hungarians.” The Telegram, 30 April 1957.
Kramer, Mark. “The Soviet Union and the 1956 Crises in Hungary and Poland: Reassessments and New Findings.” Journal of Contemporary History 33, no. 2 (April 1998): 163—214.
Lenvai, Paul. One Day That Shook the Communist World: The 1956 Hungarian Uprising and Its Legacy. Translated by Ann Major. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008.
Leopardi, Giacomo. Canti. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 2010.
Lloyd, John. Portrait of Robert Zend. Cover of Beyond Labels. Translated by Robert Zend and John Robert Colombo. Toronto: Hounslow Press, 1982.
Luther, Claudia. “Marcel Marceau, 84; legendary mime was his art’s standard-bearer for seven decades.” Los Angeles Times, 24 September 2007. http://articles.latimes.com/2007/sep/24/local/me-marceau24.
Madách, Imre. The Tragedy of Man. Translated by George Szirtes. New York: Puski Publishing,1988.
———. The Tragedy of Man. Translated and illustrated by Robert Zend.
Magritte, René. Le fils de l’homme. 1964. Magritte Foundation. http://www.magritte.be/portfolio-item/fils-de-l-homme-2/?lang=en.
———. Radio interview with Jean Neyens (1965), in Harry Torczyner, Magritte: Ideas and Images, translated by Richard Millen, 172. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1977.
———. Les valeurs personelles (Personal Values), Series 2. 1952. Magritte Foundation. http://www.magritte.be/portfolio-item/les-valeurs-personnelles/?lang=en.
The Maple Laugh Forever: An Anthology of Comic Canadian Poetry. Edited by Douglas Barbour and Stephen Scobie. Edmonton, Alberta: Hurtig Publishers, 1981.
Marceau, Marcel. Comments on front inner dust jacket of From Zero to One by Robert Zend. Translated by Robert Zend and John Robert Colombo. Mission, BC: The Sono Nis Press, 1973.
———. Marceau, Marcel. “Marcel Marceau Paintings.” Encyclopedia of Mime. Available at http://www.mime.info/encyclopedia/marceau-paintings.html.
———. The Mask Maker./em> Available at http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x7ffi4_marcel-marceau-le-masque_fun.
———. Portrait of Robert Zend. Drawing (medium unknown). Dust jacket cover of From Zero to One by Robert Zend. Translated by Robert Zend and John Robert Colombo. Mission, BC: The Sono Nis Press, 1973.
———. “This Drawing, Poem, and Zend During and After.” In A Bouquet to Bip by Robert Zend. Exile Magazine 1, no. 3 ( 1973): 121-22.
———. Youth, Maturity, Old Age, and Death. Film stills from 1965 performance. Available on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V5RLTZSrr4A.
Marcus, Frank. “Marceau: The Second Phase.” The Transatlantic Review 11 (1962): 12—18.
Marinari, Umberto. Introduction. Pirandello’s Theatre of Living Masks. Translated by Umberto Mariani and Alice Gladstone Mariani. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2011. 3—26.
Martin, Camille. Entry on Lionel Kearns for The Canadian Encyclopedia. 2013. http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.com/en/article/lionel-kearns/.
Messerli, Douglas. “Frigyes Karinthy.” Green Integer. The PIP (Project for Innovative Poetry) Blog. 30 November 2010. http://pippoetry.blogspot.ca/2010/11/frigyes-karinthy.html.
New Poems of the Seventies. Edited by Douglas Lochhead and Raymond Souster. Ottawa: Oberon Press, 1970.
New York Café, Budapest. Photograph. Available at Famous Coffee Houses. http://www.braunhousehold.com.
Nichol, B. P. The Alphabet Game: A bpNichol Reader. Edited by Darren Wershler-Henry and Lori Emerson. Toronto: Coach House Books, 2007.
———. Art Facts: A Book of Contexts. Tucson: Chax Press, 1990.
———. “Calendar” (detail). Broadside. S.n, n.d.
———. Konfessions of an Elizabethan Fan Dancer. Toronto: Coach House Press, 2004; originally released in Canada in 1974.
———. The Martyrology, Book 6 Books. 1987; reprint. Toronto: Coach House Press, 1994.
———. The Martyrology 5. 1982; facsimile edition. Toronto: Coach House Books, 1994.
———. Meanwhile: The Critical Writings of bpNichol. Edited by Roy Miki. Vancouver: Talon Books, 2002.
———. Merry-Go-Round. Illustrated by Simon Ng. Red Deer, Alberta: Red Deer College Press, 1991.
———. Zygal: A Book of Mysteries and Translations. Toronto: Coach House Books, 1985.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. “The Birth of Tragedy.” Basic Writings of Nietzsche. Translated and edited by Walter Kaufmann. New York: Modern Library, 2000. 1—144.
Nyugat 1938, no. 10. Budapest. Frigyes Karinthy memorial issue.
Pirandello, Luigi. Right You Are, If You Think You Are. In Pirandello’s Theatre of Living Masks. Translated by Umberto Mariani and Alice Gladstone Mariani. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2011. 69—118.
———. Six Characters in Search of an Author and Other Plays. Translated by Mark Musa. New York: Penguin Classics, 1996.
———. Six Characters in Search of an Author. In Pirandello’s Theatre of Living Masks. Translated by Umberto Mariani and Alice Gladstone Mariani. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2011. 119—67.
Priest, Robert, Robert Sward, and Robert Zend. The Three Roberts: On Childhood. St. Catherines, Ontario: Moonstone Press, 1985.
———. The Three Roberts: On Love. Toronto: Dreadnaught, 1984.
———. The Three Roberts: Premiere Performance. Scarborough, Ontario: HMS Press, 1984.
Q Art Theatre. The Tragedy of Man publicity poster. Montreal: Q Art Theatre, October – November 2000.
R., Patrick. Robert Zend. “Memorial.” http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=10862727.
Rippl-Rónai, József. Portrait of Frigyes Karinthy. 1925. Pastel. Petőfi Museum of Literature. Available from Terminartors. http://www.terminartors.com/artworkprofile/Rippl-Ronai_Jozsef-Portrait_of_Frigyes_Karinthy.
Robert Zend bio. Ronsdale Press. Available at http://ronsdalepress.com/authors/robert-zend/.
Robert Zend fonds. Media Commons, University of Toronto Libraries, Toronto, Canada.
Sanders, Ivan. “Karinthy, Ferenc.” The Yivo Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe. 2010. http://www.yivoencyclopedia.org/article.aspx/Karinthy_Ferenc
Six Degrees of Separation. 1993. DVD Culver City, Canada: MGM Home Entertainment, 2000.
Sled, Dmitri. “Partisans In The Arts: Marcel Marceau (1923—2007).” Jewish Partisan Educational Foundation. 12 June 2012. http://jewishpartisans.blogspot.ca/2012/06/partisans-in-arts-marcel-marceau-1923.html.
Standelsky, Eva, and Zoltan Volgyesl. Tainted Revolution. Dir. Martin Mevius. The Netherlands: Association for the Study of Nationalities, 2006.
Stark, Tamás. “‘Malenki Robot’ – Hungarian Forced Labourers in the Soviet Union (1944–1955).” Minorities Research: A Collection of Studies by Hungarian Authors. Edited by Győző Cholnoky. Budapest: Lucidus K., 1999. 155-167. http://www.epa.hu/00400/00463/00007/pdf/155_stark.pdf
Sterne, Laurence. Tristram Shandy. Edited by Howard Anderson. New York: W. W. Norton, 1980.
Szabó, László Cs. Qtd. in “Frigyes Karinthy Author’s Page.” Publishing Hungary. Petőfi Irodalmi Múzeum. http://www.hunlit.hu/karinthyfrigyes,en.
Szaynok, Bożena. “Stalinization of Eastern Europe.” Translated by John Kulczycki. Antisemitism: A Historical Encyclopedia of Prejudice and Persecution, Volume 1. Edited by Richard S. Levy. Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO, 2005. 677—80.
Talpalatnyi föld [Treasured Earth]. Directed by Frigyes Bán. Hungary: Magyar Filmgyártó Nemzeti Vállalat, 1948.
The Toronto Mirror. Published and edited by Robert Zend. October 1961.
Troper, Harold. “Canada and the Hungarian Refugees: The Historical Context.” In The 1956 Hungarian Revolution: Hungarian and Canadian Perspectives, edited by Christopher Adam, Tibor Egervari, Leslie Laczko, and Judy Young, 176—93. Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 2010.
Ungváry, Krisztián. The Siege of Budapest: One Hundred Days in World War II. Translated by Ladislaus Löb. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006.
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington, DC. “Hungary after the German Occupation.” Holocaust Encyclopedia. Last modified 10 June 2013. http://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10005458.
Veidlinger, Jeffrey. “Stalin, Joseph (1879—1953).” Antisemitism: A Historical Encyclopedia of Prejudice and Persecution, Volume 1. Edited by Richard S. Levy. Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO, 2005. 676—77.
Volvox: Poetry from the Unofficial Languages of Canada . . . in English Translation. Edited by J. Michael Yates. The Queen Charlotte Islands, British Columbia: The Sono Nis Press, 1971.
Wershler, Darren. “News That Stays News: Marshall McLuhan and Media Poetics.” The Journal of Electronic Publishing 14 no. 2 (2011). http://dx.doi.org/10.3998/3336451.0014.208.
White, Norman T. “The Hearsay Project.” The NorMill. 11—12 November 1985. http://www.normill.ca/Text/Hearsay.txt.
Zend, Natalie. A Biography of Robert Zend. Unpublished manuscript. 8 March 1983. Personal library of Janine Zend.
Zend, Robert. Ararat. N.d. Paper collage. Private collection.
———. Arbormundi: 16 Selected Typescapes. Vancouver: Blewointment Press, 1982.
———. Beyond Labels. Translated by Robert Zend and John Robert Colombo. Toronto: Hounslow Press, 1982.
———. A Bouquet to Bip. Exile Magazine 1, no. 3 ( 1973): 93–123.
———. Dancers. N.d. Paper collage. Private collection.
———. Daymares: Selected Fictions on Dreams and Time. Edited by Brian Wyatt. Vancouver: CACANADADADA Press, 1991.
———. Eden. N.d. Paper collage. Private collection.
———. Fából vaskarikatúrák. Budapest: Magyar Világ Kiadó, 1993.
———. Film poster produced for Hamlet, directed by Lawrence Olivier (London: Two Cities Films, 1948). Press and Publicity Department of the Hungarian National Filmmaking Company, 1948.
———. Film poster produced for Talpalatnyi föld (Treasured Earth), directed by Frigyes Bán (Hungary: Magyar Filmgyártó Nemzeti Vállalat, 1948). Press and Publicity Department of the Hungarian National Filmmaking Company, 1948.
———. From Zero to One. Translated by Robert Zend and John Robert Colombo. Mission, BC: The Sono Nis Press, 1973.
———. Genesis. N.d. Paper collage. Private collection.
———. Hazám törve kettővel. Montréal: Omnibooks, 1991.
———. Heavenly Cocktail Party. N.d. Paper collage. Private collection.
———. How Do Yoo Doodle?. Unpublished manuscript. Private collection of Janine Zend. Coloration is the author’s.
———. “The Key.” Exile Magazine 2, no. 2 (1974): 57-67.
———. LineLife. Ink drawing on paper. 1983. Box 10, Robert Zend fonds, Media Commons, University of Toronto Libraries. Adapted for digital medium by Camille Martin.
———. “Months of the Super-Year.” Exile Magazine 2, no. 2 (1974): 50.
———. Nicolette: A Novel Novel. Vancouver: Ronsdale Press, 1993.
———. Oāb. Volume 1. Toronto: Exile Editions, 1983.
———. Oāb. Volume 2. Toronto: Exile Editions, 1985.
———. Pirandello and the Number Two. Master’s thesis. University of Toronto, 1969.
———. Polinear No. 3. 1982. Ink on paper. Private collection.
———. Quadriptych in Gasquette series. N.d. Paper collage. Private collection.
———. Science Fiction. N.d. Paper collage. Private collection.
———. Toiletters. N.d. Ink on toilet paper rolls. Private collection.
———. “Type Scapes: A Mystery Story.” Exile Magazine 5 nos. 3-4 (1978): 147.
———. Versek, Képversek. Párizs: Magyar mühely, 1988.
———. Windmill. N.d. Mixed media with thumbtacks, sewing pins, string, and paper on wood. Private collection.
———. “The World’s Greatest Poet.” Exile Magazine 2, no. 2 (1974): 55-56.
———. Zendocha-land. Unpublished manuscript, 1979.
Zend, Robert, ed. Vidám úttörő nyár (Happy Summer Pioneers). Magyar Úttörők Szövetsége (Association of Hungarian Pioneers), 1955.
Zend, Robert, translator and illustrator. The Tragedy of Man by Imre Madách. Unpublished manuscript.
Zend, Robert, and Jerónimo. My friend, Jerónimo. Toronto: Omnibooks, 1981.
“Zend, Robert.” Encyclopedia of Literature in Canada. Edited by W. H. New. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2002. 1234.
I’m excited to announce (with the help of colourized Zend doodles) that Natalie Zend has created The Robert Zend Website. It’s a beautiful tribute to her father and a useful resource for anyone wishing to enjoy and purchase his books and art, and to learn more about his work. Here’s a screenshot of the home page with a link to the site:
Since I started writing about Zend, people have emailed me asking where they can find his work, as many titles are scarce and out-of-print.
The great news is that most of these are now readily available for purchase on The Robert Zend Website, for as long as inventory lasts. The titles include books such as Daymares, Nicolette, and From Zero to One. And of special note to aficionados of typewriter art and concrete poetry, Zend’s portfolio of sixteen “typescapes” entitled Arbormundi (1982), published by bill bissett’s legendary blewointment press, is now available.
The website is already a terrific repository of visual art and audiofiles. In addition, both published and hitherto unpublished materials, including excerpts from Zend’s magnum opus, Oāb, are available on the site by voluntary donation. And Natalie reports that much more will be uploaded over the coming months.
Soon after I began publishing Robert Zend: Poet without Borders, poet Mark Truscott wrote me to express his support of my project, saying that we need to take better care of our literary forebears. The website that Natalie Zend has created does just that, and helps to ensure that her father’s legacy lives on.
Please have a look, enjoy his creative effervescence, consider purchasing one or more titles and offering a donation for the free materials, and leave a comment in the guest registry.
Do you know any Zendophiles-in-waiting? Invite them to check out the website too!