George Szirtes is a celebrated British-Hungarian translator and poet who arrived in England as a refugee at the age of eight, a self-described “English poet who has never written a poem in Hungarian,” a former professor, the son of a Jew who changed his name from Shwartz for safety’s sake, and above all else, a European.
The 68-year-old Szirtes is not accustomed to staking out a political standpoint and fighting its cause. Szirtes won the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize for his first volume of poetry, The Slant Door, in 1979, and two years ago he shared the Man Booker translation award with Ottilie Mulzet when the international prize went to Hungary’s László Krasznahorkai. In between, Szirtes has been awarded the T.S. Eliot Prize and a host of distinctions for his plays and librettos and poems.
An Honorary Fellow of Goldsmith’s College in London, a quiet writing life in Norfolk should be his reward by now. Instead, Szirtes has found himself thrown into the struggle for Europe—for the very idea of Europe—a cause that has been taking a great kicking from all sides lately. In recent days, Szirtes and tens of thousands of brave young Hungarians, in a most unexpected turn of events, have been kicking back.
The main battleground has been in the streets of Budapest, in the vicinity of the Central European University, a prestigious independent university established a quarter of a century ago, shortly after the Soviet Union collapsed and the brittle Warsaw Pact regimes gave way to what Szirtes and so many of his generation were once convinced would be a lasting emancipation from tyranny.
“We thought we were going to get a social democratic Europe,” Szirtes told me during a conversation the other day. “That is not what has happened.”
In Hungary, what has happened is the populist, xenophobic, nationalism of Prime Minister Viktor Orban has been slowly tightening the noose on liberal democracy, by way of constitutional amendments and statutory encroachments upon the formerly independent judiciary, the news media, civil society organizations, and now, the University of Central Europe.