The histories of Hungarian literature and the Coffee house have intertwined from their earliest beginnings. The matchless beauty of New York Coffee House has inspired several great Hungarian poets; Kosztolányi Dezső was one of them. It was he who penned the lines below, where the Coffee House itself receives the odd mention too.
Kosztolányi Dezső (1885-1936) was one of the most prominent lights of the contemporary art world; he was a writer, a literary translator, a critic, an essayist, a journalist, and a founding member of the first generation of contributors to Nyugat. It is this era that the below poems and quotations evoke. They transport us right back to the unique zeitgeist of the time, and allow us to see through his eyes both the inner turmoil and the sense of privilege bestowed on those inhabiting this world, ever embroiled in lamenting their misspent youth, hatching plans for the future, and getting fired up over dreams and ideas.
Kosztolányi Dezső: Spiritual séance in New York Coffee House
The mist of coffee twirls swiftly through
The shifting haze of this wintry morning,
And where we once gorged ourselves on
Glory, tobacco and black coffee,
Amongst women, under lights, with raw passion,
I sense the impossible itself now,
Fancy, adventure, and the wild ether scent of
Scores of my old poems, and of my youth.
See, you could appear now, Osvát. Death might
Even allow you to show up here and meet us,
Go on, light up there behind the baroque column,
Let me see one more time, in my eternal unhealed
Grief, you, long-gone, bright apparition,
And your mighty, cracked specs.
Kosztolányi Dezső: Esti Kornél (excerpt)
“The house resounded with chatter, the noise on the gallery kept swelling. They sensed this din confer pace, meaning and direction on their lives. No table, no box was left untaken. Cigarette smoke rose and merged into a cloud. It felt good to recline in this misty vibe, in this warm puddle, to have the mind subdued into passive observation of the heaving ebb and flow all around…”
Kosztolányi Dezső: You, New York Coffee House, where I spent so many days
New York, you coffee house, where I spent so many days,
Let me open your door, and maybe take a seat,
Just like a pauper, lying in the street,
To see what remains of me and of this place.
On a late summer afternoon, as all tuck into dinner,
I’d sit and sip a lukewarm evening coffee there,
And, like, a good Catholic, say a little prayer,
And lament my spent youth and lament my spent fever.
About my friends, and a divinely daring,
Wild poet, who was seated here, red-lipped,
In a dark red vest, with charcoal locks, slicked,
That crackled and threw sparks at every combing.
We sat here happily, and our fiery words
Harboured bombs and the dawn of a new age,
Us, threadbare and famished knights of the night,
Like sated murderers, like killers so young.
Because killers of time are the merry kind,
Whose talents were bestowed by divine grace,
And squandered gazing at pool tables for days,
And the white of billiard balls speeding by.
And we were glad when the sun had retired,
Our souls soared here in the dreary clamour,
As we penned poems to court dames of glamour,
Each one a dove, wrought from smoke and light.
We stayed here till dawn, and went, freer than God
At daybreak, out on the deserted streets,
The frosty air between our healthy teeth,
And sleepily swam in the public bath’s froth,
Our threadbare coats strewn with stars of frost,
And, on Dohány street, with their shady suitors,
Like pink roses, ladies slowly sauntered:
We overflowed with our lives and dark Budapest.
My blessed gypsy-days, blessed electric light,
Here through falling sparks, shifting chinks, and
a tentative beam, atremble on my front,
but leaving my face in the murk of the night.
I lose myself in this half-dream of half-light,
and rummage through rubbish in my unsoothed sorrow,
And stir memories with my stick as I burrow,
And glimpse, mirrored, my thinning hairline.
You, a sacred court of my heart and words,
Imparted dreams to me, and unknown pleasures,
As the swelling tide burst through unmeasured,
Leaving me now in a long-tranquil world.
Only the fierce remain, whom nothing will subdue,
I look round and seek a friend who’d make me stay,
And furtively tap my glass, and the table – do they say
What they, and my heart, my heart used to?
What am I still doing here? Those who longed to sleep
Drifted off long ago, vacated their seats, and have gone
To reclaim their cradles in the heart of the one above,
And Tantalus has even had his thirst quenched, indeed.
I drag myself out of here more forlorn than the hawker
Who sidles up to us peddling a tin rattle and toad,
Then numbly slips off in the night, his young, yet sombre
Face soaked in tears, as he knows everyone’s bored.