Istvan Bella

Playful and prolific poet
Click to follow
The Independent Online

István Bella, poet and translator: born Székesfehérvár, Hungary 7 August 1940; married (one son); died Budapest 20 April 2006.

After the suppression of the 1956 revolution by Soviet tanks in Hungary, it took over seven years for Hungarian literature to heal its wounds. It was only in 1964 that the great "apolitical" poet Sándor Weöres could publish his book of verse Tuzkút ("Firewell") and a year later that László Nagy's excellent collection Himnusz minden idoben ("Hymn at Every Time") reached the public. These were the two contemporary poets whom István Bella admired most and in whose footsteps he set out at the beginning of his career when as editor of the short-lived literary journal Tiszta szívvel ("With a Pure Heart"), he and his friends, members of the poetic group Hetek ("The Sevens"), provoked the attention and disapproval of the Communist authorities.

At the time Bella was already employed as Librarian at the Law Faculty of the Eötvös Loránd University of Budapest. He was born in 1940 at Székesfehérvár (his father lost his life as a soldier in the Second World War) and began studying Hungarian literature and librarianship in 1959; but, in spite of two periods at the university (1959-61, 1962-64), he never took his final degree.

As a talented young poet, however, he spent a year in Poland in 1968-69 on a Hungarian Writers Association scholarship. After holding various jobs as a journalist, and cultural educationalist in a factory, from 1978 to 1991 he was on the editorial board of the weekly Elet és irodalom ("Life and Literature"). After the change of regime he earned his living a a freelance poet and translator, mainly from Polish.

Bella's poetry is halfway between the traditional and the avant-garde models; while his favourite verse form is the song or the ballad, full of vivid imagery, he often ventured into longer, elegiac constructions. Several of the latter were part of his collection Hetedik kavics ("The Seventh Pebble", 1975), which is thought of as Bella's finest achievement.

Both "Szeretkezéseink" ("Our Love-Makings") and "Oszip Emiljevics Mandelstam éjszakái, 1-15" ("The Nights of E.O. Mandelstam") use a mosaic technique. The Mandelstam poem selects snapshots from the exiled poet's life against a blinding white Siberian background: "Snow / is the moon / of winter". This poem had an unusually successful run, an English translation appearing first in the multilingual anthology Homage to Mandelstam (1981), being subsequently included in The Colonnade of Teeth: modern Hungarian poetry (1996) as well as in In Quest of the Miracle Stag: the poetry of Hungary (volume ii, 2003).

Bella's first collection was published in 1966; it was followed by more than 10 separate books of verse and two collections of poems for children. His collected poems, published in 1999 as Tudsz-e még világul? ("Do You Still Speak 'World'?"), show him a playful and prolific poet, enjoying weird puns and the sound of words freshly coined by himself.

In his younger years István Bella was a heavy drinker and smoker; later, with his health deteriorating, he stopped smoking. Generally much liked, he tried to stay out of the often vicious political struggles which have poisoned the atmosphere of Hungarian cultural life since 2003. In 2001 he received the Kossuth Prize, Hungary's highest literary award.

George Gömöri