The Edge of Reality: An Introduction

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My father reading a bedtime story for me (in the middle) and my brother. (Photo from the family archives.)

I have always been, and chose to remain, a child who refuses to distinguish between fairytales and reality.

Having come from a relatively average middle-class Eastern-European family with no specific traumas passed down to my generation from times of oppression, crisis and mass murder, the stories that most defined me were not mine or my ancestors’ in particular, but belonged to the broader cultural tradition of Europe and its Eastern regions.

The most important memories I have from my childhood are not stories that happened to me but stories my parents read to me and my brother before going to sleep, and stories I read by myself from an unusually early age, keeping my passion for books and stories up to this day.

I’ve had, at least from most people’s perspective, a most uninteresting life. I was not the one others might describe as someone »living on the edge«, as it is depicted in the classic Aerosmith music video.

Even my coming to terms with my homosexuality, my coming out to my parents, and, a few years later, my finding the love of my life was a process completely devoid of drama, conducted in a calm and civilized way that wouldn’t even provide enough writerly material for a short story.

But let me put it another way.

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Multiple portrait taken in Venice. (Photo by Zsolt Korai, 2007.)

From the moment I can remember, I have not been one person, but many.

Living through the stories I read during my childhood, youth, and basically, all my life, I lived a thousand lives and died a thousand deaths. Apart from being the strange, silent boy who always preferred the company of books to other human beings, I was also a young woman trembling with the passions of first love, a tired businessman struggling with a midlife crisis, and a spiteful old crone hatching dark plans against everyone younger and more beautiful than she is.

One day I rode dragons into otherworldly sunsets and the day after I flew spaceships in the velvety dark of outer space.

I’ve experienced emotions more than enough for one lifetime; from devilish perversion to boundless cruelty, sober wisdom to divine foolishness, nothing was alien to me.

I always thought that one careful reading of Madame Bovary gives you a better understanding of the human psyche than ten self-help books about the joys of marriage and the dangers of adultery, and during the thirty-something years of my life, I haven’t been proven wrong.

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The portrait of Marcel Proust and the 4-volume Pléiade edition of À la recherche du temps perdu accompany me to wherever I travel in the world. (Photo by the author, at Schloss Solitude, 2016.)

In my university years, my great hero, quite logically, became Marcel Proust. He was the one who taught me that the word »I« is, in fact, a collective noun. In his madly meticulous, undulating prose, he showed me that the concept of a person’s »real« character, that secret and authentic core of every personality that is supposed to reveal itself in times of great crisis, or during sex, or during severe emotional meltdowns – whatever your preferred theory might be – is a myth. There is no such thing as the »real me« or the »real you.«

What we are, or at least what we can best understand ourselves to be, is a constantly changing configuration of social roles, aspirations, emotions, desires and dreams, memories and misunderstandings, expectations and exaggerations, and another myriad factors, some of it brought from our own childhood, some of it from the last few hundred years of our social class or geopolitical region, and some of it from the beginning of time. And whatever comes to the surface at any given moment, is influenced by the whirlwind of impulses and sensations we gather from the outside world, from what our abusive grandmother taught us about table manners to the furtive glance of the beautiful girl sitting next to us and the sudden, unexpected urge to urinate, while we taste the wobbling, watery oyster on our plate which in turn, with its salty taste of the ocean, will also make us remember a long-gone seaside vacation.

Calling this mess a person with a core and expecting any consistency of it is like putting a herd of crazy cats on a boat in a sea storm and supposing it will go in one direction.

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Channeling Marcel Proust while writing at Szigliget, Hungary. (Photo by Petra Szőcs, 2007.)

Through helping me say goodbye to the monolithic concept of the self and moving on towards a more complex, network-like perception of it, Proust also proved to me what I had suspected all along – right from the times when my imagination roamed freely in the worlds of my parents’ bedtime stories: that there is a surprising lack of hierarchy between the impulses we gather from the so called real world and the worlds of so called make-believe. In fact, our real-life behavior is influenced as much by the stories we hear and read – and wish to enact or avoid in our own lives – as by what we experience in the flesh; and sometimes, even our physical bodies create stories of their own which have no real foundation in external reality. And among these various kinds of impulses great art may be the best, if not the only, way for us to ever get a glimpse of another soul’s reality in all its complexity.

Later on, as I became a fiction writer myself, my stories always revolved around this very same question: the curious osmosis between life and art, not so much in the framework of Thomas Mann’s »bourgeois versus bohemian« problematic – though I had a fair share of »Mann-mania« as well in my early years – but rather in exploring stories in which other works of art, a piece of music, a painting or a poem, have life-changing effects on my protagonists. Sometimes, artworks served them as special, optical tools of observation or introspection, enabling them to look at their life and the lives of others from a different perspective; sometimes, they served as ways to communicate truths and feelings they found otherwise inexpressible.

Needless to say, as I was recounting their stories, I was also telling my own: I saw my frequent references of the works of other artists, my heroes and teachers, not as a kind of snobbish name-dropping – as some of my critics did – but rather as doors and passageways opening out from the edifice of my own feeble work, through which the reader would be able to travel towards even more interesting and inspiring realms.

I wanted to share the magic. But I also wanted to prove to myself and the others that I didn’t waste my life in the libraries and reading rooms of my youth: I enriched it in ways that a single lifetime of adventures never could have, however turbulent it would have been.

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At a reading with Hungarian poet Márton Simon (in sunglasses). (Photo by Libri Publishing, 2014.)

Then a little time passed and I found myself being the editor-in-chief of literary fiction at a Hungarian publishing house that during the course of just a few tumultuous years, has become one of the country’s leading companies in the field.

On the outside, I had a regular day job in a prominent office building in the city centre; but during those days, one week I was consulting a writer on the wardrobe choices of fin-de-siècle vampires, and discussing the technicalities of serial murder with another one; the next week I gave new names to the inhabitants of a dystopian city, and advised yet another writer on the dramaturgy of space flight.

So caring for fiction became my profession and daily bread.

I managed to make it into adulthood by never leaving my favorite childhood place; the place that I would later call »the edge of reality.«

As a child, I was amazed and enchanted by the fictional worlds writers and storytellers constructed with the mere putting together of words and punctuation marks. Now I was admitted behind the scenes to look at their internal architecture, the nuts and bolts holding together a universe, and the hidden trap doors and service alleys that run behind the fantastic façades of fictional fortresses. And my payed job was to make sure no curtain falls unexpectedly during the show, when the reader arrives to this carefully crafted theatre of illusions.

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Saying goodbye to my career as editor-in-chief of literary fiction of Libri Publishing. (Photo by Libri Publishing, 2014.)

By this time I already came to look at my own life as a kind of story by itself: although it remained more or less as uneventful and untouched by cataclysmic events as it always has been, when I looked back on it reaching my thirties, it would have been hard to deny that a certain kind of divine dramaturgy emerged from the meandering patterns of events and coincidences that governed its course. The simple fact that I was able to reach this age without any crippling traumas wounding me for life seemed to be, as it does even today, impossible without supposing not one, but several Gods spreading their protective hands over the cogs and wheels of my fortune.

So it was with a kind of detached, amused bewilderment that I saw myself a few years later, at the very height of my publishing career, as all of a sudden I’ve quit my job and moved to one of the most unrealistic places one can find on planet Earth without leaving the geographical and cultural boundaries of Europe: that barren, windswept rock in the middle of the Atlantic known by the very unwelcoming name of Iceland.

With a grant given by the Icelandic government to learn the Icelandic language at the Háskóli Íslands in Reykjavík, soon enough I found myself on a plane heading once again towards the edge of reality, but this time in real life, in physical space.

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At a family trip to Sólheimajökull in South Iceland. (Photo by Péter Dunajcsik, 2015.)

Iceland can be legitimately called this for many reasons, but I’ll only name a few, crucial points in this introduction.

It’s not just that if you go further north of Iceland, you’ll find nothing else than the North Pole itself. There are also the literally otherworldly landscapes, which not only served as a training ground for mankind’s first Moonwalkers when Neil Armstrong & Co. visited the Askja caldera in 1967 as part of their preparation for their interplanetary expedition, but which were featured in every other science fiction movie of the last decade, from Oblivion and Interstellar to The Force Awakens and Rogue One.

Then there is the insanely rich and detailed cultural tradition of Icelandic legends and folktales, all precisely connected to real, mappable locations in the country, with tales of trolls and elves, ghosts and magicians still very much living in the memory of contemporary Icelanders; a language that, even to this day, has no two separate words to distinguish between an invented story (»saga«) and factual history (»saga«), and an incredible medieval corpus of texts (»the sagas«) which are equally researched by historians and literary scholars, the former trying to know more about the social, political and everyday life of Icelanders in the 9th and 11th centuries, the latter exploring the behavior of monsters and magicians during that very same period, working from the very same manuscripts as their sources.

And then, of course, there is contemporary Icelandic society, which has, in fact, never stopped excelling in the grand art of confabulation: just convalescing from the financial meltdown of 2008 which also involved an awful lot of self-deceptive myths and narratives, and an insane amount of money that only existed in fiscal fairytales, it is currently cashing in on its unrealistic qualities listed above by reinventing itself as a dream destination for tourism, pumping up an »Iceland myth« updated for the 21st century by promoting itself as the world’s most beautiful, most welcoming, most peaceful, socially progressive, and eco-friendly nation, while remaining silent on the widespread corruption and nepotism in its political high class, its future plans for (and long history of) environmental destruction, let alone the devastating effects of the tourism industry on local creative and cultural life.

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A few tourist shots from a trip to the West Fjords of Iceland. (Photos by the author, 2016.)

As a new immigrant in that strange country, I also found myself trapped in the »Iceland myth,« a situation which was the complete opposite of my previous status: now as I was living the quite boring daily life of a university student, going to classes nearly every day and doing homework in the evenings, trying to make ends meet in one of the world’s most expensive countries, I had a really hard time making my friends and relatives understand back home that this was not, in fact, a constant vacation, and my life had not been transformed into a fairytale.

Yes, I’ve walked on glaciers with several kilometers of solid ice under my boots; I’ve seen the mesmerizing dance of the radiant Northern lights from my own balcony; I’ve visited the countryside parish where old Iceland’s most famous magician-priest lived; I sat next to Björk in the hot tub of a neighborhood swimming pool and for a time, walked daily by her house on the seashore on my way to class, while watching innumerable breathtaking sunsets and sunrises over the Atlantic ocean.

These are memories that I will always hold dear in my heart; experiences that profoundly shaped me. But these are but a fraction of the story of my Icelandic journey, which also included a great deal of strife, depression, insecurity, inconvenience, loneliness, and disenchantment. Especially because I was not alone on this journey, since my life partner – with whom I’ve been together for ten years now – accompanied me to this faraway land.

He didn’t have the security of the state grant I had, and through his struggle of trying to find projects and jobs for himself in his very specialized field, we also got a taste of the downsides of the Icelandic fairytale: the restrictive smallness and provinciality of the market, especially when it comes to art and technological innovation, the lack of organization and planning when working with the locals, the near impenetrability of the art scene, and later on, when he started to work as a barista in a hip neighborhood coffeehouse to sustain himself, the exploitation of immigrant workers and the exasperation of day-to-day work in the catering trade.

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Cca. 250 kg of our luggage that we took when leaving Iceland. In total we brought twice as much back to the Continent. (Photo taken by the author at Keflavík International Airport, Iceland, 2016.)

By the end of two years of constant struggle, it became clear to us that it was time to move on. After all, by that time I already had what I’d initially come for: a knowledge of the Icelandic language that granted me access to this country’s exceptionally exciting and rich literary heritage. Its myths, folk tales, sagas, and contemporary novels, are all portals through which the world of Iceland can be reached from any geographical destination – portals that I carried in heavy suitcases back to the Continent when we said goodbye to the land of ice and fire in search of a place where the talents and professional expertise of both of us could bloom and shine in equal measure.

But returning to Europe and due to another unexpected intervention by the Gods guarding our fate, this farewell to our fairytale land didn’t exactly lead us »back to reality,« at least for a few months. Thanks to another grant, this time from the Akademie Schloss Solitude, we first caught our breath in an 18th century castle in Germany – a place of profound unreality in its own right – where for three months we were able to pursue some of our less profitable passions, such as telling stories and creating miracles, one of these being the spectacular projection on the Solitude castle by my partner in the depths of the December night.

“Reshaping Solitude” Real-Time Mapping from Zsolt Korai on Vimeo.

After that came seven months of temporary resettlement in Budapest: returning to the city we fled from a few years ago, walking the well-known streets in a sort of limbo when everything seems too real and too spectral, too ghost-like at the same time. Most of these seven months I’ve spent far, far away from my everyday reality chained to my working desk that served me as an escape pod and a time machine. I was translating the lost stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald, published under the title I’d Die For You, into Hungarian. I roamed the cold mountain tops of North Carolina in the 1930s, the vibrant streets of post-depression New York and frequented the ornate mansions of the beautiful and the damned where Fitzgerald used to go to collect material for his writings.

And then I plunged into my next translation project, a few oceans and almost five centuries away from the previous one: a collection of shorter Old Icelandic sagas about trolls, mountain giants and other beings that have never before been translated into my mother tongue.

This is still a work in progress that, although it began in Budapest, will be finished in yet another place of its own unreality, where we are moving in August this year; the city which so many have learned to call home from those who can’t seem to find a home anywhere in the world – Berlin.

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Workstation during the translation process of Bárðar saga Snæfellsáss, the story of a troll prince who moved to Iceland to become a peaceful farmer but then moved to the glaciers to treat his severe depression with clean mountain air and solitude.

(A previous version of this autobiographical essay appeared in Schloss–Post on the 2nd of November, 2016.)

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