Poetry Book Society Recommendation
The title-poem of George Szirtes’ The Burning of the Books and other poems is the core of this collection of narrative sequences by a writer who came to Britain as a child refugee after the Hungarian Uprising.
Book burning is associated with the Nazis’ burning of what they considered to be subversive books in 1933, but the practice has a long history, right down to our own day. In this particular case the burning refers to the library of Kien, the scholar, in Elias Canetti’s novel Auto da Fé. The poems follow and expand from the events of Canetti’s book in a variety of forms not previously used by Szirtes.
Two further sequences are concerned with history and documentary, one about the discovery of small snippets of film recording the liberation of Penig concentration camp where Szirtes’s mother was imprisoned, and another of songs concerning war and documentary photography. There are also prose poems, monologues, a series of canzoni, a group of poems exploring the origins of love in childhood, and another based on the mythical travels of Sir John Mandeville about the Hungarian Uprising of 1956. The book, as a whole, constitutes an exploration of the range and flexibility of a voice attuned to the patterns of history and the way such patterns transform our sense of the present.
"Any new collection from George Szirtes will treat its readers to a unique poetic combination: immense versatility and virtuosity when it comes to form, but also a tireless sympathy that dwells clear-sightedly on shocks, traumas and hard-won renewals from a century of migration and massacre. This volume has typically strong-voiced sequences... But its title sequence truly takes the breath away: a meditation on the love and hatred of knowledge, and why fury against literature did not start or end on Nazis' pyres... Read Szirtes to feel the exquisite, excruciating paper cuts of history."
Boyd Tonkin, The Independent
"Szirtes's brilliant use of difficult verse forms like canzoni, sonnets, villanelles and terza rima feels like a defiant and extravagant display of craft in the face of those who would burn books. As the German poet Heine once wrote, 'where they have burned books, they will in the end burn people.'"
Andy Croft, The Morning Star
"… his poetry weighs the destructive, displacing forces of history against the staying power of language… Szirtes is a master craftsman…"
Paul Batchelor, The Times (Best Poetry Books of 2009)
"... it's history that powers these poems: great slugs of it, paying out across lengthy sequences on everything from the 1956 Hungarian uprising to the book-burning of the pungent title... one of the English language's most limber wordsmiths."
Sarah Crown, The Guardian
"It is a wonderful book to experience, as is anything by an artist so at one with this form. The title sequence is a masterwork of dense lyricism and imagist musing, and serves as a fitting introduction to the profound excellence that follows."
Gary Raymond, Raconteur
"A brilliantly virtuosic collection of deeply felt poems concerned with the personal impact of the dislocations and betrayals of history. The judges were impressed by the unusual degree of formal pressure exerted by Szirtes on his themes of memory and the impossibility of forgetting"
Douglas Dunn, on Reel, winner of the T.S. Eliot Prize.
"A major contribution to post-war literature… Using a painter-like collage of images to retrieve lost times, lives, cities and betrayed hopes, Szirtes weaves his personal and historical themes into work of profound psychological complexity"
Anne Stevenson, Poetry Review
George Szirtes was born in Budapest in 1948, and came to England with his family after the 1956 Hungarian Uprising. He was educated in England, training as a painter, and has always written in English. In recent years he has worked as a translator of Hungarian literature, producing editions of such writers as Ottó Orbán, Zsuzsa Rakovszky and Ágnes Nemes Nagy. He co-edited Bloodaxe’s Hungarian anthology The Colonnade of Teeth. His Bloodaxe poetry books are The Budapest File (2000); An English Apocalypse (2001); Reel (2004), winner of the T.S. Eliot Prize; New & Collected Poems (2008) and The Burning of the Books and other poems (2009), shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot Prize in 2009. Bloodaxe has also published John Sears’ critical study Reading George Szirtes (2008). Szirtes lives in Norfolk and teaches at the University of East Anglia.