One of the special joys of my time in the MFA program at the University of Massachusetts was taking a fiction workshop with Tamas Aczel. It was during the spring semester of 1993.
Aczel’s teaching style—in academic lingo, his pedagogy—was the first thing that got me hooked. At the professor’s behest, our class met at a restaurant, specifically the Lord Jeffery Inn, a regal establishment that had long been a fixture of the center of Amherst, Massachusetts.
There were twelve of us in Aczel’s fiction workshop, men and women of different ages and just as many styles and tempers. Yet, as the semester progressed, we began to evolve into a vibrant community, forming a strong bond.
One reason for this was our shared passion. We were all deeply invested in the business of reading and writing. I’d suggest, however, that a far more important reason was Aczel himself. He was an understated but quietly magnetic presence, and he acted as the glue for our small creative community. There was an avuncular gravitas about the man. That gift enabled him to hold our idiosyncrasies in check and beseeched us to coalesce into a close-knit, cohesive tribe, a republic forged by letters.
I’d hazard that the ambience of the Lord Jeffery shaped the dynamics of the workshop. At each weekly workshop, Aczel picked up the bill for our drinks: beers, wine, spirits, juices and sodas. Sometimes, when his generosity was on an expansive scale, he also paid for hors d’oeuvres. We’d eat and drink as we responded to our peers’ short stories or excerpts from novels, or grappled with some question of craft or broad issue of literary practice provoked by Aczel’s comment.
The experience of being in Aczel’s workshop was inspiring. It fed my intuition that few other sensations triggered imaginative flights and disposed the mind to creative contemplation than the sight and fragrance of food. It also gave me a new appreciation of the seductive power of beverage on the tongue.
Aczel was a remarkable man in many ways. In physique he was rather smallish in stature, but managed to project a patrician carriage. He had the kind of facial features that would be a portrait artist’s delight, a face that suggested erudition and aristocratic bearing. To me, he looked older than his seventy years. Yet, time did not mar him; it decorated him, lent him an aura of power. An impressionist rendition of his face would include a pipe hanging from his lips, a wisp of smoke curved upward, slightly obscuring sharp, lively eyes, narrowed.
By the time I met him in 1993, Aczel was seventy-one—and a year away from his death on April 18, 1994. He was hunched over, often walked with a stick, his gait slow. Sometimes he seemed lost in his long, dark winter coat. Yet, there was nothing deathly about his appearance or manners. He had a commanding presence, one that filled any space he entered.
He spoke an urbane English, in a deliberate, cultivated vein. His voice, clear and resonant, belied his age. And there was a faintly Oxonian quality to his enunciation. His speech seemed shaped by the years he had spent in the UK after breaking with the communist rulers of his native Hungary in the late 1950s.
At our workshops, he spoke sparingly, as if words were the most dear of commodities, the over-use of which he considered unconscionable. Sometimes he offered broad comments on the story or novel excerpt we were critiquing. Sometimes he zeroed in on some technical detail. Sometimes he asked a question or a series of questions, nudging us to think about some aspect of a work. A man of prodigious intellect, he often mentioned some familiar or remote author or unknown or known text that a work under critique recalled for him.
I hung on to his every word. Despite his parsimoniousness—or, in fact, owing to it—whatever he had to say seemed to me to have a weight to it, precious as heck.
I was curious about the man. So I scavenged for bits and pieces of his biography, his past. What I found was, I believe, a concatenation of facts and fiction, but it transformed the man for me. In my eyes, at least, he was a legend.
Once upon a time, Aczel had been a towering figure among the literary figures of communist Hungary. He’d won the highest state-sponsored accolades. In the end, he had become despondent about the Hungarian communist regime, particularly the predations of its apparatchiks whose fealty was to their Soviet masters. He’d risked life and limb for a while as a dissident. He ultimately fled to London. In the UK, he had found both love and a space that empowered the flowering of his imagination. Then, fed up with an intellectual atmosphere in Europe that sometimes flirted with or romanticized communism, he had made another flight, this time across the waters to the US.
A year or two before I became his student, Aczel had published what proved to be his last novel, The Hunt. The work had appeared after a hiatus of close to a decade since the writer’s previous novel, Illuminations.
Even without reading his books, I took it on faith—and felt—that I was in the presence of a writer of immense consequence.
At any rate, I admired Aczel’s courage in forsaking all the preferment he stood to receive had he stayed back in Hungary, had he ingratiated himself with the communist machinery. Instead, he’d elected to renounce the system; he had chosen not to remain a complacent producer of ideologically rigid, formulaic verse and fiction. That act of defiance appealed to me.
As a writer, I desperately wanted to earn Aczel’s approval, especially to impress him with the seed of what became my first novel, Arrows of Rain. One day, at the very end of the first round of the workshop, I offered two consecutive chapters of Arrows for the workshop.
I arrived at the Lord Jeffery in a mood split between mild excitement and anxiety. I took ample gulps of my glass of Guinness, to steel myself. As was the custom, I read a few paragraphs from my work. My classmates responded to it. Most liked it, others made suggestions for revisions, and one or two were no fans. It was a typical kind of day at a workshop. Except for one awfully odd development: Aczel had not uttered a word about my work. Not one. His silence unnerved me.
Class ended, and I fully intended to make a swift escape, confused as hell.
“Okey,” the professor called out. His magisterial voice stopped me in my tracks. “I’d like you to come see me in my office.”
“Okay,” I managed, a lump caught in my throat.
A day or two later, I mustered the courage to knock on his door at Bartlett Hall, the English Department.
“Come in,” he beckoned in a strong, commanding voice.
His head was set down when I walked in. He was reading something, the bridge of his pair of glasses at the very tip of his nose. Without much raising his head, he lifted his eyes and gave me a quick wash of a look. Then, raising a hand, he gestured to a chair. I sat down, at the edge of the seat. He read for another two or three minutes, then scribbled a note in longhand. Finally, he looked up at me, removed his glasses, and regarded me with those piercing eyes.
“Do you know why I asked you to come see me?”
I wasn’t about to confess it. Yet, I felt certain that my writing had so thoroughly disappointed him that he couldn’t find a gentle way to voice it. He must have called me to his office to break it to me, delicately but firmly: “You’re not cut out for writing. Quit.” I wasn’t about to tell him I knew I had failed. So I said, “No.”
“Well,” he said, “of the stories we’ve looked at so far in class, yours strikes me as the one with the greatest potential of becoming a book. So I’ve called you here to make me a promise. Promise me you’ll continue to work on it until it becomes a book.”
He regarded me with intense, curious eyes. I beamed a big smile, my body still shaking slightly from my doleful scenario.
“Do you promise?” he asked, like a strident judge asking a parolee if he would promise to resist the lure of recidivism.
“I do,” I said, still beaming.
“Of course you would! Otherwise I’d kick your ass!”
He roared with laughter. Infected, I laughed too, out of relief.
I can’t imagine that any writer anywhere has quite taken the threat to kick his or her ass with the giddy delight I felt that day. That encounter boosted my confidence. It was one of the greatest gifts I received in my days as a fledgling, uncertain writer prone to bouts of diffidence.