Peter Peri was an exile. Arrogantly, obstinately, sometimes cunningly, he preserved this role. Had he been offered recognition as an artist or as a man of integrity or as a militant anti-fascist, it is possible that he would have changed. But he was not. Even an artist like Kokoschka, with all his continental reputation and personal following among important people, was ignored and slighted when he arrived in England as a refugee. Peri had far fewer advantages. He arrived with only the distant reputation of being a Constructivist, a militant Communist and a penniless Jew. By the time I knew him, he was no longer either of the first two but had become an eternal exile because only in this way could he keep faith with what he had learned and those who had taught him.
Something of the meaning of being such an exile I tried to put into my novel A Painter of Our Time. The hero of this novel is a Hungarian of exactly the same generation as Peri. In some respects the character resembles Peri closely. We discussed the novel together at length. He was enthusiastic about the idea of my writing it. What he thought of the finished result I do not know. He probably thought it inadequate. Even if he had thought otherwise, I think it would have been impossible for him to tell me. By that time the habit of suffering inaccessibility, like the habit of eating meagre vegetable soup, had become too strong.
I should perhaps add that the character of Janos Lavin in this novel is in no sense a portrait of Peri. Certain aspects of Lavin derived from another Hungarian emigré, Frederick Antal, the art historian who, more than any other man, taught me how to write about art. Yet other aspects were purely imaginary. What Lavin and Peri share is the depth of their experience of exile.
Peri’s work is very uneven. His obstinacy constructed a barrier against criticism, even against comment, and so in certain ways he failed to develop as an artist. He was a bad judge of his own work. He was capable of producing works of the utmost crudity and banality. But he was also capable of producing works vibrant with an idea of humanity.
It does not seem to me to be important to catalogue which are which. The viewer should decide this for himself. The best of his works express what he believed in. This might seem to be a small achievement but in fact it is a rare one. Most works are either cynical or hypocritical-or so diffuse as to be meaningless.
Peter Peri. His presence is very strong in my mind as I write these words. A man I never knew well enough. (In some ways my brother knew him much better.) A man, if the truth be told, who was always a little suspicious of me. I did my best to help and encourage him, but this did not allay his suspicions. I had not passed the tests which he and his true friends had had to pass in Budapest and Berlin. I was a relatively privileged being in a relatively privileged country.
I upheld some of the political opinions which he had abandoned, but upheld them without ever having to face a fraction of the consequences which he and his friends had experienced and suffered. It was not that he distrusted me: it was simply that he reserved the right to doubt. It was an unspoken doubt that I could only read in his knowing, almost closed eyes. Perhaps he was right. Yet if I had to face the kind of tests Peter Peri faced, his example would, I think, be a help to me. The effect of his example may have made his doubts a little less necessary.
Peri suffered considerably. Much of this suffering was the direct consequence of his own attitude and actions. What befell him was not entirely arbitrary. He was seldom a passive victim. Some would say that he suffered unnecessarily-because he could have avoided much of his suffering. But Peri lived according to the laws of his own necessity. He believed that to have sound reasons for despising himself would be the worst that could befall him. This belief, which was not an illusion, was the measure of his nobility.