Wednesday, 24 December 2008

Márai on money and power

I will always remember my father’s room. It was a long room, a real hall. The doors were covered with thick oriental rugs. There were a great many pictures on the walls of all kinds: expensive paintings in gilt frames, paintings showing distant, never-seen forests, oriental ports and unknown men of the last century, mostly with beards and dressed in black. An enormous writing desk stood in one corner of the room, the kind known as a diplomat table, over three yards long and some five feet wide, complete with a globe of the world, a copper candelabrum, a tin inkpot, an attaché case of Venetian leather, and a mass of ornaments and mementos. Then there was a collection of heavy leather armchairs gathered around a circular table. By the fireplace surround two bronze bulls were engaged in combat. The pediments of the book cases displayed other bronze items, eagles and bronze horses, and a tiger half a yard in length, looking ready to spring. That too was made of bronze. And all along the walls a range of glazed book-cases. They contained a vast number of books, four, maybe five thousand, I don’t know how many. Literature had its own book-case, as did religion, philosophy, and social studies, the works of English philosophers bound in blue buckram, and sets of all kinds bought from an agent. No one actually read these books. My father spent his time reading the newspapers and accounts of travel. My mother did read, but only German novels. Book dealers occasionally sent us their latest acquisitions and we got stuck with them, and the valet would sometimes ask father for the keys and arrange the newly accumulated volumes in the cases. They were careful to lock the cases, of course, ostensibly so that the books should be protected. The truth is they were locked so as to prevent anyone taking a book out on a whim, which rash action might result in them confronted by the secret and possibly dangerous material it might contain.

This room was referred to as father’s study. No one in human memory had ever actually studied there, least of all my father. His study was the factory and the club he frequented in the afternoons with other manufacturers and financiers, where he would enjoy a quiet game of cards, read the papers and debate matters of business and politics. My father was undoubtedly a clever man with a sound sense of the practical. It was he who had developed the factory from the workshop set up by my grandfather and expanded it into a major business. It grew in his care until it became the leading business premises of the country. This required strength, wit, foresight and a deal of ruthlessness, in fact everything required by any enterprise where one man sits in a room on the top floor deciding, on the basis of instinct and experience, what should go on in all the other rooms of all the other floors. My father had sat in that room of our factory through forty years. It was where he belonged, where he was honored and feared, his name being mentioned with respect throughout the business community. I have no doubt at all that my father’s commercial morals, his concepts of money, work, usefulness and capital, were exactly those the world, his business partners and his family would have expected of him. He was a creative sort of man, in other words not one of those tightfisted, ugly capitalists who sits on his money and squeezes all he can out of his employees but someone naturally bold and entrepreneurial who respected work and aptitude and paid talent better than he did mere mechanical ability. But this - father, the factory, the club - was yet another form of association: that which was sacred and ritualistic at home was more raw, more secretive at work and in the world at large. The social circle founded by my father among others would accept only millionaires as members, always just two hundred of them, no more. When a member died the circle chose a replacement with the same care and delicacy as did the Académie Française its own members or the order of Tibetan monks the new Dalai Lama among the upper classes of Tibet. Everything, the selection process and the invitation, was carried out with the utmost secrecy. The select two hundred felt, despite of title or rank, that they constituted a power in the state greater even that of a governmental department. They were the alternative power, the invisible partner with which official power was obliged to parley and come to agreement. My father was one of them.

from The Intended (currently in translation). The speaker is the divorced husband telling his tale to a friend, much as the divorced wife told her story to her friend.

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