Wednesday, 31 December 2008

Márai; Thatcherism avant la lettre

The divorced husband - an industrialist's son - is still talking in the cafe. Márai writes monologue like no one else. As I said before, it is best to think of his monologues as arias. In this case the aria is the length of a novella.

At first you think the speaker is setting out on a proto-Marxian analysis of literature and society, then you realise he is heading quite elsewhere.

Tell me, why are writers so slipshod when it comes to the question of money? They write about love, glory, fate and society, it’s just money they never mention, as if it were some kind of second order of existence, a stage property they deposit in their characters’ pockets so that the action may proceed. In real life there is much more tension about money than we are willing to admit to ourselves. I am not talking about ‘the economy’ now, or ‘poverty’: in other words not about basic concepts, but about actual money, the everyday, infinitely dangerous and peculiar substance that, one way or another, is effectively more explosive than dynamite; I mean those few coins or fistfuls of banknotes that we manage to grasp or fail to grasp, that we give away or deny ourselves, or deny someone else… They don’t write about that. Nevertheless the everyday anxieties and tensions of life are made up of a thousand such common conspiracies, misrepresentations, betrayals, tiny acts of bravado, surrender and self-denial: tragedies can develop from the sacrifices involved in working to a tight budget, or else avoided, if life offers another way of resolving the situation. Literature treats economics as though it were a kind of conspiracy. That’s exactly what it is, of course, though in a deeper sense of the word… - Real money exists within the spaces of abstractions such the economy and poverty. What really matters is people’s relationship to money, a character’s timidity or bravado concerning money: not Money with a capital M, but the everyday money we handle in the morning, the afternoon, and the evening. My father was rich: in other words he respected money. He spent a dime with as much care as he would a million. He once spoke of not respecting someone because the individual was forty but had no money.

It shook me when he said this. I thought it heartless and unjust.

‘He is poor,’ I defended him. ‘He can’t help it.’

‘That’s not true,’ he sternly replied. ‘He can help it. After all, he is not an invalid, he’s not even ill. Whoever gets to forty without having made any money, and he, in his circumstances, could undoubtedly have made some, is a coward or lazy or simply a bum. I can’t respect such a man.’

Look here, I am over fifty now. I’m getting older. I sleep badly and lie on the bed half the night in the dark with my eyes wide open, like a beginner, like someone practicing to be dead. I am a realist. Why, after all, should I fool myself?... I am no longer in debt and owe nothing to anyone. My only obligation is to be true to myself. I think my father was right. One doesn’t understand such things when one is young. When I was young I considered my father a ruthless, unbending man of finance whose god was money, and who judged people – unfairly – according to their capacity for making it. I despised the concept and felt it to be mean and inhumane. But time passed and I had to learn many things: romance, love, courage and fear, sincerity, and everything else – in other words, money too. And now I understand my father and I can’t find it in myself to blame him for the severity of his judgment. I understand that he looked down on those who were neither ill nor invalid and had passed the age of forty but were too cowardly or lazy or shiftless to have made money. Naturally, I don’t mean a lot of money, since there is considerable luck involved in that: great guile, sheer greed or blind chance. But the kind of money that lies within a person’s power to get, that is to say given one’s opportunities or horizons in life - that is wasted only by those who are cowardly or weak. I don’t like refined, sensitive souls who, faced with this accusation, immediately point to the world, to the wicked, heartless, greedy world that wouldn’t allow them to spend the twilight of their lives in a pretty little house with a watering can in their hands, tending their garden on a summer evening, their slippers on their feet, a straw boater on their heads, like any content small investor who had retired from working life to rest on his laurels of industry and thrift. It’s a wicked world, wicked to everyone equally. Whatever it gives it sooner or later takes away, or at least tries to take away. True heroism consist of the struggle to defend the interests of oneself and one’s dependents. I dislike the mawkish sensibility that blames everyone else: those ugly, greedy financiers, those ruthless investors and the 'terribly crude' idea of competition that prevented them turning their dreams into small change. Let them be stronger, more ruthless if they will. That was my father’s code. That’s why he had no time for the poor, by which I don’t mean the unfortunate masses, but those individuals who weren’t clever or strong enough to rise from their ranks.

Fascinating how Márai runs his comb through an idea as through a lush head of hair. But couldn't you just hear Mrs T saying all this, in much the same way? It doesn't mean this is what Márai himself thought. All we know is that he thought it possible to think this, and was curious. This is a 'character' speaking. It's just that when Márai enters a character, every part of him enters.

All this is draft, of course.


Richard said...

In Alan Hollinghurst's The Line of Beauty, one of the characters comments on how Trollope is good with money. It's a partially ironic comment, as the character in question is more an expert on commerce than literature, but it also struck me as an interesting critique to Hollinghurst's normal Jamesian mode of writing (where everyone always has an independent income and need never worry about money).

George S said...

I haven't read The Line of Beauty, Richard. Is this a recommendation? I am always very slow with novels. Half of me doesn't really believe in them. The other half gets completely addicted and wants to read all at one go.

Márai keeps surprising me. He seems to have thought about practically everything that could be thought about. Sometimes I think it is as much essay writing through character as aria.

Stephen F said...

It looks right good, this book, though I am finding even a passage of that length kind of lulling too; I think I would be afraid, not to mention incapable, of writing paragraphs at that length consisting of theorising; is there also (inter)action and dialogue and stuff?

I remember a line from Dickens, who must surely have gone on about money often enough, from Great Expectations, where he describes a pound note as 'looking as though it had passed through the palms of every trader in every meat market in the land' or something similar. And of course Amis wrote a book on the theme and with the title.

I nicked a quote from this Marai & spliced it into the late page proofs of the forthcoming tome by the way (so I could look erudite :--)

George S said...

The book consists of three people with one long monologue each. They are: a man (the speaker in the current excerpts), his ex-wife, and the Other Woman who has gone on to marry someone else. There is action in that the monologues occur long after the break-up which is caused by - well, we find out, but the death of the first wife's only child is a vital part of it. The Other Woman is in fact a servant girl, some years older than the man. A remarkably strong figure.

Relatively little happens but everything is chewed over and over in the attempt to find out what really happened. It is absolutely fascinating. That which looks like theory is, in fact, character.

What Márai does brilliantly is to establish tension by progressive revelation, revelation of momentous small things, like a constant unfolding. He just seems to understand everything so that we are forever one small step behind him. Despite the long paragraphs it is oddly breathless reading, far more than most so-called stories of suspense.

I'll lend you 'Esther's Inheritance' the book just out. I think you'll like it.

Stephen F said...

That would be nice George, I am looking for something to read ... hand it over back at skool?