Friday, 20 February 2009
Márai: a working woman and a middle class boy
I have so little time for translation at the moment it is a pleasure to get back into it. I'm with Márai for now. Krasznahorkai is waiting in the wings. This is the moment when the central male character of the book (The Intended) gives his account of first meeting the housemaid, Judit Áldozó. We have already had his wife's tale, and the third part of the book, Judit's story, is to come. He is in the middle. He is a young man at the time, just back from a game of tennis. He comes into the hall and notices there is a figure standing there carrying a scrip or tied-up piece of baggage. They stand staring at each other in surprise, and he is convinced they both realise it is a momentous meeting, as indeed it is. Despite the fact that she is a peasant girl just up from the country, standing in the sumptuous hallway of her new employers; she displays extraordinary self-possession. Class and sex and love, but chiefly class here. He is telling the story to a friend in a café, where the much older Judit has just passed with another man, her new husband.
‘What’s your name?...’ I asked her.
She told me. It sounded faintly familiar. Áldozó is much like the word áldozat, meaning 'sacrifice', so there was something ceremonial in it. Even her given name, Judit, had a biblical ring. It was as if she had stepped out of history, out of some biblical state of solid simplicity, like eternal life, real life. It was as if she had arrived not from a village but from some deeper level of existence. I was not much concerned with the propriety of my actions. I stepped over to the door and turned on the light so I could see her more clearly. Even my sudden movement failed to disturb her. Readily and obediently, not like a servant now, but in the manner of a woman acceding to the desires of the one man entitled to demand anything of her, she turned to one side towards the light so I might examine her more closely. She stood there in the lamplight. It was as if she were saying: ‘There you are, take a good look. This is me. I know I am beautiful. Look as hard as you want, take your time. You will remember this face even on your death bed.’ So she stood there calm, immobile, her scrip in her hand, like an artist’s model, silent and willing.
And I carried on gazing at her.
I don’t know whether you got a decent look at her just now?... I alerted you too late. You only saw her body. She is as tall as I am. Her height is in perfect proportion to the rest of her, she is neither fat nor thin, but exactly as she was at the age of sixteen. She has never put on weight, nor ever lost any. You know, there are powerful inner laws that govern the way these things balance out. It was as though her metabolism burned at a constant steady flame. I looked into her face and found myself blinking at the beauty of it, like someone who had lived for many years in a fog and suddenly found himself in bright sunlight. You couldn’t see her face just now. But she has been wearing a mask for a long time anyway, a cosmopolitan mask made up of mascara, paints and powders, false eyes emphasized with eye-shadow and a false mouth drawn on with lipstick. But then, in that first startled moment, her face was still new and unscarred, untouched, direct from its maker’s hand. The touch of her Creator was still fresh on her cheeks. Her face was heart shaped, beautifully proportioned. Each part of it echoed the other to perfection. Her eyes were black, a special kind of black, you know, as if there were a touch of dark-blue in it. Her hair was blue-black too. And one could immediately tell her body was as well proportioned and quite certain of itself. That was why she could stand in front of me with such poise. She had emerged out of anonymity, out of the depths, out of the vast crowd, arriving with something extraordinary: proportion, assurance and beauty. Of course I was only faintly aware of all this. She was no longer a child, but was not quite a woman yet either. Her body had developed but her soul was just waking. I have never met a woman since, so absolutely certain of her own body, in the power of her body as Judit Áldozó was then.
She was wearing cheap city clothes, black shoes with low heels. Everything about her was so consciously and modestly assembled, she was like a peasant girl who had dressed for town and didn’t want to be put to shame by city girls. I looked at her hands. I was hoping to find something unattractive in them. I hoped to find stubby fingers and red palms rough from agricultural work. But her hands were white, her fingers long and graceful. These hands had not been broken by labour. Later I discovered she had been spoiled at home, that her mother never put her to hard manual work.
There she stood content to have me gaze at her under the bright lights. She looked directly into my eyes with a simple curiosity. There was nothing flirtatious about her, neither her eyes nor her posture. There was no invitation. She was not a little tart who finds herself in the big city and makes eyes at the young gentlemen hoping to ingratiate herself to them. No, she was a woman willing to look a man in the eye because she thinks they might have something in common. But she did not overdo it, not then, nor later. The relationship between us was never one of absolute necessity for her. When I could no longer eat, sleep and work without her, when she had entered my skin, my reflexes, like a fatal poison, she remained calm and perfectly self-possessed irrespective of whether she came or went. You think she didn’t love me?... I too thought so for a while. But I don’t want to judge her too harshly. She loved me, but in a different way, in a more cautious, more practical, more grounded sort of way. That, after all, was the situation.
That’s what made her a working woman. And me a middle-class boy. That’s what I wanted to tell you.
Not bad, I think. Both characters are firmly present. And she does become something quite extraordinary as he sees her. Good subject for a thorough deconstruction if that's what you felt like. Me? I have enough to do as it is.