Friday, 10 April 2009

Márai and Beauty

It was a very good, very beautiful film, remarkably close to the book. I introduced the book, the actress read a few passages, then John Spurling and I spoke for about twenty minutes before wine, and then came the film itself, followed by ten minutes interview with the film's director, József Sípos, who, it turns out, had to finance it all himself. The cast, magnificent as they are, the cream of Hungarian cinema, were queueing up to act in it. The location was simple and fixed. The whole thing was cheaply and beautifully done for TV and on spec, but now heading towards international distribution.

Before and after two people - two women as it happens - urged me to translate their own favourite book by Márai, a set of meditations titled Füves könyv, which means, literally, Herbal Book, meaning 'herbal' in the traditional sense, a collection of various cures and applications for various ills. By coincidence I had the book with me and started reading it on the train home. Here is one passage I picked out for an impromptu translation.

Regarding The fragility of Beauty

Are you troubled because your senses are aroused and disturbed by that beautiful young woman? Are jealous that she wants to share her beauty and youth with others? Well, what did you expect? Did you think she would commit herself to a vow of chastity or solemn fidelity? That’s not why she is beautiful and young. Just consider what care and anxiety they cost, such fragile beauty, such a brief period of youth, these malevolent gifts with which the Creator has endowed and punished her: this beauty that changes from day to day, that fades and passes from one moment to the next, becoming ever more fragile. Can she give her heart to anything else or think of anything other than her own beauty and youth; can she really occupy herself , wholly give herself to something that is not in the interests of her own heart, of her entire being? It’s like trying to capture a particular instant of the morning light, or some peculiar luminescence of the sea and wanting to hold it still for ever. Learn humility, rejoice in her beauty, and expect no more from her than she can give. Look elsewhere for the glow of life: beauty burns with a cold flame, you can’t warm yourself by it
I am quite aware that it is the kind of passage that is pitched firmly in the gender warzone, lying there like an unexploded landmine, so I am not going to kick it around. But as with all Márai, including Esther's Inheritance, it is considerably more complex than a rousing chorus of "Gather ye rosebuds". It is, first of all, not addressed to the woman, it does not preach to her. It does however assume something about beauty and youth and the bearers of such burdens.

Don't call me beautiful, a woman, not in the first flush of beauty, might say, because the more beauty you have the more painful it must be to lose it. Beauty in this sense is not a myth, or if it is, it has all the power of deep myth, that is to say it moves us, both men and women, and we are aware we would be poorer without it.

Yesterday, standing on the tube, I looked across the seats and saw a woman standing opposite me by the next set of doors. I would not say she was young. She might even have been in her early forties, but she was very beautiful, almost heart-breakingly beautiful, heartbreaking specifically in the sense that her beauty was not perfect and that she was not young, not the morning light. Her nose had a strong bridge and when her face was turned in profile there was perhaps a little too much thrust in the jaw. But when she turned full-face her mouth was - what shall I say? - moving, and the whole bone-structure, the eyes, were - what shall I say? - clear, intelligent, open. I was not troubled by her in the Márai sense. There was no lust involved. I did not desire her, she was not a temptation, but if the world were made slightly differently I would have loved to say to her: You are so beautiful, you make me feel glad to be alive. And then I would immediately have added, Forgive me, that is all I have to say, and moved on. Perhaps I will have to wait until I am seventy or eighty and perceived as perfectly harmless before I can say that to anyone.

My brief footnote to Marai's 'Herbal'? Beauty makes you feel glad to be alive. Thats what it's for. Now pass on. So beauty is not so cold after all.

Then I take a good kick at the landmine, which might or might not explode.


dana said...

Sometime in the 1960s my grandparents stopped at the grocery store on their way to a party. The checker looked at my grandmother, dressed in her wool suit, and said, "You're so beautiful!" Grandma just gaped at her, and my grandfather smiled in his usual calm way, and said, "I've been trying to tell her that for 30 years." Grandma went back to the car, checked the mirror excitedly, then was disappointed to find nothing different or special. She laughed at herself telling that story, and I think I heard it only once.

So whether you see it or have it, it's still troubling. Maybe noting beauty in an individual is awkward because we've been taught not to objectify and painful because we know it's fleeting. And isn't vanity a sin?

George S said...

Vanity of vanities. Yes, Dana, I can quite see that it is a problem, especially if you have been brought up to avoid vanity. And I can also see that objectifying is reductionist, but that's chiefly theory and precept, the work of the superego working overtime on Protestant wages.

But what is art about if not beauty, in that deeper more substantial, more breathtaking sense, where it edges into Keats's feeling about truth as a kind of 'best possible' truth, the kind that is not skin deep but rather more comprehensive and may comprehend even what is conventionally called ugliness?

In any case, it is not a moral issue. What we do about it is, but the thing in itself is not. And is not denying it a kind of lying? Fearing it is understandable, of course. If I had ever been beautiful, either as man or woman, I would have been justified in fearing it and protecting myself with the odd lie to save all that within me that was not beauty. But since I was not, nor do I covet it in the sense of wanting to own it, I feel less and less like lying about it, I mean my feeling about it, my sense of it, the older I get.

Billy C said...

George...I've enjoyed this piece. Very much. One of the problems of being young is that you cannot express what you feel because you know that if you make a gesture of appreciation, it will, very likely, be misunderstood. Now I'm older, almost at the age of perceived uselessness, or, as defined by you 'perfectly harmless', (which made me smile,) I'm revelling in this new-found liberty.

My dear, darling wife passed away some years ago so nowadays I have the freedom to appreciate a woman's beauty without a clip around the ear. I was in a restaurant in Portugal with some dear friends (husband and wife) who put up with my visits twice a year. During the meal, I remarked on the beauty of a lady sitting a couple of tables away with, I presumed, her husband. She was probably in her early 40s, middle class :), tidily dressed, fine features and I was most impressed with her in the way you described the lady at the tube. My friends ribbed me, of course, as they do, but I was not to be put off by their humour and when it was time for us to leave, I took a red rose out of the glass vase in the centre of our table, walked over to the beautiful lady, asked her husband? if he minded (he shrugged acceptance) and gave her the rose with the words, "Please forgive me for interupting your meal. I hope you don't mind, but I couldn't leave without telling you how beautiful you are." And I gave her the rose. She gave me a beautiful smile and I left with my friends. Neither the beautiful lady or I said anything after I gave her the rose. Words weren't neccesary.

The next morning, I was up early and gathered a few flowers from the fields outside my friend's home, put them in a tall drinking glass which I placed in the middle of the breakfast table where they couldn't be missed, together with a note. 'For Helen. I think you are too. XXX'

I was rewarded with a huge, tearful hug.

It's good to say what you feel but it's a pity one has to be old to do it.

George S said...

Well, yes. That's it. It could be done while young, especially under twenty-five or so. A young man could be forgiven, even liked, as young, foolish and - possibly - charming. Or, alternatively, be given a slap round the face, a withering look, or have the police summoned. But it wouldn't matter much. All that is exciting.

In old age it's on again. It's a bit pathetic, possibly a sign of early senility, but forgiven. My dad was generally forgiven.

In between is the difficult time and I am still working out where I stand in that. I mean whether the liberty comes with the bus pass and the senior railcard. Perhaps there is a card for that too.

Billy C said...

A few glasses of house red, too, George. That helps. Well, it helped me. I think you have to be older than bus pass age. You're still young and virile at that delicate time of life. Well, young and virile enough to cast doubts on your intentions.

The Mighty Magyars 7 England 1.

I was young enough then to have got away with it. I would probably have been rewarded with a gobstopper :)