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.