Tuesday, 28 July 2009

From Márai - Jealousy, Death and Indifference

Judit, the maid the central male character of The Intended had long been in love with, has returned after several years of silence abroad. She rings him out of the blue from a cheap hotel near the station and he comes straight over, leaving his wife, as it turns out for ever. As he speaks with Judit it eventually emerges that during her time in London she had taken a lover. The man reflects on this many years later in conversation with a close friend at an all-night cafe.

Today I can see all this clearly, at least a few moments of it. For example when she told me that she had a lover in London, a Greek teacher of singing. That was near the end once she had decided to come home. But first she wanted clothes: shoes, some decent luggage. The Greek music master bought her everything she wanted. Then she came home, took a room near the station, picked up the phone and rang me, saying ‘Hello!...’ in English, as though she had forgotten Hungarian.

What effect this news had on me? I’d like to be honest with you. I am trying to recall, to look into my heart, to check my recollection, and can only answer in a single word: none. It is hard for people to understand the true significance of actions and relationships. Someone dies for example. You don’t understand it. The person is already buried and you still feel nothing. You go about in mourning with a ceremonial solemnity, you look straight ahead of you when you are in society but then, when you’re at home, alone, you yawn, you scratch your nose, you read a book and think of everything except the dead man you are supposedly mourning for. On the outside you behave one way, properly sombre and funereal, but inside, you are astonished to note, you feel absolutely nothing, at most a kind of guilty satisfaction and relief. And indifference. A deep indifference. This lasts a while, for days, perhaps for months. You fool the world, but secretly, slyly, you don't care. Then one day, much later, maybe after a year when the dead one has long decomposed, you are just walking along and suddenly you feel dizzy and you have to lean against the wall because you have understood. What? The feeling that had tied you to the dead one. The meaning of death. The fact, the reality of it, the knowledge that it is useless to scrape away the earth with your fingernails and uncover what is left of that other, you will never again see that smile, and all the wisdom and power in the world is incapable of raising the dead man to make him walk down the street towards you with a smile on his face. You can stand at the head of an army and conquer every corner of the globe but it’s still useless. And then you cry out. Maybe you don't even do that. You simply stand in the street, pale, aware of a loss so great it seems the world has lost all meaning, as if you were left alone, the only man on earth.

And jealousy? What does that mean?... What lies behind it? Vanity, of course. Seventy percent of our body is made up of fluids, only the remaining thirty percent is constituted of the solid matter that makes up a human being. In the same way human character is comprised of seventy percent vanity, the rest is made up of desire, generosity, fear of death and a sense of honour. When a man in love walks down the street with bloodshot eyes because a woman just as vain as he is, just as needy, just as lonely, just as desperate for happiness, just as unfortunate a creature as everyone else, has found brief solace in another man’s arms somewhere in town, it is not that he wants to save the woman’s body or soul from some imagined danger or humiliation, but fear for the vanity, his own, that he would wish to preserve from harm. Judit told me she had a Greek music master for a lover. I nodded politely as if to say, yes, naturally and changed the topic of conversation. And indeed, right at that moment, I felt nothing. It was much later, once we had divorced, and once I knew that other people loved too, when I was alone, that I remembered the Greek music master, and groaned in fury and despair. Well then, I would kill them both, both Judit and the Greek music master, if I ever laid hands on them. I suffered like any wounded creature, a wild animal shot through the thigh, because a woman with whom I had nothing more to do, whose society I avoided because we had failed each other in every respect, had at some time in the past an affair with a man whom, she, Judit, would only faintly remember now, the way one remembers a dead man one hardly knew. But then, at the moment she actually confessed to the affair, I felt nothing. I carried on peeling an apple with a polite, agreeable expression on my face, as if this were precisely what I expected to hear and was happy to get the news I was hoping for.

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