Monday, 10 August 2009

Briefly: Márai on poverty

I am doing a lot of Márai posting at the moment because I am deeply immersed in translating him, that is in between others, like Krasznahorkai and various poets. I do far too much of this sort of thing and I wake in the morning, saying to myself: Stop it and write your own grands oeuvres! and I think I will, I actually will stop it, once I have cleared the decks, taking on nothing more for two or three years. [Carries on talking to himself...]

Ah, Márai on poverty. The fascination of Márai is the sheer intensity and articulacy of his intellect. He feels everything and tries to describe it the way an explorer might describe a voyage. It's what makes him a thrilling read. I don't mean that his mind is a 100% original mind. In many ways he is a man of his time, a self-confessed bourgeois-cum-citoyen, but there is all this substructure and superstructure that is perfectly heroic in scale.

Here he is talking of the self-image of grinding poverty, and, opportunely enough, of its heroism. The narrator is still the man who left his wife for the maid. The maid has been away and become sophisticated. In the years she was away he persisted with his polite marriage, but the moment she returned, as if to claim him, he left his wife and forsook all his earlier advantages. He still has money though. One day he realises that she is consciously, systematically, robbing him, stealing money from their joint account and rather than going large on spending as he imagines, depositing it in an account of her own.

There is a long meditation on secrecy in a relationship and on the differences between men and women. I might get on to that some other time. But he eventually ventures onto the territory of her secrecy: the reason why she says nothing.

It was in bed I learned it and I had been observing her for a while by then. I thought she was stowing the money away for her family. She had an extensive family, men and women, people at the back of beyond, trawling about in the depths of something very like history, at a depth I could comprehend with my mind but not in my heart since my heart lacked the courage to explore secrets that lay that deep. I thought it might have been this mysterious, subterranean confederacy of relatives that had put Judit up to robbing me. Maybe they were all in debt. Maybe they were desperate to buy land… But you want to know why she never said anything? I asked myself that question. My immediate answer was that the reason she said nothing was because she was embarrassed by her poverty, because poverty, you know, is a kind of conspiracy, a secret society, an eternal, silently taken vow. It is not only a better life that the poor want, they want self-esteem too, the knowledge that they are the victims of a grave injustice and that the world honors them for that, the way it honors heroes. And indeed they are heroes: now that I am getting old I can see that they are the only real heroes. All other forms of heroism are of the moment, or constrained, or down to vanity. But sixty years of poverty, quietly fulfilling all the obligations family and society imposes on you while remaining human, dignified, perhaps even cheerful and gracious: that is true heroism.

By bed, he means in the course of their intimate life. Passages like this about the heroism of the poor are to be understood in terms of the narrator's character and experience but Márai has the gift of making us feel that everything thought and felt in the book is part of some vast essay on human fate written by a distant figure we might call meta-Márai. We are constantly invited to argue with this figure, or rather just to listen to him, as people inevitably listen - listen for ages - in all Márai's books while the speaking character goes on a riff that last pages, a chapter, a large section of the book, or indeed the whole book.

There is in fact a listening figure here too as there are in all three parts of the book, as there was in the second part of Embers. They get their ears wonderfully bent.

As to the argument (whose argument? Márai's, meta-Márai's, the character's?) about poverty and heroism, I remember reading Julie Burchill ages and ages ago when Becks married Posh on purple thrones, when she argued that it wasn't middle-class manners and taste the poor wanted but wealth. Yes, says Márai but they want recognition too. They want to be valued by others. They want credit points, Green Shield stamps of virtue. Bankable with God. With man. With Argos. And who wouldn't? I would. And they deserve it.

It is the they-ness-we-ness of this that is uncomfortable. It is as when I first encountered the grindingly poor of India. Having left them behind there remained, and remains, a sense of: We have no right. No right to speak. Not of dignity or heroism or any other damn thing, because the thing is not to speak or contemplate or praise but to get rid of the damn thing on their backs.

But that is a hard commandment, a lifetime's revolutionary commandment, and so we return to the text, a text that makes no immediate demands, simply accumulates like a bad debt.


Billy C said...

Gosh, there are some wise words in the piece, George. Rambling absent mindedly into 'your place' is a bit like finding a tenner when you're on your arse.

George S said...

Thank you, Billy. Good books make one think. Márai does that all the time.