Wednesday, 26 August 2009

A little Márai from Budapest

There is no rest from work, of course - it's just a different environment as far as that is concerned, and in any case, time rushes on, unforgiving as ever. This morning, first thing, we walked down to the park and bought a few necessaries from the nearby store before walking back up the hill. Hot again, but Városmajor Park is shady. A concreted and fenced games enclosure for football or netball or basketball, is deserted today. There is also a large children's playground full of children and young mothers, some of them from the Far East. A troupe of schoolgirls are running round and round the park, their ponytails flailing behind them. C wonders whether they are member of a girls' football team. I say they all look almost exactly the same, the same willowy figures, roughly the same height. No doubt they will all be beautiful with sparkling teeth and diplomas. They move at a slow pace with a few in the vanguard and some stragglers plodding behind.

Back in the late eighties and early nineties itinerant labourers - often Romanians - would sleep and shave and spend part of the day here. The tramline skirts the park on the broad boulevard side. There are a few of the old sitting on benches or shuffling down the paths. I wonder whether I'll be one of those in ten or twenty years. My mind feels only about twenty-one. It's not ready for that.

But back to Márai. It is now the servant girl, Judit, telling the story. We find her in a cheap hotel room after the war, after the communist take over, with a young lover, a drummer in a band, who quietly exploits her and sells her remaining things with her full knowledge. It is the twilight of her beauty now. Her account of her old employers, including the young man who became her husband for a while, and whose story we had heard before, is far less focussed on abstract issues. It is packed with material detail and some penetrating insights into the mentality of their class. It feels like a bucket of quite welcome cold water after the intense introspection of the ex-husband. So she speaks:

The rich are very strange, darling. I myself was pretty rich for a while, you see. I had a maid to scrub my back in the morning, a car, a convertible coupé, driven by a chauffeur. And I had an open sports car too in which I raced about… And, believe me, I didn’t feel embarrassed to be moving among them, I was not retiring or bashful, I tucked in. There were moments I myself imagined I was rich. But now I know that I wasn’t, not really, not for a second. I simply had jewels, money and a bank account. All these I got from them, the wealthy. Or I took it from them when I had the opportunity, because I was a clever little girl. I learned in the ditch, in my childhood, not to be idle, to pick up whatever lies to hand, to smell it, take a bite of it, and to hide it, hide everything that others threw away… a enameled pot with a hole in it was just as valuable as a precious stone… I was just a slip of a girl when I learned that lesson: you can never be too industrious....

...Everything went as smooth as clockwork. The staff rose at six in the morning. The ritual of cleaning had to be as religiously attended to as mass at a church service. Brooms, brushes, dusters, rags, the window-cloths, proper oils for parquet and furniture; the fine wax with which we treated the floorboards, which was like those highly expensive egg-based preparations beauty salons produce for glamour girls… nor must we forget the exciting machinery, like the vacuum cleaner that did not merely suck the dirt from the rugs but brushed them too, the electric polisher that buffed the parquet so bright you could see your face in it, so I used to stop sometimes and simply gaze like those nymphs in the ancient Greek reliefs… yes, I’d lean over to look at myself and examine my face as absorbed, as startled, my eyes sparkling, as that figure of half boy-half girl of Narcissus I once saw in the museum looking adoringly at his charming ladyboy reflection…

Each morning we dressed for cleaning the way actors do for a performance. We put on our costumes. The manservant put on a vest which was like a man’s waistcoat turned inside out. Cook was like a nurse in an operating theatre in her sterile white gown, her head covered in a white scarf, waiting for the surgeon and patient to turn up. I was like one of those peasant girls in the operetta chorus dressed for gathering berries at dawn in my traditional maid’s cap... I was obliged to understand that this dressing up wasn’t simply because it was pretty but because it was hygienic and clean, because they did not trust me, fearing I might be dirty and carrying a lot of germs. Not that they ever said as much to my face, of course!... And they may not actually have thought it, not in so many words… It was just that they were wary, wary of everyone and everything. That was their nature. They were suspicious to an extraordinary degree. They protected themselves against germs, against thieves, against heat and cold, against dust and draughts. They protected themselves against wear and tear and tooth decay. They never stopped worrying, whether it was about their teeth or the state of the furniture, about their shares, their thoughts, the thoughts they adapted or borrowed from books. I was never consciously aware of this. But I understood that from the moment I first stepped into the house they wanted to be protected against me too, from whatever disease I carried.

Why should I be carrying a disease?... I was young, fresh as a daisy. They even had me examined by a doctor. It was a horrible examination; it was as if the doctor himself did not fancy it. Their local doctor was an elderly man and he tried as best he could to joke his way through the minute, painstaking process… But I felt that as a doctor – indeed the family doctor – he essentially approved of the exercise… there was of course a young man in the house, a student, and it was not unlikely that sooner or later he would want to get familiar with this kitchen-maid straight out of the ditch. They worried in case he caught tubercolosis or the pox off me… in other words I felt that this intelligent old doctor was faintly ashamed of this over-scrupulous need for assurance, this just in case. But since there was nothing wrong with me they tolerated me in the house like a decently bred dog that would need no vaccinations. And the young gentleman did not contract any infection from me. It was just that– much later – he happened to marry me. This was the one danger they never thought to insure themselves against. I suspect that not even the family doctor anticipated it… You have to be so careful, darling. I think the old gentleman, if no one else, would have had an apoplectic fit if it ever occurred to him that a disease might be transmitted in this way.

More later.


Billy C said...

For the moment, I like this maid, George. Due to poverty in my childhood, ergo having once been the scullery rat amongst my non-equals, I can empathise with her. I think I would have married her myself :)

George S said...

More to come, Billy. She's quite a gal.