Wednesday, 5 August 2009
Márai on sex
The all-night cafe in Márai'sThe Intended. It is still the husband in the eternal triangle talking, trying to get to the bottom of things. It is well past midnight now, and he is reflecting on life with Judit, the beautiful maid for whom he left his wife, his career and his place in society. For whom, in essence, he both found and lost himself.
Judit and I lay down in bed and loved each other. We loved each other passionately, expectantly, heartily, in wonder and hope. We were probably hoping that what the world and mankind had ruined might be put right by the two of us eye-to-eye in this other, purer, more ancient realm, in the eternal country without, and beyond, borders: bed. Any love preceded by an extended period of waiting – though maybe it’s not exactly love when not all the cinders have been consumed by the purgatory fires of waiting – hopes for a miracle from both the other and itself.
At a certain age – and while neither Judit nor I were exactly youngsters by then we were not old, just man and woman, in the complete, most basic sense of those words – it is not sexual satisfaction that people desire of each other, not happiness, not release but the simple and solemn truth that vanity and falsehood had previously hidden from them even in love, the truth that we are human beings, we men and women, and that we share common enterprise or responsibility on earth, a responsibility that may not be quite as personal as we think. It’s not a responsibility we can avoid but we can tell an awful lot of lies in pursuit of it. Once people are old enough it is the truth they want and they want it in bed too, in the underworld of sheer physical bulk.
It isn’t beauty you want most– after a while you stop noticing the beauty anyway - it’s not that the other should be wonderful, exciting, wise, experienced, curious, lusty and responsive. What matters?.... The truth. In other words exactly the same thing as matters in literature and in all human affairs: spontaneity, readiness, the willingness to be surprised by the miraculous gift of joy that comes unplanned, unintentionally, and, at the same time, when we are selfish and wanting only to receive, the ability to give in an almost distracted, vaguely conscious way as it were, without planning, without mad ambition… That is bed truth. No, old man there is no Soviet-style pyatiletka, no Five Year Plan, nor Four Year Plans either. The feeling that drives two people together can have no plan.
Bed is jungle, wilderness, a place full of surprises, teeming with the unexpected; there is the same unbearable dank heat, the same extraordinary flowers and lianas with their deathly scent and ability to twine around you, the same glowing eyes of the same beasts of prey watching you in the half-light, the heraldic beasts of desire and obsession ever ready to pounce. In some ways that too is bed. Jungle. Half-light. Strange cries in the distance – you can’t tell whether it is a man screaming by a well, his throat ripped open by some predator or nature itself screaming, nature that is human, animal and inhuman at once…
This woman possessed the secret knowledge that was life: she knew the body; she knew self-control and loss of self-control. Love for her was not a series of occasional meetings but a constant return to a familiar childhood, a blend of hometown and festival, the dark brown light over a field at dusk, the intimate taste of certain foods, excitement and anticipation, and, under it all, the confidence that once evening came there would be nothing to fear in the flight of the bat, just the road home at dusk because she was tired of playing and because the light in the window was calling her back to a hot dinner and a clean bed. That was love as far as Judit was concerned.
As I said, I was hopeful.
I am reading through the entries for this year's Stephen Spender poetry translation comptition. It's the fourteen year olds for now. As I read them I know I am reading the assured leaders of tomorrow. Huxley's eloi. They are almost all privately educated, highly articulate, occasionally a little precious, but well-supplied with knowledge and thirst for knowledge. I think they are extraordinarily fortunate and somewhat removed from life as most of us know it. I wonder how far removed they will be in ten or twenty years time? They are invited to write a page or so about the poem they are translating and about the process. They do so in adult voices, in adult manner, in adult clothes. I have to remind myself how young they are. I keep thinking of Spender's own lines: My parents kept me from children who were rough / and who threw words like stones and who wore torn clothes....