Saturday, 10 October 2009

Márai on death and the rich

This is the maid, Judit Áldozó still talking to her musician lover, long after her marriage to her ex-employer has failed. It is after the war, in the early communist period. We only ever hear her, never the musician.

Shall I tell you more about the rich? There is no way of telling anyone everything about them. I mean I lived among them for years: it was like walking in my sleep, in a deep sleep. In dread. I always worried about saying the wrong thing when I talked to them. I worried in case I listened wrong or touched things in the wrong way… They never shouted or cursed at me, certainly not! They trained and educated me instead, sensitively, patiently, the way the Italian organ-grinder out in the street there trains his monkey, showing him how to perch on his shoulder and preen himself. But they also taught me the way one might teach a cripple, someone incapable of walking, of doing anything the way it ought to be done… Because that is what I was when I first went to them: a cripple. I couldn’t do anything properly. I couldn’t walk, not as they understood walking, couldn’t say hello, couldn’t speak, and as for eating?!... I had not the foggiest notion of how one should eat! Even listening was beyond me, listening properly that is, listening with purpose, in other words, with evil intent. I listened and gawped. I was a fish out of water. But little by little I learned everything they had to teach me… I worked at it and got on. It surprised them how much and how quickly I learned… It was I who left them gawping in the end. I’m not boasting but I do believe they were quite astonished when they saw how I learned.

I knew about the family vault for example. The mausoleum. Oh lord, that mausoleum!.. You know how it was back then, when I was still a maid in their house. I saw how everyone was robbing them. The cook made a bit on the side, the servant took backhanders from the salesmen who inflated the prices for brandy, wine and the best cigars, the chauffeur stole and sold the gas in their cars. All this was to be expected. My employers were perfectly aware of it, it was part of the household budget. I didn’t steal anything myself since I only cleaned the bathroom where there was nothing to steal… But later, once I had become ‘her ladyship’, I couldn’t help thinking of everything I had seen in the cellar and the kitchen, and the mausoleum was too much of a temptation. I couldn’t resist it.

You see there came a day when my husband …. a proper gentleman husband… suddenly felt his life was incomplete without a family vault in the Buda graveyard. His parents, the old gentleman and the old lady, were old fashioned in their death, turning to dust under simple marble tombstones without a proper mausoleum. My husband grew quite morose when this omission occurred to him. But he soon recovered and set to work to remedy the fault. He asked me to negotiate with the designer and the clerk-of-works to create the perfect mausoleum. By that time we had more than one car, had a summer house in Zebegény and a permanent winter residence on exclusive Rózsadomb, not to forget the mansion in Transdanubia, near Lake Balaton, on an estate that my husband found himself lumbered with as the result of some deal. We certainly couldn’t complain we had nowhere to live.

But a mausoleum we did not have. We hastened to correct this oversight. Naturally we couldn’t trust any ordinary builder with the job. My husband took great pains to discover the leading funerary expert in the city… We had plans brought over from England and Italy, whole books, their pages printed on heavy burnished paper… you have no idea the amount people have written on the subject of funerary monuments… I mean, after all, just to go and die, that’s nothing special… people scrape out a bit of earth and shove you in, end of story. But gentlefolk lead different lives and, naturally, their deaths are different too. So we employed an expert to help us choose a model, and had a beautiful, spacious, dry mausoleum built, complete with cupola. I wept when I first saw the mausoleum from within, the sheer glory of it, because, for a moment, it made me think of the sandy ditch we lived in out on the wetlands. I mean the vault was bigger than the ditch. With careful foresight they had left enough space at the centre for six graves, I have no idea for whom. Maybe they were expecting guests, the visiting dead, just in case someone dropped in and needed somewhere to stretch out. I looked at the three spare places and told my husband I would sooner be buried by dogs than lie in this crypt of theirs!... You should have seen him laugh when I said it!

And so we were prepared for all eventualities. Naturally the mausoleum was equipped with electric light, lights in two colors, blue and white. When everything was ready we called the priest to consecrate this house of dead pleasure. Everything you could possibly think of was provided, darling… gilt letters above the entrance, and, on the elevation, modestly small, the aristocratic family crest, the crest they wore on their underpants… Then there was a forecourt where they planted flowers, and columns at the entrance, leading to a sort of marbled waiting room for visitors should they fancy taking a breather before they died. You then passed from the zinc hall through the wrought iron gates into the parlor where the elders were arranged. It was a proper mausoleum, set up for eternity, as if the dead interred there were not to be thrown out after thirty-to-fifty years later, yes, even the most illustrious among them; yes, for eternity, when the last trump would call them forth in their distinguished pyjamas and privileged dressing-gowns. I earned eight-thousand pengö commission doing the mausoleum, the builder wouldn’t give me more. I had an account in a bank and, stupidly, I deposited this little extra cash there, and my husband came across the statement one day by chance, the statement revealing how my little here and little there was amounting to a reasonable sum… He didn’t say anything – of course he didn’t say anything, what a crazy idea – but I could see it upset him. He thought a member of the family shouldn’t be making a profit on his parents’ family vault… Can you credit that? I couldn’t understand it myself, not to this day. I only told you the story to show how strange the rich are.

This is self-confessed bourgeois, Sándor Márai writing. He doesn't seem to be pulling too many punches regarding his own class. It is one of the fascinating things about him, the dramatist part that prefers long monologues to dialogue if only because he wants to hear everything that could be said by the characters he is interested in.


Billy C said...

Márai is wonderful reading, George. Not only are these pieces stimulating, they are also very witty and amusing. I'm beginning to like the Bourgeois :)

James Hamilton said...

As Billy said.

I found myself thinking, "does this still go on?" And, what do you know?
We Build Mausoleums