Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Márai on smiling

Judit thinks about her husband and his smile

Pass me that photo, let me have another look at him. Yes, that’s what he was like fifteen years ago.

Have I said I wore this picture round my neck a long time? In a small locket, on a lilac ribbon? Do you know why?... Because I had paid for it. I was just a servant then and bought it out of my wages: that was why I looked after it. My husband never knew what a great thing it was when someone like me paid money for something for which there is no pressing need, I mean real money, like the change from my wages or a tip. Later I spent his money as if there were no tomorrow, threw thousands around the way I sent dust flying with my feather duster on mornings when I was still a servant. That was not money to me. But when I bought this photograph my heart was beating fast because I was poor and felt it a sin to spend money on things that were not absolutely essential. That photograph was a sin for me then, mere vanity… I bought it all the same, sneaking a visit to the famous, highly fashionable photographer in the city center, ready to paying the full price without bargaining. The photographer laughed and sold it to me cut price. This was the only sacrifice I ever made for that man.

He was reasonably tall, a couple of inches taller than me. His weight was steady. He controlled his body the way he controlled his words and manners. He put on a few pounds in winter, but he lost them again in May and remained at that weight till Christmas. Don’t think for a moment that he dieted. Forget diets. It was just that he treated his body the way he might one of his employees. It was required to work for him.

He treated his eyes and his mouth the same way. His eyes and mouth laughed separately, as and when they were required. They never laughed at the same time… Not the way you did, my precious, so freely, so sweetly, with both eyes and mouth smiling, especially when you truly excelled yourself and sold that ring and came home to me with the good news.

That was something he could never do. I lived with him, I was his wife and, before that, his servant. Needless to say I felt much closer to him as a servant than when I was merely his wife. Even so, I never saw him give a full-hearted laugh the way you do.

He was far more likely to smile. When I met that hunk of a Greek in London, the man who taught me a great many things… don’t go bothering me with what he taught me, I couldn’t tell you everything, we’d be here till dawn… well, the Greek warned me never to laugh in company when in England because that is considered vulgar. I should just smile and keep smiling. I tell you this because I want you to know everything you might find useful sometime.

My husband could smile like nobody’s business. I was so jealous of it sometimes I felt quite sick just thinking about his smile. It was as if he had learned a high art at some mysterious university where the rich go to get their education and smiling is a compulsory subject. He even smiled when he was being cheated. I tried it on with him sometimes. I cheated him and watched… I cheated him in bed and watched to see what he’d do. There were moments when that was dangerous. You never know how someone will react when they're cheated in bed.

The danger was a deathly thrill to me. I wouldn’t have been surprised if one day he grabbed a knife from the kitchen and stabbed me in the stomach - like a pig at slaughter time. It was only a dream of course: wish-fulfillment. I learned the term from a doctor I consulted for a while because I wanted to be fashionable like the others, because I was rich and could indulge myself with a few psychological problems. The doctor got 50 pengő for an hour’s work. This fee entitled me to lie on a sofa in his surgery and to regale him with my dreams as well as all the rude talk I could muster. There are people who pay to have a woman lie on a sofa and talk filth. But it was I who did the paying, learning terms like repression and wish-fulfillment. I certainly learned a great deal. It wasn’t easy living with the gentry.

But smiling was something I never learned. It seems you need something else for that. Maybe you have to have a history of ancestors smiling before you. I hated it as much as I did the fuss about the nightshirt… I hated their smiles. I cheated my husband in bed by pretending to enjoy it when I didn’t really. I'm sure he knew it, but did he draw a knife and stab me? No, he smiled. He sat in the huge French bed, his hair tousled, his muscles well toned, a man in top condition, smelling faintly of hay. He fixed me with a glassy look and smiled. I wanted to cry at such moments. I was helpless with grief and fury. I am sure that later - when he saw his bombed-out house, or still later when they kicked him out of the factory and expropriated him - he was smiling the same smile in exactly the same way.

It is one of the foulest of human sins, that serene, superior smile. It is the true crime of the rich. It is the one thing that can never be forgiven… Because I can understand people beating or killing each other when they have been hurt. But if they merely smile and say nothing I have no idea what to do with them. Sometimes I felt no punishment was enough for it. There was nothing I, a woman who had clambered out of the ditch to find myself in his life, could do against him. The world could not harm him whatever it did to him, to his wealth, his lands, or to anything that mattered to him…. It was the smile that had to be wiped out. Don’t those famous revolutionaries know this?...

No comments: