Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Marai redrafted - on class and gender

I am hitting clumsy patches and good patches. Also some fascinating ones. In this early scene, from the first part of the book, Márai has brought together the author figure, Lázár, with the first wife - who has just found out that her rival is the maid, Judit, and has confronted her in a splendid set piece in the maid's room. She finds Judit is a very tough case indeed.

Márai's conservatism is played out through Lázár who, I imagine, is voicing some of Márai's own views. The class issue comes first, then the issue of women.


‘I see you don’t believe what a traditional, old fashioned, law-abiding man I am, madam,’ he said. ‘We writers may be the only law-abiding people on earth. The middle classes are a far more restless, in fact, rebellious bunch than is generally thought. It is no accident that every revolutionary movement has a non-conforming member of the middle-class as its standard bearer. But we writers can’t entertain revolutionary illusions. We are the guardians of what there is. It is far more difficult to preserve something than to seize or destroy it. And I cannot allow the characters in my books – those who live in readers’ hearts - to rebel against the established order. In a world where everyone is in a veritable fever to destroy the past and to build the new I must preserve the unwritten contracts that are the ultimate meaning of a deeper order and harmony. I am a gamekeeper who lives among poachers. It’s dangerous work… A new world!?” he declared with such agonized and disappointed contempt that I found myself staring again. “As if people were new!...’

‘And is that why you were against Peter marrying Judit Áldozó?...’

‘That wasn’t the only reason I couldn’t allow it, of course. Peter is bourgeois, a valuable member of the bourgeoisie… there are few like him left. He embodies a culture that is very important to me. He once told me, by way of a joke, that my role was to be the chief witness to his life. I answered, equally by way of a joke, but not altogether as jokingly as you might at first think, that I had to look after him out of sheer commercial interest, because he was my reader, and writers have to save their readers. Of course it was not the size of my readership I meant to preserve, but those few souls in whom my sense of responsibility to the world I know continues to exist… They are the people for whom I write… if I didn’t there would be no sense in anything I wrote. Peter is one of the few. There are not many left, not here, not anywhere in the world… I am not interested in the rest. But that was not the real reason, or to put it more precisely, this wasn’t the reason either. I was simply jealous because I loved him. I have never liked surrendering to my feelings… but this feeling, this friendship, was much more refined, much more complex than love. It is the most powerful of all human feelings… it is genuinely disinterested. It is unknown to women.’

‘But why were you jealous of that particular woman?’ I persevered. I was listening to everything he was saying but still felt he was not being straight with me, that he was avoiding the real issue.

‘Because I don’t like sentimental heroes,’ he eventually admitted, as if resigned to telling the truth. ‘More than anything, I like to see everyone and everything in its proper place. But it wasn’t only the difference in class that concerned me. Women are quick to learn and can make up centuries of evolution in a few moments… I do not doubt that with Peter at her side this woman would heave learned everything in a trice, and conducted herself as perfectly as you or I did at that grand house last night… Women generally are far superior in culture and manners to the men of their own class. Nevertheless Peter would still have felt like a sentimental hero to himself, a hero who was a hero from the moment he rose, to the moment he went to bed because he was doing something the world did not approve of, embarking on a mission that is entirely human and perfectly acceptable to God and man but one whose undertaking required him to be a hero, a sentimental hero. And that’s not all. There was the woman. This woman would never forgive Peter for being middle-class.’

‘That I don’t believe,’ I said, feeling stupid.

‘I know different,’ he frowned. ‘But none of this resolves your problem. What was decided at that point was the fate of a state of mind, a feeling. What was at stake for Peter in that feeling? What it meant in terms of passion and desire… I don’t know. But I felt the earthquake, witnessed it at its most dangerous moment. His entire being was shaken, his sense of belonging to a class, the foundations on which he had built his life and the way of life such foundations implied. One’s way of life is not a purely private matter. When such a man - one who preserves and articulates the entire meaning of his culture - when such a man collapses it is not only he who is destroyed but a part of the world to which he belongs, a world that was worth living in… I took serious note of that woman. It wasn’t that she came from another class. It may be best for everyone, may be the most fortunate course of events, that children of different classes be swept together by the tides of some great passion… No, it was something in her character to which I couldn’t help responding, something I could not reconcile myself to and to which I could not abandon Peter. She had a certain ferocity of will, a kind of barbaric power… Did you not feel it?’

His sleepy, tired eyes flashed suddenly as he turned to me. He proceeded uncertainly as if seeking the right words.

‘There are people who are possessed of a fierce primeval power who can suck from others, from their entire environment, whatever sustenance makes life possible, so, for example. there are certain vines or liana in the jungle that absorb the water, the salts, the nourishment required by the great trees on which they feed, even over a length of hundreds of yards. That’s just the way they are: it is their nature… You can argue with wrongdoers, you can pacify them, maybe even resolve some of the inner suffering that leads them to take revenge on other people, on life itself. These are the lucky ones… But there are other kinds, people like those vines, who are not at all ill-intentioned but simply squeeze the life out of their environment by enveloping it in an embrace so fierce and willful that it proves fatal in the end. It is a barbaric, elemental form of execution. It is rare to find it in men… more common in women. The power that emanates from them destroys anything that might be in their way, even strong characters like Peter. Did you not feel this when you were talking to her? It was like talking to a simoom or a tsunami.’

‘I was simply talking to a woman,’ I said and sighed. ‘A very powerful woman.’

‘Well, that is true. Women’s response to other women is quite different,’ he readily admitted. ‘Personally, I respect their power and fear it. This should make it easier for you to respect Peter. Try to imagine the kind of tide he was swimming against in those years, what strength it required for him to tear himself from the invisible embrace of this dangerous power. Because that power wanted simply everything. It wasn’t a backstreet she was looking for, a two-bedroom apartment up an alley, a silver fox wrap, a three week vacation in secret with her lover… She would have wanted everything, because she was a real woman, not an imitation. Did you not feel this?...’


The translation task here is to render highly articulate characters in natural language, particularly when they are discussing ideas. Essentially I am simplifying throughout. It's an interesting balance to keep - it is always the balance in Márai.


The Plump said...

it is always the balance in Márai.

And his social conservatism is balanced. Bourgeois values as the bulwark against regrettable change being made by bourgeois rebels.

The bit about sentimental heroes is interesting too. It attacks (too strong a word) the rebel. The act of rebellion is the heroic act to the rebel, not the nature of that rebellion. Self image is all.

Then, I don't know what to make of his views of the ferocious power of women ... did he ever visit Yorkshire?

Gwil W said...

A fascinating scene and by simplifying, but not over simplyfying, you come in a natural way to the nuts and bolts of it. A lovely readable flowing piece of writing. It's not easy to achieve this at such length. Chapeau!