Thursday, 28 January 2010

More Márai on class, but this time...

... from the point of view of the industrialist husband, who marries the maid, Judit. Here he is thinking of the failure of his first marriage, to Ilonka, a failure he puts down to class.


In that case I had better tell you what my first marriage was like and why it failed. My first wife was perfect. I can’t even say that I didn’t love her. She had but one small fault and it wasn’t something she could do anything about. It wasn’t any kind of psychological problem – nothing of the sort. Her problem was that she was a middle-class girl, poor thing, a middle-class woman.

Don’t misunderstand me: I myself am middle-class. I am conscious of being so, a conscientious member of that class, someone who knows its faults and limitations, content to shoulder the responsibilities of middle-class existence. I don’t like drawing-room revolutionaries. One should keep faith with those to whom one is tied by origin, education, interest and communal memory. It is the middle class I have to thank for everything: my upbringing, my way of being, my desires, the very finest moments of my life and that common culture which offers such a dignified entry to such moments… Because there are many who say this class has had its day, that it has grown feeble, that it has fulfilled its mission, that it can longer take the leading role in human affairs the way it did in the past. I can’t speak about that. I don’t understand it. But I have a feeling that the middle-class is being buried a bit too enthusiastically, a little too impatiently; I think there may be some power left in it, that it might still have a role in the world. Perhaps the middle-class will form the bridge on which the forces of revolution meet the forces of order…

When I say my first wife was a middle-class woman that is not a criticism, I am simply establishing a certain condition. I too am middle-class, quite hopelessly so. I keep faith with my class. I will defend it when it is attacked. But I won’t defend it blindly or from a prejudiced position. I want to see quite clearly what it was I received as my portion of social destiny. I have, in other words, to know what our faults were, and to discover whether we have been attacked by a kind of social virus that has drained us of vigor? Not that I ever talked about this with my wife.

So what was the problem? Wait a minute. Let me get my thoughts in order.

First and foremost, it was that I was a middle-class man, fully acquainted with the rituals of my class. I was rich. My wife’s family was relatively poor. Not that being middle-class is a matter of money. My experience is that it is precisely the poorest members of the class, those with the least financial security, who are most urgently preoccupied with maintaining middle-class standards and values. No one rich ever needs to cling so attentively, so desperately, to social customs, to points of etiquette, to respectable behavior, to all those things the poorest of our kind, the petit bourgeoisie, needs to underwrite its very existence at any given moments of life. There is the assistant manager in the office who watches everything like a hawk, careful that his accommodation, his wardrobe, and all the minute details of his life, should keep firmly in step with his salary… The rich are always open to a kind of minor risk-taking. They are prepared to wear a false beard or to shin down a drainpipe in order to escape, even if only for a little while, the prison of ennui that goes with property. I am secretly convinced that the rich spend every hour of the day being utterly bored of themselves. But the middling man, the middle-class citizen, who holds an office without a great salary or a reservoir of money, will perform acts of heroism fit for a Knight Errant simply to maintain his position in the existing hierarchy, which means preserving both his rank and his system of values. It is the petit bourgeois who uphold the sacred rituals. From the moment one is born to the moment he dies, he has constantly to be proving something.

My wife was well brought up. She was taught languages, she had the ability to make sharp distinctions, between good music and a sentimental tune; between literature and cheap hack work. She could tell you precisely why a painting by Botticelli was beautiful and what Michelangelo had in mind with his Pietà. But wait – let me be accurate about this. She learned most of it from me - travel, reading, the art of intimate conversation. The education she received at home and at school, the culture she absorbed there, remained in her only as the memory of strict teaching. I tried to dissolve the tensions implicit in learning such things by rote, I wanted to transform school learning into warm, living experience. It wasn’t easy. She had remarkable powers of hearing in both the physical and psychological human sense. She sensed that I was teaching her and was offended. People are offended by all sorts of things. It doesn’t take much. Say one man knows something because of his good fortune in being born who he is and has had the opportunity of enquiring into the mysteries that constitute real art while the other has only learned it in class. That’s an offence. It happens. But it takes us a whole lifetime to learn this..

For the lower managerial class, culture is an inseparable part of the whole package: not experience but accomplishment. It is the top layer of the middle-class that provides the artists, the creative types. I was a member of that group. That’s not a boast but an admission. Because, in the end, I did not create anything. Something was missing in me…what was it? Lázár called it The Holy Spirit. But he never explained what he meant by that.


Some of this is familiar analysis of course, but it still impresses me how Márai can both defend a subject yet render it vulnerable at the same time.

Katy, aka Ms Baroque has a really good post - they're all good, of course - on accessibility in poetry (see 27th January). I want to think rather more about that, and will. But hers is the food that is to nourish the thought.

No comments: