Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Márai: a perfectly dressed ghost,

Judit, the abjectly poor beautiful peasant girl, turned maid, turned wife of the son of a rich industrialist from whom she separated before the war, is in Rome in 1949 or so, with her jazz drummer lover, having left Hungary after the communist take over. It is night, almost dawn, and she recalls the chaotic days after the siege of Budapest. All the bridges have been blown up. Th city is a smoking ruin from which the survivors emerge. A hastily constructed temporary bridge spans the Danube and there are long queues of ragged filthy people either side waiting to cross from one side to the other. As she is crossing she spots her ex-husband on the other side and runs to meet him.

...I couldn’t believe my eyes. You know who stood in front of me on that improvised bridge among queues that stretched into the far distance, some ten or twenty thousand people in the smoky, sooty town where there were few houses left unmarked by shell or bullet holes? There was hardly an unbroken window anywhere. There was no traffic, no policeman, no law, nothing, a place where people dressed like beggars even when there was no need to, deliberately looking wretched, ancient and penniless, growing wild beards, stumbling about in rags to awaken others’ pity. Grand ladies carried sacks and everyone had a back pack like village brats, idle itinerants…. My husband stood in front me. It was the same man I hurt seven years ago. Exactly the same, the man who, when he understood that I was not his lover, not even his wife but his enemy, came to me one afternoon, smiled and quietly said:

- I think it might be best for us to separate.

He always started sentences that way when he wanted to say something very important: ‘I think…’. Or, ‘I imagine…’ He never spoke his mind directly, never hit you with it in the eye. When my father could take no more he would exclaim: ‘Godammit!...’ And then he would hit me. But my husband, whenever he couldn’t bear something, courteously opened a little door each time, as if what he were saying was merely something to consider, a by-the-way thought, in the course of which the true import or damage hidden in what he said could slip by you. He learned this in England, in the school where he studied. Another favourite phrase of his was: ‘I’m afraid that...’. One evening, for example, he turned to me and said, ‘I’m afraid my mother is dying’....

What strikes her is how beautifully he is still dressed,

...Any ordinary person might imagine that a man and woman might exchange a few words on meeting by the Danube, among the ruins of Budapest, after the siege… They might, for example, start by establishing the fact that both are still alive, don’t you think? “I’m afraid’ or ‘I think’ – one could imagine that, But my husband’s mind was elsewhere, so we just sat in front of the cave opposite the mineral springs and stared at each other.

I stared pretty hard, as you can imagine and I started to tremble. It was like being in a dream: the fog and the reality, both at once.

You know I am not any kind of ninny, darling. Nor am I a sentimental little tramp who starts bawling when she feels on edge or when she’s moved by a farewell. The reason I was trembling was because the man sitting beside me, opposite the vast tomb that the whole city had become, was not a human being, but a ghost.

Sometimes others only persist in dreams. Only dreams- dreams more effective than formaldehyde - can preserve apparitions like my husband as he seemed to me at that moment. Just imagine! His clothes were not ragged! I can’t remember precisely but I think he was wearing the same charcoal grey double-breasted suit I last saw him in, that he wore when he told me to my face, ‘I think it might be best for us to separate.’ I couldn’t be sure about the suit because he had many others like it… two or three, single-breasted, double-breasted… but in any case the same cut, the same material and produced by the very same tailor who had made his father’s suits.

Even on a morning like this he was wearing a clean shirt, a pale-cream lawn shirt and a dark grey tie. His shoes were black and double-soled. They looked brand new, though I have no idea how he could have crossed that dusty bridge without a speck of dust sticking to them. I was, of course, perfectly aware that the shoes were not new and that they only looked that way because they’d hardly been worn, for after all he had a dozen like them in his shoe-cupboard… I had seen enough of his shoes on the hall seat when it was I who cleaned those fine leather objects. Now there he was, wearing them.

They talk about things being fresh out of the outfitter’s box. But this was not only a box but a mass grave out of which people had climbed. It was the ditch out of which he himself had climbed. There was not a crease on the suit. His light beige gabardine raincoat - Made in England - was casually draped across his arm, very roomy, almost obscenely comfortable as I remember because it was I who had unwrapped the package from London when it first arrived… Much later I myself passed the shop in London from which the coat had been purchased, there in the window among other things… It was the raincoat he was still wearing at that very moment, thrown across his arm in an almost careless fashion now, because it was a mild end-of-winter afternoon.

He wore no gloves, of course, because he only put them on in the very depths of winter when it was freezing. So I looked at his hands too – they were white and clean, his nails so unobtrusively manicured you’d think they’d never seen a pair of scissors… That was him all over.

You know what was the strangest thing? When you put him in with that crowd of filthy, muddy, grimy, ragged people creeping over the bridge, his presence was practically incendiary. And yet he was almost invisible. I wouldn’t have been surprised if someone from among the crowd came over, took him by the lapels and shook and poked him, just to check that he was real…Imagine what would happen in the French Revolution, in those months of the Terror, when aristocrats were being hunted all over Paris the way children hunt sparrows with catapults, if an elderly nobleman appeared on the street in lilac frockcoat and powdered wig, amiably waving at carts filled with fellow counts and earls of his class on their way to the scaffold. There would be nothing between him and my husband – each as spectacular as the other. He was mysteriously different from the toiling throng around him, as if he had emerged not from one of the many bombed-out houses but from an invisible theatre, a piece of period drama for which he was appropriately fitted by the dresser. It was an old part in an old play, the kind that was never going to be put on now.


It was the end of the story for members of his class. They had no role in the new regime.

It is the persistence of class ethos that Márai is getting at and in fact admiring. The quiet pride in maintaining appearance and appearances. He himself was far more like the husband than the maid / wife, of course.

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