Tag Archives: Hungarian literature

The Glamourless

image of apricot blossom

Apricot blossom

I started the Hungarian book, Katalin Street, written by Magda Szabó (trans. Len Rix) back in February. It’s not a particularly long book, and yet it took me a particularly long time to finish. Then again, what is time in the age of Rona? Initially it was difficult to get my bearings in the book because of its ghostly omnipotent voice dropping in facts from the long arch of the story almost immediately and throughout the story without respect for our linear dependencies.  Not to mention the changing perspective of the story being told: first Blanka, and then Henriette, over to Irén, all with discomfiting unpredictability. But once familiar with the characters of Katalin Street, the second problem I had to confront was its depressing content. It is a tale of families turned upside down by World War II. Obviously, the horror and senselessness of the German occupation drove the story.

I am not one who reads to escape—or at least escape into a romanticized or Hollywood ending-esque daze. Of course, reading is always a sort of escape, but I am more prone to the kind that offers commiseration, or a cathartic airing (preferably with some gallows humor) laying bare the pain and confusion we sentient beings of the world are all too familiar with to simply read away. But, I will admit, these past months have really highlighted the limits of that sort of reading. Things are bad. Things are weird. And wow did I feel even worse after a chapter or two of Katalin Street. 

A big Covid19 take-away (or “take-in” as we are really all still very much in the midst of this strange pandemic present) is that so much of what we thought mattered, doesn’t. I spent a few days with a simple question pinging inside my head—what’s the point?  Sometimes, for variation it was— what is the point? I finally came to the banal conclusion that of course there is no point. We must smoke ’em while we got ’em as the late great John Prine said. We have to find joy. Epicurus taught us that joy is easy to find. And it is, of course. A budding apricot tree is enough.

However, I have, unfortunately, always been something of a contrarian. And so, Katalin Street’s counter-point messaging…well, I have to admit, it resonates. Yes, there is joy. There is always joy. But things get fucked up too, and often—they stay that way. There is no heroic fortitude we can look forward to in our stubborn resilience; it’s just messed up, depleting, and exhausting. The inhabitants of Katalin Street express this bleak truth with rigor. They know, we ALL know, what might have been—what should have been, but what absolutely could not have been once the disaster of World War II swept their lives into the dustbin of history. It is sad and it is too true. There is no glamour in suffering.

There are only little lives. And those little lives are all of our lives. Now, (I will flag this part) we are getting to the inspirational conclusion of my post, but don’t blame me, blame Blanka. Through Blanka we find our way towards our consolation: truth and love. These are the only pure things. They elude us constantly, but we must always strive to make our way back. Grasp at our glimpses while we can.

From the Front Lines of Cloud Cuckoo Land

“You are part of me, even now, when time and distance have annihilated all we once had together…Do you understand yet? You are responsible for everything that has happened in my life, just as I – in my fashion, in a man’s fashion – am responsible for you, for your life.” – Sándor Márai, Esther’s Inheritance (131)

IMG_0212My heart was in my throat. Mystery, Larceny, Heartbreak- all physically palatable. I could point to the place where it built up in my chest moving to my throat, an occasional audible vowel of expiration as I read Sándor Márai’s  Esther’s Inheritance, originally published in Hungary, in 1939. Thankfully it was a quick read because I do occasionally need to draw breath.

“I don’t know,” he said after a time. “I don’t know,” he repeated more quietly, as if arguing with someone. “Doomed love cannot die,” he finally added. (29)

I have read a few of Márai’s books and there are some similarities. Like Embers, this story consumes a single day in a life. He has  a genius for elegiac memories heavy with regret. This story’s focus is the love between Esther and Lajos. His protagonists are often in the throws of trying to make sense of the deepest wounds the heart can survive, always with a yearning presumptive air of perspective. As in the greater part of Portrait of a Marriage, this story is told from the female point of view.

“A woman! A woman!” he said quickly, courteously waving my answer away. “I am talking about you, Esther. I mean you.” (119)

Sentences like that just destroy me. Esther is strangled by her impassioned war between her heart and head. She stubbornly insists on a calm reason and then just as easily slips into a helpless resignation.

It is not enough to love somebody, you must love courageously. You must love so that no thief or plan or law, whether that be the law of heaven or of the world, can come between. (129)

And yet, Márai’s characters are never lost in fiction,  the sense of living in the world, the “miraculous ice-cold shower” of reality, full of flawed and weary people is ever present. They never disappear, but nor are they completely illuminated. The modern world can’t reach those stuck in the past, their psychological houses are never wired for it. They are the passed by. Circumstances, pride, and folly all conspire to imprison what wants to be a simple thing. Love.

Now that this danger has passed I can see that nothing is as it was, and that such danger was in fact the one true meaning of life. (45)

But is it true? Is there such a thing as a love that binds without hope of release? I’m starting to think Márai believed so, but he killed himself, which may have nothing to do with anything beyond a tragic chemical imbalance, still, the fatalist, the hopeless, the heartbroken…can only take so much. His loves have such a death knell of permanence.  Márai gives into it, while illuminating a sort of ridiculous frustrated tragedy. He underlines the ridiculous by making Lajos…an asshole. But then laments- what difference does it make? It’s love as a wasteland. I hope it isn’t true.

* Translated from Hungarian by George Szirtes.
But the moment I was left alone I was obliged to notice that I had been living in Cloud Cuckoo Land before- clouds heavy with thunder, I should add – and hardly any idea of what was real and reliable and what was not. (41)

Love, if true, as the simple thing it is- I kept thinking of this song as I read the book-