Saturday, August 25, 2007

BOOK: Sándor Márai, "Memoir of Hungary" (cont.)

Sándor Márai: Memoir of Hungary, 1944–1948. Budapest and New York: Corvina Books and Central European University Press, 1996. 9639241105. 427 pp.

[Continued from Part 1 and Part 2.]

Márai on the Slavs

He seems to have some modest amount of anti-Slavic prejudice; in particular, he has a somewhat annoying tendency to write airy (and none too flattering) generalizations about ‘the Slav’ — as if he didn't know that there are a dozen or so Slavic nations, a fairly diverse bunch (but of course he did know; you can encounter five of them by just moving your finger along the Hungarian border). How much experience did he really have with most of them? I imagine he was familiar with Slovaks, as he grew up in the area of present-day Slovakia; and of course he was familiar with the Russians who had occupied Hungary for a while. But how much did he know about the others? My impression is that he just had a bone to pick with the Soviet Russia whom he dislikes for installing communism in Hungary, and then he indulges in a bit of unfair overgeneralization from there.

See these examples: “I couldn't help but think that this Slav, this ‘feminine power’ could affect Hungarians fatefully” (p. 73). “The messianic Slav obsession can only partially be the cause of the ruthless, aggressive Bolshevist tactic deployed with the swiftness of lightning that provoked the Cold War” (p. 300). “And now, when a hostile great power — the effeminate, pertinacious Slav — grabbed his [the Hungarian's] dismembered country by the throat, he realized suddenly, in an alarming flash that ther was no one, near or far, he could count on” (pp. 317–8). “My friend said that in his view Bolshevism is in its true meaning nothing more than the absolute manifestation of Slav imperialism” (p. 396).

There's also a curious passage on p. 28: “he had a typically Slavic face, with wide cheekbones, and blond hair”. Really, what is it with these Slavic cheekbones? Márai is not the only one to mention them; see also Saki's The Easter Egg (“a sallow high-cheek-boned lady [. . .] probably a Southern Slav”); but I never had the impression that our cheekbones are unusually prominent.


There are some pleasantly sarcastic passages, such as: “The powers-that-be issued the order to collect the ‘fascist books’ in the homes of the ‘guilty,’ and the ‘democratic police,’ who executed the edict zealously, discovered [. . .] that there were also fascist candlesticks and fascist china. Of course, they absconded with these ‘exhibits of guilt’ as well.” (P. 76.)

From Márai's conversation with a Soviet member of the communist party: “I asked him what happened to the bourgeoisie in Russia. ‘The revolution finished them off,’ he said gravely; ‘the revolution killed a third of them, a third emigrated and scattered, a third were slowly absorbed by the Soviet system and found their place there.’ ” (P. 93.)

On the poverty of the Hungarian writers: “ ‘Pal, you've eaten, your teeth are bloody!’ the hungry wolves called out in the Central Café when the revolving door spun around once and a writer or a poet entered in a new suit.” (P. 148.) “Not a single Hungarian writer could make a living on the income from his books.” (P. 150.)

On the parvenus in the interwar period: “Perhaps there were a few more generals than were absolutely necessary; in Franz Josef's time, for instance, a lieutenant general was a rarity, but in Horthy's army this high-ranked military dignitary was found by the thousands.” (P. 169.)

“I read that Bukharin, Rosa Luxemburg and Radek described the right to national self-determination as ‘bourgeois idealism.’ ” (P. 183.) Well, I don't see why the opinion of such people should be taken into account in this matter — it's obvious that they are all from large nations who hardly ever had any serious problems with asserting their right to self-determination.

He often complains about the irresponsible behaviour of the upper classes in pre-WW2 Hungary, e.g. their unwillingness to allow themselves to be taxed (p. 170). Walking on the the Castle Hill in Budapest at the end of the war, he comments sarcastically while observing the ruins of the mansions: “time had solved the problem of paying a progressive real tax in a practical way. Taxes no longer had to be paid because there wasn't anything for the taxpayers to pay on. [. . .] So the question of taxation was finally solved more fundamentally in Hungary than in the West” (p. 185).

There are some interesting observations from the time of hyperinflation after the end of the war on pp. 192–7. I am very glad to see that times like that are an opportunity for the peasants (who are pretty much the only ones with something concrete and useful to sell, namely food) to fleece the townsfolk once for a change: “they were getting rich by trading a water-bloated, fattened pig for a piano”, etc. (p. 193).

He took a trip to Switzerland in 1947. Observing the shop windows full of fine watches, “the traveler arriving from the other side of the Iron Curtain was forced to think about what a Russian would give to catch a glimpse of the opportunities for looting that this fabulously lavish display presented” (p. 252). (Watches were one of the Soviet soldiers' favourite types of loot during their passage through Eastern Europe in the last months of the war; p. 51.)

Also in Switzerland, he says to himself: “You see, it is possible for a small nation to stand fast honorably in a grave geopolitical situation.” (P. 253.) I don't doubt that he intends this to be a contrast with Hungary, but is it really possible that he is so naive? Surely it must be obvious to everyone that this was not a choice that Hungary and (perhaps to a slightly lesser extent) Switzerland had anything to do with — it was purely up to Hitler. Once he'd decided that Hungary must fall under German influence, it was impossible for Hungary to “stand fast” — it was too weak for that; if it hadn't chosen to cooperate willingly, it would simply have been occupied much sooner, not just in 1944.

Here's a truly disgusting paean to capitalism from p. 258: don't be ashamed that you stayed out of the war, he says to the Swiss, “And don't be ashamed either that you live under capitalism, under a system called by this sort of old-fashioned, lavender-scented word, because, above all, this system functions in a manner producing contentment noiselessly and visibly. Everywhere well-paid beings do their work and no one plunders.” Excuse me while I go and throw up. All the capitalists plunder, jolly few people are well-paid, and the key thing in capitalism is to produce discontentment rather than contentment — contented people wouldn't be good consumers, so that the capitalists wouldn't be able to profit from them, nor to exploit them as workers.

“ ‘Lenin loved the proletarian but with the same despotic, unmerciful love as centuries earlier Torquemada, the Grand Inquisitor, did the Christians he sent to the stake to “save their souls.” ’ ” (Said by Viktor Chernov, a Russian revolutionary, p. 239.)

There is a very interesting paragraph on the T-V distinction in Hungarian. “The peasants didn't use the ‘thou’ among themselves, just the old with the younger ones; workers didn't use it either. The ‘genteel’ used the ‘thou’; indeed, among them it was an affront if one ‘gentleman’ didn't address another totally unknown ‘gentleman’ as ‘thou’.” (Pp. 240–1. The new communist ruling class started aping this genteel habit quite quickly.)

There's a long jeremiad on how literature is going to the dogs in Europe after the WW2; pp. 266–70. The book “had changed in its essence, in its organic reality. It was no longer a Message, only an informational medium, a commodity.” Aren't people a bit embarrassed to write such things by now? Surely everyone knows that each generation says such things, and none of them should be taken the least bit seriously. See also p. 276, writing of the 1920s writers: “But at least this generation was capable. Today, fashionable American writers make millions with wretched trash.” Like never before! Kids these days! Get off my lawn! Cough, wheeze!

The communists elbowed their way into power by various shady tactics, and a politician “during an inebriated, confidential conversation, admitted to his table compations with the disarming frankness of a hoodlum: ‘You can imagine the condition this country is in if I am its prime minister!’ ” (P. 290.)

The communists apparently operated on the basis of oderint dum metuant: “They did not want and could not even hope that a person of sound mind would appear who would come ot know the reality of Communism and then still remain enthusiastic about it; [. . .] They were not afraid of not being loved. They feared only that someone who did not fear them would turn up.” (P. 300.)

Visiting a friend who had tried to commit suicide by poison: “He spoke with a dreamy, relaxed voice, the way women do after orgasm, when they are sated and before falling asleep they murmur a few words of gratitude. Possibly, there is in suicide this kind of orgasmic gratification also.” (P. 323.)

“If people truly desire freedom, why do they put up so willingly with every kind of servitude?” (P. 363.) How can any sane person ask such a naive question? Isn't it obvious that jolly few people really desire freedom? They desire, first and foremost, happiness, with which freedom is only very weakly correlated. They desire freedom from want, freedom from uncertainty and upheaval, freedom from drudgery and boredom. The sort of freedom that lovers of capitalism are so fond of peddling around is practically indistinguishable from servitude, and no sane person could desire it.

I know that Hungary participated in the German attack on Yugoslavia in 1941, but apparently its participation wasn't quite voluntary: the Hungarian prime minister Pál Teleki “concluded a mutual-assistance treaty with Yugoslavia, and when in 1941 he realized that Germany would force Hungary to invade Yugoslavia, he committed suicide” (translator's notes, p. 411).

Incidentally, this book uses the spelling ‘Rumania’ instead of ‘Romania’ — I'd never have thought I would see this in a book published in 1996! See e.g. pp. 297, 411.

The translator's endnotes are quite extensive and helpful, but I did find one curious mistake in them: Teleki “signed the Berlin Pact (1940), which made Hungary a member of the Axis [. . .] and founded a military alliance that now included [. . .] and Croatia.” (P. 411.) But surely the ‘independent’ state of Croatia only came into existence in the spring of 1941, after the Germans and their allies occupied and dismembered Yugoslavia. I don't doubt that Croatia acceded to the axis immediately, but you cannot say that it was already included in it in 1940.


Although it may seem that I spent a lot of time up there just complaining about the book, I don't really think it was bad. I actually quite enjoyed reading it; the observations about life and changes in Hungary in 1944–8 were very interesting; I learned a little about Hungarian literature; and even from the things that annoyed me I learned something new, e.g. that the Hungarians may have occasionally felt weak and isolated. So I'm quite glad that I read this book; I wouldn't mind reading other volumes of Márai's memoirs and journals (mentioned in the translator's introduction, pp. 6–7), but unfortunately none of them have been translated into English. I hope that at least some more of his fiction will eventually be translated; actually, now I noticed that another novel of his has been translated this year, The Rebels, so this will probably be the next Márai book on my to-read list.

Incidentally, this English translation of his memoir has another very nice feature: a generous amount of endnotes with explanations of things that a modern non-Hungarian reader cannot reasonably be expected to be familiar with, e.g. the many Hungarian writers, poets, politicians etc. mentioned by Márai at various points in the book. There's also a good and extensive introduction at the beginning of the book.


  • Other Márai's books, e.g. The Rebels.
  • Walter Schubart: Russia and Western Man (NY: Frederick Ungar, 1950). Mentioned here on p. 61 (as Europe and the Eastern Soul).

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Saturday, August 18, 2007

BOOK: Sándor Márai, "Memoir of Hungary" (cont.)

Sándor Márai: Memoir of Hungary, 1944–1948. Budapest and New York: Corvina Books and Central European University Press, 1996. 9639241105. 427 pp.

[Continued from last week.]

Márai's anti-communism

Another thing that annoyed me somewhat about this memoir is Márai's blunt anti-communism that pervades the whole book. This is not to say that Márai was some sort of dyed-in-the-wool conservative — he wasn't, he often criticizes various things that were wrong about the pre-WW2 Hungarian society and especially its upper classes (pp. 166–70); nor did he in any way approve of the Nazis or their Hungarian counterparts, the Arrow Cross regime. But he was very much a member of the middle class (“I never bought any furniture; everything we owned was inherited from the estates of our two families, from two households in Upper Hungary. We didn't have any art treasures, but we didn't have a single piece of store-bought furniture either,” p. 25; and see his grumpy grumbling about people no longer sticking to old bourgeois customs after the war, e.g. by, horror of horrors, coming to visit him without announcing themselves in advance, p. 189), and had spent his whole life writing middle-class literature for middle-class readers, so, unsurprisingly, he wasn't any more fond of communists than the communists were of him. He seems to genuinely believe that the bourgeoisie is a valuable part of society (“the bourgeoisie was the best human phenomenon that modern Western culture produced”, p. 132; see also the praises of middle-class intelligentsia, pp. 307, 314–5), that the small businessmen are pillars of the economy (pp. 188, 254), etc.

His main complaints about communism seem to be that it is incompatible with human nature (p. 215) and that it's based on Marx's critiques of capitalism in the 1850s, which do not necessarily apply to the considerably different capitalist society and economy of the mid-20th century, almost a hundred years after Marx (p. 242: “Not even all the lessons of several decades of Soviet history convinced them that the Idea was obsolete and anti-human, that new systems of production, distribution and ownership had since developed in the world which were able to help the working masses more quickly and fairly than the hundred-year-old Idea dictated” — but I doubt this is really true; as long as the slightest shred of capitalism remains in a system, the capitalists will always be on the lookout for chances to screw over the working classes; the present trends in the U.S., and to a slightly lesser extent in the other developed countries, are clear enough illustration of that).

Another frequent complaint of his has to do with the way communists took over the power in Hungary: they came on the coattails of the Soviet army, and would not have been able to assume power without their backing (the Hungarians did not want communism, pp. 224, 288). Once they were in power, they mostly listened to directives from Moscow (pp. 236–7), the main purpose of which was to turn Hungary into a Soviet satellite (practically, as Márai doesn't hesitate to call it, a colony; p. 239); he gets quite angry describing how the Soviets systematically looted both natural and human resources (sending skilled people to work in the Soviet Union), and after thus despoiling the Hungarian economy they further demanded Hungary to pay them war-reparations (p. 69).

He is particularly angry with those Hungarian intellectuals who supported communism; in his opinion, enough information was available about the Soviet Union that they should have known that communism degenerates into tyranny (pp. 216, 295–6). “The Communists, the ‘real ones’ who knew what the reality was [. . .] invited them in, rubbing their hands.” (P. 216.) The communists, for their part, had more or less nothing but contempt for such ‘fellow travellers’ (p. 295–6). Some intellectuals supported the communists for mercenary motives anyway, which makes Márai even angrier: “This was the time of the careerists' striptease, the people's masked ball, the witches' sabbath termed Socialism — the age of weird changes, of undressings and dressings.” (P. 218.)

Márai describes his own position as “bourgeois humanist” (p. 395), he clearly has sympathy with the exploited and oppressed poor people, but he doesn't feel that communism is the right way to solve this problem. Unfortunately, as he himself admits (p. 395), he and other such bourgeois humanists didn't really have any political weight with which they could try to change anything for the better. I personally think that communism was by far the best solution for the backwards countries of central and eastern Europe after the WW2; a simple restoration of bourgeois ‘democracy’ would not really have accomplished anything: the same old elites would retain power and keep on oppressing the people just as they had done before the war. The only way to get rid of the influence of the big landowners, the industrialists and the church was by radical reforms such as only the communists were likely to implement. I agree with him on one thing, however, namely that it is regrettable that the Hungarian communist leaders used their influence to turn their country into a satellite of a foreign power, in this case the Soviet Union. But of course one has to admit that they didn't really have a choice in this matter.

On p. 94 he has an interesting discussion with a Soviet communist, a real member of the party, who says that writers should understand that the revolution “has the right to sacrifice that relative something called freedom. ‘Why is intellectual freedom relative?’ I asked him. ‘Because intellectual freedom is not possible without social and material freedom,’ he replied.” Although Márai didn't continue the argument with this communist, he continues it in his memoir: “culture is always mightier than despots and despotism [. . .] the intellectually creative individual is in his own sphere of activity absolutely independent of the tyranny of current snipers [. . .] and continues to create his work in the catacomb and in prison. The bridge-builder from Moscow would not have understood this anyway, even as the parasitical fellow-travelling dilettantes don't believe it either.” But this counter-argument is ridiculous; of course intellectual freedom is easy to achieve if you don't mind starving for it, but this is hardly something we can expect from most people, even writers. For example, conditions of great material hardship, when everyone dedicates the vast majority of their energies to just staying alive, would not be conducive to a flowering of literature, nor of the other arts. The ideal of communism would be to ensure that everyone has material freedom and stability, which would be the best possible basis for a development of the arts. And, anyway, what did Márai really know about material hardship anyway? The impression I got from his memoir is that he never was exactly poor, he never went hungry and he never did any manual work for a living (see p. 178: “there wasn't a single month of my life when I didn't have to worry about a hundred pengős, but what I needed the hundred pengős for was another matter”, e.g. for a car, not for food and rent).


I have another small complaint about Márai. His Hungarian patriotism sometimes goes a little bit further than I feel comfortable with. Nothing excessive, but still. For example, he always makes it clear that he was born and grew up in Kassa, Upper Hungary (p. 133); there is never even the slightest hint of the fact that this is actually the town of Košice in Slovakia. Now admittedly, maybe I shouldn't complain too much about the use of “Kassa”; after all, this book is a translation from the Hungarian, and it's only reasonable that the Hungarian original used the Hungarian name of the town; and if the translator into English then felt that, given the strongly Hungarian context of this book, it is better to stick with the Hungarian version rather than translating it into the Slovak one, this is not an unreasonable decision either. But the frequent references to “Upper Hungary” really got on my nerves; there is something expansionistic about it, as if Márai was implying that to him, that area still was, or at least should be, a part of Hungary.

In fact there seems to be a curious disagreement in the way I see Hungary and the way that the Hungarians, at least some of them, including Márai a few times in this book, perceive themselves. To paraphrase, his litany is often along the lines of “poor us Hungarians (p. 168), we are such a small nation, surrounded by the oceans of Germans and Slavs (p. 73, 137), we don't have any close relatives except the Finns somewhere far away (p. 135; “No other people was still living in Europe that was as stifled by loneliness as the Hungarians”, pp. 316–7 — bah, what about the Basques, you dolt?), we lost so much territory under the Treaty of Trianon (p. 168; “dismembered country”, p. 318), a huge percentage of us has to live outside the borders of the mother country, etc., etc.” But to this I always want to shout: “Stop whining and pretending to be weak and oppressed! You ruled over Croatia and Slovakia for centuries; you had your own aristocracy and your own bourgeoisie; in 1867 the Habsburgs gave you, and only you, all the autonomy you wanted; etc., etc.” And Márai, in his wistful memories of ‘Upper Hungary’, in his lamentations about the linguistic isolation of the Hungarian language, in his references to the Hungarian minorities abroad, never throughout these things does he seem to ackowledge that the Hungarians weren't just the victims but also the oppressors.

P. 168 is particularly bizarre in this regard, where he refers to Hungary as “a society that foreign powers exploited and mauled for centuries[.] The Turks, the Austrians, then yesterday the imperialistic Nazi Teutons and today the imperialistic Slavs — always foreign armies in the country and foreign will in public life”. I'm not particularly impressed by the reference to “the imperialistic Slavs” either. He should call a spade a spade and refer to the imperialistic Soviets or Russians. The rest of us aren't particularly imperialistic (not because we wouldn't like to be but because we are fortunately too small and weak :)).

[To be continued in a few days.]

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Saturday, August 11, 2007

BOOK: Sándor Márai, "Memoir of Hungary"

Sándor Márai: Memoir of Hungary, 1944–1948. Budapest and New York: Corvina Books and Central European University Press, 1996. 9639241105. 427 pp.

Márai was a Hungarian writer; most of his books were novels and were published in the period between the two world wars. Soon after the WW2 he left Hungary and eventually settled in America; he ended up committing suicide in 1989.

I first heard of him a few years ago when his short novel Embers was first translated into English — I stumbled upon it by coincidence in a bookshop. If I understand correctly, this was the first translation of any of his fiction into English; earlier, some of his works had been translated into German, French and some other languages, but none into English. Anyway, I enjoyed Embers quite a bit and I decided I wouldn't mind reading more from the same author; more recently another novel of his was translated, Conversations in Bolzano (issued in the U.S. as Casanova in Bolzano, which I guess is a crass attempt by the publisher to make the book more marketable); I read it earlier this year, but haven't yet got around to writing a blog post about it. After this, the only other book by Márai that I could find in English was this memoir from the period 1944–48, so I decided I'd read this as well. This is the period during which the WW2 came to a close and the communists took over the power in Hungary, so I figured it would make for fairly interesting reading. A couple of years ago I read a book about the communist takeover of power in Yugoslavia and I was curious to see what these things were like in other countries, such as Hungary.

The contents of this book

Since the memoir starts in 1944, I was hoping that it would also say something about Hungary under German occupation, but in this I was a bit disappointed. Only the first few pages are from that period (pp. 24–8); immediately afterwards the story jumps to Márai's first encounter with the Soviet army, which had by that time occupied the village near Budapest to which he had retreated to avoid the heavy fighting of the ‘Siege of Budapest’. The book is divided into three parts, and the first part is mostly about his encounters with the Soviets in the first few months.

For me, this was the most interesting part of the whole book. The Soviets present a curiously mixed picture; on the one hand they had an unusual respect for writers, including Márai when he told them that he was a writer (p. 39; “ ‘It is good because if you are a writer, then you can tell us what we are thinking,’ ” p. 63); at the same time they knew very little about literature, even Russian literature (as Márai found out during his conversations with various officers, pp. 40, 49–50, 55–63); they also had an incredible propensity towards theft, and they stole and looted avidly from everyone regardless of their wealth, religion, nationality or social status (pp. 32, 42–3, 51, 65; “I gradually came to understand that the innermost, the real reason for their widespread and endless looting was not rage directed against the ‘fascist’ enemy but simply abject poverty”, p. 86).

Although it is clear that Márai is not at all happy with the presence and behavior of the Soviet army, he does his best to be objective and try to learn more about them, to better understand both them and the Soviet system that produced them. He is also impressed by the fact that, chaotic as the Soviet army appears to be at first sight, it turns out to be very effective at accomplishing its goals (pp. 52–3, 80–1).

Eventually, the Soviet army moves on, Márai returns to Budapest and tries to resume his life and literary career again. He finds his flat in ruins, although he manages to rescue some books and various other possessions from the rubble (p. 121). The Hungarian communist leaders return from their long exile in the Soviet Union and, with Soviet backing, start taking over the power; this was a gradual process, and the democratic politics weren't abandoned immediately, but the tendency was clear from the start (pp. 122, 288). One of their first major steps was a land reform in 1945 (pp. 82, 122, 379), in which land was taken from the big landowners and given to the peasants who had until then only rented it. According to Márai, the peasants, although they were on the one hand happy about this, were also distrustful, knowing that “what is handed out can also be taken back” (p. 122), and the implication seems to be that eventually private ownership of farmland will be abolished altogether, and the farmers forced into collectivization. There was also a gradual clampdown on free expression, with the Communist secret police eventually obtaining a reputation just as notorious as had been that of their counterparts from the Arrow Cross party during the WW2 (p. 208). The second part of the book also contains many discussions about Hungarian literature, both from earlier periods and from the 20th century, and Márai also describes how the writers and other intellectuals reacted or adapted to the new circumstances of post-WW2 Hungary.

In the third part of the book, Márai eventually decides to emigrate. This was not an easy decision for him; he had already spent several years abroad, in Paris in the 1920s (see his memories of that period, pp. 270–7), but then returned to Hungary because he realized that he wanted to be a writer and he could only write literature in the Hungarian language (p. 285). It wouldn't be impossible for him to stay in Hungary after the Communist takeover, but the situation of a bourgeois writer like him would certainly be uncomfortable, and he might find himself making uncomfortable compromises. Additionally, he felt that writers like him would, if they stayed in Hungary, confer a kind of legitimacy to the Communist regime: the Hungarian communists could say to the western world, “look, we can't be as bad as your propaganda says — the bourgeois writers can stay in Hungary and nobody's persecuting them” (pp. 354–60). Márai describes how this decision to emigrate developed within him and adds some observations and anecdotes of Hungary in the last few months before he left. In particular, nationalization of the economy took place at that time (p. 379); apparently it came quite unexpectedly and led to some scenes that could be almost touching if I was at all inclined to feel any sympathy for the capitalists. For example, Márai describes the experience of his publisher, who simply found himself one day forbidden from entering the company that he and his ancestors had built up over the last several generations (p. 380). This was of course also a bad sign for the further sales of Márai's various books, many copies of which were still in his publisher's warehouse. Márai's emigration was carried out under the guise of a trip to a literary conference abroad (p. 390), but even the officials that issued his passport clearly knew that he probably wasn't going to return; but they didn't seem to mind, and in fact rather encouraged him (p. 393). Many other intellectuals left Hungary in the same period.

'ere's to you, Fuzzy-Wuzzy

All in all, this was a fairly interesting and readable book. My favourite aspect are the observations of life and events in that period; this aspect is the most pronounced in the first part of the book, but there are also many interesting things in the second and third part. What I liked less were the many long discussions about Hungarian literature and intellectuals in the second and third part of the book. Márai employs a lot of fuzzy words and phrases that perhaps actually meant something definite to a mid-20th-century middle-class intellectual like him, but that I find largely incomprehensible and sometimes downright infuriating. I often wished that the expressed himself in clearer and more explicit ways. But then, I sometimes had a similar feeling while reading his fiction; in the two novels I've read, the action is always distinctly in the background while the focus is on conversations which are not so much dialogues as sequences of long monologues, often employing this same fuzzy style that leaves me quite unsure of what exactly he is trying to say and why he thinks it is true. I guess I just don't come from the right cultural background to be able to appreciate writing of this type; and I don't doubt that for many Márai's readers, the same things that annoyed me most about this book will actually be their favourite parts of it.

Here's an example of such fuzziness from pp. 34–5: “The Arabs [. . .] launched an attack with an ideological, racial, and spiritual consciousness against another ideological, racial and spiritual consciousness, against Christianity, and when Charles Martel, the bastard, defeated them at Autun for good, they left in Europe not just the memory of their looting but also the great questions of Arab civilization that demanded answers. [A few sentences follow that list not questions but various achievements of Arab civilization.] To this ‘barbarian,’ to this first Eastern question, the Christian world would give a good answer at Autun; it answered not only with cannon but with the Renaissance and Humanism, which would, perhaps, not have” developed as early as they did “without the impetus of Arab civilization's Hellenistic, Aristotelian self-consciousness.”

Where do I begin? First of all, I wonder to what extent there was in Medieval Christendom anything resembling a ‘racial consciousness’; perhaps the Arabs had it, seeing as they were all from the same ethnic group, but Medieval Europe was too diverse for that. Secondly, what exactly are the questions of Arab civilization that he refers to? Thirdly, if Autun was a battle in which Charles Martel was involved (but doesn't one usually hear of a battle of Tours, or of Poitiers?), then this must have been in the 8th century, i.e. way before the introduction of cannons and way, way, way before Renaissance and Humanism — which, if they were prompted by anything, it was the Turkish conquest of Byzantium, not anything the Arabs did. And yet in the next paragraph he says again that the Renaissance was “a response to the first massive Eastern ideological invasion”, while the “second Eastern assault, at the powerful onslaught of the Osman world concept and Eastern imperialism”, Christendom would reply with the Reformation. Aargh! What do the Turks have to do with triggering the Reformation? What on earth is “the Osman world concept” supposed to be? Classic fuzziness, that's what. And he mentions Eastern imperialism, as if Europe didn't have thousands of years of experience with it before it had ever heard of the Ottoman Turks — Persians, Arabs, Mongols, and in the bible they could also read about a few more Eastern imperialists with whom they didn't have first-hand experience, such as the Assyrians and Babylonians. And anyway, how is Eastern imperialism different from any other? Imperialism wasn't exactly a new concept anyway. Christianity arose within an empire after all, and even after the collapse of Rome the idea of empire remained an important concept throughout the middle ages.

“Just as there is no Egyptian ‘literature,’ because the figures are rigid, do not move like letters — it is impossible to write the following with hieroglyphics: ‘Oh, fly slowly and sing a long while.’ ” (P. 138.) WTBF??? What the heck does “the figures are rigid” supposed to mean? Our letter ‘A’ is ultimately derived from an Egyptian hieroglyph of an ox-head; why would one be more rigid than the other? And I doubt very much that it's really impossible to write that sentence in Egyptian hieroglyphics. If they were able to write all the religious texts, the boastful autobiographies of the pharaohs, even some poems and short stories, I bet they could write his fly-slowly-and-sing sentence as well. And how shamelessly, how blithely he pops out this kind of fuzzy bullshit! Aaargh.

(There's lots more fuzziness in the third part of the book, but I'm not going to dissect that because that wouldn't do anybody any good and would probably just give me an ulcer anyway.)

[To be continued in a few days.]

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Sunday, August 05, 2007

BOOK: Grund (ed.), "Humanist Comedies" (cont.)

Humanist Comedies. Edited and translated by Gary R. Grund. The I Tatti Renaissance Library, Vol. 19. Harvard University Press, 2005. 0674017447. xxx + 460 pp.

[Continued from last week.]

Enea Silvio Piccolomini: Chrysis

This is one of the shorter plays in this volume. There's nothing particularly amusing, let alone funny, about it. Two priests, Dyophanes and Theobolus, are avid frequenters of two courtesans, Chrysis and Cassina, but they seem to be offended by the fact that the girls have other lovers besides them, namely two young men named Sedulius and Charinus. Initially I was under the impression that the girls are actually fond of the two young men (see e.g. p. 289 and p. 303), and are seeing the priests only for the sake of their money; but eventually they profess genuine love for the two priests (p. 343), and the two couples are reunited for a reasonably happy ending of the play.

There is much to complain about here. First of all, the plot seems quite thin and somehow rambling, with plenty of loose ends. Too many of the characters are just peripheral, appearing in one or two scenes without a good enough connection to the rest of the story. Secondly, you won't be exactly roaring with laughter while reading this play; there are a few (very few) passages where you might smile, but that's about it. And this brings us to another, even bigger complaint: perhaps you could argue that there is humour in this play, but if so, it is of a very, very dark sort; namely, you could see the whole play as one big sustained act of mockery at the horrible faults of human nature. The author never misses the slightest opportunity to emphasize these faults, and often actually goes out of his way to do it: thus, for example, if most of the play deals with problems brought about by appetites for sex and money, the author has taken the trouble to also insert two completely gratuitions scenes in which Artrax the gluttonous cook extols his appetite for food (scenes VII and XVI: they are completely peripheral to the rest of the play, and could be taken out and nobody would notice anything at all).

And really, the whole play is one big sordid catalogue of human faults. In scene I, we have Dyophanes smugly explain how good he and Theobolus have it as priests (“We have wealth, resources, luxuries; we are born but to eat and drink; we can sleep and relax as much as we want. We live for ourselves; others live for others. [. . .] We don't have to take a permanent wife [. . .] if a lover suits our fancy, we return to her; if we don't care for her, we simply change course”, p. 285). In scene III we have Lybiphanes and Pythias agreeing that neither men nor women are ever faithful in marriage (p. 295). In scene IV Charinus praises his own hedonistic lifestyle, spent in complete disregard of any wider social or political issues. In scene V we see Canthara, the cynical old madam (“A little healthy lovemaking is a good thing [. . .] but the kind of billing and cooing these two are getting up to is positively sickening”, p. 303) and avid drinker of wine. In scene VI we see Theobolus' grim view of the relations between the sexes (“I know how women act and think: whatever you want, they don't want, and vice versa”, p. 311), as well as Dyophanes' candid admission of lust (“I can deprive myself of food and drink, but not of sex. I want to sleep in the arms of my Cassina, even if she does smell like a goat”, p. 309). In scene VIII we have Charinus's bitter complaints about love (“nothing but merciless torture, savage and horrible [. . .] Love makes such a mockery of my shattered reason”, p. 313). In scene X the two courtesans, Chrysis and Cassina, cynically discuss their habit of dumping their lovers on a regular basis (“A brand-new lover wants to please you right away” and is thus more generous, p. 319; “Cassina:  ‘No lover tastes good to me for more than a month; the Kalends of each month always brings me new lovers.’ — Chrysis: ‘You are far too constant in your love! It's really a better idea to celebrate fresh nuptials on the Nones and Ides’ ”, p. 321). Theobolus and Dyophanes exhibit, in several passages, a regrettable degree of misogyny and contempt for prostitutes (made worse by the fact that they themselves frequent these very same prostitutes); pp. 307, 327, 329. Archimenides contributes his own cynical monologue in scene XIII. In scene XV Dyophanes, still angry at his Cassina, provides one of the few really funny scenes in the play by describing in great detail the violence he would like to perpetrate upon her, interrupted after every sentence by utterly sycophantic (and undoubtedly quite insincere) expressions of approval by the slave Congrio (“D.: ‘I have a mind to rip out her eyes.’ — C.: ‘What strength!’ — D.: ‘I'll break a few bones.’ — C.: ‘She deserves it.’ — D.: ‘What if I decided to cut off her nose?’ — C.: ‘I say, do it.’ — D.: ‘And I'm not going to spare her ears either.’ — C.: ‘She doesn't deserve to have ears.’ ”, p. 337).

The play ends with another splendid bit of sarcasm: “Know that the moral of the play is this: that you should work hard to be virtuous, stay away from courtesans, pimps, parasites and wild parties.” (P. 347.) Of course, the rest of the play has hardly done anything to encourage such a moral. By and large, the thoroughly non-virtuous protagonists of this play do just fine; it isn't clear that it would be any better for them if they had really taken up the path of virtue.

A memorable quote from Archimenides (scene XIII, ll. 611–3, p. 329): “Pleasure is a paltry thing in the life of a man, but miseries endure. Sorrow is always a companion to pleasure.” This one belongs into the pessimistic hall of fame, right next to the opening lines of Poe's Berenice (“Misery is manifold. The wretchedness of earth is multiform. Overreaching the wide horizon like the rainbow, its hues are as various as the hues of that arch — as distinct too, yet as intimately blended.”).

A nice bit of sarcasm from Chyrsis, from the passage where Theobolus and Dyophanes announce their intention to break their relationships with her and Cassina: “This is getting serious. What are we going to do, Cassina? If we hang ourselves now, the effort will be wasted. [. . .] we'll lose the cost of the rope and bring pleasure to these two, who'll enjoy themselves at our expense [. . .] Better to go on living and filling our bellies. That will bother these two more than they'd like to believe.” (P. 329.)

There's a curious inconsistency in this play; on p. 285 Sedulius is described in the dramatis personae as “a young man”, but on p. 291 his friend says: “you're in your sunset years”. Admittedly the dramatis personae was supplied by the translator rather than by the author himself, so maybe that's just a translator's mistake.

Anyway, what to say about this play? Far be it from me to complain when somebody has a low opinion of human nature; after all, so do I; but nonetheless, the relentless emphasis on it, with so little in the way of comic relief, makes this ‘comedy’ a less enjoyable thing to read than one would have liked.

(Incidentally, the author went on to become a pope — it's curious to see a future pope write a play about prostitutes and their customers, and what is more, a play that doesn't make the slightest effort to explicitly moralize, nor to mention religion. That such a thing was possible is one of those fascinating things about the renaissance, I guess. Compare this with the recently deceased pope John Paul II, who also wrote some plays, but they all seem to be much more religious in character.)

Tommaso Mezzo: The Epirote

I think this was my favourite play in this volume, or maybe it ties for first place with Philogenia and Epiphebus. It has at least a few funny passages and a genuinely happy ending. Clitipho and Antiphila are in love, but they dare not marry as she has no dowry. Their plans are further threatened by a confusion between Clitipho and a friend of his, who happens to have the same name! This second Clitipho has been seeing a prostitute, and due to a confusion of names the first Clitipho got momentarily blamed for it. However, the truth comes out, and furthermore Antiphila's uncle (the Epirote, i.e. he's from Epirus) returns home after many years abroad; he turns out to be fairly well off, so he provides a dowry for Antiphila, who can now finally marry Clitipho. There's also a supblot involving an old woman, Pamphila, who is also in love with Clitipho; there's a scene, either funny or sad depending on how you look at it, in which she pathetically attempts to cover her wrinkles under heroic quantities of makeup. At the end she gets married to Antiphila's uncle. There are also a couple of amusing scenes largely unrelated to the rest of the plot; in one we observe a quack doctor in action, and in one a group of musicians cunningly manage to avoid having to pay for their dinner at an inn. All in all, this was quite an enjoyable read; of the five plays in this volume, this one is the closest to what I imagine a comedy should look like.

Apparently the Latin word for an old woman is anus :)) (p. 354). According to the Lewis & Short dictionary at the Perseus web site, it differs from the Latin word for anus only in the length of the a vowel. But judging from the etymologies mentioned in that dictionary, the similarity between the two words is probably just accidental.

The uncle from Epirus says a curious sentence on p. 409: “Dramburi te clofto goglie”. The translator's note on p. 450 says that according to Ludwig Braun, the editor of a German edition of this play, the sentence is “Albanian for ‘Please shut your mouth!’ Braun points out the parallel with Plautus' Poenulus, where the character Hanno speaks his native Punic in several places.” This certainly makes sense, as Epirus partly overlaps with present-day Albania and a language related to Albanian was probably already spoken there in ancient times. Anyway, I've found the same sentence cited on several Albanian web pages, always in reference to this play by Mezzo. According to the Wikipedia, the oldest surviving documents written in Albanian are from 1462; this would make the sentence from The Epirote, which was first printed in 1483, one of the earliest recorded bits of Albanian language. And anyway, the sentence sounds just great; what a pity that Dante didn't know Albanian — “Dramburi te clofto goglie” would make a perfect addition to “Raphèl maì amècche zabì almi” (Inf. 31.67) and “Pape Satàn, pape Satàn aleppe” (Inf. 7.1). :)


There are unusually many typos in this book, e.g.: “goard” (instead of “gourd”, p. 123); “these deed” (p. 157), “I can't helped” (p. 181), and missing full-stops on pp. 215, 267, 273 and 429.

In many books, translations from Latin seem to have a slight tendency towards stuffiness; so the translator of this book has to be commended for the valiant efforts to use a more colloquial tone in many parts of these plays. “I came in to sow some wild oats. [. . .] Or rather, I came on a panty-raid” (Paulus, p. 33); “I shall be appointed the censor of the dining-room: either I shall be chief of the chow or general of the jugs” (Philodoxus, p. 137); “Oh, come off it!” (Philodoxus, p. 163).

“In a broader sense it may very well be that because comedy always pits those in the grip of convention against those who desire to love and flourish (bene esse), it will always find a deeper resonance in the hearts of those living in times of political authoritarianism and strict social codes.” (Translator's introduction, p. ix.) I agree with this description of comedy, but then I can't help feeling that several of the plays in this volume can just barely be considered comedies at all.

“As late as the tenth century, Hrotsvitha, a nun at Gandersheim, rewrote in Latin the plays of Terence ‘substituting for so many incestuous vices of feminine lust the chaste actions of holy virgins.’ ” (Translator's preface, p. ix. The quoted sentence is apparently (p. xxviii) from a preface to Hrotsvitha's works in the Patrologia Latina, vol. 137.) Two things: (1) looks like I'll have to read some Terence :) (2) looks like I'll have to start maintaining a list of gloriously silly names of medieval nuns. Hrotsvitha is almost as good as Austrebertha and certainly better than Wereburga.

There are several other interesting passages in the translator's introduction.


I'm starting to fear that I'm repeating myself like a broken record :) As with many other ITRL volumes, this one wasn't exactly a thrilling read as a whole, but some parts of it were enjoyable after all. I'd say about two of the five plays were reasonably enjoyable, the others not so much; and the translator's introduction is interesting and informative.

Maybe one thing I could learn from this is that the idea of what a comedy should be like changes through time. Or maybe just our sense of humour changes? I wonder if the 15th-century readers laughed while reading the plays from this volume. I certainly didn't; but I did laugh e.g. while reading Oscar Wilde's comedies. And I at least smiled every now and then while reading Molière. On the other hand I hardly ever smiled while reading ancient Greek and Roman comedies. Maybe they were funnier if you actually saw them performed on the stage rather than just reading them? Or maybe comedy just happens to be one of those things that don't age so well.

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