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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