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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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Frankly, I think the last very lengthy laborious comment was more about this persons' personal politics and less about the art of the book. In stead of being defensive, I appreciate the writers' perspective on capitalism especially since it does continue to be the most successful type of government. The Swiss are quite remarkable frankly in their accomplishments and the different cultures certainly do have certain traits in behavior and in appearance. IN perspective I found this book a very interesting historical documentary of a citizen during that era. It is great reading when someone can actually read to understand instead of to react personally.

Friday, December 14, 2007 6:24:00 AM  
Blogger ill-advised said...

Frankly, I think the last very lengthy laborious comment was more about this persons' personal politics and less about the art of the book.

I quite agree -- while reading this book, I realized how strongly I disagree with Márai politically. When I was reading his novels, it hadn't occurred to me that this would be the case. Nevertheless, I enjoy his writing, and I intend to read more of his fiction.

IN perspective I found this book a very interesting historical documentary of a citizen during that era.

I agree with that too!

It is great reading when someone can actually read to understand instead of to react personally.

Actually, I enjoyed reading it too, even though I reacted personally (unlike you).

As for the debate on the merits of capitalism (a system which I utterly loathe), I won't go into it because it would be completely pointless -- I'm sure that neither of us would convince the other to change his mind.

Saturday, December 15, 2007 7:40:00 PM  

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