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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