Book Review: Companion in Exile, by Ferenc Molnar

This book is a tribute to the author’s secretary, Wanda Bartha, who died (according to the Internet, by suicide) on August 27 or 28, 1947. At times, it resembles a séance for her.

Many passages highlight Ms. Bartha’s angelic qualities, of which the following stands out:

She would not intervene in arguments about subjects on which she was well-informed even when half-educated windbags were completely distorting simple facts. She could have straightened it out with a word. But what she had was far from the thing cocktail-party psychoanalysts call an inferiority complex. It was more a proud and defiant realization of the hopeless futility of trying to make good in a few minutes’ idle conversation what universities had failed to do in years. This is something I had never before observed before except in tired old men.

‘Why didn’t you say something,’ I asked her once, ‘when those ladies rattled off one idiocy after another about Valasquez and Goya? You know the paintings in the Prado better than those bridge-playing dames know the insides of their own handbags.’

She answered me, wide-eyed with wonder, ‘What for?’ (p. 35)

Molnar frequently cites Ms. Bartha’s notebook as a way to refocus attention upon himself or perhaps upon the time they spent together. Here is a charming example of the kind of vignette contained therein, describing how Molnar received the French Legion of Honor:

[Manager Firmin] Gémier’s secretary asked [Molnar] to come over to the Odéon Theater because a ‘present’ for him had come from the French Foreign Office, and Gémier wanted to present it solemnly in person. M[onsieur, i.e. Molnar] went over, but just outside the stage door he discovered he had not shaved. He knew the French custom required any presentation of the Legion of Honor to be accompanied with the so-called accolade, which consists in the kissing of the recipient on both cheeks by the man who is making the presentation. So M. hurried into the barbershop under the arcade of the ancient theater, to get a shave and thus to present a smooth face to the official kiss of the French Republic through the lips of M. Gémier. The barber sat him down in front of a mirror and soaped his face. Then M. saw in the mirror that M. Gémier was sitting in another chair with his back to him, with his face soaped, being hastily shaved by another barber. Gémier too wanted a smooth face when he delivered the two official kisses of the republic. Each pretended not to see the other. They only met upstairs on the stage where the solemn ceremony took place. Neither of them ever said a word about the barbershop. (p. 129)

Sometimes too Molnar pronounces poignantly on human nature, without apparent reference to Ms. Bartha, as in this defense of the supposed vice of self-pity:

So far I have failed to find an acceptable explanation of the disdain and ridicule poured upon this natural emotion. I can only suppose that some hidden and powerful financial, political, or military interest requires this usually so kind-hearted people [i.e. Americans] to force itself into such an attitude. Having been born in central Europe, brought up in the nineteenth century, having tried to improve my mind with French and Russian literature as well as that of my native country, and living as I now do among a nation [again, America] frankly addicted to pity and human sympathy, even sentimentality – with all this, even if I should live to be a hundred, I should still never have any use for this by no means American, and certainly not Continental, but decidedly British attitude toward human suffering and its manifestations.

Self-pity!

When Jesus on the cross ‘cried with a loud voice, Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani’…What was it, what was it, if not the most moving and imperishable example of self-pity in all history? (p. 277)

Of course, Molnar’s remarks are neither gratuitous nor unrelated to Ms. Bartha, as is made tearfully obvious on the next page:

‘I’m not ashamed of myself, dear,’ I told her behind my closed lips and clenched teeth as I stood there on the corner of 42nd Street [after her death]. ‘I’m not even ashamed in this supercilious society for pitying myself so unspeakably, because you left me alone in my old age, in this cold, dark, upset world, which is quite without hope for me. I had only one tiny guiding light, one prop, one friend, one adviser, one helper, and you were it.’

I stood there for a long time in my dark glasses on the noisy corner, saying nothing.

‘You’re crying again,’ she said. ‘That’s awful. Hold it back.’

‘I can’t. I’m simply incapable of it….And anyway what difference will it make to my condition or the condition of the world if I use strength of mind or drugs to keep a few drops of warm salt water forcibly in my system instead of letting them flow out?’ (p. 278)

The reader must keep this deeply bereaved context in mind during Molnar’s prolonged digressions into theatrical name-dropping, set in one Bohemian café after another, all as the world burns in the 1930s and 40s. The reader should also forgive Molnar – well into his sixties at the time – for not “doing anything” about Nazism besides fleeing from it into memories of happier times. He and Ms. Bartha have lost everything: Their family and friends have been murdered, their homes looted and destroyed, their entire world gone.

Even after hearing from the generals [who could not help her locate her late brother], she had rehearsed Charlie McCarthy faces in front of the mirror to cheer me up. The whole scene as we stood together, making faces before my mirror (“two broken human beings” as she put it), these two distorted and wretchedly grinning faces, this half-crazed pantomime duet, very nearly drove me into a faint. But I kept on anyway so that she should think she had succeeded in cheering me up. I did it in a mood verging on melancholia in the medical sense, in my sixty-eighth year, around me a world in dissolution, vying with Wanda to see who could make the most preposterous Charlie McCarthy face in the mirror. (p. 327)

The recounting of literary acquaintances, the remembrances of long-gone hotels and restaurants, the reconstructions of torn-up drafts of long-flopped plays, and a final tableau of a ventriloquist dummy are all that they – now he – have left.

Molnar does not rage at the dying of the light, nor does he go gentle into that good night. Instead he spins together every thin wisp of immortality that he can grasp. He remembers, and he cries.

Companion in Exile is a manual on losing, a primer of aging, and a guide to dying. We will all need it sooner or later.

Book Review: The Door, by Magda Szabó

A friend once obtained permission to tour a mental health facility. A therapy group was meeting. A woman rose and began to relate the terrible abuse she commonly received from her mother, which included belittling, manipulation, and hitting. When she was finished, another participant stepped forward and assured the first speaker that, however hurtful her mother appeared to be, the thing she must never forget was that “Your mother loves you.” Although he’d been conferred observer status only, my friend could not refrain from providing his diagnosis. “Whatever you do,” he addressed the hapless daughter, “you must never forget that your mother doesn’t love you.”

I thought of my friend’s story while reading The Door, Magda Szabó’s novel about the housekeeper Emerence and the theorem that might as well be named for her: that one’s love for a certain person is often inversely proportional to the kindness with which one treats that person. After hiring Emerence to take care of the housework while she writes, the narrator (Magda?) soon finds that Emerence’s love is of the toughest sort. “It was because of our mutual love that she went on stabbing me till I fell to my knees” (p. 157) is an observation that just about sums up the whole book.

The quality of the writing (and Len Rix’s translation) makes the details worth reading, just as a good sportscaster can make even the most brutal prize fight artistically meaningful. Here’s a lively scene involving Magda’s dog, Viola, and a deeply hurt Emerence, whose guest has failed to attend a meticulously-prepared dinner:

Like someone coming round from sedation, [Emerence] shuddered violently, then hurled herself at the happily munching dog and beat him all over with the handle of the serving fork. She called him everything – an ungrateful monster, a shameless liar, a heartless capitalist. Viola squealed, jumped down from the chair and lay on the rug, for her inscrutable judgement to be carried out upon him. He never ran when she beat him, never tried to protect himself. The horror, with all its unreality, was dreamlike. Viola cowered and trembled under the blows, so terrified he couldn’t even swallow the last mouthful. It fell from his jaws onto my mother’s favorite rug. The way Emerence went after him with the serving fork, I thought she was going to stab him. It all happened in a flash. I was so frightened I began to scream. But just then the old woman crouched down beside the dog, lifted up his head, and kissed him between the ears. Viola whined with relief, and licked the hand that had beaten him. (p. 63)

On another occasion, Emerence presents Magda and her husband with an appalling quantity of tchotchkes and then flies into a rage when they are improperly displayed. “‘God knows what I love about you [Emerence says], but whatever it is, you don’t deserve it. Maybe, as you get older, you’ll acquire a bit of taste.’” (p. 81) This rebuke comes after Magda attempts to excuse Emerence to her husband. “I tried in vain to explain to him that the old woman expressed herself through means determined by her own interests. Everything here – he had to accept – was motivated by love. This was her peculiar was of demonstrating her feelings.” (p. 75)

While reading The Door, I often found myself saying, “With love like that, who needs hatred?” and I’ve indeed tried to avoid that kind of love whenever possible. (I recall an NPR report on American gang violence, in which someone explained that people seeking to leave gangs were frequently beaten by their former peers because “There’s a lot of love there.”) Maybe I’m just being naïve, though. “Emerence Love” certainly exists; not only does it form the main subject of The Door, but it also characterizes God’s love as it is found in the Old Testament, as opposed to the New. Emerence is the jealous God of Exodus 20:5, yet to be recast as the God that is love (1 John 4:8) and the love that is never jealous (1 Corinthians 13:4). There’s actually a religious undercurrent in The Door, with Emerence expressing skepticism at Magda’s Catholicism and having a history of helping Jews in the Holocaust.

Questions of religion aside, we all know on a psychological level that some of the most violent human feelings can be twisted mutations of love, the results of love’s wounding in youth. It’s clear in Szabó’s novel that Emerence was an abused girl; hence the love she expresses is of a tortured and torturing kind. Emerence is shown to have loved her pets and to have had them taken away from her. It is quite plausible that her ability to metabolize love suffered at least partly as a result. My not terribly amiable grandfather once told us the story of how his parents once served him his pet rabbit, and the recitation, I feel, spoke volumes.

The Door, at any rate, is such a volume.

Book Review: The Baron’s Sons, by Mór Jókai

This is the second book by Mór (a.k.a. Maurus) Jókai that I’ve read, after Poor Plutocrats. I enjoyed The Baron’s Sons at least as much, simply because it is well written, with incisive words and a general strategy of understatement; and it is well translated (by P.F. Bicknell). The story of three sons’ fates in the Hungarian revolution of 1848 is absorbing and politically exciting.

In my continuing attempt to understand why I enjoy Hungarian literature as much as I do (and as I continue to enjoy it), I am beginning to detect, in addition to its appealing wistfulness, a certain focus on honor. It is by no means as obsessive (and pathological) as something one would expect in ancient Greek tales, and it may actually be a little tongue in cheek. In Miklos Banffy’s The Transylvania Trilogy (I forget which volume, though it could have been the first), the protagonist, Balint, is compelled to fight a silly and ultimately harmless duel with someone. In The Baron’s Sons, brothers Richard and Ödön have a contest of honor of sorts, which ends with a hug and with Richard telling Ödön, “I’m very angry with you.”

I hope I never run out of books by Jókai, and I’ll keep reading Hungarian novels, even if I never figure out why I like them.

Book Review: Fatelessness, by Imre Kertész

The protagonist of Imre Kertész’s Fatelessness is so congenitally rational that he manages to justify every aspect of his suffering. Interned at the Zeitz labor camp during World War Two, Georg Koves at one point drops a bag of cement.

The bag’s paper had burst and the contents spilled out, leaving a heap of the material, the treasure, the costly cement, powdering the ground. By then he was already on me, I had already felt his fist on my face, then, having been decked, his boot on my ribs and his grip on my neck as he pressed my face to the ground, in the cement, screaming insanely that I scrape it together, lick it up. He then hauled me to my feet, swearing he would teach me: [‘I’ll show you, asshole, shithead, goddam Jew-dog,’] so I would never drop another bag again in the future. From then on, he personally loaded a new bag onto my shoulders each time it was my turn, bothering himself with me alone; I was his sole concern, it was me exclusively whom he kept his eye on, following me all the way to the truck and back, and whom he picked to go first even if, by rights, there were others still ahead of me in the queue. In the end, there was almost an understanding between us, we had got the measure of one another, and I noticed his face bore what was almost a smile of satisfaction, encouragement, even, dare I say, a pride of sorts, and from a certain perspective, I had to acknowledge, with good reason, for indeed, tottering, stooping though I might have been, my eyes seeing black spots, I did manage to hold out, coming and going, fetching and carrying, all without dropping a single further bag, and that, when it comes down to it, I would have to admit, proved him right. (169-170)

The tortuous interrupters throughout Georg’s narrative – “I have to admit,” “unless I’m mistaken,” “truth be told,” etc. – are typical of his overriding devotion to objectivity. Seeking always to accept any given situation as reasonable, Georg is incapable of influencing it. Indeed, his resistance to impulsiveness is absolute. When, shortly after his initial arrest, he might have had a chance to slip away, he decides against it:

I became alive to the sudden flash of a piece of yellow clothing up ahead, in the cloud of dust, noise, and vehicle exhaust fumes: it was ‘Traveler.’ A single long leap, and he was off to the side, lost somewhere in the seething eddy of machines and humanity. I was totally dumbfounded; somehow it did not tally with his conduct at the customs post, as I saw it. But there was also something else that I felt, a sense of happy surprise I might call it, at the simplicity of an action; indeed, I saw one or two enterprising spirits then immediately make a break for it in his wake, right up ahead. I myself took a look around, though more for the fun of it, if I may put it that way, since I saw no other reason to bolt, though I believe there would have been time to do so; nevertheless my sense of honor proved the stronger. The policemen took immediate action after that, and the ranks again close around me. (55-56)

Georg is a prisoner of his own nature or perhaps his fate. Later in the book, Georg suggests that fate is the opposite of freedom. “If there is such a thing as fate, then freedom is not possible….If there is such a thing as freedom, then there is no fate.” (259-260)

So why is the book called Fatelessness, when it seems to be about fate? Perhaps the implication is that the latter is only an excuse for the former. When Georg says, “I took the steps, no one else, and I declared that I had been true to my given fate throughout,” (259) is he admitting that his “declaration” had always been false, that he took all of his steps freely, even as each step took him closer to Auschwitz, Zeitz, and Buchenwald?

“We ourselves are fate, I realized all at once….All that was needed was to admit it, meekly, simply, merely as a matter of reason, a point of honor.” (260)

Book Review: The Queen’s Necklace, by Antal Szerb

It’s fitting how I’ve been putting off writing this review of The Queen’s Necklace, Antal Szerb’s last book; for Szerb, likewise, seemed to have been putting off finishing it. A lifelong Hungarian Catholic whose Jewish ancestry doomed him to underemployment and murder under Nazi occupation, Szerb passed up several opportunities to escape, preferring to share his people’s fate. With the final, fatal crisis approaching in 1943, Szerb sought refuge in the history of eighteenth-century France, dwelling on its most minute details, digressing and diverting along myriad tangents, as though contriving, like Scheherazade, never to reach the end. The Queen’s Necklace is Szerb’s valediction, how he wanted to go: not in bitterness but in erudite frivolity.

Pausing one last time, just before the close, Szerb makes the subtlest of allusions to creeping melancholy:

This age was as beautiful as the most finely worked lace, as a piece of Sèvres porcelain with its timeless charm and fragile delicacy; as the noble oozings of the Tokai grape, full and rich with sweetness; as the autumn air in Hungary, when the reddening leaves are scented with the inexpressible sweetness of death.

Not inexpressible, Antal. You expressed it. Thank you.

Passages: From Love in a Bottle, by Antal Szerb

“Do you love me?” I asked doubtfully, and stupidly.

She burst out laughing — with the same unfathomable drunken laughter that had so charmed me earlier. It did not charm me now. Back on the veranda, that earlier laugh had somehow soared into the summer sky, an endearing cry for help addressed to some far-off Dionysus. But now she was laughing at me, and into me, the way any woman might laugh at any man held in an embrace of perhaps half an hour. It was a common, rather vulgar, laugh, an utterly godless laugh, one that could have been heard a thousand times at that moment in any of the parks of Paris and the banlieue — and how was I any different from the thousand other poor wretches who at that precise moment were preparing for the stereotypical games of love?

— from the short story “A Garden Party in St. Cloud”

Passages: From The Pendragon Legend, by Antal Szerb

“Your way of life isn’t compatible with premeditated murder. I don’t think you’d even pick a flower, you have such a horror of any form of violence. I don’t intend any praise by this. You are neither a good man nor a bad man: the intellectual type cannot be forced into either category. You could be capable, out of selfishness or love of comfort, of omitting to do things which any decent man would do for his fellow creatures. But you would be incapable of doing anything which might deliberately hurt another. You’re too passive for that.”

*****

For two days she might be seen with a Chinese engineer, then for a week with a Canadian farmer, who made way for a French gigolo, who would himself be replaced by an aging German classical philologist on tour and a Polish ping-pong champion simultaneously. And all these lovers, and myself, would be told about all the other lovers, in hair-raising detail and with a total absence of emotion, though she did make occasional reference to das Moralische, which versteht sich von selbst (I never quite discovered where the self-knowledge came in) – but it was all perfectly objective, quite terrifyingly objective.

*****

At that moment, in that spontaneous outburst of unguarded arrogance, I suddenly understood him. Just minutes before, he had said that what distinguished man from the animals was the capacity to see beyond appearances. The animal sees his mate as simply another animal, but man views his as more than human.

And for a proud man no error can be more painful than to admit that in this regard he has blundered; that the woman he has chosen is not what he thought her. For a truly proud man the worst horror of disappointment in love is not the slight he has received: far, far worse is the failure of judgement that led him to construct a myth with no basis in reality. And a man as supremely proud as the Earl of Gwynedd has thereafter to maintain the illusion, in the face of every contradictory circumstance, lest he be forced to admit to himself that he has blundered.

That was why, for all his self-control, he gave way to superhuman rage when anyone attacked the Eileen myth.

*****

It was dark by the time we reached the car and got in. The wind searched impatiently among the trees in the woods beside the road, and every so often the bloodshot face of the full moon lit up the clouds, as they chased each other eastwards in a wild, silent ecstasy.

*****

“You speak like someone who has no ideals.”

“True. I am a neo-frivolist.”

“And how does that differ from old-fashioned frivolity?”

“Mostly in the ‘neo’ prefix. It makes it more interesting.”