Monday, 14 December 2009

On friendship and passion

Now, this book Embers, by Sandor Marai (Alfred A. Knopf , NY, 2001) translated from German by Carol Brown Janeway.  That last bit matters, all the purists throw up their hands in horror, because the original is in Hungarian, what I read is two moves away from  it.

The book is very very good. I read it in one day and then went over it again, the same day. Two hundred pages, give or take, in a pleasing format, nice Garamond font, space between the lines, and a different, quite wonderful font for the title and the first letter of each chapter, and for the numbers of the pages and chapters: that font is not identified, a pity. It looks handwritten in the 19th century, maybe with a quill. Right for this book.

I know it is anathema to translate twice, but she has done it well. I did not feel that I was reading German or another foreign language. I did not sense a strange grammar underlying the text, needing to be overcome. The thought that this is a translation did not intrude. During the second reading, when the dreadful urgency I experience to know what happens to the characters has died down, I thought about it a little, having read a few reviews online.

The book was written in 1942, in Hungary. It describes the life of a Hungarian General, a member of the aristocracy, and his coming to terms with death. Also the death of a way of life and a way of thinking, of reasoning. I was reminded of something that Leonard Woolf said in Vol 2 of his biography (the only vol I have read), when WWII was about to start, that an essential attribute or value was being destroyed, and I think that is the topic of this book. I had been wrestling with that change in a character I was writing about.

That is not why I am so pleased with it - that comes from other things, from descriptions:

"...the sway-bellied white porcelain stove least a century old, and it radiated heat like some indolent corpulent gentleman intent on mitigating hisown egoism with an easy act of charity..." p. 19

or on p. 23, what I took as a metaphor for the Austro-Hungarian empire: "The castle was a closed work, like a great granite mausoleum foll of the moldering bones of generations of men and women from earlier times, in their shrouds of slowly disintegrating gray silk or black cloth..."

An evocation of feeling at the end of a chapter:  in Brittany,  "they sat for a long time under the fig tree, listening to the familiar roaring of the sea. It was the same sound made by the forest back home. The child and the nurse thought about the world and how everything in it is related." p. 31. Child and nurse, madonna and child...

The fig tree is strange here, is it not, it belongs to a different climate: it grows in the castle courtyard where it must be protected from the cold...  p. 30: It  "...looked like some oriental sage who only had the simplest of stories left to tell...." .

The boys go to a military academy. Colour: the academy walls are yellow. The General's jacket is also yellow,  and the cover of a diary, the upholstery at the Hotel of the King of Hungary in Vienna, the King's bedroom, and also the walls of a sanitarium, a house of death. Checking the colours of the flag, half the flag of the Hapsburg dynasty is a golden yellow - the other half is black.

About friendship and character: " ..the glow of a quiet and ceremonial oath of loyalty in the Middle Ages..."
"a bond that demands neither aid nor sacrifice..., p. 69: "...a good generation, a trifle eccentric, not at ease in society, arrogant, but absolutely dedicated to honour, to the male virtues: silence, solitude, the inviolability of one's word, and women...Most of them were silent for a lifetime, bound to duty and discretion as if by vows...."
and p. 109: " You know what that [friendship] signified to him, you knew then that any person to whom he had given his hand could count on him, no matter what blows of fate, or suffering, or need, life brought. He did not often give his hand, it is true, but once done it was without any reservation...To my father, friendship meant the same as honour. You knew that, because you knew him.."
and p. 108: "...Sometimes I almost believe that it is the most powerful bond in life and consequently the rarest. What is its basis? ..."
p. 110 "Friendship is a duty...the friend expects no reward for his feelings. ...He does not view the person he has chosen as his friend with any illusion, he sees his faults and accepts him with all their consequences. Such is the ideal. And without such an ideal, would there be any point to life? And if a friend fails, because he is not a true friend, is one allowed to attack his character and his weaknesses? What is the value of a friendship in which one person loves the other for his virtue, his loyalty, his steadfastness? What is the value of a love that expects loyalty? ...our duty to accept the we do the faithful...the more we give, the less we expect?

p. 111 "...a man gives someone his trust...ready to make sacrifices for him because of ...unconditional devotion,...the highest thing any one person can offer another..."
p. 112: "...we have no right to demand unconditional honour and loyalty from a friend, even when events have shown us that this friend was faithless."
p. 116 "...friendship is formed of links as fateful as those between twins...a strange identity of impulses sympathies, tasks, temperaments, and cultural fomration binds two people toegether in a single matter what o ne of them may do against the other...""
p. 139 "...a complicated and enigmatic relationship commonly covered by the word 'friendship'."
p. 141 :..."Friendship is no ideal state of mind; it is a law and a strict one on which the entire legal systems of great cultures were built. It reaches beyond personal desires and self-regard in men's hearts, its grip is greater than that of sexual desire and it is proof against disappointment, because it asks for nothing...death itself cannot undo a friendship that reaches back to childhood...its memory lives on...the selfless human act...Castor and Pollux"
Nowadays this seems sentimental rubbish.

In this book, men and women are forced into situations which demand efforts that are alien to them. For one boy, the fit is good, but the other is "a different kind of man".
p. 118:  " were a stranger among the rest of us...what wrong was done to you when, out of love and pride, you were given to the military life...the profound loneliness you felt among us..."
p. 120: "... Was perhaps our uniform, your disguise?"
 p. 135 "...deep inside you was a frantic longing to be something or someone other than you are...the greatest sccourge...the most painful. Life becomes bearable only when one has come to terms with who one is, both in one's own eyes and in the eyes of the world.We ...must come to terms with what and who we are, and recognise that this wisdom is not going to earn us any praise...there's no reward...we have to accept betrayal and disloyalty and ...that someone is finer than we are in charactger or intelligence..."
p. 163 "...people find truth and collect experiences in vain, for they cannot change their fundamental natures."
 perhaps the only thing to take the gvens of one's fundamental nature and tailor them to reality as cleverly and carefully as one can...the most we can accomplish."
p. 170:"...things do not simply happen to can also shape what happens to one. One shapes it, summons it, takes hold of the inevitable. It's the human condition...It is not true that fate slips silently into our lives. It steps in through the door that we have opened and we invite it to enter. No one is strong enough or cunning enough to avert by word or deed the misfortune that is rooted in the iron laws of his character and his life..."
A duality repeated, between the friends, between husbands and wives. The friendship of opposites, the gap which cannot be breached.
 p. 173: "...we always love 'the , we always seek it out..."other'

Sometimes kitsch predominates:" ..a feeling known only to men, a feeling called friendship". End of the  chapter.
Most of the women do not come alive - they are all delicate and beautiful, except for Nini, the madonna/nurse who knows and understands everything, all the time.
p. 175: "...She was, as you well know, an inborn aristocrat...not a question of family or social position..." p. 176: "...nobody could stroke a piece of cloth or an animal like [her]..."

What happens in one part of the world - such as Lenin's revolution - affects another - 4000 coolies stop work in Malaysia and demand better working conditions and pay, while a wife in Hungary dies of a tropical kind of disease...

"One cannot keep changing one's nationality," says the guest who became British. The General answers: "In my opinion one cannot change one's nationality at all...".
"My homeland", says the guest "no longer exists...[it] was Poland, Vienna, this house [...]. My homeland was a feeling, and that feeling was mortally wounded...What we swore to uphold [in 1986] no longer exists...There was a world for which it was worth living and dying. That world is dead. The new one means nothing to me..."

Signals and portents:
p. 155: "...something has happened, life has turned eloquent. ...great care is required, is speaking to us in mute signs, everything suddenly makes us alert, everything is a proof and a symbol, all we need to do is understand...."
p. 194: "...People communicate their thoughts in sign language, have you noticed? As if they were discussing important matters in a foreign language...they have no self-knowledge. All they talk about is what they want, thereby exposing themselves unconsciously in all their hopelessness...Life becomes almost interesting once one has learned to recognise people's ;lies and one starts to enjoy the comedy as people keep saying things other than they think and really want..."
p. 202: "...One has an obligation to seek out the essentials, the truth of things, because otherwise, why has one lived at all?..."

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