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28 September 2013
Introducing the Poems of Sándor Márai
“I am not a poet”, Márai insisted. That would seem to settle it, but it has to be remembered that Márai had exceptionally high standards and he was playing with prosody at a time of exceptional fecundity in Hungarian poetry. He was the contemporary of Attila József (considered by some as the greatest of all Hungarian poets), Sándor Weöres, Miklós Radnóti, János Pilinszky, poets who are the match of any of the better known names of the last century such as Auden, Eliot, Celan, Pound, Larkin.
Márai modestly owned up to having composed some respectable “verse” and despite being primarily a prose writer, he did come up with two of the most popular Hungarian poems, Funeral Oration and Angel from Heaven. So not a poet, but a writer of poetry.
Funeral Oration is a hit with both the public and the professors of literature, while Angel From Heaven is one of the most recited poems about the crushed 1956 revolution, and very untypical of his oeuvre in its sentimentality (more emotional than most of his work, more emotional than much of his writing about the Second World War, but perhaps because he wasn’t there in Budapest in 1956 to witness the carnage).
Born in 1900 in the Austro-Hungarian town of Kassa (which was to change its name and nationality several times in the coming decades), Márai committed suicide in San Diego at the age of 88. He rode the twentieth century in a way few managed. His first story was published when he was fifteen, and while still a teenager experienced world war, epidemic, a revolution and exile. He was in Paris when it was the most exciting city to live in, and in Berlin when it was the place to avoid. He weathered the Second World War in Budapest, and when the Communists came to full power in 1948 chose exile, including a stint in the most powerful city in the world, New York.
For me Márai is the great Hungarian writer of prose, and I consider even that untranslatable, so I’m glad I didn’t have to attempt this job. Márai’s relations with his fellow Hungarians were often thorny (it’s hard to be an outstanding writer without upsetting people and their pet complacencies) but his love for the Hungarian language never wavered, and he could have had a much easier, more remunerative life if he had switched to German, a language in which he was fluent.
In addition to the difficulties of language, there is the question of experience. Márai doubted whether anyone who had not been through the ordeal of the Budapest siege in 1944, on which he reflects in Book of Verses, when the Russians and Germans fought over the capital, could understand what it was like (35,000 civilians died). In the poetry, as in his prose, Márai ruminates on the fate of the Hungarians. The inter-war period was a time of chest-thumping, heavily- brocaded jingoism, but Márai’s judgement is always severe, mordant. He chided his fellow citizens for not resisting the Nazis more forcefully, then deplored those Jews who worked as thugs for the Communists.
Funeral Oration is considered Márai’s poetic masterpiece. The earliest literary text in Hungarian, from the twelfth century is a brief funeral oration. The first line is “with your very eyes, my brethren, you see what we are” and Márai’s appropriation is an attempt to reap Hungarian literature and the experience of the nation, which again and again in its history, involved exile or emigration as a result of a failed revolution or military disaster. Hungary’s minor involvement in the NATO bombing of Serbia in 1999 was the first successful military outcome it had for hundreds of years (and cruelly the bombs often fell on ethnic Hungarians in Novi Sad).
Márai packs the country’s great creators into Funeral Oration: Bartók, the painter Rippl-Rónai, the writers, Arany, Babits and Krúdy, as well as scattering elements of his own life, his flat in Mikó Street. The injunction “Keep Smiling” is in English in the original and is a good example of Márai’s style. The slippery simplicity. The words couldn’t be simpler, but what does it mean? You get this reading Márai, you come across a simple phrase or sentence, you digest it, but a few minutes later you’re thinking, no, what does he really mean? Keep smiling. Is it ironic? If it is, how ironic is it? Or is it simply the only dignified response to tribulation?
Angel from Heaven is one of the most popular Christmas carols in Hungary and Márai’s homonymous poem was written just after the last manifestations of the 1956 revolution were being swept away by Soviet troops and those Hungarian Communists still willing to work for them. Some 200,000 Hungarians fled to the West, those who stayed faced arrest or worse: hundreds were executed. Márai, like many others, was outraged by the brutality of the Soviets, and the inaction of the West.
These two poems contrast with the earlier Hungarians, one of my favourites, when Márai was twenty years younger and had a more sardonic view of his compatriots who have “revolvers in their hands for no reason” and “who are buried at the consulate’s expense”: the cavalier hussars and hustlers of operetta. Those who know something of Hungary’s history and culture will find Márai’s findings illuminating, while those who don’t, I hope, can still enjoy his artfulness.
Being a Hungarian writer is a hazardous, often lethal job. Hungary’s literature is littered with talent who gave up (Attila József, for example, although he had excellent reasons to give up), were butchered, drank themselves away, sullied themselves or just plain, good-old-fashioned sold out. Aside from the permanence of his writing, I admire Márai because of his diamond hardness: he only yielded, finally, when he was old, ill and alone, shooting himself in the head, having first masked himself with a bag, so there would be less mess.
Márai’s ashes were scattered in the Pacific, so he has no gravestone. If he did I think this would work:
Sándor Márai, Hungarian Writer.
1900–1989. Unbowed. Undefeated.
What a secret hand causes to be written:
the woven features of your softened face
are a knotty, faded piece of writing;
I look at it and the letters start falling into place:
what is it that the years and life inscribed?
This is myself, this is my fate, also,
this deep line on your brow:
this is not what I chose, this is what came to be;
whose fate, my own or yours, is it I see?
I just don’t know.
In rooms at night, in front of unfamiliar
mirrors, I stop, undone:
look, my mother, the creases on the unfamiliar
face of your son already have begun
to look like yours, so similar,
and – wearing, crumbling, flaking away –
both of our bodies turn slowly into dust –
into one body, one dust, one mother clay.
CREDO (QUIA ABSURDUM)
I believe in one creation, my life: this, I believe. I believe in one predestination,
my own predestination: myself. I believe in one world
and one man who belong together. I believe in the poets’ painful
wonder, the surprise that I came into being and that existence
offered me admittance. I believe in people, because I must believe
myself among them. I believe in youth, the happy sweet song above
the waters. I believe in anxious men’s inquiring unhappiness; I
believe in women’s mauling raging love and in the softness of the
gesture as they lift their infants to the nipples of their laden breasts
and bend their parched foreheads down over them. I believe in the
stubborn consequentiality of objects, in the primordial laws of
lines, in the thrilling headlong variety of colours, in the mysterious
truth-ensnaring bonds of words, in beautiful hands and in animals’
eyes. I believe in eternal matter’s hidden, internal form, in the distinction
of spoiled cats and in the goodness of the seas. I believe
in goodness and in the sweaty stupid Schadenfreude of pennypinching
evil. I believe in the mild incense aroma of simplicity, in
the bloody odour of crimes, in the cheap piety of the sentimental.
I believe in clouds and in the seasons’ changing moods; I believe in
the lacy cunning of the demimondaines of world capitals and in the
reassuring arrogance of money. I believe in the grim queues of class
warfare, in the bedridden morning fainting spells of menstruating
girls, the spicy breath of tropical plants, the star-chasing drive of
world powers. I believe in an infinite poverty that’s remorseless
and smells like humanity. I believe in the elements, and in myself.
I believe in one who can believe naively. I believe in one life, life,
life: now and forever after.
I loved that row of chestnut trees.
I thought: there, some day, I will build
Something I’d close up with a massive
Key in a gigantic lock,
And play at life. But I laughed off
The whole thing: looked, and had to laugh –
Sad and pretentious… What is this?
On this earth you can only build
On sand, no matter where; that’s all
I want, only to live unshaven,
To wake up in dark rooms and lie
Still for a long time, quiet, scanning
Words, alone, to putter about
Curious, at some task that is
Superfluous. Since then I’ve lived
Here, reassured, knowing tomorrow,
Too, a train departs for somewhere,
And nothing ties me down: not bed
Nor table, there’s no magic castle
On earth – and why the phonebook lists
My name, and people think it’s true…
Something from the lakes of great ancient highlands remains in their eyes
Mixed with a cocky light that puts revolvers in their hands for no reason.
They’re neither good, nor worse than others. They just take something along
On the highways of Europe, Asia, Africa and America that makes the
Their death has something of the wild beasts’ haughty reticence
And French Legion sergeants and German neurologists
Have trouble, of course, understanding how they can overlook pain.
Every one of them burns a little – they’re fire hazards – and they rarely leave
They’re buried at the consulate’s expense and their cause of death’s unknown.
Square-browed, they can pursue an idea more doggedly than a Russian,
But gypsy-like, they’ll toss friends and family aside when getting drunk in the coffee house,
Because the air’s more keyed up where they are, and their restlessness
is one with
The flickering flames of questionable geniuses in their garrets, or Stromboli’s
Purposeless scarlet nighttime rage that batters the black sky with stones,
And with everything that flutters with hopeless force in this world,
In spastic rage stuck between constraints and civilisations:
But they imitate English squires or Parisian gigolos entirely in vain,
For some of the sparkle of the great ancient highland lakes has remained
And they sometimes burn up like shepherds’ campfires in the world’s
God Himself no longer understands their words, and they wander off
in some fog
With you and with me and with our grandfathers because we’re Hungarian men,
Men, Hungarians, in the fog my blood brothers, my blood and my brothers.
Now I’ll tell you this, all the same. Because it’s precisely the heavy and painful
Secret of our contract: there will come a time when we have to hand
everything over –
Not just friendship, or money, or silence,
Not even the rumbling trains, nor the landscapes where I took you with me,
Ever more remote, while with your two eyes large as a child’s
You already were looking back on our life – across a thousand kilometres –
The way an adventurer looks at the landscape from a train. And you saw
Little lambs there, grazing, their little lives, and with courteous smiles
We let them pass and went to the dining car, or to a hotel.
O how many hotels, how many landscapes, how many people, my dear!
Like a nervous traveller reaching for his thin wallet, so I, too, often reached
For you in alarm. And eventually we told each other everything.
We also learned to be silent. Sometimes night would come down on us
And huge shadows fall between us, the wild trees’ shadows. We undressed thus,
But we never touched the words. Because there was still some sort of
Odd modesty between us: the modesty of our words. A convoluted
Cloak: we were no poets and we didn’t go
Among the words because we feared words – how we feared them:
We were familiar with them, we knew them! And now that, all the same,
I take off this poor, ragged
Word, it’s very heavy, this final nakedness. This is why I hold this word out
So fearfully: its spark can explode, blind our eyes like the great, nameless
Fires that nature lights at night, at random,
And naked, we hunker down beside and shiver, for it’s dark and cold:
Translation by Peter V. Czipott and John M. Ridland
Note. Alma Classics of London is bringing out the first English selection of Sándor Márai’s poems under the title, The Withering World, in October. We are acknowledging the kind permission of Alma Books and the authors to re-print Tibor Fischer’s introduction and the five translations by Peter V. Czipott and John M. Ridland.