Thursday, 3 March 2016

Dust of Empire

Before I moved on to two of his psycho-biographies, reading about Stefan Zweig led me sideways to two short novels set in dusty eastern corners of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (that's the blessing of Daunt Books which arranges its fiction in sections on countries). I now trust just about anything published by New York Review of Books' Classics series, not least because they're such a pleasure to hold in the hand. Yet the blurb on the back of Dezső Kosztolányi's Skylark as translated from the Hungarian by Richard Aczel led me to expect only the wit, and not the wisdom, of this quietly marvellous tale.

Ma and Pa Vajkay, inhabitants of Sárszeg circa 1900 - which, as Kosztolányi's native Szabadka (Subotica) Péter Esterházy in his stylish introduction describes as  'that (to use his words) poor, grey, boring, dusty, bored, comical, provincial town' - have depended on their unintentionally controlling daughter Skylark for their increasingly limited outlook on life. From the moment they see Skylark off at the town station (Szabadka's depicted up top) on her reluctant summer visit to nearby country relatives, their life begins to change. Small pleasures and misdemeanours are recorded by the author not with scathing irony but with a real sympathy for these townsfolk. I expected something wicked, along the lines of Sologub's The Petty Demon, but the results are quite different.

Perhaps it's all best summed up by the local newspaper editor Miklós Ijas, the nearest thing to an authorial self-portrait (I imagine). In an unusually candid and lofty couple of paragraphs, Kosztolányi captures his own achievement in making the outwardly comical richly human. Ilja is standing in the street outside the Vajkays' humble home:

He stood for some minutes before the gate with all the patience of a lover waiting for the appearance of his beloved. But he was waiting for no-one. He was no lover in a worldly sense; the only love he knew was that of divine understanding, of taking a whole life into his arms, stripping it of flesh and bone, and feeling into its depths as if they were his own. From this, the greatest pain, the greatest happiness is born: the hope that we too will one day be understood, strangers will accept our words, our lives, as if they were their own.

All he had heard about his father had made him receptive to the suffering of others. Until then he had wanted nothing to do with those who lived and moved around him...For yes, at first sight they had seemed worthless, twisted and distorted, their souls curling hideously inwards. They had no tragedy, for how could tragedy begin to grow in such a wasteland? Yet how profound, how human they all were. How much like him. So he did have something in common with them, after all.

That excerpt is untypical of the rest of the book, which is not often given to inner reflection, but paints the souls of the characters in all their contradictory richness all the same. As Esterházy points out of the style, 'Kosztolányi simplified the Hungarian sentence, made it shorter, purer'. Towards the end of his preface Esterhazy decides that the writer is closer to Chekhov than to Musil: 'He shares that same helpless fascination for the banal or trivial, for a drama-of-being which can be unravelled from a remote gesture, a twitch of the mouth, a dismissive wave of the hand, from lamplight and ugliness. A spider's web over a mine.' And he ends: 'Kosztolányi''s prose is quiet and sharp. Today our books are noisier and perhaps more blurred'.

There is little of the 'quiet and sharp' abut Robert Musil's astonishing account of sado-masochism and psychological torment in a military boarding school clearly modelled on the one he was forced to attend in Hranice (now in Moravia; there's another, Bohemian Hranice in the Czech republic; the real-life academy pictured below), The Confusions of Young Master Törless. That the impressions remaining from having read A Man Without Qualities decades ago are blurred is perhaps right - Musil is the stream-of-consciousness writer whose very fascination lies in the way that meaning and definition slips away at every turn. His sentences go on for ever, a bit like Proust's; hard to say whether Christopher Moncrieff has done a good job of the translation.

At first I was impatient, following on from Kosztolányi, to find this all self-indulgent, a bit evasive about its homoerotic element (but then that must have been the case, outwardly, with the kind of schoolboys pictured within). Even when Törless finally decides to speak unambiguously to the masters about the strange events that have gone on, Musil pauses for yet another digression which comes closest to defining his special style, and brings it close to Hofmannsthal's perception of transience:

For thought is a strange phenomenon. Often it is nothing more than an accident that vanishes without a trace, because for thought there is a time to be born and a time to die. We can make an amazing discovery, and yet it slowly withers away in the palm of our hand like a flower. The form remains, but its colour and fragrance have gone. Or, put another way, we might remember it word for word, the logical value of its phrases might remain intact, and yet it drifts by aimlessly on the surface of our being and we don't feel enriched by it. Until the moment - perhaps many years later - when it suddenly reappears, and we realize that in the interim we have been hardly aware of its existence, although logically speaking we knew it all the time.

Yes, there are dead and living thoughts. The thought that moves around on the surface, in the light, and which can be regained by the threads of causality at any time, isn't necessarily the most vivid. A thought we encounter in this way remains as insignificant to us as a random solider in a column of marching troops. A thought that might have passed through our mind a long time ago only really comes alive when something which isn't thought, which isn't logic is added to it, with the result that we feel its truth, independent of any proof, like an anchor that has been dropped into living, bleeding flesh...Only half of any great discovery is made in the light-filled region of the mind, the other is found in the dark soil of our inner depths, and this is above all a state of mind which grows at the farthest extremity of our thoughts like a flower.

Of course it was the age of Freud, though the founding father of psychoanalysis was the first to admit that much of what he had to discuss had already been articulated in masters like Shakespeare, Ibsen and Dostoyevsky. Certainly knowledge of Freud allows Zweig to shed a special, if speculative light on some fascinating historical subjects. I wasn't sure I wanted to read a 500-plus-page biography of Marie Antoinette; nor does Zweig's subtitle, 'the portrait of a mediocre character', exactly encourage it. Actually 'mittleren' really translates 'ordinary', and even that isn't quite right; Zweig's preface in Eden and Cedar Paul's translation qualifies that by explaining that his book will be about an average, unreflective queen forced by tragic destiny to transform:

At the very time when she was stripped of the last insignia of power, she grew aware that in her there had dawned something novel and stupendous, and that but for her sufferings this dawn would never have begun. 'Tribulation first makes one realise what one is'. With mingled pride, agitation and astonishment, she uttered these remarkable words, seized with a foreboding that through suffering her life, otherwise commonplace, would grow significant for posterity. The consciousness of a supreme duty lifted her to a higher level than she had ever known. Just before the mortal, the transient frame perished, the immortal work of art was perfected. Marie Antoinette, the mediocrity, achieved a greatness commensurate with her destiny.

A tragic tale indeed - and it needs no rose-perfumed invention on Zweig's part to show the transformation. Marie Antoinette's deeds and words are sufficient in the final stages of the tragedy. Even as a pleasure-loving queen, thoughtless of the people and heedless of expense, she can be paradoxical in Zweig's eyes: her very refusal of stiff courtly etiquette showed spirit, albeit the determination of the Valley Girl as portrayed by Kirstin Dunst in Sofia Coppola's rather amazing film (though it doesn't go far enough, of course).

Marie Antoinette's essential fidelity to the very foolish and hapless Louis XVI speaks well for her; the true love she felt for the noble Swede Count Fersen was discreet and constant to death, and there's not the slightest hint of dalliances with anyone else. And she always put her son, at least, before herself (first portrait above, one of  Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun's several portraits, this one of Marie Antoinette with her children;  below, the craven David's sketch of the queen on the way to the scaffold).

Yet it's in the final stages that her sense of tragic dignity constantly amazes. Up to that point she's still capable of intrigue, as Zweig's account of the flight to Vincennes and especially the journey back to Paris makes clear (this episode would make a superb film in itself). But the outrage we feel at the whole sickening episode of the Dauphin's 'confession' of incest with his mother - very Turn of the Screw, this, especially in the conflict between the two women who want him to be too good and the revolutionaries who want him to be too bad - makes us all the more impressed by her unshakable dignity in court. I like Zweig's dramatic sense, too, which hides the King's execution from our sight until the last minute, just as it was hidden from his consort. This is a book to be read alongside Hilary Mantel's A Place of Greater Safety, and it succeeds on the same high level. Mary Queen of Scots next.

Just a quick final note on a masterpiece which has nothing to do with the above, but since we're on the subject of books, I urge you to read it since, being advertised as 'a novel for young adults', it might slip through the net.

Janne Teller's Nothing, translated from the original Danish by Martin Aitken, has been turned into a bold and beautiful opera at Glyndebourne, the latest unforgettable achievement of that company's long-running, award-winning education department. I describe the mythic essence of the subject, both simple and complicated, over on The Arts Desk, and can only reiterate that the book is even stronger and more uncompromising. It's written from the perspective of  a teenager but it's not exclusively for that age group; it should have a powerful and unsettling effect on everyone who reads it.


Susan Scheid said...

David: I'm intrigued by what you write about all these books, and particularly Zweig's. I've also flagged his Erasmus, though I suspect I won't get to it. Meanwhile, I'd like to know your secret for getting through so many books in what appears to be a short span of time (I suspect it has to do with a focus and discipline I seem to lack). I'm just at Volume 3 of War and Peace, so about halfway through. Its brilliance continues to amaze.

David said...

My tatty paperback copy of Erasmus arrived from Amnesty books a couple of days ago. Priority, though, I think, should be Skylark. Each of the novels are short and could be read in a day.

Always happy when work and reading coincide - as they just have with Boris Godunov classes and Catherine Merridale's history of the Kremlon.

I envy your immersion in War and Peace. Only a couple more years before I embark on it again.

Susan Scheid said...

I put Skylark on the to be read list, and thanks for pointing the way. I'll need a good short one after all the long ones! I've had to set aside W&P, as I have a book out from the library due soon: The Twilight Years: Paradox of Britain Between The Wars, by Richard Overy. I think your way it's called The Morbid Age. I'm finding it quite interesting so far, and wondered if you might know it. BTW, I definitely agree on the New York Review of Books Classics. I've had a lot of good discoveries from there.

David said...

No, I don't know Overy's book, though I'm very curious about the 'paradox' (I can think of several that might apply). But every society is paradoxical, isn't it? Even the Soviet Union in the Sixties and Seventies - I'm now learning more about it in Emmanuel Carrere's biography of a man who led a thousand lives, Eduard Limonov.

David Damant said...

Overy is OK but I would not rank him very high as a serious historian.Sometimes he has views which one can question. Read him carefully and do not take everything he writes as definite

David Damant said...

"If the Austrian Empire did not exist it would be necessary to invent it."

This was said not by Bismarck but by Palacky, a Czech ( 1798 - 1876) - an interesting point as Bohemia was one of the parts of the empire that yearned to be independent

Susan Scheid said...

David N: Indeed it is, and that book sounds tempting, too. David D's point is well taken, also, and one I follow in reading any secondary source. Overy pulls together very interesting information to make his case, yet at the same time, even without having much of the larger picture available, it seems clear to me that he's selecting the facts and arguments to make his thesis, and not the other way around. Nonetheless, it's a fascinating read so far, a window in to some fascinating corners of history.

David Damant said...

Susan, your have summed up Overy very well. He has a view and selects facts to support it, as you say. In some of his writing it is so obvious a distortion that one wonders why he did not see this himself. Still, he covers quite a lot of interesting ground [I have not read the book you mention]