"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

December 24, 2014

"A Heart So White" by Javier Marías (Book review)

One of the greatest contemporary Spanish novels is A Heart So White by Javier Marías, a celebrated literary bestseller about honesty and memory and the weight of personal history, and at the same time a very funny and sexy book.

But first the title, "A Heart So White," which is a quote from Shakespeare's Macbeth:
"My hands are of your colour; but I shame / To wear a heart so white." 
These words are spoken by Lady Macbeth to her husband, who on her instigation has just murdered Duncan, the King of Scotland, by stabbing him in his bed. She helps Macbeth - who is bemoaning his crime - by putting the dagger next to the guards of the king, so that they will be blamed for the murder. She is just as guilty as her husband, she says, she also has blood on her hands, but at least she is not a coward like he "with his white heart" - she is continually questioning his courage and manhood to drive him on in his (or rather, her) criminal ambitions.

Such a title promises a book full of drama and that is what we get, at least for starters. The book opens with a dramatic suicide, where the narrator's aunt (to whom his father was married before marrying his mother, her sister) shoots herself in the chest, just after returning from her honeymoon. This has happened forty years before the present, and is a mystery the narrator's father never is willing to talk about. The next chapter jumps to the honeymoon of the narrator, Juan, a translator/interpreter working for the United Nations, who overhears a conversation in the neighboring hotel room where a woman is pushing her lover to murder his wife. This setup almost seems like a thriller, but don't worry, it is a serious book that mixes apprehension with reflection. We could say that elements of the thriller serve as a catalyst for existential observations. Against that background it is gradually revealed how the narrator learns the secret behind his father's three marriages - his father is an art expert who has become rich by defrauding his clients, and also something of a womanizer. In fact, as Juan will learn, discovering the truth does not solve anything, it only serves to make life more complicated.

Marías writes in the tradition of James and Proust, of Borges and Nabokov. His long, meandering sentences even reminded me of that other great Iberian author, Saramago, who also may start with the description of an event, to continue in the same sentence with a discursive observation. Marías has also been highly praised by W.G. Sebald, and indeed, he exhibits a Sebaldian obsession with history and memory (and even uses black-and-white photos in some of his books - though not in this one -, which was Sebald's trademark). His basic theme is the transience of human life, how everything belongs to the past as soon as it has happened - which means that everything is constantly in the process of being lost. A second theme is the ambiguity of language - not for nothing is his protagonist a translator / interpreter, someone who is well aware of the pitfalls of language.

But different from Sebald, Marías' books are also very sexy and full of humor. A good example is the scene in A Heart So White where Juan for the first time meets Luisa, the woman who later will become his wife. Juan is acting as interpreter at a private discussion between the premiers of Spain and Great Britain (the British PM is clearly Margaret Thatcher). As is usual at such high level meetings, a second interpreter is present to check on the first - for mistakes can have far-reaching consequences. This is Luisa and she is sitting diagonally behind Juan, watching the back of his neck, so he only sees her long crossed legs and Prada shoes out of the corner of his eye. Translating for these two heads of state, Juan intentionally misinterprets what they say (in fact, they don't have much to say, this is a very ironical act), just to see what happens. He watches Luisa's legs to get a cue as to how she will react: startled, she uncrosses them, but does not intervene. And as he goes on changing more and more parts of the conversation, leaving out certain remarks and adding others of his own fabrication, he notices that Luisa's "gleaming legs" don't move anymore, they remain crossed and only sway a little, a sure sign she isn't going to ruin Juan's career by speaking up - and for him also the sign "that she would allow him anything for the rest of his life." This is one the most beautiful and funny seduction scenes from all literature.

The book contains several scenes that echo other events in the narrative. The above mentioned, overheard conversation in the hotel foreshadows what Juan will discover about his father, although his father acted on his own initiative and his second wife, Juan's aunt, far from spurring him on like Lady Macbeth, was so shocked by his crime that she killed herself. And Juan learns this through another overheard conversation, between his father and Luisa, where Luisa persuades her father-in-law (who has a weakness for her) to tell her the truth about his first two wives.

Another example of such parallelism is "the person standing below in the street, looking up at the balcony." This is how Juan first sees the woman who comes for a tryst with the man occupying the next-door hotel room during his honeymoon (this happens in Havana, while Luisa is ill in bed with a slight form of food poisoning): the woman, a fierce, local type, stands in the street and he notices her "strong legs that seemed to dig into the pavement with their thin, high, stiletto heels." She then shouts at Juan sitting on the balcony and waves angrily with a swift flourish of her fingers, mistaking him for the man with whom she has a date - something which is only resolved when the man next door also appears on his balcony. Later, in Madrid, Juan notices a somewhat sinister friend of his father, who seems strangely interested in his marital relation with Luisa, standing motionless in the street, watching his balcony. And when Juan is on a business trip to New York, he stays with an old flame, a woman who is searching for romance by placing contact advertisements and sending out kinky videos of herself. She has had a traffic accident and now one of her legs is shorter than the other. She has hooked a man (also a somewhat sinister type, so here, too, is the suggestion that she could end up being murdered) and Juan has to leave the apartment and stand in the street during her lovemaking, so this time he becomes the one looking up at the balcony, waiting for a sign that the coast is free.

On another note, even certain reflections of the narrator are repeated, to demonstrate that our thought processes are often repetitious. An interesting thought of Juan that is repeated in the novel is:
"What takes place is identical to what doesn't take place, what we dismiss or allow to slip by us is identical to what we accept and seize, what we experience identical to what we never try, and yet we spend our lives in a process of choosing and rejecting and selecting, in drawing a line to separate these identical things and make our story a unique story that we can remember and that can be told."
In short, Marías mixes philosophy and kinkiness, suspense and contemplation, wading through the swamp of ambiguous language, to tell a tale where people never seem to learn anything about their true selves. But A Heart So White is also a highly engrossing novel full of human passion that is difficult to put down.

Javier Marías was born in Madrid in 1951. His father was the philosopher Julián Marías who was banned from teaching as he opposed the France regime. As his father therefore moved for a time to the U.S., Marías was partly educated at Yale and Wellesley College. He became a translator of English literature into Spanish, and is known for his renditions of Shakespeare, James, Nabokov, Updike, Faulkner and Sterne, to name a few. In the mid-1980s, he lectured for a few years in Spanish literature and translation at the University of Oxford. Critical acclaim for his own novels came with The Man of Feeling (1986) and All Souls (1988), which was set at Oxford University, while his breakthrough to commercial success came with A Heart So White in 1992. Fourteen of his sixteen books have been translated into English, the last one The Infatuations from 2011. The protagonists of Marías' novels are often interpreters or translators, like Marías himself, "people who are renouncing their own voices."

Here is the answer Marías gave when during an interview he was asked what was the purpose of writing:
"I think it was Faulkner who once said that when you strike a match in a dark wilderness, it is not in order to see anything better lighted but just in order to see how much more darkness there is around. I think that literature does mainly that. It is not really supposed to “answer” things, not even to make them clearer, but rather to explore – often blindly – the huge areas of darkness and show them better."
Javier Marías, A Heart So White (Corazón tan blanco). Translated by Margaret Jull Costa (Penguin Books). With this book, Marías and Costa became joint winners of the 1997 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. 

December 10, 2014

"The Radetzky March" by Joseph Roth (Book review)

Who doesn't know the Radetzky March by Johann Strauss Sr., played annually as the last piece at the New Year's Concert from Vienna? This famous piece of music is dedicated to a war-horse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Bohemian-born Joseph Radetzky von Radetz, who during a 70-year long career first fought against Napoleon and finally ended up trying to suppress the First Italian War of Independence. He was a ruthless disciplinarian, but also idolized by his soldiers as "Vater Radetzky." Joseph Roth used "Radetzkymarsch" as the title for his greatest novel, written in 1932, because the march symbolizes the greatness of the perished Empire, while the protagonists actually also hear it played at important moments.

[Joseph Radetzky von Radetz,
the type of Austro-Hungarian "war horse"
that also figures in the novel - photo Wikipedia]

The novel tells the story of the rise and fall of three generations of the Trotta family, concentrating on the youngest and last member, Carl Joseph, and this is paralleled by the glory and subsequent disintegration of the empire in which they live and serve - in other words, the passing of the Old Europe into the modern world. The Trottas are professional Austro-Hungarian soldiers and career bureaucrats of Slovenian origin. Joseph Trotta, the patriarch, happened to famously save the life of the blundering Emperor, Franz Joseph I, by toppling him from his horse during the Battle of Solferino (1859), and was ennobled for his service, although his parents had been Slovenian farmers. After his promotion and ennoblement, Baron Joseph von Trotta degrades into rural obscurity, except for one anecdote where he demonstrates that he has always remained a naive peasant: he remonstrates (even to the level of the Emperor) against a textbook for use at schools where his deed is made more heroic than it was by changing some facts. As a result, the war hero stubbornly opposes his son Franz' aspirations to a military career, having him become a government official (district administrator in a Moravian town) instead - the second most respected career in the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  Like the first Baron, also the second Baron Trotta is a square and conservative man, a pillar of the nation, but also a rather nondescript government functionary. The grandson, Carl Joseph, has a character that is very different from his forefathers, but at the urging of his father joins the army - with consistently disastrous results. It is his fate to die in WWI, just before the destruction of the empire.

The life of Carl Joseph is not a happy one. He stands for the frivolous generation that lost the empire, addicted to the pleasures of the flesh, to drink and gambling. He has a relation with the wife of the police commander in the town where he has grown up and is shattered when she dies in child birth, especially when the husband openly returns a stack of his love letters. At his next post, he has an affair with the wife of his best friend, the Jewish military doctor; as a result, the doctor dies fighting a senseless duel. It seems as if everything Carl Joseph does falls apart under his hands. He sinks into despondency, becoming old before his time, and seeks forgetfulness in drinking and gambling. For the third time, he takes a married lover, and piles up gambling debts, living in an alcoholic daze in a remote military outpost near the border with Russia (the local drink is a sort of extremely strong vodka called "Ninety Degrees"). Just as he is about to permanently damage the family's honor and good name, the Emperor's son Franz Ferdinand is assassinated in Sarajevo and the Great War breaks out, to devour Carl Joseph's life and those of unnumbered others.

The Austrio-Hungarian Empire was a very authoritarian and hierarchical society. It was a world with a clear order, with clear rules and regulations. People knew who they were and what their place in the greater scheme of things was. This is especially clear in the early chapters where we see that Carl Joseph has been disciplined so by his father, the district administrator, that to any question his father poses he answers obediently "Yes, Pappa." The relation between father and son is so formal that the son doesn't talk when he is not invited to do so. When his father picks up some official documents, the son may read the paper, but he is careful to put this immediately away when his father looks up from his reading. Life has been regulated strictly, everything, such as meals, takes place at fixed times. Somehow, this strict and disciplined society reminded me of the Japan of the Meiji-period (1868-1912). And we also know this world from the descriptions in Stefan Zweig's The World of Yesterday (see my post about this book). It is of course not a very warm society and you can see the gulf that gapes between father and son - especially since for the son the old order ceases to have any meaning. For his father, being the district administrator and a pillar of the empire is his identity - he defines his life in terms of the social order and not in terms of his own being. But the times have changed and Carl Joseph is unable to do that. He is an individualist who simply floats through life, and unfortunately he has chosen the wrong occupation for the army doesn't suit him at all and the boredom even brings out the worst in him. His greatest problem is his lack of reflection, as a more thoughtful life might have brought him to new values.

[Emperor Franz Joseph I - from Wikipedia]

A fourth important character in the novel is the Emperor, Franz Joseph I, who is everywhere present in the form of his official portraits and who with his own unchangeability (he is over eighty years old) symbolizes the state of the realm. But he also meets all three Trottas in person and the fate of the barons seems inextricably linked to that of the Empire, tottering towards its destruction as the Emperor totters towards his grave.

Roth uses historical persons and events in a most imaginative way, that is, they only appear when they are important for the story and not the other way round. He relates the story in a supple style, somewhat understated and matter-of-fact, keeping a fast pace, and his voice is always full of compassion - he treats the death of a small thing like a canary with as much feeling as he does the death-throes of the great Empire.

This superb novel remained long in obscurity. In the Germanic countries, the 1930s were a time that another terrible war was brewing and people didn't have time to read about a previous one. The Nazis next forbade Roth's work because he was of Jewish ancestry. It is only in the last decades that Joseph Roth has been fully rehabilitated - Radetzkymarsch, for example, was in 2003 included in the canon of the most important German-language literary novels by the influential German critic Marcel Reich-Ranicki. The first English translation appeared in 1995 and as a result, the novel was widely acclaimed. The last twenty years have seen a great flow of Roth translations, especially by Michael Hofmann, who also made a second translation of Radetzkymarsch. For more about Joseph Roth, see my post about his last novella, The Legend of the Holy Drinker.  

The German original, Radetzkymarsch, is available from DTV (Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag). It is also freely available as ebook from various internet sites, as the German Gutenberg site or the Internet Archive. 
The first English translation was made in 1995 by Joachim Neugroschel and is available from The Overlook Press as well as from Everyman's Library. A second translation was made in 2003 by Michael Hofmann (who has translated many works by Roth and is a great Roth advocate) and is available from Granta Books. I have read the novel in German, but a quick comparison of both translations with the original, shows that the translation by Hofmann is closest to Roth's style.

December 6, 2014

Three Great Nostalgic Novels from Hungary

Hungarian novels can be beautifully melancholic and romantic, but strangely enough, they are very little known outside their country of origin. Here are three great novels and story collections from the first half of the 20th century:

1. The Adventures of Sindbad by Gyula Krúdy. Translated by George Szirtes (New York Review Books).
Twenty-four fantastic and nostalgic tales, originally published between 1911 and 1917, about a sort of Hungarian Casanova called (why not?) "Sindbad." Sindbad haunts both Hungary's capital and the obscure corners of its provinces, looking for love - or rather, revisiting past lovers. For in most of the stories Sindbad is already dead, he is like that other, more famous count from Transsylania (a region that used to be part of the Hungarian lands in the Austrian-Hungarian Empire) "undead" - but although this lovesick suicide keeps coming back to revisit past loves, there is nothing horrible about him, on the contrary, these stories are all filled with romantic nostalgia. Each story is the evocation of a past love affair, from which not only Sindbad is unable to free himself, also the women he has loved still need him to gratify their fantasies. But it is love with the grave hanging over it, passion that is unavoidable but futile, and the memories are sweet but also painful. These stories are like La Valse by Ravel, a dirge for a lost world, for the year Krúdy finished writing about Sindbad, the empire collapsed. Krúdy's prose is enchanting and evocative (thanks to the excellent translation by the poet George Szirtes), a repetition of sighing sentences building up the dream of Sindbad's life - and ours. For Krúdy, love never dies, but it keeps coming back all the time to haunt us.

The Hungarian author Gyula Krúdy (1878-1933) worked as a newspaper editor and writer of short stories, much against the wishes of his father, who disinherited him. Krúdy had to support his wife and children with his writings, and therefore the success of Sindbad, of which the first stories were published in 1911, was very welcome. Krúdy also wrote novels about Budapest and the Hungarian revolution. His popularity started to fade in the 1920s and 1930s, when his health also failed due to his excessive lifestyle. He was in fact forgotten until the writer Sándor Márai published a novel about Krúdy's last day - this succesful book also again generated interest in Krúdy's own writings and today he is considered as one of the most original Hungarian writers of the 20th century.

2. Journey by Moonlight by Antal Szerb. Translated by Len Rix (New York Review Books).
This beloved classical novel, written in 1937, follows Mihály, and his new bride, Erzsi, on their honeymoon in Italy. Mihály possesses a romantic and poetic nature and has lived a wild youth with his four friends János Szepetneki (a sort of conman), Ervin (who wanted to devote his life to religion), Tamás (a friend who suffered from life and has committed suicide) and Éva Ulpius (the type of the femme fatale, who was involved with the suicide). To please his conservative father, Mihály has now resigned himself to a bourgeois existence: he has taken a position in the family company and married Erzsi, a practical woman (although with one complicating factor; Erzsi is using Mihály as a tool for her own liberation, she wanted to get out of her first marriage that was suffocating to her). But Mihály is unable to shake off the nostalgia for his bohemian youth, and his romantic feelings are aroused by the towns and countryside of Italy, a country he visits for the first time. Unfortunately, Italy also calls up the death-haunted and erotic elements of Mihály's past. Not surprisingly, Mihály manages to "loose" his bride by missing the train at a small provincial station and then starts a hallucinatory and bizarre journey through Italy that will eventually make him rejoin the three surviving friends from his youth - and also face something hidden deeply in his psyche, an erotic death-wish connected with the friend with whom he is secretly in love, Éva Ulpius. At the same time, the novel also follows his wife Erszi on her own journey to Paris. Finally, both Mihály and Erszi will have to make the choice what to do with their lives. A beautiful, poetic novel about vacillation between the expectations of society and their incompatibility with our youthful ideals.

Antal Szerb (1901-1945) had a Jewish background, although he was baptized as a Catholic. He was a great scholar, who studied Hungarian, German and English and established a formidable reputation with his studies on Blake and Ibsen. He also lived for five years in France and Italy, and one year in England. In 1933 he was elected as president of the Hungarian Literary Academy and later became professor of literature at the university of Szeged. In 1941, he published his magnum opus, a huge history of world literature, which remains authoritative even today. He also wrote about the history of Hungarian literature and the theory of the novel. His own first novel was published in 1934, The Pendragon Legend, followed in 1937 by his best-known work, Journey by Moonlight (Utas és holdvilág). Despite antisemitic persecution, Szerb choose to remain in Hungary, although his third novel, Oliver VII, had to passed off as a translation from the English. In 1944, Szerb was incarcerated in a concentration camp, where in early 1945 he was beaten to death, at age 43.

3. Embers by Sándor Márai. Translated by Carol Brown Janeway from the German translation (Vintage International)
This novel written in 1942 is another La Valse, an expression of profound nostalgia for the destroyed multi-ethnic and multicultural society of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. There is a clear link with the work of Joseph Roth such Radetzky March. The Hungarian title (A gyertyák csonkig égnek) means "The Candles Burn Down to the Stump" and that is what literally happens in the novel, during the night-long conversation between an seventy-five year-old general (Henrik) and the man who used to be his closest friend (Konrad), whom he now meets after the passage of forty-one years. The mournful glamour of the lost empire is called up in the secluded woodland castle of the general, where time seems to have stopped. The novel is a duel in words and silences between host and guest, where the general gives a long monologue, a sort of rant, accusing the guest, who mostly answers by acknowledging silences. The back story is only gradually revealed. Henrik and Konrad were close friends from their school days on, despite their difference in status and wealth. They were inseparable as brothers and it was Konrad who introduced Krisztina, who became Henrik's wife. The three often meet together and the reader will already guess what happened - something the general also realizes when at a hunting party he sees Konrad point his gun at him (without being able to pull the trigger), before leaving without saying goodbye for a far-away, foreign destination. Searching for Konrad, the general visits his apartment where to his shock he meets his wife Krisztina, who only speaks one word, referring to Konrad: "Coward." After that, the life of the general falls to pieces. He never speaks another word to his wife until she dies eight years later, living apart in the hunting lodge. Now, so many years later, Konrad who has made his fortune in the colonies, has briefly returned to Hungary and takes the opportunity to meet his old friend. The general wants Konrad to confess not only his own guilt, but also that of Krisztina, whom he suspects of having enticed Konrad to kill him. But Konrad meets his long accusations with silence, because, after all, Henrik already knows perfectly well what happened on that day, forty-one years ago, when something was lost forever. During their conversation, the candles have burned down, just as the candles of their lives have almost burned down to the stump, and just as only embers are left of the glory of the empire they once served. An exquisite structured novel about the disillusion that life inevitably brings, told with melancholy grandeur.

Sándor Márai (1900-1989) was born to an old Hungarian family in a part of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire that is now Slovakia. He travelled in his youth and lived in Frankfurt, Berlin and Paris, and even considered writing in German. But in 1928 he settled in Budapest and chose his mother language. He was active as a journalist, critic and author, and became known for his clear realist style. Márai wrote more than 40 novels and was one of the most influential representatives of Hungarian literature during the interbellum. Although Márai was highly critical of the Nazis and known as antifascist, he remained in Hungary during the war, but was driven away by the Communist regime that seized power after WWII. He left Hungary in 1948 and after a brief stint in Italy, settled in San Diego in California. Cut off from his own culture, he sank in depression and finally died by his own hand in 1989. He was only discovered as a great European author in the 1990s, when the first translations of his work appeared in French, and then in many other languages as well.

P.S. In Hungarian, family name comes before personal name, just as in Japanese or Chinese. However, in this post, I have followed the English custom.