Like Albert Camus in his novella The Fall, Sándor Márai, a great contemporary Hungarian writer, also uses “First Person” perspective in his novel Portraits of a Marriage.
It is divided in three parts, for each of the three characters, where each’s intimate past in connection with the other two is unveiled.
Ilona, a divorcee, Peter her ex husband and Judit the reason for whom the marriage between the two eventually comes to an end.
The book is written in a powerful and engaging language that makes a reader feel involved as an intruding listener of a private conversation that the character has with a companion or a confidant. Each has a distinct perspective of his/her past and the conflicting background of his/her relationships with the other two.
The book opens with Ilonka talking to a friend; “Look, see that man? Wait! Turn your head away, look at me, keep talking. I wouldn’t like it if he glanced this way and spotted me…. Can I tell you who he is? I can tell you, darling, it’s no secret. That man was my husband.”
In the second part of the novel we hear Peter talking to an old friend. “See the pair just leaving, there by the revolving doors? That woman there. The blond one in the round hat? No, the tall one in the mink, yes.. .They were sitting at that table in the corner earlier….That woman was my wife… We’ve been divorced for three years”
Judit, the third character and probably the most interesting, talks to her lover about her relation with Peter and Peter’s family since she worked as a maid in their home starting when she was 15 years old.
Their different social and economic backgrounds are brilliantly exposed in these monologues and seems to be even more relevant than the romantic aspects of their relationships.
Ilonka explains what the differences are between her and Peter before they got married describing the problems of a middle class woman marrying a richer husband… “Everything was just a little different in their home compared with ours. We lived in a rented apartment; they in a rented villa. We had a balcony with geraniums; they had a little garden with two flower beds and an old walnut tree. We had an ordinary icebox that we filled with ice in summer while my mother-in-law had a small electric refrigerator”
On these same issue Peter tells his friend that he belongs to the middle class but “I was rich” he confesses and .. my wife’s family was relatively poor. Not that being middle-class is a matter of money.”
By stark contrast, Judit who, as peasant, deals with extreme poverty as a child becoming a servant and eventually marries Peter, crossing the class structure. As she proudly describes her family’s background she said; “My father harvested melons …. We were so poor we had to dig a shelter in the ditch and live there through winter, together with the field mice. But whenever I think of my father, you know, I picture him as a gentleman ”
Portraits of a Marriage, as all Sándor Márai’s books, is filled with details of its characters’ feelings out of their vivid conversations. Márai is excelled at portraying time and place; emotions and situations. In this as in all his work, a profound understanding of the human conditions is revealed. This note with the quotes from the novel intends to serve as an “appetizer” to offer a taste of a complex and enjoyable story-telling.
Sándor Marai was born in Hungary in 1900 and emigrated to the US in 1948 to avoid Communism. Clearly he did not want to lose his freedom and individuality. He committed suicide in 1989. What led him to finish his own life is unknown and there are many interpretations. For example, Johanna Granville, a scholar from Wilson Center, reviewing Marai’s Memoir of Hungary, 1944-48, think s that it was “a combination of the trauma of Soviet occupation and the identity crisis of a writer torn between East and West..”
Like many of his admirers, I am strongly convinced that he truly deserved the Nobel Prize for Literature taking into account the high quality of his works.
1. Sándor Márai, Portraits of a Marriage translated from the Hungarian by George Szirtes.” Alfred A. Knopf, 2011 iBooks.
2. Albert Camus, The Fall, Translated from the French by Justin O’Brien, Alfred A. Knopf, 1991. iBooks. https://itun.es/us/K4JkH.l
3. Sándor Márai. Memoir of Hungary, 1944-48. Trade paperback, Oxford University Press, USA, 1996
This Sunday in the “Weekend Pages” of the Financial Times Lucy Kellaway, a columnist and associate editor published an article titled “Why I would rather own a home than rent one”, passionately replying to a provocative article published 15 days ago by Ben Pentreath, an architectural and urban designer with the heading “Why I rent and would never buy,” describing two attractive and gorgeous properties that Mr. Pendreath rents in Dorset, west of England, and in a fashionable area in London (see links for full texts and photos to to the articles at the end).
After reading both articles, I have come up with two lists through my own interpretation of the different arguments presented in favor of either “renting” or “owning”:
The reasons to rent according to Mr. Pentreath:
1. To buy a magnificent and well located property as the ones that Mr. Pendreath has rent is very expensive and unaffordable to own.
2. Down payments and big long term mortgage is “a form of renting money, very expensively”
3. Friends that bought their home are burdened “with enormous debts and taken to purchase bad houses in very strange localities”, with decaying neighbourhoods with relatively poor services, schools and transportations.
4. The risk of buying in a bubble and suffering from the loss of property value when markets are in crisis or when the areas are in decline or not popular anymore. In that case, not only the prices go down, but selling could take months or some time years. Futhermore, many taxes and expenses related to the sales are yet to be paid.
5. No responsibility for maintenance fees, taxes or other expenses like roof leaks or a heating system blowing. “it’s not my problem, he writes…a simple call, and no cost” the owner will have “these things fixed”.
6. Expensive renovations like kitchens are generally speaking borne by the owners.
7. Liberty and flexibility to move or as he said “free to step away if I wish, never trapped by debt or my situation”.
Lucy Kellaway, on the other hand, defends the concept of buying in a passionate article where she sometime even seems a bit aggressive by criticizing Mr Pentreath’s article “superficially persuasive” but admits that she has some doubts about her “continued faith in home ownership”.
Again, based on her arguments, here is a list of reasons with my interpretation of her arguments in favor of owning:
1. Owning a house as a child has changed her life, offering security and stability, even when the property was sold.
2. Owned properties allow families to leave marks like planting a tree to keep vivid memories of their past. When driving by her old home, she writes, there is a feeling: “that is where my roots are. That house used to be ours.”
3. A tool of Investment that could be profitable if dealt with good care and blessed with luck. She described how profitable has been for her to own and sell their homes, making almost 400% profit on their first property.
4. Renting properties like those mentioned by Mr. Pentreath are not that available and are very expensive according to the research she made through the web.
5. Renters don’t have the freedom of planting and designing their own garden, and enjoying it in different seasons.
6. Not all landlords are good at fixing home problems like roof leaks or boiler failures.
7. Owning property gives children a sense of “responsibility” and permanence that a rented house cannot “even if the location of their home is in “unhandsome” neighbourhood or “places that Pentreath would hold in contempt”.
Clearly the arguments are true and valid on both sides which present personal preferences based on different experiences and backgrounds.
However, there are other considerations “for” or “against” the two options missing in the articles, particularly those issues that are contingent to the economic cycles which directly affects property prices, rents, interest rates and availability of credit.
Affordability and stage in life are two other important factors that varies from case to case. From the articles of Lucy Kellaway and Ben Pentreath that share their experience and preferences, it is obvious that both have the resources and, I assume, the freedom to decide to buy or rent, a choice that these days not necessarily everybody enjoys.
This interesting debate in the FT shows the diversity of human goals and aspirations. Finally, it all depends on personal taste, vision and circumstances, and is not restricted from certain sole rigid criteria.
Lucy Kellaway, “Why I would rather own a home than rent one”. Financial Times, February 14, 2014. http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/2/0a1852e8-9307-11e3-b07c-00144feab7de.html#axzz2tXzMtQFx
Ben Pentreath. “Why I rent and would never buy”. Financial Times, January 31,2014. http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/2/c240cd3a-8805-11e3-8afa-00144feab7de.html#axzz2tXzMtQFx
This is the opening of Albert Camus’ novela “The Fall” as a vivid monologue in the “First Person” perspective, where the “I” and “you” used by a single person creates a dynamic and intriguing narration in fiction.
The main character, Jean-Baptiste Clamence, a judge residing in Amsterdam, tries to help a foreigner in a bar to order drinks while starting a conversation about the bartender’s bad temper and the city. “Are you staying long in Amsterdam? A beautiful city, isn’t it? Fascinated?” The dialogue continues but we, the readers, only can hear the narrator and imagine what the other unknown character replies.
“You’re leaving already? Forgive me for having perhaps detained you. No, I beg you; I won’t let you pay”. A relationship has been established between two persons as the judge answers, “I shall certainly be here tomorrow, as I am every evening, and I shall be pleased to accept your invitation.
The two characters will meet again and a conversation will continue with Clamence’s voice revealing his background, his personal existential problems including a past experience that changed his life and makes him discover how empty and absurd his life was before.
Other writers such as Sandor Marai and Walker Percy, they both distinctively adopt the ”First Person” style in their novels Portraits of a Marriage and Lancelot which are full of wonderful introspective dialogues and clearly reveal the main characters’ internal emotions and their past.
Albert Camus, a 1957 Nobel Prize winner in literature, is one of the most influential French existentialist writers who have succeeded in applying the beauty of excellent literary skills on philosophy. An optimist but also a nostalgic solitary rebel, as the title of one of his most important essays L’Homme révolté suggests, he openly opposed the totalitarianism of what he described as “fallen revolutions” and “worn-out ideologies”, i.e. Communism and Fascism, which inspired the destructive mass movements. He was not afraid to be isolated by opposing the popular ideas at that time, which led him to break with Sartre and other powerful intellectuals in the 50s that dominated the cultural scene in France. Unfortunately Camus died relatively young in a tragic car accident in 1960.
He sought solitude and the belief that a personal experience could be a persuasive reference for literary and philosophical writing which are reflected in his works especially notably in The Fall, a truly engaging novella which I think everybody should read.
1. Albert Camus. “The Fall.” Translated from the French by Justin O’Brien, Alfred A. Knopf, 1991. iBooks. https://itun.es/us/K4JkH.l
2. Sándor Márai. “Portraits of a Marriage.” translated from the Hungarian by George Szirtes.” Alfred A. Knopf, 2011 iBooks. https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/portraits-of-a-marriage/id420425262?mt=11
3. Walker Percy. “Lancelot”. Open Road Media, 2011
This year commemorates the 100th anniversary of the First World War that killed millions and devastated Europe. There are many books on the origins and the consequences, including a second more destructive war a few decades latter.
Among the most recent books is The War that ended Peace by Margaret McMillan*, an historian of the University of Oxford. The title seems to dwell on the fact that “Europe had seen no major war for decades before 1914”, only limited conflicts in Asia, Africa and distant regions.
The first chapter has a vivid description of the Paris Exposition of 1900 that was visited by more than 50 million visitors. The French declared the Exhibition as “a symbol of harmony and peace”.
The Introduction, as a stark contrast describe the destruction of Louvain in Belgium, once a “prosperous and peaceful“ gothic town with a famous university founded in1425 with a library that hosted 200,000 unique books. In 1914 the town was destroyed and burned. The author mentions that “like much Belgium, Louvain has the misfortune to be on the route of the German invasion to France..”
The book brilliantly narrates the events that led to the war, the small conflicts and tension between that superpowers and their different allies through the aftermath of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, the spark that brought Europe to a war which ended the European empires and caused the worst chaos, death and misery to millions of people, including civilians, children and woman.
Among the fiction books that depict the human side of the beginning of a peaceful 20th Century and the horrible war, Joseph Roth offers two masterpieces, “The Radetzky March (1932) and its sequel The Emperor’s Tomb (1934). In the introduction of the first one, Nadine Gordimer mentions how Roth let us “see the deterioration of a society, an empire, in which disparate nationalities have been forced into political unity by an overriding authority and its symbol: the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the personality of Emperor Franz Joseph.”
“The Radetzky March is the story of a prominent family that was granted the highest ranks of the nobility for an heroic act of a soldier that saved the life of the young Emperor Franz Joseph in a battle. It described the life of the youngest member of the Trotta family and how the Empire was collapsing under the oldest emperor in the world. “All around him, Death was circling, circling and mowing”. The huge power of the Hapsburgs was dying, “shattered on the ultimate bottom of the universe, splintering into several tiny solar balls that had to shine as independent stars on independent nations.”**
Some analysts see a parallel to the conflicts between China and Japan for some minor unimportant islands comparing these with what happened in the pre-war Europe 100 years ago.
I think it is a good timing to remember the First World War and its horrors reading Margaret McMillan’s history book as well as Joseph Roth’s brilliant novels.
* Margaret McMillan. The War that ended Peace. Random House, 2014. iBooks https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/the-war-that-ended-peace/id653545020?mt=11
* Roth, Joseph. “The Radetzky March.” Overlook Press, 2002. iBooks. https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/the-radetzky-march/id471195709?mt=11
I am producing “Against the Current” li Paper for the last 6 months, selecting daily five stories that I consider relevant about Books, Culture and Technology that are published by different media outlets. http://paper.li/pintobooks/1377241712#
The process is easy since I read many stories every day on those topics. The platform is great and easy to use. One issues which make it limited is the fact that it did not allow to add any personal comments, just posting the selected article.
Paper li’s platform does all the formatting , including selecting an image from each article and the first few lines of each story.
Paper li allow me to look at the the post before is made public. Is a good option to be able to move selected articles of the day and deciding which will be the leading note. Once I a satisfied the way it looks the Paper li program sends an eMail to each subscriber and also posted the Daily in my Twitter and Facebook accounts.
Now I will see how it work having as one of the notes, reviews made in this site, “Learning and Sharing” that includes personal notes and comments, linking the two sites. https://jpintobooks.com/about/