The Widow of Ephesus Conquers Her Eating Disorder

The Widow of Ephesus by Philip Banken

 

Bid her awake; for Hymen is awake,

And long since ready forth his maske to move . . .

Edmund Spenser, “Epithalamion

 

It was Federico Fellini who first turned me on to Petronius the Arbiter, the Oscar Wilde of Nero’s reign, a witty hedonist famed for his exquisite taste.   In fact, Petronius’s official function in Nero’s court was to determine what was tasteful (or not), hence his title arbiter elegantiarum, judge of elegance.

Scholars don’t know much about him.  Here’s a snippet from Tacitus’s Annals copped from Wikipedia:

He spent his days in sleep, his nights in attending to his official duties or in amusement, that by his dissolute life he had become as famous as other men by a life of energy, and that he was regarded as no ordinary profligate, but as an accomplished voluptuary. His reckless freedom of speech, being regarded as frankness, procured him popularity. Yet during his provincial government, and later when he held the office of consul, he had shown vigor and capacity for affairs. Afterwards returning to his life of vicious indulgence, he became one of the chosen circle of Nero’s intimates, and was looked upon as an absolute authority on questions of taste in connection with the science of luxurious living.

Unfortunately, however, like so many in Nero’s circle, Petronius was tried and convicted of treason.  Rather than waiting for the inevitable sentence, the Arbiter took matters into his own hands.

Again, Tacitus:

Yet he did not fling away life with precipitate haste, but having made an incision in his veins and then, according to his humour, bound them up, he again opened them, while he conversed with his friends, not in a serious strain or on topics that might win for him the glory of courage. And he listened to them as they repeated, not thoughts on the immortality of the soul or on the theories of philosophers, but light poetry and playful verses. To some of his slaves he gave liberal presents, a flogging to others. He dined, indulged himself in sleep, that death, though forced on him, might have a natural appearance. Even in his will he did not, as did many in their last moments, flatter Nero or Tigellinus or any other of the men in power. On the contrary, he described fully the prince’s shameful excesses, with the names of his male and female companions and their novelties in debauchery, and sent the account under seal to Nero. Then he broke his signet-ring, that it might not be subsequently available for imperiling others.

At any rate, none of this would be of any interest if Petronius had not written the Satyricon, a fragmentary mishmash of verse and prose that satirizes Roman life in the first century BC.  I actually wrote a paper on this picaresque “novel” in the spring semester of my senior year, but alas, like many sections of the Satyricon itself, that work of genius has been lost to the ages [cue sarcastic cough].

Click below, if you dare, to watch the trailer of Fellini’s Satyricon.

 

Although “Trimalchio’s Dinner” is the most famous section of the Satyricon (Fitzgerald at one point thought about entitling The Great Gatsby as Trimalchio in West Egg), my favorite section is the vignette “The Widow of Ephesus,” an oft-repeated tale that traditionally has been interpreted as an invective against the fickleness of women; however, in Petronius’s version, sophisticated readers might see it, to quote Douglas Galbi, as showing “the imperatives of the living trumping respect for the dead.”

In other words, reading it as “pro life” in the best sense of that phrase,

Amphetaminic Synopsis of  Petronius’s “The Widow of Ephesus”[1]

A widow renowned for her chastity goes apeshit after her husband dies, and with over-the-top historonics  (exposing her breast and beating it, e.g), she follows his corpse’s funeral parade into an underground crypt.

There, attended by a “most loyal slave-woman,” the widow keens, gouges her face, and yanks out her tresses with the intention to starve herself so she can join her husband in Oblivionville.

Impervious to the pleadings of her parents and her loyal slave, for five days, without food or drink, the widow continues her frenzied mourning, out-Niobe-ing  Niobe,  “tearing her hair, plac[ing] the tresses on the corpse of her dead husband.”

Meanwhile, a soldier stationed to guard two crucified robbers hears the widow and abandons his post to see what’s going on.[2]  Once he’s hip to the scoop, he returns with food, which she refuses, but the slave woman “seduced by the odor of wine,” indulges, and once renourished, starts in on her mistress.

”What good will this do you, if you will have been undone by starvation? — if you will have buried yourself alive? — if you will have poured forth your life’s breath when you have not yet been condemned to die, before the fates demand it?”

As Margaret Atwood once noted, “Hunger is a powerful reorganizer of the conscience,” and the widow gives in. Once she’s sated, the soldier starts cajoling her to ditch her chastity.  Though we don’t get to hear his love talk, it must have been Barry-White-like and coming from the mouth of one sexy [insert noun from two-word Prince title that begins with “Sexy.”]

Click arrow below for an example of what I mean by “Barry-White-like”:

 

She submits.

So they as my mother would put it, “shack up” in the sepulcher, he sneaking out now and then to procure food and presents.

During his frequent absences from his station, a relative snatches one of the crucified men and buries him. When the soldier notices the missing body, he knows he’s a goner, so he decides to dispatch himself before the judge’s sentence comes crashing down.[3]

He informs the widow and asks “her only allot him a place, since he was doomed to die, and make the fatal tomb common to both her friend and her husband. “

Here’s the key passage:

The woman, who was no less merciful than chaste, [my italics] said, ”May the gods not allow that — that I should at the same time look upon the deaths of the two men most dear to me. I prefer to sacrifice the dead man rather than to kill the one who is alive.” In accordance with this pronouncement, she orders the corpse of her husband to be lifted out of its coffin and affixed to that cross which was empty. The soldier made use of the ingenious scheme of that most judicious woman, and the next day all the townspeople marveled at how the dead man had gone onto the cross.”

Oil paining of crucified slaves in ancient Rome

As Horace Walpole famously said, “Life is a tragedy for those who feel, but a comedy for those who think.”  One equipped with a tragic vision might turn this story into a heartbreaker, the widow refusing to the very end, her gaunt body wild-eyed as she hallucinates tender scenes from her married life.  However, there’s something deep down in every living thing that prompts it to live.  Even if buried beneath the cement of a sidewalk, a weed will attempt to push its way through the cracks towards the sun.

There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —

Gerard Manly Hopkins, excerpt from “God’s Grandeur”


[1]Quotes are from John R. Porter’s translation.

[2]He’s guarding them so their relatives won’t remove the bodies to give them proper burial. Some scholars claim this alludes to Jesus’s crucifixion story, but if it does, then it doesn’t jive with Petronius’s dates.

[3]Note how eerily similar this is to Petronius’s eventual fate.

A Footnote to the Previous Post RE Bill Clinton and Gabriel Garcia Marquez

A not-so-quick footnote to yesterday’s post:  During the Reagan Administration, Garcia Marquez was labeled a subversive and denied visas to enter the US.  After Clinton was elected President, he lifted the travel ban.  Here’s a snippet from an article from Salon that is no longer available detailing Garcia Marquez’s first meeting with Clinton at William Styron’s house with the Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes also in attendance:

Garcia Marquez with Clinton

Dinner began at 8, with some 14 guests around the table, and lasted until midnight.  Bit by bit, the conversation came down to a kind of literary round table involving the president and the three writers.  The first topic that came up was the forthcoming Summit of the Americas.  Clinton had wanted it held in Miami, where it did take place.  Carlos Fuentes considered that New Orleans or Los Angles had stronger historical claims, and he and I argued strongly for them until it became clear that the president had no intention of changing his plans because he was counting on reelection support from Miami.

“Forget the votes, Mr. President,” Carlos said to him.  “Lose Florida and make history.”  That phrase set the tone.  When he spoke of the problem of narco-traffic, the president heard me out generously.

“Thirty million drug addicts in the US go to show that the North American mafia are more powerful than those in Colombia, and the authorities much more corrupt.”  When I spoke to him about relations with Cuba, he seemed more receptive.  “If Fidel and you could sit and talk face to face, all problems would completely disappear.”

When we talked about Latin America in general, we realized that he was much more interested than we supposed, although he lacked some essential background.  When the conversation stiffened a bit, we asked him what his favorite movie was, and he answered “High Noon,” by Fred Zimmerman, whom he had recently honored in London.  When we asked him what he was reading, he sighed and mentioned a book on economic wars of the future, author and title unknown to me.

“Better to read ‘Don Quixote,” I said to him.  “Everything’s in there.” Now the ‘Quixote’ is a book that is not read nearly as much as is claimed, although very few admit to not having read it.  With two or three quotes, Clinton showed that he knew it very well indeed.  Responding, he asked us what our favorite books were.  Styron said his was “Huckleberry Finn.”

I would have said “Oedipus Rex,” which has been my bed table book for the last 20 years, but I named “The Count of Monte Cristo,” mainly for reasons of technique, which I had some trouble explaining.

Clinton said his was the “Meditations of Marcus Aurelius,” and Carlos Fuentes stuck loyally to “Absalom, Absalom,” Faulkner’s stellar novel, no question, although others would choose “Light in August” for purely personal reasons.  Clinton, in homage to Faulkner, got to his feet and, pacing around the table, recited from memory Benji’s monologue, the most thrilling passage, and perhaps the most hermetic, from “The Sound and the Fury.”

Faulkner got us talking about the affinities between Caribbean writers and the cluster of great Southern novelists of the United States.  It made much more sense to us to think of the Caribbean not as a geographical region surrounded by its sea but as a much wider historical and cultural belt stretching from the north of Brazil to the Mississippi Basin.

Mark Twain, William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, and so many others would then be just as Caribbean as Jorge Amado and Derek Walcott. Clinton, born and raised in Arkansas, a Southern state, applauded the notion and professed himself happy to be a Caribbean.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Whippersnappers, Stage Moms vs. the Would-Be Wisdom of the Elders (starring Gabriel Garcia Marquez)

For decades social critics have grown hoarse decrying the indisputable fact that North American culture has declined into a cult of youth.  Among other touchstones, they cite sitcoms that almost universally depict adults (especially males) as intellectually inferior to the wisecracking ten-year-old ironists who ultimately rule the ranch(-style) houses of Televisionland. No matter that in real life these child stars possess all of the autonomy of their collie colleague, Lassie, as whip-cracking stage mothers, robbing them of their childhoods, herd them into blinding klieg lights.

Remember Brittany Spears?

I can’t resist.  Check out these before and after pix of Brittany:

Before

After

And, of course, if you buy into perverse premise that aging is horrible, you’re pretty much doomed to a life of diminishing satisfaction as hairlines recede, varicose veins branch out, dogs die, and crowsfeet deepen into talons.  What traditionally has offered recompense for this physical decay is an accumulation of remembered experiences that have formed patterns of meaning that ultimately lead to an august understanding that the life cycle is natural and that death is the mother of beauty. [cue: Ecclesiastes, the Byrds]

However, and here’s the rub, many 21st Century citizens mostly experience “life” through the looking glass of mass media. For example, I calculate that my stay-at-home maternal grandmother spent the last forty years of her life in 16-hour stints of non-stop TV.  If that’s your lifestyle, the patterns you’re accumulating are illusions concocted to sell products and services, so ultimately, you’re experiencing a wildly disappropriate number of happy endings and a constant barrage of eye-pleasing artifacts and sculpted spokespeople who sell the concept that beauty is skin deep.  In the above scenario, the TV saturated senior citizen glued to reruns of Murder She Wrote or, worse, Fox News is less likely than the sober-minded 30-something social worker in providing good advice.

On the other hand, some old soul who has experienced an intense, widely travelled existence, who has weathered childhood, young adulthood, parenthood, widowhood, disease, exaltation, depression, and compassion should be treasured, the way I treasure the planet’s greatest novelist of the last quarter of the previous century.  I’m talking about my man, Gabo, i.e., Gabriel Garcia Marquez.  And when that old soul transformed his experience into a novel, what we got (and get) is not a concoction, but a revelation, the embodiment of wisdom.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez, his wide Mercedes, and their two sons in Barcelona, c. 1960

A late novel, Love in the Time of Cholera, offers a case in point.  Ostensibly, the narrative explores an incurable romantic’s life.  Quixotic Florentino Ariza has had a lifelong fixation on an instantaneous infatuation, which, as far as I can determine, has only resulted in one happy ending (see La Comedia Divina).  Love in the Time of Cholera depicts long-lived lives in which wisdom alchemizes from the dross of life, particularly the life of Fermina Daza Urbino, who stands out as one of the greatest female characters of the last fifty years.  Here she is via free indirect speech (in Edith Grossman’s translation) thinking of her dead husband:

For now she understood him better than when he was alive, she understood the yearning of his love, the urgent need he felt to find in her security that seemed the mainstay of his public life and that in reality he never possessed.  One day, at the height of her desperation, she had shouted at him:  “You don’t understand how unhappy I am.”  Unperturbed, he took off his eyeglasses with a characteristic gesture, he flooded her with the transparent waters of his childlike eyes, and in a single phrase he burdened her with the weight of his unbearable wisdom: “Always remember that the most important thing in a good marriage is not happiness, but stability.”  With the first loneliness of her widowhood she had understood that the phrase did not conceal the miserable threat that she attributed to it at the time, but was the lodestone that had given them so many happy hours.

Here are Florentino Ariza and Fermina Daza finally consummating their love in their seventies, a scene that no doubt would send most of my current students to the medicine cabinet for some Dramamine:

She took him to the bedroom and, with the lights on, began to undress without false modesty.  Florentino Ariza was on the bed, lying on his back and trying to gain control, once again not knowing what to do with the skin of the tiger he had slain.  She said, “Don’t look.” He asked why without taking his eyes off the ceiling.

“Because you won’t like it,”  she said.

Then he looked at her and saw her naked to her waist, just as he had imagined her.  Her shoulders were wrinkled, her breasts sagged, her ribs were covered by flabby skin as pale and cold as a frogs [. . .]

It was the first time she had made love in twenty years, and she had been held back by her curiosity how it would feel after so long a respite, but he had not given her time to find out if her body loved him too.  It had been hurried and sad, and she thought: Now we’ve screwed everything up.  But she was wrong: despite the disappointment that each of them felt, despite his regret for his clumsiness and her remorse for the madness of the anisette, they were not apart for a moment in the days that followed [. . .] They did not try to make love again to much later, when the inspiration came to them without looking for it.  They were satisfied with the simple joy of being together.

Carpe diem indeed!

 

How Not to Teach “The Most Dangerous Game”

The first lesson I remember teaching in high school was the Richard Connell’s “The Most Dangerous Game,” one of the most idiotic short stories ever written.  Not only does plot pull the plug on your “suspension of disbelief,”[1] but also the prose is as bad as grammatical prose can be.

For example,

“You’ve good eyes,” said Whitney, with a laugh, “and I’ve seen you pick off a moose moving in the brown fall bush at four hundred yards, but even you can’t see four miles or so through a moonless Caribbean night.”

Girls and boys, this is called exposition, background information, and, of course, no one talks like that.

“Hi, Judy, your balding husband of twelve years has arrived home after teaching high school English to a group of high achieving, mostly upper-income adolescents who live in and about the city where the Civil War began!  How about rustling me up a Heineken, stay-at-home mom, since it’s 1985 and feminism hasn’t kicked in yet down here?”

Actually, the late Lawrence Perrine put the story first in his text Literature, Sound, and Sense to demonstrate why commercial fiction shouldn’t be taken seriously.  Of course, most of the kids liked the story before I began my butchering.  You got clearly defined good and evil, not to mention “Malay Mancatchers” and “Burmese Tiger pits.”  My method was to mock the story in the mode of stand up comedian, to act out some of the scenes.

The plot goes like this. Sanford Rainsford, an American big game hunter, is talking on a yacht in the Caribbean about how he has no sympathy for the prey he pursues.  Happily, in an act of idiocy that could land him a Darwin Award nomination, he falls overboard.

[After hearing gunfire,] Rainsford sprang up and moved quickly to the rail, mystified.  He strained his eyes in the direction from which the report had come, but it was like trying to see though a blanket.  He leapt upon the rail [as if that would help] and balanced himself there, to get greater elevation; his pipe, striking a rope, was knocked from his mouth.  He lunged for it; a short, hoarse cry came from his lips as he realized he had reached too far and had lost his balance. The cry was pinched off short as the blood-warm waters of the Caribbean Sea closed over his head.

As he swims toward Shipwreck Island, he hears more gunplay, and we’re treated to perhaps the most ludicrous dialogue prompt in the history of world literature:

“Pistol shot,” muttered Rainsford, swimming on. [Here I pantomime an Australian crawl, and as my head emerges from the water I mutter “pistol shot” and then continue swimming].

As it turns out, Shipwreck Island is the home of proto Bond villain General Zaroff, a Russian aristocrat so cartoonish he makes Boris Badenov from Bullwinkle look like Fyodor Paviovich Karamazov.

Rainsford makes it to the island, manages to sleep on the beach until “late afternoon” and begins to engage in Cartesian interpretations of physical nature:

“Where there are pistol shots, there are men.  Where there are men, there is food,” he thought.

He discovers some human footprints that lead to General Zaroff’s compound.  Oddly, Rainsford loses confidence in his powers of observation, like maybe he’s flashing back on some windowpane acid he dropped back at Yale after WW1.

“Mirage,” thought Rainsford. But it was no mirage, he found, when he opened the tall spiked gate.

Whew!

At the door he’s greeted by Ivan, Zaroff’s henchman, “ a gigantic creature, solidly made and black-bearded to the waist.”

ZZ Top meets Andre the Giant.

Rainsford is conducted to a room where “Ivan had laid out an evening suit.”  As he puts it on, Rainsford notices “that it came from a London tailor who ordinarily cut and sewed for none below the rank of duke.”

Oh, those were the days.

Zaroff serves Rainsford a vague meal consisting of unspecified “cocktails” and “a particularly well cooked fillet mignon.”  Was it cooked to perfection or cooked well done? Who knows?

As it turns out, the tables are turned on Rainsford.  Zaroff’s hobby is hunting human beings, i.e., “the most dangerous game.”

When Rainsford voices outrage at the concept of hunting humans, Zaroff replies, “I refuse to believe that so modern and civilized young man as you seem to be harbors romantic ideas about the value of human life.”

Boo! Hiss!

The game doesn’t seem all that fair to this non-hunter.  Ivan supplies Rainsford with hunting clothes, food, and a knife whereas Zaroff gets a pack of hounds, Ivan, and an armory of high-powered weaponry.  If Rainsford manages to elude his predator for three days, he’ll be placed “on a the mainland near a town.”  Zaroff adds, “I will give you my word of honor as a gentleman and sportsman.”

So now the fun really begins.  As Zaroff tracks Rainsford through the jungle, Rainsford engages in the very un-Darwinian habit of talking out loud to himself.

“I will not lose my nerve, I will not.”

Cat and mouse. Rainsford fashions a “Maylay man-catcher” and – the highlight of the story for me — a Burmese Tiger Pit.

Rainsford “stepped back from the quicksand a dozen feet or so, and like some huge prehistoric beaver, he began to dig.”

A Beaver!  Why a beaver?  Remember studying about pre-historic beavers the size of mastadons? I don’t.

Of course, good triumphs over evil. Trapped at the end of the story, Rainsford jumps off a cliff, presumably to his death.

Here’s how it ends.

When the general and his pack reached the place by the sea, the Cossack stopped. For some minutes he stood regarding the blue-green expanse of water. He shrugged his shoulders. Then be sat down, took a drink of brandy from a silver flask, lit a cigarette, and hummed a bit from Madame Butterfly.

General Zaroff had an exceedingly good dinner in his great paneled dining hall that evening. With it he had a bottle of Pol Roger and half a bottle of Chambertin. Two slight annoyances kept him from perfect enjoyment. One was the thought that it would be difficult to replace Ivan; the other was that his quarry had escaped him; of course, the American hadn’t played the game–so thought the general as he tasted his after-dinner liqueur. In his library he read, to soothe himself, from the works of Marcus Aurelius. At ten he went up to his bedroom. He was deliciously tired, he said to himself, as he locked himself in. There was a little moonlight, so, before turning on his light, he went to the window and looked down at the courtyard. He could see the great hounds, and he called, “Better luck another time,” to them. Then he switched on the light.

A man, who had been hiding in the curtains of the bed, was standing there.

“Rainsford!” screamed the general. “How in God’s name did you get here?”

“Swam,” said Rainsford. “I found it quicker than walking through the jungle.”

The general sucked in his breath and smiled. “I congratulate you,” he said. “You have won the game.”

Rainsford did not smile. “I am still a beast at bay,” he said, in a low, hoarse voice. “Get ready, General Zaroff.”

The general made one of his deepest bows. “I see,” he said. “Splendid! One of us is to furnish a repast for the hounds. The other will sleep in this very excellent bed. On guard, Rainsford.” . . .

He had never slept in a better bed, Rainsford decided.

So that’s it. Rainsford puts on his pajamas and falls asleep in Zaroff’s bed.

The end, no contemplation of what he’d just experienced.  Let’s hope he loots the joint or at least cops that duke grade tuxedo.


[1]This is Coleridge’s term for our willingness to allow magic carpets to defy Newtonian physics for the sake of the story. However, we readers (or movie watchers) will tolerate only so much.  Cf. Mystery Science Theater 3000.

Brief Birdsweet Cries

matisseulysses2

One of Matisse’s illustrations for the 1934 edition of Ulysses

Fleeing Folly for Thanksgiving, I spent the four-hour drive to Greensboro, Georgia, listening to Donal Donnelly reading Joyce’s Ulysses, a book that should be heard not read, or at least read aloud.

Joyce possessies the best ear of any prose writer ever.

Dig this, from Episode 1, “Telemachus”:

 I AM THE BOY

THAT CAN ENJOY

INVISIBILITY.

Phantasmal mirth, folded away: muskperfumed.

AND NO MORE TURN ASIDE AND BROOD.

And now this from Episode 3, “Proteus”:

He lay back at full stretch over the sharp rocks, cramming the scribbled note and pencil into a pocket, his hat tilted down on his eyes. That is Kevin Egan’s movement I made nodding for his nap, sabbath sleep. Et vidit Deus. Et erant valde bona. Alo! Bonjour, welcome as the flowers in May. Under its leaf he watched through peacocktwittering lashes the southing sun. I am caught in this burning scene. Pan’s hour, the faunal noon. Among gumheavy serpentplants, milkoozing fruits, where on the tawny waters leaves lie wide. Pain is far.

And no more turn aside and brood.

His gaze brooded on his broadtoed boots, a buck’s castoffs nebeneinander: He counted the creases of rucked leather wherein another’s foot had nested warm. The foot that beat the ground in tripudium, foot I dislove. But you were delighted when Esther Osvalt’s shoe went on you: girl I knew in Paris. Tiens, quel petit pied! Staunch friend, a brother soul: Wilde’s love that dare not speak its name. He now will leave me. And the blame? As I am. As I am. All or not at all.

Yeats’s “Who Goes with Fergus” is stuck in his head like a catchy tune. His mind animates the world around him.  You listen and enter that world, a world come alive, a better world.

It’s so addictive I feel like getting in the car and driving around this lovely late-autumn neighborhood to hear the lilt of the words in my failing ears.

He capered before them down towards the forty-foot hole, fluttering his winglike hands, leaping nimbly, Mercury’s hat quivering in the fresh wind that bore back to them his brief birdsweet cries.

donal donnelly

Donal Donnerly

A Thing Called Perception: A Review of “Portraits of a Marriage” by Sándor Márai

[…] all that we behold

From this green earth; of all the mighty world

Of eye, and ear,—both what they half create,

And what perceive.

Wordsworth, “Tintern Abbey”

 

Whether your sunglasses are off or on

You only see the world you make.

John Hiatt, “A Thing Called Love”


I’ve just finished at a former student’s strident insistence the Hungarian novelist Sándor Márai’s last work, Portraits of a Marriage. I don’t know if we lose something in the translation of the title, but the narrative might more accurately be dubbed: Satellites of Love or Chain, Chain, Chain of Partners or A Sociological Study of Class Relationships in Hungary from 1930 – 1950.[1]

The thing is that no title can do justice to the mighty compression of meaning that the novel holds. Divided into four parts, the narrative unfolds in the style of a Robert Browning dramatic monologue, with each section narrated by a different character. We are in a concrete setting, a bar or bed, and along with us there is someone listening to a monologue, but we never hear that person speak. Instead, we get remarks like: “Sorry . . . What did you say? Why I started weeping when I saw him just now?”

This auditory technique may be off-putting in a culture dominated by visual imagery where we expect cinematic quick cutting, and I admit the conceit does add a bit too much ballast to suspension of disbelief; however, the articulation of the perceptions of the first three monologists is at once meaningful and conversational.[2]

It begins in Budapest between the wars. Here is Ilonka, the first wife of Peter, an industrialist, describing to a female companion her reaction to finding a decades-old love token in her husband’s wallet, a token that predates her relationship with him:

And now I knew that whatever wonderful or terrible things were happening in the world, it was pointless to accuse myself of selfishness, lack of faith, lack of humility, pointless comparing my problems to those of the world of nations, the problems of millions suffering their various tragedies, because there was nothing I could do – selfish and petty as I was, obsessed and blind as I was – except to get out on the street and search out the woman I had to confront face-to-face, the woman I had to talk to. I had to see her, to hear her voice, look in her eyes, examine her skin, her brow, her hands.

We can’t blame Peter for fleeing such suffocating obsession, and in the second section he tells a colleague what that first marriage was like and how he fared in his second marriage to a servant girl of his household named Judit, the girl who had given him that token, a peasant who literally grew up in a ditch. In England, after she leaves the household, she transforms herself into a highly credible Pygmalion-like creature who knows which fork to pick up. Upon her return, Peter defies social convention and marries this underclassling.[3]

Here is Peter describing the object of his obsession:

It wasn’t a “lady” or a glittering socialite I yearned for. I hoped for a woman with whom I could share a lonely life. But she was terrifying ambitious [. . .] wanting to conquer and take occupation of the world.

The only things she fears is

[h]er own hypersensitivity to offense, some mortal wound to the pride glowing in the depths of her life, her very being. That was what she was afraid of, and everything she did by word, silence, and deed was a form of defense against it. It was something I could never understand.

So what we have here is the Rashomon effect, contradictory accounts of the same event. In the course of these dialogues a quarter of a century passes; we see the class stratification of Hungary before the war, Budapest’s leveling during the war, and its Soviet occupation after the war. All of our principals but Ilonka become ex-pats.

It’s Judit who devours the narrative scenery, talking to her latest lover, a jazz drummer whose stage name is Ede. They’re in Rome in a hotel bed after one of his gigs.  Judit possesses the most experience, having risen from abject poverty to enormous wealth. She’s the least socially conditioned one, and she is able to look upon the events of her life with a sort of anthropological detachment:

High culture, it seems, is not just a matter of museums but something you find in people’s bathrooms and kitchens where others cook for them. Their way of life did not change, not a bit, not even during the siege, would you believe it? While everyone was eating beans or peas, they were still opening tins of delicacies from abroad, goose liver from Strasbourg and such things. There was a woman in the cellar, who spent three weeks there […] on a diet, a diet she maintained even when the bombs were falling. She was looking after her figure, cooking some tasty something on a spirit flame using only olive oil because she feared that the fat in the beans and gristle everyone else stuffed themselves with out of fear and anxiety might lead her to put on weight! Whenever I get to thinking about it, I marvel what a strange thing this thing called culture is.

There is one other character, Lazar, who doesn’t get his own monologue but who appears in every section. He’s a writer, perhaps Márai’s alter ego. Of course, I identify with him because, not only is he bald, but he’s also a pessimist (and who wouldn’t be scrounging around a bombed out city).  He has several quotable passages throughout, but I’m going to have Judit describe him instead of having him speak for himself:

What’s that? Was he a snob? Of course, he was, among other things, a snob. He couldn’t stand being helped because he was solitary and a snob. Later I understood that there was something under this snobbish manner of his. He was protecting something, trying to preserve a culture. It’s not funny. I expect you’re thinking of those olives. That’s why you laughing? We proles, we don’t really get the idea of “culture,” sweetheart. We think it’s a matter of being able to quote things, of being fussy, of not spitting on the floor or belching when we’re eating, that kind of thing. But that’s not culture; it’s not a matter of reading and learning facts. It’s not even learning to behave. It’s something else. It was the other idea of culture he was wanting to protect. He didn’t want me to help him because he no longer believed in people.

As I was reading through the individual sections, I found myself put off by these people’s egocentricities, their obsessiveness, but once I got halfway through Judit’s monologue, the cumulative effect suddenly came upon me like revelation. What we have here is a deep meditation on love, loneliness, obsession, culture, family, and perhaps most profoundly, the limitations of personal observation.  The gulf between these people’s perceptions of themselves and others’ perceptions of them is an unbridgeable breach.

This might not be a great novel – I won’t judge until a second reading – but if you’ve reached this final sentence, you’re likely to find it worth your while.


[1] In Spanish the title translates into “The Righteous Woman”

[2] The 4th narrator Ede, a jazz drummer-cum-bartender, lives in “a pad.”

[3] Let’s not forget that Hunagry in the early part of the previous century was not L.A. I can’t come up with a good analogy. Prince Phillip marrying Billie Holiday?

Sándor Márai as a child

Trump Channels Lear and Caesar in Summer Stock

image via NY Times of Central Park performance of Julius Caesar

About a month ago, I posted a piece imagining Shakespeare writing a play about Trump’s presidency.

In that post, I suggested that Shakespeare would begin his Trump play with the inauguration speech, jazzing up clunkers like “for many decades we’ve enriched foreign industry at the expense of American industry;/ Subsidized the armies of other countries while allowing for the very sad depletion of our military” with some thumping blank verse that foreshadows an upcoming shitshow.

Interestingly enough – call it synchronicity or cultural convergence – Shakespeare’s and Trump’s names have been linked at least twice this week. First, the Public Theater’s Central Park production has spray-painted, as it were, the tragic protagonist of Julius Caesar an obvious shade of Trumpian orange.

Via Jesse Green of the Times:

The line “If Caesar had stabbed their mothers, they would have done no less” has been updated by the insertion of the words “on Fifth Avenue” before the comma.

This production, not surprisingly, has generated controversy. Some on the right, people ignorant of the play, suggest that this version endorsees the assassination of Trump.[1] However, Shakespeare’s staging a pro-regicide play in Elizabethan England would be the equivalent of someone painting an obscene mural of Mohammad and Salman Rushdie in flagrante delicto on the side of a building in Tehran.

In other words, not a good idea for the non-suicidal.

In fact, Julius Caesar dramatizes the disastrous effects of the assassination, not only for the conspirators themselves, but also, more significantly, for the state of Rome.

Even though I’m no fan of violence, it is sort of fun imagining Republican cabinet plotting and carrying out an assassination on stage.

Et Tu, Jeff Sessions?

Speaking of Trump’s cabinet, no doubt you’ve read about or seen the cringe-worthy abasement Trump subjected his minions to in his first cabinet meeting when he forced them to utter what an honor it was to serve him, what a privilege, etc.

In other words, he reconstructed the opening scene of King Lear, the greatest and most awful of Shakespeare’s tragedy.

Compare these two clips.

It’s even more fun – at least for me – casting a Trumpian Lear – with Ivanka as Goneril, Eric Trump as Regan, and poor Tiffany as Cordelia. Maybe Dennis Miller or PJ O’Rourke as the Fool? Jared as Edmund?

PaulScholfieldAlecMcCowen

Bring it on, Chris Marino.


[1] Delta and the Bank of America have withdrawn financial backing. However, no one seemed to mind that Bob Melrose staged an Obama as Caesar production in 2012 that you nor I ever heard about at all.