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Loneliness as a trait of character

April 20, 2013 15 comments

L’histoire d’une solitude by Milán Füst 1956 (Egy magány története) Translated by Sophie Aude. No English translation found. (I even twitted to George Szirtes to ask if he knew any but he doesn’t)

Fust_Milan_solitudeI’d never heard of Milán Füst before stumbling upon this novel in a bookstore, which again points how much we need brick-and-mortar bookstores to discover new writers. Milán Füst (1888 – 1967) is a Jewish Hungarian writer. Imagine what he’s been through during his life: like a Frenchman a century before, he has lived under several political regimes. He was born in Austria-Hungary, after WWI, it collapsed; he lived through the 1920s, the 1930s, WWII and communism. I wonder how someone can cope with all the changes. For the record, Füst was friend with Dezső Kosztolányi and Frigyes Karinthy. (I haven’t read Karinthy but he wrote a novel entitled Reportage céleste (de notre envoyé spécial au paradis) in other words, Celestial Report (from our special correspondent in paradise). Doesn’t it sound marvellous?) Füst is famous enough in his country to have a literary prize named after him and be seen as a Nobel Prize candidate in 1965. Füst’s most famous novel is A Story of my Wife, which is available in English, unlikeA Story of a Solitude.

Vendel Probst is the hero of A Story of a Solitude. He’s our narrator and relates some events of his life during the 1910s. He lives in Pest, not yet united with Buda. As the novel opens, Vendel is living with his mother when a young woman knocks at their door. She says her name is Erzsébet Lakos-Lőwy and that she’s coming on behalf of a mutual friend. She needs money. The Probsts believe her and give her the money only to realize later they’ve been conned. However, the young woman was enchanting and her image lingered in young Vendel’s memory. At his age, he’s never been in love and he dreams of falling in love:

Il aurait fallu chercher quelqu’un que j’aurais enfin pu aimer vraiment, et sans tracas ni entrave…Je caressais le rêve d’un amour léger et vaporeux, qui ne pèserait pas, se répandrait au contraire dans un cœur comme touché par le rayon du soleil, d’un amour qui coulerait tout transparent et tendre comme le miel. Mais qui a jamais rien connu de tel ? je savais bien déjà que pareil amour n’existe pas. I should have looked for someone I could really love, no strings attached…I caressed the dream of a misty and light love, a love which would have no weight, which would spread in a heart as if touched by a sunbeam. I dreamed of a love that would flow crystal clear and sweet as honey. But who has ever experienced that? I knew already that such a love didn’t exist.

After graduating from university where he studied painting, Vendel works in a museum; he’s a specialist of Caravaggio. During WWI he joins the army and has not been sent to the front yet when he enters into a fight with a captain. Both are judged, the captain is sent to the front and Vendel is punished. As he fell ill, he’s transfered to the hospital. And, who does he find working there as a secretary? Erzsébet! Only she says she’s Teréz now. Imaginative as he is, he soon thinks himself in love and his feelings are returned since Teréz pulls strings to liberate him. They don’t get married but live together in Vendel’s apartment and he gets his old job back in the museum.

I think A Story of a Solitude is a coming-age-novel. It’s partly based upon Füst’s life – he was 22 in 1910; Vendel is the same age as Füst and there are probably similarities between young Füst and Vendel. In the foreword, Péter Esterházy mentions that Füst reported to a friend an incident with a young woman similar to the first encounter between Erzsébet and Vendel. The relationship between Vendel and Teréz is interesting but not in itself. It’s the Ariadne’s clew that holds the novel together. I thought that Füst mostly intended to relate how Vendel turned into a man.

Vendel has a formidable mother, both Jewish and German in her education. The mix is so powerful, especially in the absence of a father, that it’s almost lethal. When Vendel’s mother moves to Vienna with her new husband, Vendel stays behind in Pest and enjoys his freedom. She’s the usual Jewish mother in her way to keep in touch with her son but without the overwhelming love. She’s attentive, protective but her German side tempers her displays of affection. Her principles are rather rigid; falling in love is to be avoided; studying Caravaggio is not a serious occupation…She’s controlling and steps in if she thinks her son goes overboard according to her values. Vendel tries to break free and even if he’s in his twenties, he acts as a rebellious adolescent:

Il est vrai que je m’étais toujours plus à scandaliser ma mère, c’est un vice que j’ai depuis longtemps. Car elle savait bien, par-dessus le marché, que je vivais avec quelqu’un. Il était en effet impossible qu’elle ne sache pas tout sur moi, puisqu’elle me faisait en effet surveiller, se faisait envoyer des rapports à mon sujet, — mais j’y reviendrai plus tard. It is true that I always enjoyed shocking my mother, it’s a vice I’ve had for a long time. Because she knew very well, to top it off, that I was living with someone. Indeed, it was impossible that she didn’t know everything about me since I was under surveillance and she had someone send her reports about me, — but I’ll come to that later. 

Needless to say that Teréz is not marriage material in the eyes of Vendel’s mother.

During this formative decade, Vendel will also see his character settle. He knows more about himself, his likes and dislikes and forms an opinion about his personality. He comes to the conclusion that solitude and imagination are the two roots of his self.

Lorsque que je me suis assis pour écrire cette histoire, j’ai longtemps délibéré pour savoir quel serait son titre. Je voulus d’abord l’intituler Histoire de chien, mais je le remplace maintenant par Histoire d’une solitude, c’est ce que je viens d’écrire tout en haut, car c’est bien de cela qu’il est question, et de rien d’autre. De ce que seules la solitude et l’imagination, rien de plus, sont faites pour moi. C’est triste, mais c’est ainsi. When I sat down to write this story, I pondered a long time to find its title. First, I wanted to entitle it The Story of a Dog but now I replace it by The Story of a Solitude. It’s what I just wrote at the top, because that’s what it is about and nothing else. About how only solitude and imagination agree with me and nothing else. It’s sad but so it goes.

He refuels on his own and needs time to let his imagination wander. After he settled this, he’s more at peace and able to live his life.

I also enjoyed this book as it shows another side of Hungary than the one in Kosztolányi’s novels. In Skylark (1923), you’re in Hungary. People speak Hungarian, eat Hungarian and live among themselves. It’s a mono-cultural environment. In A Story of a Solitude, you’re in Austria-Hungary. Vendel’s mother is probably of Austrian origin and moves to Vienna with her new husband; the officers in the army are mostly Austrians. The dialogues are full of German words (not translated, and I suppose they were in German in the original Hungarian text). A few samples of his lively prose:

Was heisst das ? Seulement. Qu’est-ce que c’est seulement ? Vous avez de drôles de façons de parler, vous, Hongrois.  Was heisst das ? Only. What’s only ? You have strange ways of speaking, you, Hungarians.
Pouah ! Popanz ! Doch eine Schweinerei. Continuez à dessiner.  Pouah ! Popanz ! Doch eine Schweinerei. Keep on drawing.
Schon wieder etwas. Avec toi, il faut toujours s’attendre aux pires complications  Schon wieder etwas. With you, I expect the worse complications.

It gives back the cosmopolitan atmosphere of the city but also the domination of Austrian over Hungarians. You can imagine the sound of different conversations in the streets in German or in Hungarian. Beside the mixed languages, the text is also full of thoughts about life, spiced up with a good sense of humour.

Pour être plus précis, il semble que quiconque connaît bien la vie et y a bien réfléchi soit capable de rire aussi froidement, même si c’est à sa propre existence ou à sa propre mort qu’il pense. More precisely, it seems that anyone who knows life well enough and has thoroughly thought about it is capable of laughing so coldly, even if they think about their own existence or their own death.  

The fight between Vendel and the captain, the young woman reminded me of Lermontov. I had the feeling that Füst wanted to root his work in the Russian literary tradition. Furthermore, I know I’m more than obsessed but again, after reading this book written by a Jewish man from Central Europe, I can feel how much this cultural background influenced Gary’s writing.

Eventually, I’ll leave the last words of this billet to Vendel:

Et il y avait encore beaucoup d’autres choses. Mais ce n’est quand même pas possible de tout raconter. On n’aurait assez ni de poumon, ni de tristesse. And there were lots of other things. But it’s not possible to tell everything. One wouldn’t have enough lungs or sadness for that.
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