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Many a true word is spoken in jest

March 14, 2015 16 comments

L’Epouse rebelle (1934) by Zsigmond Móricz (1879-1942). Translated into French by Suzanne Horvath. Not available in English (I think) Original title: Az asszony beleszol, which means “She says” according to Google Translate.

Zsigmond MóriczImre and Ilonka Vigh are a young married couple in Budapest. The book starts on March 28th, 1933. Imre is a journalist of what we call in French the “faits-divers”. There’s no exact translation of that word in English, I think. It means that Imre writes articles about odd stories, murders, conjugal disputes and various accidents. He’s often out late at night, chasing stories for the newspapers he works for. Of course, Ilonka doesn’t work and spends all her time in their apartment, cleaning, cooking and waiting for him to come home. The country, like the rest of the world, is in a deep economic crisis. Ilonka juggles with money and indeed, money is a central character of this falsely humoristic novel.

The novel opens on a special night where Imre witnesses something intriguing in his own building and starts investigating to dig out a juicy story. That same night he receives four free tickets to go to the theatre. When he comes home, he says to Ilonka that they should go and invite her aunt and cousin who help them financially. It’s a way to thank them for their generosity.

Ilonka immediately points out that they don’t have the money for this evening at this time of month. Indeed, the tickets are free but they would still have to pay for the tramway to go there, the cloakroom at the theatre and sweets for the family. Despite Imre’s wishes, she decides to offer the tickets to a neighbor, Mrs Véghely, so that they don’t go to waste. What seems like a nice gesture is actually a poisonous gift since the Véghelys face the same problem as the Vighs: they don’t have the money for all the side expenses attached to going to the theatre. The tickets make their way to the Schultheiszes. The husband is a civil servant, he should have the money. But are they really better off? Follows a comedy in the apartment building where women meet and try to place these tickets somewhere.

It is funny to witness the circus created by these four free tickets. But it allows us readers to enter the homes of several families in the apartment building. It is mostly occupied by bourgeois families and we discover everything through the wives’ point of views. Zsigmond Móricz discloses the tricks they use to save money, the consequences of the crisis on families from all social circles. The story of the tickets that nobody wants is a pretext to show a society that has reached the end of its rope. What should be an opportunity –free tickets—turns into a nightmare. These tickets aren’t a gift anymore but a burden because money is so tight that finding the cash to cover the extra-expenses to enjoy the evening requires too much energy. And at the same time, they have too much pride to cut-off these expenses and see the play without the extras. Zsigmond Móricz mocks these bourgeois who are too attached to their social status to see how ridiculous they are.

All the families struggle with money and it weakens the husbands’ place in the family and in society. They’re used to having all the power for being the provider and protector of the family. They also run the State and the institutions. The wives accepted their position in the household as natural. Husband and wife had a role and they played by the rules. As the economic crisis lasts and worms its way in every aspect of their lives and as the end of the tunnel is yet to be seen, the wives start questioning their husbands’ “natural” position in society. They go down from their pedestal: they don’t know how to solve the crisis, they don’t know how to keep or improve their income and they fail to provide for their family. So why should they rely on them? Why should the wives accept their submissive position? They start to rebel.

L’Epouse rebelle would make an excellent film: it is a situation comedy with twists and turns, misunderstandings and funny dialogues. And yet it shows a realistic vision of the crisis. Some passages are painfully contemporary like this one:

– Les jeunes gens d’aujourd’hui n’ont ni emploi ni avenir. A trente ans, ils ne travaillent pas encore. Un technicien diplômé a trente-deux ans et il n’a pas encore gagné un sou ; de notre temps un homme de trente-deux ans occupait déjà un poste de dirigeant, on le prenait presque pour un homme âgé.

– Et ça ne changera jamais ?

– Crois-moi, Gizi, ici il n’y a aucune perspective.

– Tu seras d’accord avec moi : on supporte n’importe quoi, à condition de pouvoir espérer un meilleur avenir pour ses enfants, mais sinon ?…

– Tout ce qu’on peut faire, c’est les pousser dans les études. Mais quand un garçon ne trouve pas de travail, ce sera bien pire encore pour les filles.

– Young men have no job and no future. At thirty, they don’t work yet. A technician with a diploma is thirty-two and has never earned money. In our time, a thirty-two year old man had already a managing position. He was almost an old man.

– And it will never change?

– Believe me, Gizi, here, there’s no perspective.

– You’ll agree with me: we can bear anything as long as we can hope a better future for our children. But otherwise?…

– All you can do is push them to study. But when a boy doesn’t find a job, it will be even worse for girls.

Or this one, where a housekeeper talks with Ilonka:

– L’argent…Çui qui veut du pain, la ville lui en donne à gogo. On le distribue par kilo ou par deux kilos…Et il suffit d’aller à la soupe populaire pour avoir des déjeuners comme c’est pas croyable. Il ne faut rien d’autre pour les avoir que d’être en chômage. Moi, Madame, j’y ai pas droit, parce que moi, je travaille.

– Mais ne vous montrez pas si cruelle. On leur en donne parce qu’ils sont dans le besoin. N’enviez pas un tel pain.

– Pourquoi ? J’suis pas dans le besoin, peut-être ? C’est justement mon malheur. Comment que je peux leur expliquer qu’entre mon mari et un chômeur, c’est du pareil au même ?

– Money…If someone wants bread, the city gives him as much as he wants. It’s given away in kilos…You just have to go to the soup kitchen to have incredible lunches. You need nothing else that to be unemployed to have them. Me, I can’t have them because I work.

– Don’t be so cruel. They give them bread because they’re in need. Don’t be envious of such bread.

– Why not? Am I not in need too? That’s my misfortune. How can I explain that between my husband and an unemployed person, it’s all the same?

Sounds familiar, eh? It reminds me of many discussions I’ve heard about poor workers and workers who earn just enough to be above thresholds to receive social benefits but still struggle to make ends meet. It’s a bit disheartening to discover something like that in a novel from the 1930s, especially when you know where this economic crisis led Europe.

In the foreword of the book, they say Zsigmond Móricz could have immigrated to the United States. He chose to stay in Hungary and write about the life there. His tone is light but his lightness is deceitful. Many a true word is spoken in jest could be the symbol of this book that uses comedy to describe a very serious economic situation for the population of Budapest.

I heard about L’Epouse rebelle on the French blog Passage à L’Est. Thanks Bénédicte, that was a find.

This review is my first contribution to Stu’s Eastern European Lit Month.

 

 

Steinbeck’s famous quote about Route 66

October 21, 2014 2 comments

route_66

HIGHWAY 661 is the main migrant road. 66—the long concrete path across the country, waving gently up and down on the map, from Mississippi to Bakersfield—over the red lands and the gray lands, twisting up into the mountains, crossing the Divide and down into the bright and terrible desert, and across the desert to the mountains again, and into the rich California valleys. 66 is the path of a people in flight, refugees from dust and shrinking land, from the thunder of tractors and shrinking ownership, from the desert’s slow northward invasion, from the twisting winds that howl up out of Texas, from the floods that bring no richness to the land and steal what little richness is there. From all of these the people are in flight, and they come into 66 from the tributary side roads, from the wagon tracks and the rutted country roads. 66 is the mother road, the road of flight. Clarksville and Ozark and Van Buren and Fort Smith on 64, and there’s an end of Arkansas. And all the roads into Oklahoma City, 66 down from Tulsa, 270 up from McAlester. 81 from Wichita Falls south, from Enid north. Edmond, McLoud, Purcell. 66 out of Oklahoma City; El Reno and Clinton, going west on 66. Hydro, Elk City, and Texola; and there’s an end to Oklahoma. 66 across the Panhandle of Texas. Shamrock and McLean, Conway and Amarillo, the yellow. Wildorado and Vega and Boise, and there’s an end of Texas. Tucumcari and Santa Rosa and into the New Mexican mountains to Albuquerque, where the road comes down from Santa Fe. Then down the gorged Rio Grande to Los Lunas and west again on 66 to Gallup, and there’s the border of New Mexico. And now the high mountains. Holbrook and Winslow and Flagstaff in the high mountains of Arizona. Then the great plateau rolling like a ground swell. Ashfork and Kingman and stone mountains again, where water must be hauled and sold. Then out of the broken sun-rotted mountains of Arizona to the Colorado, with green reeds on its banks, and that’s the end of Arizona. There’s California just over the river, and a pretty town to start it. Needles, on the river. But the river is a stranger in this place. Up from Needles and over a burned range, and there’s the desert. And 66 goes on over the terrible desert, where the distance shimmers and the black center mountains hang unbearably in the distance. At last there’s Barstow, and more desert until at last the mountains rise up again, the good mountains, and 66 winds through them. Then suddenly a pass, and below the beautiful valley, below orchards and vineyards and little houses, and in the distance a city. And, oh, my God, it’s over.


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