Sunday 5 March 2017

The General and the Guest

Tish, Monkey and I descended on London yesterday with a couple of hundred thousand other people to protest the destruction of the NHS. In its nearly 70 years the National Health Service has provided cradle to grave care for the people of Britain; it is a straightforward redistribution of resources that allows ordinary people to go through life without the threat of ill health and destitution hanging over them. It seems bloody obvious that it has been a huge benefit to both the people and the economy of this country but its systematic dismantling by successive governments in recent years has slowly undermined the founding principles. Nye Bevan must be spinning in his grave.

It was a long coach ride there and back again, and 4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is a very heavy book that I didn't want to carry around with me all day, so I found 'Embers' by Sándor Márai on the TBR shelf and had consumed it by the time we got home. A Hungarian writer who moved the America in 1948 his work has not been translated until much more recently. 'Embers' is the story of two men, Henrik and Konrad, one the wealthy son of the Officer of the Guards, the other the son a Spanish Baron reduced to penury to support his son's education. A friendship forged in military school becomes a lifelong bond, broken, some 41 years before this tale unfolds, by Konrad's abrupt disappearance. The aged General sends the carriage for his oldest friend and they dine together one last time as blue candles burn down, flickering light on the room that is untouched since their previous meal in the company of Krisztina. 

This is a beautiful, intimate book about a friendship, but also about friendship itself, that the General talks about at length. Mostly the General talks, I did not feel that we got to know his Guest much at all, he says very little, but partly he is there so that the General can talk, can expunge the memory of their parting and its consequences. Set in the early years of the Second World War, that is barely mentioned, the book portrays the dying of their era, the end of the way of life that the aristocracy had entertained unchanged for centuries, a life where honour and duty are the guiding principles. The writing in the book captures this era so well, you can almost hear the crunch of the carriage wheels and feel the chill from the abandoned rooms in the neglected castle:

"He got to his feet and stood in front of the sway-bellied white porcelain stove that had once warmed his mother's bedroom. It was a large stove, at least a century old, and it radiated heat like some indolent corpulent gentleman intent on mitigating his own egoism with an easy act of charity." (p.21)  

I loved this piece that felt like a critique of the British; Konrad describing what happens to people when they live 'in the tropics':

"The English know how to defend themselves. They arrive with England in their suitcases. Their courteous arrogance. Their reserve. Their golf courses and tennis courts. Their whiskey. Their evening dress, that they change into every night in their tin-roofed houses out in the middle of the swamps. Not all of them, of course. That's just a legend. Most of them turn brutal after four or five years just like the others, the Belgians, the French, the Dutch. The tropics eat away their college manners the way leprosy eats away skin. Oxford and Cambridge rot down. Back home in the British Isles, everyone who has spent time in the tropics is suspect. They may be respected and honoured, but they are also suspect. I'm convinced that their entries in the security files are annotated with the word 'tropics', the way others would be stamped 'blood disease' or 'spying'." (p.94-5)

After a lot of circling round and reminiscing we finally we get to the issue in hand; Krisztina, the General's wife. I think he is a writer of his era, because he 'others' women, they are not the same as men, virtually another species. He repeatedly talks about how only men understand and experience true friendship. And his wife is this 'thing' that he has. He protests as length that he is not interested in knowing about the nature of their betrayal, but the more he goes on about it the more you know that it does matter to him, even now they are old and Krisztina is long dead. It is as if he knows nothing about women, so he cannot write about her, and as so often in this kind of book she is merely a symbol. It is what it is, and as a reader I think you have to read books within the context of when they were written. But I think that the General does not see that the pride and arrogance that are his inheritance caused his reaction to the betrayal and led to the wasted life he has passed, waiting to get his revenge.

"And I know Krisztina's days and nights, her body and soul, as well as I know my own. It's a crazy notion, that you and Krisztina ... and I am almost relieved when I make myself examine this notion. It must be something else. Whatever happened is deeper, more mysterious, less comprehensible. I have to talk to you. Should I have someone observe you? Like the jealous husband in a comedy? I am not a jealous husband. Suspicion has trouble taking hold in my nervous system, I am calm when I think about Krisztina, whom I found the way a collector finds the prize of his life, the rarest, most perfect object in his collection, the masterpiece, the goal, the meaning of his existence. Krisztina does not lie, Krisztina is not unfaithful, I know all her thoughts, even the secret ones that are thought only in dreams." (p.184-5)

Like 'Expensive People' it is just one side, we never know what Konrad and, much less, Krisztina were thinking and feeling. The General does not even know what it is that he wants. In the moment of betrayal he lost the two people he loved the most. He missed them and longed for them all the rest of his life. It is almost as if he just needed his Guest to listen to the story. Sometimes there can be neither forgiveness nor revenge, there is just the story.

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