Wednesday, September 26, 2012

frame up #003 dezső kosztolányi

Tormented trio, from left to right: 
Géza Csáth, Dezső Kosztolányi  & Dezső Brenner 
(1908, Szabadka - today's Subotica, Serbia)

 (And now outside The Book Grocer, High Street, Northcote)

 4. “Hell is—other people!”

A recent Sunday lunch with my parents brought to mind Jean-Paul Sartre’s play, No Exit (1944; tr. Gilbert) in which three characters are brought to a room at the entrance to Hell where they expect to suffer eternal punishment. While waiting to enter, they begin tormenting one another and come to realise that there is no need for Hell when it is our inter-personal relationships that are the source of all despair. Implicit in this revelation, however, is the fact that although they can be (and often are) hellish, our interactions with others defines us. We can’t do without other people. (There’s no point deluding myself.) Instead of (bitter) tears, the play (and the family lunch) ends with (resigned) laughter:
GARCIN: [Laughs.] So this is hell. I’d never have believed it. You remember all we were told about the torture-chambers, the fire and brimstone . . . Old wives’ tales! There’s no need for red-hot pokers. Hell is—other people!
(ME [groans]: Hell is—family lunches!)
INEZ: Dead! Dead! Dead! Knives, poison, ropes—all useless. It has happened already, do you understand? Once and for all. So here we are, forever. [Laughs.]
(MUM [moans]: Dead! Dead! I wish I was dead! Have some more rice. [Laughs.])
ESTELLE [with a peal of laughter]: Forever. My God, how funny! Forever.
GARCIN [looks at the two women, and joins in the laughter]: For ever, and ever, and ever.
(DAD [looks at Me and Mum and starts laughing]: It’s been this way for ever and ever.)
[They/We slump onto their/our respective sofas. A long silence. Their/our laughter dies away and they/we gaze at each other.]
GARCIN: Well, well, let’s get on with it . . .
(ME: Well, well. Let’s have another beer . . .)
The tormented interactions of a different trio in Hermann Hesse’s Gertrude (1910; tr. Rosner), a novel in the form of a memoir, similarly espouse a fatalistic view of the unavoidable pain and despair entailed in relationships.

Kuhn, a young composer, recounts his troubled relationships with two singers who disrupt without fully dislodging his inherent desire for solitude:
“So strange is the human being that in the midst of my new life and fulfilled wishes, I was sometimes aware of a slight, fleeting, subconscious desire for solitude, for even boring and empty days. It then seemed to me that the time I had spent at home and the dreary uneventful life from which I was glad to escape, was something desirable.”
Though he is drawn out of voluntary isolation when he is befriended by opera singer Heinrich Muoth and when he meets and becomes attracted to singer Gertrude Imthor, Kuhn seeks to return to seclusion when Gertrude marries Heinrich instead.

Brooding and forlorn, Kuhn reveals his desire to return to a life of solitude to his old teacher, Konrad Lohe, who accuses him of suffering from a mental disorder:
“You are suffering from a sickness . . . that one comes across every day amongst sensitive people. It is related to moral insanity and can also be called individualism or imaginary loneliness . . . Those who suffer this illness only need a couple of disappointments to make them believe that there is no link between them and other people, that all people go about in a state of complete loneliness, that they never understand each other, share anything or have anything in common . . .”
“. . . it is pure fiction that there is no bridge between one person and another, that everyone goes about lonely and misunderstood. On the contrary, what people have in common with each other is much more and of greater importance than what each person has in his own nature and which makes him different from others.”
Kuhn submerges his grief, finding solace in inspired creativity by transforming his ordeals into a successful opera:
“. . . the sounds of my overture solemnly rose to me . . . The pleasures and troubles of the past days, the hopes and sleepless nights, the passion and the longing of that period confronted me, detached and transformed. Emotions experienced in secret were transmitted clearly and movingly to a thousand unknown people in the theatre.”
Heinrich and Gertrude’s marriage proves disastrous, confirming Kuhn’s view of love as a brutal passion. Kuhn considers trying to win Gertrude back but decides against it when he realises that in spite of her destructive relationship with Heinrich, she will never love anyone but her husband.

Though Kuhn is resigned at the end to the idea that “fate [is] not kind, life [is] capricious and terrible, and there [is] no good or reason in nature”, he draws further solace from social commitment and obligation instead, lending his support to Heinrich and Gertrude throughout their destructive marriage:
“. . . we can draw close to one another in times of need, understand and love one another, and live to comfort each other.”
He ends his account with a belief in greater contentment in old age.

There is no such deliverance for the tormented trio in Dezső Kosztolányi’s magnificentbrilliant!novel Skylark (1924; tr. Aczel).

When Akos and Antonia Vajkay’s unmarried adult daughter, Skylark, spends a week away from home for the first time, painful truths about their relationships emerge. Released from their pact of living in isolation with their prosaic daughter, the parents rediscover the pleasures of social lifeeating out, meeting up with old friends and attending the theatre. Drunk on life liberated from the constraints of being anchored to a socially unwanted child, Akos and Antonia are both appalled and compelled to express their unspoken discontent:
“I want to talk at last . . . We don’t love her . . . It’s true . . . We hate her. We detest her . . . We’d much rather she wasn’t here. Like now. And right now we wouldn’t even mind if she, poor thing, were . . .”
It’s a devastating confession of a brutal truth they have kept buried in order to cope with their despair.  A truth that Skylark herself is fully aware of and has also supressed in order to bear her pain:
“Patience. Patience. There are those who suffer so much more . . . she lay on her cold and barren girlhood bed, where nothing, save sleep and illness, had ever happened. She pressed the full weight of her body downwards, like a corpse into its bier.”
But confessions and revelations don’t lead to change. After Skylark's return home, everything goes back to the way it has always been. The book ends with her bitter tears flooding her pillow and her parents’ resignation to their narrow, frustrated lives. The trio remains deadlocked in illusory comfort.

Tormented relationships may be inevitable but the solace afforded by literature provides us at least a degree of contentment.

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