Saturday, October 12, 2013

Relations by Zsigmond Móricz: Lina and Magdaléna

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Picture source at Wikimedia Commons

Relations by Zsigmond Móricz
Translated by Bernard Adams
Introduction by George F. Cushing
Corvina Books, Ltd. (2007)
ISBN 978 963 13 5524 6

Another quick post that ended up being waaaay, too long. Please accept my semi-apology.

Women in Relations play an important role in the novel so I wanted to spend a post looking at the two central female characters. Lina and Pista have been married for sixteen years and have developed a close relationship, shown in part when Pista accurately reads between the lines of their conversations. His election to Town Clerk changes Lina as much as it does him. “He’d found a whole new woman; he vaguely recalled that she could be like this, but for the last ten years there had been at his side a woman discontented, sour, wanting nothing, permitting nothing, satisfied with nothing.” (19) Part of the reason for Lina’s sourness has been her constant vigil to protect the family, causing her to forego many (if not all) pleasures. Pista’s election worries her—she’s afraid he will change and she’s scared that their higher profile will make them targets. She also accurately anticipates the influx of patronage requests.

Lina proves to be a shrewd judge of people and intuits many of the elite's frauds. She realizes the corrupting influence of power and worries how Pista may change: “She was wondering whether she could be sure that her husband would remain the same under the new circumstances. She was so humble that she truly dreaded his promotion. Would she satisfy the man who was rising to high places? Wouldn’t he have desires that would take him from her, for her unsophisticated world?” (25) She’s concerned that she will be replaced by another woman or simply left behind. Her father has asked the couple to come to the country and run his property, something Lina would love to do. Requests from relatives will only increase the tension between the couple during the novel.

Lina momentarily enjoys the thought of being the Town Clerk’s wife. She realizes she will be an important person in the city and people will have to treat her as an ally if they want her husband on their side. She understands what the cost will be, though, and fights against having to change: “Don’t take me to places like this Pista, don’t make me into what I’m not” (67) she pleads. After Pista and Lina argue he makes up with her, in part because “these awful, changeable times, with the whole world falling apart” (106) requires they face the world together. Lina does have her faults, especially pride. When her husband needs her most she belittles him. She has worked long and hard to make the family successful but feels the current whirlwind will erase everything she has achieved, even if the accomplishments are rather modest. Lina lets loose with major rants a couple of times in the novel. In one she makes it sound as if the election will prove to be a misfortune and cost them everything, souls included: “Now you’ve been caught up by this sudden good luck, or misfortune.” “It’s [the elite’s] ways are different, its morals, its atmosphere, everything is different.” “Why are you forcing me to move into an entirely new world?” “Can people be taken out of their old skins and given new ones? And even if you can get you a new skin, can your soul be remade?” (154) It’s not that Lina is ungrateful. She realizes Pista’s basic goodness, but that's what makes her a harsh mistress at times. Her concern is that they will betray their true selves… sell their souls… to do what is required in order to move in these new social circles. Pista realizes his wife is right and that she has their best interests at heart.

That doesn’t keep him from desiring his new position and everything that goes with it. He believes he has to be part of the system in order to change it—more on that in the next post. The party at the end of the novel turns out to be crucial for several reasons. For Lina it’s a chance to unburden herself regarding all the insults and demeaning things she has suffered. Thia excerpt is long, but I love the insight such a supposedly simple woman possesses. Some of the insults really bite and are fun to read (as long as you aren't their target):

[Lina] “This dress is burning my body. It’s not my dress, I’d like to tear the wretched thing off, because it’s not my skin, but theirs, these people here that turn their backs on me. If it were my dress, then I’d belong among them, and we’d have been friends for ages. Then I’d have sat with them on the sofa gossiping… But I don’t belong here, and you forget that you married Lina Szentkálnay, not Magdaléna. And now nothing will be any good in future, because you’ve had a taste and your ancestral blood has come out… Chance has thrown you out of your place, and now you want to compete with these fools that you’ve got among.”

[Pista] “I want to be a leader among them, to give the orders.”

“How dare you do that? … Do you know anything about it? Can you keep in step with them? … Their ways are different, their morals, their tone. If ever a friend’s come to my house she’s come in and been happy to sit at my table. She doesn’t send in a visiting-card like they did this mid-day, then dash off in the car as if she were avoiding lepers. And when I come here like a fool, for my husband’s sake, she says one word to me and goes off…”

“Because you stomp around like a queen in a huff.”

“Because that’s what I am. Because I’ve got a soul, and these haven’t, or rather they have got one, and it’s money… Here you’ve got to be able to compete, my dear, you can’t come here on foot, you have to come by car, and the bigger the better. Why did you marry me while you were poor? You should have waited! You shouldn’t have ruined me… What have you done to me? I never have time to read a book, I scarcely look at a paper, I don’t follow fashion, I don’t know the witty remarks these stylish women have to decorate their lives with… Magdaléna… Perhaps she too wouldn’t veen like me, but lie’s been too good to her…”

“Don’t keep on insulting her.”

Up to this point their conversation had proceeded as if they had just been discussing the company before them, saying to the loud jazz, perfumed, crowded. Now Lina sat up straight in agitation and Pista, even in his drunken state, became alarmed, because he knew his wife, and when she lost her temper she didn’t care about appearances.

“Why shoulnd’t I? She really impresses me. All the Pig Farm money went on her showing off, because when a woman’s being spoiled there isn’t enough money in the world… Do you want me to become what she is? Just buy this house then, and a car and a chauffeur to go with it, and a fur coat for the chauffeur and a gardener and everything. You think I don’t know how to spend more than three hundred and forty-six pengős a month? What am I, then? Am I so short of ideas? Couldn’t I get through thirty thousand? Every month? … Come on then… It’s pathetic… you’ve got five pengős of mine in your pocket and your head full of dreams. You want a cheque-book and a bank account. Will you get that? Where from? On what? You want to be in with the big-time thieves? … Mind you don’t get swallowed… Because I don’t know whether they’ll be prepared to give you a share… There are enough of them already… They don’t need the Kopjáss army [Pista’s family]… they can already spend what small change there still is in the city themselves.” (pages 233-4; ellipsis in original)

The woman that Lina insults in this rant is Magdaléna Boronkay, a distant relative. Magdaléna’s husband was at the center of the Pig Farm scandal and had been booted upstairs to a national post in order to relieve his exposure to the fallout. Magdaléna plays a minor role in the novel but a major influence on Pista. He has dreamed about her for years. Thoughts of Magdaléna change Pista from a reliable, quiet, happy man to an adolescent terrorized that he might be in love with her. She “had such a magical influence over him.” Pista compares Lina and Magdaléna in his mind: “The two women were similar, there was a family likeness, but Lina was the natural, simple creature; Magdaléna the cultivated, almost exotic flower of the species.”(24)

Lina looks down on Magdaléna because she has a “bad name among the correct, the so-called respectable women” (56) and also because she has no children. There's an irony here. Lina has decided not to have more children after two. Pista realizes she was right in this decision. How this limit has occurred is implied (and I'll say no more). Magdaléna represents differences in class as well as highlighting the gap between obscure, solid, poor peasants and the elite. Pista meets Magdaléna several times and he realizes she has changed. With only a little contact he realizes the depth of her sadness. She appears resigned to her fate, such as having to move because of the Pig Farm scandal. He also notes when inspecting Magdaléna’s villa, which Pista and Lina are slated to buy, the banker is *very* familiar with where things are located in the private parts of the house. Pista finds the wildness and volatility of her youth tempered. Pista even finds the painting of Magdaléna and her husband disconcerting—he notes the picture looks like a Svengali / Trilby relationship, although the Svengali is terrified of the woman. The breaking point for Pista occurs after Lina’s diatribe quoted above. He confesses his infatuation to Magdaléna but finds her cold and unreceptive, while she had been interested and accommodating earlier. Pista assumes the Mayor has instructed her how to behave toward him.

The symbolism of Lina and Magdaléna represent several things but I wanted to spend a minute on the old-world versus new-world symbolism. Lina represents the hard-working peasantry, continually defending her family from danger. She has sacrificed everything while rarely mentioning it (and even then it’s when she’s provoked by Pista’s thoughtless comments). She fights against compromising her morals, or as she likes to put it, her soul. This is the old world that is being left behind with the new age, as well as representing what is being excised from the Hungarian world by treaty. But not everything is what it seems in the novel. Despite many clear-cut judgments, Móricz loves to serve up plenty of ambiguity. A cousin of Pista’s mother, Aunt Kati, shows up on the doorstep one day pleading for work. Her stories of the “old times” conflict with descriptions that Pista and Lina have heard and believe. She belittles the hard work peasant women allegedly performed. Is Kati a reliable character? Of course not, but that adds to the ambiguity since some of what she says is confirmed.

We get no insight into Magdaléna except through how other characters evaluate her. She represents the values of the new world, but even that is tinged with ambivalence. As I noted earlier Pista notes a sadness in her bearing while the things that originally attracted her to him have disappeared. The last time we see her she demonstrates an air of acceptance, meekly doing what is required. The contrast with Lina, though, is unmistakable. Everything each woman has accomplished has come with a cost but the nature of the toll is very different. For Lina it has been hard work, self-sacrifice, denial, and constant vigilance. Magdaléna has enjoyed the finer things of life but it has robbed her of her essence. While Móricz wants Hungary to move forward and join the modern world he appears to comment on the cost it will take to do so. It’s possible Móricz was making a statement against the mix of old- and new-world that Magdaléna represents. It’s hard to tell, but that’s what makes the novel so much fun to read and try to interpret. I’ll stop here since I intend the next post to cover some of the supposed solutions Móricz advances in the novel.

Related posts:
”The only relation to love is the one that’s of use to you”: problems in post-World War I Hungary
Introduction to Móricz and the novel
My notes

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