First love

George Szirtes's translation of Márai's Portrait of a Marriage is forthcoming from Knopf.

Darling, here's some truth

Let me adjust the bolster under your head. Go on relax, stretch out. You should always relax when you are with me, darling. I want you to feel good when you are with me, it's exhausting enough for you working all night in that bar with the band. When you are here in bed with me you should do nothing except love me, then relax.

Is that something I said to my husband too? No, sweetheart. I did not mean him to feel good when he was in bed with me. And that was the trouble really... somehow I couldn't resolve myself to make him feel good with me, though he did everything to please me, poor man, undertook every kind of sacrifice for my sake. He broke with his family, with society, with all his usual ways. When he came to me it was really like emigrating, the way some bankrupt man-about-town sets out on a sea voyage to a faraway land. Maybe that was exactly why I could never reconcile myself to him; he just wasn't at home with me... All the time he was with me it was as if he had run away to an exciting, spicy, hot country like Brazil and married some local woman. Does such a person ever wonder how he got there? And when he is with that local woman, even at the most intimate moments, isn't his mind elsewhere? Isn't he thinking of home? Perhaps. It made me nervous. That was why I didn't want him to feel too good when we were together at table or in bed.

What was that home he was thinking about? Where was it? Was it his first wife? I don't think so. Home, real home, is not to be found on maps, you know. But home stands for a great deal, not just good and lovely things, but hateful, contrary things too. We are learning that lesson ourselves now, aren't we, now that we no longer have a home? Don't imagine we'll get it back by paying the odd home visit... There'll be goodbyes and tears, some will feel heartbroken, some will strut about proudly waving their new foreign passports while paying a bill with their traveller's cheque... But the home one thinks about when abroad, that has gone for good. It seems home is not just a region, a town, an hour or people, but a feeling. What's that? Are there eternal feelings? No, dear, I don't think so. You know very well I adore you but if one day I stopped adoring you because you have cheated on me or gone off with someone... impossible, yes? In other words if that happened please don't think my heart will break. We will carry on having charming conversations... but that is one thing we won't talk about because whatever there had been between us will have been over, vanished into thin air. No time for mourning. There is only ever one home in your life, like love, the one true love. And it passes like love, like true love. And it's right it should be like that otherwise it would be beyond bearing.

That first woman, my husband's first wife... she was a refined lady. Very beautiful, very self-controlled. It was her self-control I most envied. That seems to be one of those things you can't learn or buy with money. It's something you're born with. It may be that the stuff these strange people, the rich, so piously cultivate is nothing more than self-discipline. Their blood cells, their very glands, were all under control. I hated this capacity in them and my husband knew I hated it. It was precisely because his first wife was cultured and self-controlled that my husband left her one day. He had grown tired of self-control. I was more than just a woman for him: I was a trial, a rehearsal, an adventure, both hunt and prey, a form of fraud, the kind of act when someone in polite society suddenly spits on the carpet. The devil knows what these things mean. I'll fetch a cognac, a three-star bottle, all right? I've grown thirsty with all this talking.

Drink, my dear. There, you see how I drink? I put my lips to where your lips have touched the glass... You see my husband never made tender gestures like this. We never once drank from the same glass while looking into each other's eyes as we are doing now... If he wanted to please me he would buy me a ring... yes, that nice ring with the turquoise stone, the one you were looking just now with such fascination, that too was a present from him... What's that, darling? Fine, you can take it, have the ring valued as you did the others at that first rate valuer of yours. You shall have whatever you want.

Continues in the print edition. Order now.

Translated by George Szirtes.



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