Sunday, December 28, 2014

From One Diary to Another

Herewith a translation of the first page of Sándor Márai’s Diary, 1945-1957, mentioned some days ago here.

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Leányfalu. — The rabbi, who was hiding next door, knocked on my door on the second day of the Russian occupation and, quite pale in the face, had the following to say: A Russian soldier had just visited at his house and had begun to be quite familiar with the rabbi’s wife. Then he began to search the house; he came across the rabbi hiding in a room and started shouting: “Watch, watch!” Then he undid the watch strapped to the rabbi’s wrist and ran off with his booty. “Please! What sort of a magic is that!”—said the rabbi.

What might explain the passion with which the Red Army’s soldiers throw themselves on watches? Don’t the soviets have enough watch factories? Perhaps something more is also part of the impulse behind this passion: was it the civilization of the machine that forced the Russian masses to bring the experience of time to life? It is quite certain that a hundred, even fifty years ago the Russian peasant had no great interest in the pocket-watch. Eastern man is indifferent to time: an “optimist” as Schubart says. He lives easily with great distances; the second doesn’t interest him. He has no sense of panic, does not divide time into tiny increments. These days, as it happens, I have no other book at my fingertips; therefore, when the lights are on and living conditions allow it, I’m reading Spengler again. Reading the passage in which Spengler wants to prove that the Greek, Latin—and especially the Chinese and the Assyrian—cultures were indifferent to time measurement. Ultimately the sun-dial showed a different time than the later hour-glass or today’s watch with a second hand… The highly structured watch, after all, coincides with the stiffening machine civilization and with its “pessimistic” western culture where humans are soaked in risk perception,  love of records, and general anxiety. It might be that the Russians, that “optimistic” peasant folk, got a taste of the “pessimistic” feeling-mode produced by machine civilization during the last quarter century—the reason why they are so fascinated by watches.

A young Cossack patrolman canters on the highway. He stops for a moment and asks for the direction to Visegrad, adjusting the straps of his weapon. A Mongolian face, indifferent, tired, with an immeasurably alien look in his eyes: he arrives from that distance where the shapes of eastern myths move and sway. Thus this Mongol horseman has cantered for a millennium through prairies, along rivers. A smile-like flash falls on the dark face, strange, haughty, impersonal: this is the Buddha’s smile.

Two days of heavy snowfall. While shoveling the snow, I rack my brains: where I’ll get some potatoes? I’m also thinking that in liberated Paris a French poet lives, perhaps, who is out of sorts because a literary journal, in its last issue, issued an unfavorable judgement about his book of verse.

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Leányfalu is a district of Pest, and Pest is half of Budapest. The piece was written in December of 1945 and is thus 70 years old.

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