06. 14. 2007. 08:05

A brief demonology of marriage

Ildikó Lovas: The Spanish Bride

The Spanish Bride depicts the way in which young girls' dreams turn sour, female ambitions for 'a decent life' founder and the foul destruction of amorous illusions goes past the bounds of parody and fades into bitter, grotesque tragedy.

To offer a sane and balanced overview of happenings and events that are insane and bewildering requires uncommon perseverance and fortitude. This task is equally difficult whether we are speaking of life or literature – madness has a unique gravity of its own. Ildikó Lovas (1967) seems to possess all the common sense, rationality, perseverance and, not least of all, talent to strike a balance between these temptations. As a writer she is capable of handling the common and uncommon madnesses and afflictions of everyday life with appropriate distance. No, she is not insensitive. At no point does she presume to place herself outside of the sphere of the lunacy we all share – she merely insists on retaining a sense of perspective. She reserves the right to process her material, to maintain the possibility for understanding even on the brink of reason. Indeed, this is the stance from which her authorial voice is heard loud and clear.
 
Both as a person and as an author Ildikó Lovas seems since childhood to have retained the experience, the fundamental knowledge, the skills and the sense of balance required for a normal life, and she will not let this be eroded. What we mean by ‘normal life’ is subject to considerable philosophical debate and even more acidic irony. There certainly does exist, however, a type of female knowledge about this question, a knowledge rarely given voice in literature that offers a significant degree of certitude. This is the kind of unique female experience and sense of orientation that Lovas manages to transplant into the art of fiction. Female common sense is not geometric or logocentric – instead it adheres to basic life functions. Its sobriety follows the logic of genesis, emergence, sensual unfolding, survival and non-destruction.
 
This is what poor Olga Jónás, wife of writer and opium addict Géza Csáth, lost; this is what her husband destroyed in her. Before she died, murdered by her husband, the knowledge flared up in her soul for one last time – and this is what Ildikó Lovas noticed. It is so simple. “If I survive tonight, I shall pack up the child and leave./ I don’t know what becomes of  this knowledge goes later. Where does it escape?” This is one of the great questions that A spanyol menyasszony [The Spanish Bride] tries to answer: where does our female knowledge, so fundamental and vital for life, escape?
 
What does all of this have to do with Géza Csáth and Olga Jónás? This is one of those great questions to which the novel does not give an answer but which it nevertheless unquestionably resolves. One strand in this fable is autobiographical, running from the author’s adolescence to her married life, offering details of its love-related and erotic aspects. The time is the 1970’s and 80’s, the place is the town of Szabadka (Subotica) in Vojvodina, the Hungarian region of what was then Yugoslavia – the town where both Géza Csáth and Ildikó Lovas were born and where Lovas had been living to this day. A real normal family in which the mother is able to be a mother (a ‘good enough mother’ as Bettleheim would have it), a small town whose world is easy to decipher. The other strand of the fable tracks the last, most hellish stage in the marriage of Olga Jónás and Géza Csáth, which we know to have come to an end when Csáth shot his wife and later committed suicide. Ildikó Lovas has managed to join these two completely different threads of plot together seamlessly. Differences in age, world and Zeitgeist are smoothed over so that transitions in the process of reading are almost imperceptible. Why is this important? Because this way what we are treated to is not a literary game, but the game of life. Instead of some sort of textual haute couture we witness ourselves as playthings in the hands of life, cards that get shuffled in with men and women from bygone times, figures from the  past, ghosts we thought we had left behind in a sort of Hegelien Aufhebung. What we are presented with is a summons rather than citations. It is we ourselves, and not the text, who are citations from the great book of existence.
 
Today’s readers are fed up with ironic textual play, even if writers are still amusing themselves with it. Intertextual exercises and the acrobatics of quotation are not the way in which Ildikó Lovas exploits her fascinating raw material, a folder entitled ‘the life and destiny of Géza Csáth,’ filled with letters and diaries. In her hands, this treasure serves as a means for examining life. It depicts the way in which young girls’ dreams turn sour, female ambitions for ‘a decent life’ founder and the foul destruction of amorous illusions goes past the bounds of parody and fades into bitter, grotesque tragedy. Lovas does not laugh at anyone, she merely smiles, on occasion, at herself. In Olga Jónás she found a female prototype who inspires anything but laughter.
 
After all, who has ever paid attention to Olga Jónás before? All people have been interested in was the great Hungarian writer. The unfortunate woman was only one female among the many others in her husband’s life who faded into oblivion beside him. If a literary historian ever did happen to mention her, he or she was bound to see her merely as a sexual object and a victim.
The character and personality of Olga Jónás has not existed until now – only her sexuality and her tragedy. Even for tragedy there was barely enough in her: after all, she was simply shot, and that was that. Ildikó Lovas, however, refuses to leave it at that. She does a little bit of investigation, softened, of course, by female imagination and a woman’s empathy. Perceiving Jónás as a fellow-woman, Lovas creates a character, a normal human being out of the creature that most had seen as little more than “the female” and Csáth himself had showered with abuse, calling her a ‘vicious beast’, a ‘demon’, a ‘bitch worse than Carmen and Sappho’, ‘the most vicious whore of the century.’
 
Who was Olga Jónás? As I have mentioned before, Ildikó Lovas is a rationalist who is not fuelled by any mystical desire to identify or connect with her heroine. She does, however, have enough female experience and wisdom to see into the deep, deep hell that marriage can be; and to discover in Olga the everyday woman, the woman who, to put it in plain language, married the wrong man. She could not compete with the illness of her husband (she didn’t stand a chance), whose love, as so often happens as a consequence of the universal “compulsion for repetition,” turned into loathing. Olga Jónás was the woman whose love rapidly turned to hatred as her husband became progressively more and more morally degenerate. What is demonic is the nature of hatred explored in this book, in a manner that is convincing and dreadfully meaningful. It is not the poor, wretched Olga Jónás who is demonic, but this mutual, unfathomable loathing. Instead of the unfolding of love we witness the unfolding of hatred in this ‘inside out’ women’s literature.
 
What exactly is the nature of the association between Olga Jónás and the young woman from Subotica who spent the 1970’s and 80’s going to school, to discos, to the cinema, dating guys, going through the messy period of erotic awakening as all women do? At the beginning of the novel we see her in an inordinately expensive Spanish wedding dress imported from Paris as she awaits the arrival of an expected happiness, somewhat tense, hiding from herself some nasty forebodings, and filled to the brim with good intentions. In the culture in which she was brought up – and in this respect she does not much differ from Olga Jónás – marriage is the crowning moment of a young woman’s life, the celebration of a her resplendence and her entry into real, earnest, virtuous female life. In this culture a woman is not really a woman without a husband. She does not fulfil her thelos and is little more than a failure, a figure provoking pity or scorn. The woman in the wedding dress is seen on the first few pages of the novel and repeatedly thereafter standing, waiting for her fiancé, for the wedding, ready to go through the rite of passage, ready to become worthy. The complications, however, begin before they even leave the wedding hall, and before the wedding night has passed the stage is set for tragedy.
 
All of this has some elements that are comic, while others exhale the tragic air of a ballad. As far as this strand of the plot is concerned, the authoress stays within the bounds of ‘bourgeois drama’ or ‘bourgeois tragedy’ – as best allowed by the space, time and Zeitgeist in question. Ildikó Lovas is a realist writer and she respects the rules of realism. However, she is also extremely well acquainted with repression and the inhuman, godless pockets of hell that realism tends to repress. She could not be further from an expressionist manner of writing or anything of the kind, and yet: in this novel she has found a solution that allows her to write about all those horrific depths of hell without becoming anachronistic, experimental or ‘talking too much about the soul.’
 
When she allows the present-day plot to fade subtly into the one taking place almost a hundred years ago, the pictures, scenes, situations, and speeches allow her to articulate this surreal horror in a way that is still realistic and clearly visible. Almost all women know of these horrors to some degree. Csáth and Olga Jónás ‘acted out’ what lurks in the imagination of all of us, what is there at the bottom of all marriages.
 
No one had taken notice of Olga Jónás before, the ‘whore’ who nonetheless gave birth to and breastfed a baby and wanted to be a perfect wife, just like the young woman from Subotica in the 1980’s. She too considered a ‘proper life’ the most important thing of all. She could not have imagined living her life as anything other than a wife who yearns for the ‘real life’ – a loving husband, the pleasures of love, happy motherhood. And then there comes a ‘moment’ (a unit of time impossible to capture) when ‘the good disappears’, love vanishes. Olga Jónás, to use Lovas’ language, declares in a number of variants, like a returning theme in her part of the polyphony, ‘I have married the most brilliant man in this country and now I am living with a lump of shit.’ And at the extreme point of bitterness, horror and despair she utters the concluding line, ‘My God, the words you put into my mouth simply don’t exist.’
 
Ildikó Lovas has brought Olga Jónás back to life. Her prose is potent enough to do this, making this tragic woman talk to us from the beyond. And Lovas feels for her – this time our sympathy is not for Csáth.
 
Finally, allow me to point out quite candidly one of the best-written scenes in this book, a section worthy of going into an anthology – the plucking of the chicken. No trace of metaphor is to be found here, the reader has to take this text literally. This process – how a chicken is plucked – has an extremely precise order and technique. It is an exclusively female job – men tend to forget how the chicken comes to be on the table. If a writer is a woman, she knows this. If a woman is a writer, she will write it down: heart, guts and all.
 
Viktória Radics

Lovas Ildikó: A spanyol menyasszony
Bratislava: Kalligram, 2007

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